Adobe Photoshop CS6: Features, pros and cons

The first thing you notice about Photoshop CS6 is its new (optional) dark look, which now runs right across the suite. Iii this case, however, there’s more to the interface changes than that: hundreds of tools, icons and panels have been redrawn for clarity.

While there are certainly new features in Adobe Photoshop CS6, it's in overall usability that Photoshop has most obviously moved forward. The new thinking extends through a variety of interface areas, such as smart cursors with pop-up text that shows you how much you're rotating or scaling, and so on.

This head-up display (HUD) approach is seen in a number of filters and operations. Options have been moved from panels to draggable controls directly on the image, so you can effect adjustments without having to take your eye off the artwork.

But the biggest change is the sheer speed of operation. Thanks to Adobe's Mercury Graphics engine, Photoshop now taps into your Mac's graphics processing unit (GPU) to provide huge boosts in efficiency in many areas of the application. A core example is the Liquify filter, previously a notoriously sluggish tool when used on large images. Now it loads in an instant and is silky smooth in operation, even with enormous images. The maximum brush has been expanded to a mind-boggling 15,000 pixels in diameter and even at that size Liquify works without any lags whatsoever on a reasonably capable Mac.

Many other areas of Photoshop CS6 can also take full advantage of the GPU. The Lighting Effects filter, which in CS5 disappeared for Mac users (it could be enabled by restarting Photoshop in 32-bit mode) is back in full-screen glory with a combination of head-up controls and rationalized sliders.

The only new special-effect filter in this release is Oil Paint, included as much to show off the power of the GPU acceleration as for any real creative value: it turns images into simulated oil paintings in real time, and so is good demo fodder, but it's a one-trick effect that barely deserves its elevated status to the top of the Filter menu.

It's worth pointing out here that the Filter menu itself has been rationalized, with such categories as Artistic and Sketch now hidden: these Filters are accessed only through the Gallery Effects dialog. You can re-enable them through a Preference option.

Interface tweaks abound.

The Layers panel now has a search field, allowing layers to be filtered by kind, by layer mode, by visibility and much more. Furthermore, you can now change the opacity or label color of multiple selected layers at once, which means that once you've filtered the search to show just Hard Light layers, for example, you can color them all blue, so you can spot them instantly when all layers are revealed again.

The changes to the Layers panel go beyond the merely cosmetic. Layer groups can now be used as the basis of clipping masks, and entire groups can now have Layer Styles applied to them.

It may not sound like a big deal, but it's a huge benefit when creating complex designs. There's also a new Properties panel, which combines Layer Mask information, Adjustment Layer controls and 3D data, depending on the context.

There are many more refinements to existing tools. The Eyedropper can now sample colours from a layer as if intervening Adjustment Layers weren't present (a great help when retouching fine details), and there's a wholly new method of operation for the Crop tool it now rotates and pans the image behind the crop boundary, remains squared-up to the screen. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, since it behaves in precisely the opposite way to how it did previously, but it's a much more logical approach.

Select Color Range can now select just skin tones, with an additional checkbox for face detection. It's not perfect, but as a quick selection method it gets you most of the way. The Camera Raw dialog also has a number of refinements, including a greatly improved Clarity slider, which can now be pushed to maximum with no halo effect; a single-button Defringe, replacing the previous sets of' sliders; and brush-on noise reduction that can be applied selectively.

For the first time, Photoshop CS6 can save documents in the background while you carry on working. Even better, it also auto-saves every few minutes to a separate backup which is loaded in the event of a crash. Creative Suite doesn't use OS X Lion's Versions system.

Another first is the ability of the Actions panel to record not just menu choices but brushstrokes. This means you could record the drawing of an entire illustration and play it back later with a single keystroke.

With such a major performance overhaul, it would almost have been forgivable if Adobe hadn't managed to squeeze in many additional features. But there's a lot of brand- new stuff' in here to tempt users fbr whom raw efficiency isn't enough of an incentive.

Photographers will love the Adaptive Wide Angle filter, a wholly new tool for straightening out lens distortion. You just draw end points on lines within an image that should be straight, and Photoshop CS6 will manipulate the image to straighten them for you.

If you're using a decent modern camera, the filter will read the EXIF data and know what lens you've shot the image with; otherwise, it's easy to draw a sample line and then guess at the focal length. Holding the Shift key forces lines to either vertical or horizontal, enabling images to be squared up in seconds - even if they're stitched panoramas constructed from multiple distorted originals.

The redesigned Shapes tool now creates proper vector shapes, rather than the color fill layers with vector masks that were previously generated. This means you can place strokes inside, centered on or outside a path; strokes can be dotted or dashed, as well as solid; and, for the first time, strokes can be placed on open paths without forcing a join between the start and end points. It's also possible to set the fill of a shape to None, just as you can in Illustrator.

For Graphic designers

Graphic designers will rejoice in the inclusion of Paragraph and Character Styles panels. Not only is it possible to apply a whole set of typographic parameters to text with a single click, but if you modify the definition of a Paragraph Style it will be changed globally throughout the current document.

Recognizing that a great many users now have stills cameras that can shoot high- quality Video, Adobe has moved the video editing functionality from the Extended edition into the regular version of Photoshop, so that all users can now make use of its powerful feature set - which includes the ability to apply virtually any of' Photoshop's filters directly to video footage. Photoshop Extended is included in all Creative Cloud subscriptions and all Creative Suite editions except Design Standard; the basic version of Photoshop is also available to buy as a standalone app at £285 less than Extended.

Three new blur filters also show off the GPU-enhanced speed. Iris Blur, Field Blur and Tilt-Shift enable highly modifiable, custom blurs that benefit from HUD controls and instant, real-time operation. These include some surprising features, such as the ability to 'pin' multiple focus locations on a single image; there's also a clever option with all of these filters, offering control over the appearance of' highlights to achieve a fashionably stylized shallow depth of held.

New to the toolbox are a Content-Aware mode for the Patch tool, which avoids the previous problem of canvas color leakage when patching edge selections, and a wholly new Content-Aware Move tool. This has two modes of operation, Move and Extend, and its job is to enable you to make a selection and move it elsewhere in a landscape, all in a singe operation: the selection is duly blended into its new location, while the place it came from is patched to replace it. Like many Content-Aware operations, its effectiveness depends on having the right sort of starting image - more so with this tool than any other. Although it's capable of' producing good results, it's also prone to laughable errors.

Photoshop Extended users also get access to the new 3 D object creation environment, and it's here that the most spectacular changes are found. It seems like no time at all since Photoshop CS5 introduced us to Repoussé, the dialog-driven tool for extruding, revolving and inflating flat objects. Now CS6 does away with it. Instead, you can extrude, twist, bend, bevel, inflate and revolve paths, layers and text using head-up controls that appear on the object itself. For those who prefer the old- school approach, numerical panel controls are also available.
Everything to do with 3D object creation and manipulation, in fact, has been rethought and streamlined. Objects can be moved and rotated by dragging on faces, edges or corners of their bounding boxes; multiple objects can be seamlessly combined into more complex 3D models; and lighting direction is controlled by a head-up stick, activated by shift-clicking an object's shadow.

Integrating a 3D model into a scene is easier than ever thanks to a new Ground Plane approach. You can define the perspective of a scene in the Vanishing Point filter, then use that as the Ground Plane onto which 3D models can be dropped - and it can catch both shadows and reflections. Marquee-selected areas can be test-rendered without waiting for a full-screen redraw, and the whole process is smoother and faster, thanks to GPU acceleration. Best of all, models created from paths or text can still be modified after they've been extruded and textured.

Photoshop CS6 is a remarkable and compelling upgrade. While it may seem light on show-off features, it's much slicker in every operation, more mature in its approach and far more user- friendly. It's the kind of upgrade whose worth dawns on you slowly: after a month or two you'll come to appreciate not only how much time you've saved, but how much more productive you've been.

Price: £667.20 including VAT, Photoshop Extended - £952.80
Requirements: Intel processor, OS X 10.5.8, 2GB RAM
Pros: Slick, speedy operation, many revised tools and processes, superb new features
Cons: Very expensive if bought alone, especially for Extended edition with full 3D features

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