Some things in life are pleasingly regular and predicable. The phases of the moon, the ebbing of the tides and, of course, new releases of Photoshop. And so 2012 brings us version 13 of Adobe's photo-editing behemoth, known more popularly as Photoshop CS6 after the version of Creative Suite to which it belongs.
Retailing at £556 ex-VAT in its most basic form, and at £159 ex-VAT for an upgrade from previous versions (down to CSX), moving to CS6 is not a trivial investment. New features are there, of course, but are they worth the upgrade for the jobbing professional photographer?
Cosmetic touches and behind the scenes
On firing up Photoshop CS6 for the first time, you'll immediately notice the same sleek dark-grey and black colour scheme that is used by Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop Elements software. Along with minor tweaks to text labels, this does make the Photoshop environment more appealing to the eye. You can, however, revert back to the old colour scheme, or several other options, should you so wish.
As you delve deeper you might notice the odd new location for various features. Most moves are beneficial, such as combining the Adjustments and Mask palettes into a single Properties palette, reducing the need to flick back and forth.
Under the bonnet Adobe has installed its new Mercury Graphics Engine. This uses the power of your computer's graphics processor (GPU) to help with the more demanding tasks that Photoshop undertakes, such as Liquify and the various transformations.
While the central processing unit (CPU) in your Mac or PC is a general purpose chip that is designed to cope with a wide variety of tasks, a GPU is designed especially to handle the more number-intensive operations associated with video and rendering. Computer gamers love them. By involving the GPU more, Adobe claims that preview options are faster and more responsive, and we certainly noticed this when performing perspective corrections. Several of the new tools also benefit from this approach.
This all sounds great, but disappointingly not all computers benefit from the Mercury Graphics Engine. Those with older GPUs may not be supported: a list is available on the Adobe website.
Background autosaving and recovery is now standard too. It's good of Adobe to realise that, in reality, crashes and power cuts happen and to provide insurance for those times when hours of work could otherwise be lost. The Preferences panel contains options for how often work should be autosaved and whether this saving should happen in the background or not, and this is a really useful addition.
New Crop tool options
The Crop tool seems like such a basic concept that it's hard to think what could be done to improve things. Nevertheless CS6 sees some changes even here.
On a basic level, crop now starts off from a select-all type point with the frame surrounding the canvas. Rather than having to draw a new crop from scratch the existing frame is adjusted, which makes maintaining the current aspect ratio by holding down Shift much easier.
More useful are new composition grid-line options - golden spiral, golden ratio, rule of thirds, grid, diagonal, triangle - which can be chosen from a drop-down menu in the Options Bar or cycled through with the O key. The Options Bar still contains input boxes for dimensions, but the resolution option is now relegated to a dialogue box (displayed with a press of the R key), and presumably this is to stop accidental re-sampling.
A Perspective Crop tool allows corrections to converging verticals etc that could previously only be carried out with adjustments like Skew and Free Transform. However, the most impressive improvement to the Crop tool is the ability to perform non-destructive crops. Uncheck the Delete Cropped Pixels box and Photoshop will remember the whole image, so you can come back and adjust the composition as you are making other adjustments and without undoing any edits.
If you already enjoy a non-destructive workflow in other versions of Photoshop using Adjustment Layers, Masks and Smart Filters, then this addition to the Crop tool will make a difference to you. Previously, cropping is something that could only really be done destructively.
More content aware
One of the head-turning additions to Photoshop CS5 was Content Aware technology. This was designed to help reduce the time needed to perform cloning and healing operations, with Photoshop guessing what should lie behind a removed object based on the surrounding detail. It was revolutionary stuff - so amazing you would swear it was powered by black magic. If you haven't seen it in action you really should make the effort.
Photoshop CS6 refines Content Aware (CA) with a new Move tool and the addition of the technology to the existing Patch tool. As the name suggests, the Move tool allows content to be shifted around a picture with CA filling in the hole left behind while also blending the object into its new surroundings. Simply draw around the offending item and drag it to move it. An Extend option is available from the Options Bar, which doesn't delete the object moved but repeats it. This works very well for repeating plain backgrounds - something that is often more difficult and time consuming than you might expect.
In practice the Move tool works well, although the CA technology does a better job of filling the hole caused by moving
than it does it of blending the object in to its new spot.
Many of the new features in Photoshop CS6 don't really enable photographers to do things that were previously impossible but rather make existing things easier to do with fewer clicks, and the Move tool is a prime example of this. Another improvement is the addition of Content Aware to the Patch tool: this finally allows the user to specify the part of an image to be used in the Content Aware healing process, and the results can be very good indeed.
Adaptive wide-angle adjustments
Lens corrections have seen some development over recent versions of Photoshop and Lightroom. Data for the correction of distortion, chromatic aberration and fall-off can be applied automatically to shots according to the lens data stored in a file's metadata - either at the Raw processing stage or later in the main application. To this, Photoshop CS6 adds the ability to correct the curved distortion seen in ultra wide-angle, fisheye and panoramic images.
Like the normal Lens Distortion filter, the Adaptive Wide Angle filter also uses the physical characteristics of each lens to correct extreme distortion in a picture. If lens data is not available, or the adjustment requires further input from the photographer, the Constraint tool can be used to draw along a line that is supposed to be straight. The picture is warped back into shape in the real-time preview, which is then confirmed with a click of the OK button.
The filter can also be applied in Perspective mode to correct for converging verticals in architectural shots (though we couldn't get this to work as well as other methods). The distortion present in panoramas stitched with Photoshop can also be reduced automatically.
Every now and again something crops up in Photoshop that doesn't really seem to belong, and this time it's a new set of auto corrections in Curves, Levels and Brightness/Contrast. The theory is that, instead of maximising contrast in each of the colour channels, which is what happens with auto corrections in previous versions of the application, Photoshop CS6 draws on 'intelligence drawn from thousands of hand-edited images' to give a better result.
In reality, this is a hit-and-miss adjustment. Sometimes it works well, and at other times it misses the mark. Photoshop CS6 may be many things, but psychic it is not. Adobe claims that these auto adjustments give a good starting point for further adjustment, but we'd argue they are less helpful since it can't be predicted which of the thousands of hand-edited images the application will draw on and in which direction it will go. This is a technology that is more suited to software like Photoshop Elements, and will undoubtedly find its way there soon.
In the already crowded Filters>Blur menu you'll find three new options: Iris Blur, Tilt-Shift Blur and Field Blur. Selecting any of these brings up a Blur Gallery, which uses the aforementioned Mercury Graphics Engine to show accurate previews of the various effects in real-time.
Iris Blur applies depth-of-field-like blur to a single point (or points) in the picture. The extent and quality of the blur can be adjusted with the highly intuitive controls, and the result is pretty good. Just click what you want to keep sharp and everything else goes blurred.
Since photography is not generally 3D such blur effects will usually look less convincing than if you were to achieve them optically. That said, you can use more than one Iris Blur marker to create near approximations in face shot portraits.
Field Blur is different: the markers define where a picture is blurred, not where it is sharp. Different amounts of blur can be applied to each point, allowing gradients to be constructed more easily than in the previous (but still available) Lens Blur tool. No depth maps or masks are required.
Tilt-Shift Blur needs no explanation. This simulates the 'model village' look that can be achieved using a perspective control lens the less conventional way. It's an effect that has come from contemporary photography to mass popularity in just a few years, and is fast becoming a fad that may disappear just as quickly too.
Adobe Camera Raw 7
No new Photoshop release is complete without an updated version of the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) plug-in, which translates Raw files and opens them into the Photoshop application. Photoshop CS6 features ACR7, which, as well as adding new camera Raw file formats, also features extra editing options and a brand new processing engine.
Out goes the old Brightness slider and in come Shadow and Highlight controls, borrowed from Lightroom. Adobe says these are now the primary way to establish relationships between mid-tones and highlights and shadows, and offer more tonal control. Whites and Blacks sliders are now used to control clipping, while Exposure is the main method for controlling overall image brightness.
This is a less confusing approach once the user has become used to the changes, and the move to a more intuitive system continues with all sliders now starting at 0 instead of seemingly random values.
More adjustments can be painted on in ACR 7 too, including White Balance, which is useful for those mixed-lighting situations encountered on location, and the new Moir ® reduction filter. This last feature will be a revelation to those shooting with medium format or a camera without an anti-aliasing filter, such as the Leica M9 or Fuji X-Pro1.
Skin-tone aware selections and masking
Along with auto correction of certain tonal adjustments, Photoshop CS6 also claims to be able to recognise skin tones automatically and to create masks from them. This functionality is built in to the Color Range tool, which lives in the Select menu.
Color Range builds a selection from colours that the user clicks with an eyedropper, and can be useful for creating starting-point selections in situations where a contrasting colour is available. This new addition (Skin Tone in the drop-down menu) takes away the need for the user to click on the skin tone in question - not a tremendous saving of labour.
The Detect Faces option does improve the selection made, but the filter all too often selects hair as well as faces, and clothing of a similar colour. This means that refinement of the selection with masking tools is really required to get the most from it.
The burning question of whether you should invest in the upgrade to CS6 is not as simple to answer as we had hoped. There are many new features that are worth investigating - especially the Crop tool, new Blur Filters and new Content Aware Patch tool. Other new features are less impressive. ACR 7 is worth the upgrade, but users of Lightroom can get this for a much cheaper price than upgrading to Photoshop, and use this application as their main method of opening Raw files and pass them on to an older version of Photoshop.
On balance, we'd say the move from CS5 to CS6 is a marginal one, but if you missed out on CS5 and are still using CS4, the CS6 upgrade would be a wise move.
Everyone's workflow is individual and different photographers have different needs. Fortunately, Adobe provides trial versions of the application at www.adobe.com/photoshop so you can investigate the new features we have outlined here for yourself and then make your own decision - possibly after consulting with your bank manager.
Taken from the July 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine