Adobe CS4 – new Pshop (Photoshop) and Bridge!

Adobe's new Photoshop CS4

Adobe's new Photoshop CS4

Today is the day Adobe announces the new Creative Suite 4 (CS4), which comes with a whole slew of new Adobe products for everything from grahic design to layout management to video editing to flash animation.  For us photographers, the headline here is going to be new versions of Adobe Photoshop CS4 and an updated Adobe Bridge CS4.

A quick headline of particularly interesting (to me) new features in the new Photoshop (here’s Adobe’s pdf if you’d like to read through all the changes yourself):

  • “Adjustments panel” with nondestructive tools: One of the great things that Lightroom showed photographers was non-destructive adjustments – things like curves or saturation adjustments could be applied and undid later, and the adjustment settings could also be picked up and applied over on other images.  While this has been possible for awhile in Photoshop with adjustment layers, I know that I’ve simply opted to go for a direct curves or saturation adjustment most of the time because it’s so much quicker to access, so maybe this changes things.
  • “Vibrancy” adjustment: Users of Lightroom or even Adobe Camera Raw have probably seen this – vibrancy is simply a sort of saturation+local contrast enhancement tool.  Nothing that couldn’t be done before, but surely a tool that those who’ve never experimented with local contrast enhancement will be delighted with.
  • Photostiching tools: The new CS4 also features a “Photomerge” tool that promises to blend together multiple images into panoramas, complete with “vignetting and geometric distortion corrections”, as well as automatic detection of extreme fisheye distortion, apparently.  I haven’t been totally happy with current photo-stitching program, Autostitch, thus far, so maybe this is a real answer.
  • Content-aware scaling: Some of you may have seen this video of resizing algorithms known as “content-aware scaling” or “seam carving”. Rather than directly scaling an image (which will often distort the information) or cropping an image (which cuts out useful information), seam-carving looks for vertical or horizontal “seams” of least-important image data, and deletes these, resulting in a downsized image (or upsized, even) that preserves the detail and proportion in the most important image elements. While it’s not going to have much practical application in everyday photo-editing, there are certainly some useful applications, especially if you can apply seam weights to remove certain elements of the image. Content-aware resizing video:
  • Focus-bracketing autoblending: By far one of the coolest, exciting, most useful tools to be introduced in Photoshop.  Macro shooters are well aware of the limitations of depth of field – even stopped down to something absurdly small like f/32, depth of field can still be razor thin, depending on the magnification.  Focus blending works by blending together bracketed focus distnaces, combining the in-focus regions of each image to effectively generate an image with larger depth of field.  For example, if your depth of field only extends +/- 1 mm, you can take a shot at 10mm distance, 8mm distance, and 12mm distance, and get a depth of field range spanning 7-13mm rather than 9-11mm you’d get from the 10mm distance shot by itself.
  • Leveraging the GPU: Photoshop CS4 also promises to make use of the extra processing potential available in video card GPUs – potentially a boon when doing intensive tasks like scaling images, especially at scales that aren’t binary powers of 100% (50%, 25%, 12.5%, 6.25%).
  • Localized adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw 5: Adobe Camera Raw has been in many ways a groundbreaking new approach to image processing compared to the old, stale formula that Photoshop used to use (and still does, to an extent).  With its slew of sliders to apply filters on top of an image, rather than using filters to transform the actual data of an image, ACR provided non-destructive editing in a simple and quick interface (something that Adobe Lightroom also features).  The limitation that prevents ACR from almost completely replacing Photoshop for the most basic edits is a relative limitation in the fine-tuning of filters (ACR gives a single “fill light” slider, for example, while Photoshop offers a Shadows/Highlights tools with three paramters for amount, threshold, and radius) and the lack of localized edits (applying that curve adjustment to only a portion of the image, rather than the whole thing).  ACR5 promises to address the latter issue, at least, with a “paint tool” to designate areas where filters are to be applied, much like layer masks in Photoshop.
  • Tabbed image interface: The trend of tabbed interfaces has proliferated everywhere, although I’m not really convinced of its usefulness for something like an image editing application.  Tabs work great for browsers because you’ll want to open up other pages and perhaps switch back and forth quickly.  In my processing workflow, I’m usually opening up one image at a time, processing it, and closing it before moving to the next one.
  • 64-bit support!: Adobe is finally moving to 64-bit with CS4 (for Windows only – sorry Macfans).  Despite mainstream digital cameras now moving to 20+ MP and their increasing filesizes, most users probably won’t see huge dividends from the move to 64-bit, although you might if you’re processing large numbers of images at once or dealing with ginormous TIFFs or RAWs from the medium format megapixel monsters like the Phase One P65+.
  • Live-preview for healing brush and clone tool: thank goodness, one of the most annoying usability limitations of these tools for a long while (clone and healing tool basically copies in other pixels into an area whose pixels you want to replace.  Needless to say it’s been a pain doing this semi-blind).

The verdict?  As always Adobe introduces a bevy of appealing and honestly useful goodies.  The UI and performance improvements will have to be test-driven before anyone can make a real judgement, but the feature list of new tools is strong, if leaning a bit to the power-user side (how many average users would really use seam-carving or focus-blending tools on a regular basis, even if they’re fascinating pieces of technology?).

Despite all the new tools, I don’t see the possible of Photoshop workflow changing in any fundamental way (à la processing through Lightroom or ACR), which is a bit of a shame because I think the non-destructive and replicable adjustments offered in Lightroom are far better suited to the workflows of most photo processors – they just need some of the fine-tuning options and localized editing that Photoshop offers to make them complete.  But at this point, Photoshop’s workflow has been so deeply embedded into the habits of so many that I don’t think Adobe could fundamentally change Photoshop if they could, which is why you’ll increasingly see Photoshop development centered on graphic design and 3D imaging and animation, as with the Photoshop Extended version of the program.

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