Another year, another version of Adobe Photoshop, the de facto must-have image-editing program for graphics professionals. Over the years, some Photoshop iterations have been revolutionary, altering the way we work. Others have been evolutionary, offering incremental changes. The new Photoshop CS4 is in the latter category, with some significant under-the-hood recoding that hints at interesting things to come. In the meantime, a handful of improved features and functionality offer enough of an advantage for frequent users that may make upgrading worthwhile. However, you may wind up having to buy a new computer in the process.
Okay, we all know that Photoshop (PS) is expensive; that's simply the cost of doing business in professional graphics and photography. And, yes, it has always been a resource hog. But PS CS4 is an order of magnitude more power-hungry than any other version--so much so that you'll probably want to buy a new system.
First of all, you'll need a graphics board that supports OpenGL and Shader Model 3.0, and has at least 256MB of onboard RAM (512MB or 1GB works better). Choose your graphics board from the list of those Adobe has approved for working with PS CS4.
Secondly, Adobe's official system requirements are unrealistically conservative. One gigabyte of RAM? Who are they kidding? You'll want at least 4GB, though 8GB is preferable. That means a 64-bit Vista system if you're running Windows.
Biting the Bits
Under Windows, PS CS4 works with both 32-bit and 64-bit systems. (Mac users will have to wait until CS5 for 64-bit support.) The advantage of 64-bit Photoshop has to do with how the program uses RAM in your computer. With 64-bit Windows, processing large image files can be done entirely in RAM. That's far faster than hard drive virtual memory swapping, which is often required when working with large images in a 32-bit program or operating system.
At first, we were annoyed that Adobe automatically installed two versions of PS--32-bit and 64-bit--on our 64-bit system. Then, we realized that most Photoshop plug-ins, including many of our favorite filters, haven't yet migrated to 64-bit capability. If we want to use those filters, we have to work in 32-bit PS. If we want the RAM advantage, we then need to move over to the 64-bit version. It's a major workflow bottleneck that should should dissipate as new 64-bit versions of the plug-ins hit the market.
Evolutionary Interface Redesign
The slight changes to PS' interface are intelligent, as a handful of frequently used commands are much more accessible. Two new panels bring the all important Adjustments and Masking tools out of hiding and coordinate tightly with the Layers panel, for greater efficiency. For instance, when you draw a mask, then apply an Adjustment, that automatically creates the related Adjustments layer. These key functions are streamlined so effectively that it's a clear case of "Why the heck didn't they have this before?"
Another plus is that images now open in tabbed windows. The new Arrange button, in the Application Bar at the top of the screen, has icon options for displaying open windows in various popular arrangements and views. In addition, Workspace options--such as for painting or video--are nested in a convenient pulldown menu.
One important function that's much less accessible or intuitive is Help. Clicking on Help no longer takes you directly to a traditional menu. Instead, it goes online to a Support page that isn't well organized for getting specific information or instructions for particular tools or features.
A Handful of Improved Editing Tools
Improvements to a handful of brush tools involve capabilities that many users have been requesting for years. For example, Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools are more sensitive, preserving tonality when you use them. TheClone Stampand Healing Brush finally provide on-the-fly previews, so you can see how your stroke will affect your picture as you paint.
Altering your view while you work is smoother thanks to CS4's support of OpenGL. Zooming is continuous, simply by clicking and holding the zoom tool over your picture. Moving about the image, at even highly magnified levels, involves a single combination of a mouse click and keystroke (Zoom tool plus the H key) to select a rectangular area from the momentary full view of the picture; when you release, CS4 automatically shows that small selection at the original zoomed-in level.
Adobe has gone one more step toward better integration of Photoshop with its sister program, Lightroom. Specifically, CS4's Camera RAW 5 plugin no longer competes with Lightroom 2, so you're not forced to choose which interface you'll use to edit your RAW files before bringing them into Photoshop; any edit you do in either program will be nondestructive and recognized by the other. In addition, you can choose to open a picture from Lightroom in CS4 as a layered image, a high-dynamic range image, a panorama, or a Smart Object.
Camera RAW 5 has also inherited the localized edit brushes and graduated filter from Lightroom. This allows users to adjust areas selectively in the picture. But Camera RAW's selective edits are more precise and controllable than those in Lightroom.
Photographers who output large exhibition-quality prints will welcome CS4's ability to send 16-bit data to printers capable of processing 16-bit files.
Photoshop CS4 Extended adds to PS' set of features tools with specialized support for folks who work in 3D, video, and numbering visual features in scientific images. PS Extended can now paint directly on 3D models and apply texture layers to them, as well as do volume rendering, such as of DICOM files, which can be useful to medical professionals.
We tried using 3D tools both with a desktop system featuring 64-bit Vista, an Nvidia GeForce 6800 GPU, and 8GB of RAM, as well as a Lenovo ThinkPad W700 which had an Nvidia Quadro FX 3700M with 1GB of VRAM. Though both cards are on Adobe's list of approved boards, all our tests of the 3D tools resulted in black, blank image screens. With Adobe's and Nvidia's help, we are continuing to investigate why our 3D tests failed, and we'll report back when we have an answer. In the meantime, if you are considering purchasing PS Extended for its 3D capabilities, we suggest downloading the trial version to make sure you experience no incompatibility issues.
For motion graphics, Extended supports 3D animation and offers previews of action and sound, using a familiar timeline window. It's simple to attach comments to the clip ("cut this frame") that will export to production programs, such as Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects, and support 3D animation.
Many of Photoshop CS4's advantages over CS3 seem incremental and unglamorous, unless they address, as they do for us, the way you work, providing more efficient use of your time. If you work with Photoshop day in and day out, an upgrade is probably worth your while. Just keep in mind that you may need a beefier system to run it. If you are a PS Extended user who needs to work with 3D, video, or volume rendering, one of those enhanced tools may be your entire reason for an upgrade. However, if you use Photoshop only occasionally, you may be justified in waiting for CS5.