Adobe Photoshop CS6 Extended Review

Despite some ambitious but ultimately futile competition from the likes of Apple's Mac-only Aperture and the open-source mish-mash that is G.I.M.P., Adobe Photoshop remains the unchallenged king of image-editing software, a position it has occupied for around two decades. It has stayed at the top by a continuous process of upgrades and improvements, with new versions coming along every year or two since it was first launched in 1990, and the thirteenth and latest version was announced earlier this month. I've been taking a look at Adobe Photoshop CS6 for the past couple of weeks, using in my regular photographic work, and I have to say I'm immensely impressed. Although there are a handful of major new features, it's the many smaller improvements to regularly used tools that add up to possibly the biggest single version-on-version improvement in Photoshop's history.

The first thing you'll notice is the rather spiffy new interface. The default workspace now has a much darker look, with a slate-grey work area and slightly lighter menu and palette bars with sharp white text, which looks great and really makes photos stand out from the background. However If it's not to your taste you can quickly change it to any one of four colour schemes including the original light grey Photoshop 7 theme.

As a photographer, the most important new feature for me is the inclusion of the superb Adobe Camera Raw 7.0, first seen in Adobe Lightroom 4, which was released back in March. It's a huge improvement on older versions, and an essential tool for anyone who works mainly with Raw files. It has a near-magical ability to bring out hidden detail in shadow and highlight areas, with results that rival those of specially shot HDR images. It also includes the new Graduated Filter tool, which allows photographers to apply a wide range of selective effects directly to the Raw image. Improvements have also been made to the lens correction feature, with a wide range of pre-set values for popular lenses from many manufacturers.

My next favourite feature is the completely re-worked Crop Tool. I must have used a crop tool a thousands of times in dozens of different graphics programs, but every single one of the new CS6 Crop Tool features made me think "why has nobody done it this way before?". First, when you move the crop lines, the view automatically centres itself on the centre of the crop. When you rotate the crop, for example to level the horizon, the crop frame remains stationary and the image rotates under it, giving a much more useful preview of the cropped image. You now have the option to crop non-destructively, so you can go back and make corrections later. The crop frame has multiple overlays to aid composition, including "rule of thirds", the golden ratio and golden spiral, diagonals, triangles and a simple grid, and most of these can be customised to some extent. As well as this, the Crop Tool now incorporates a Straighten tool, to automatically level horizons and straighten buildings. Of course, if you don't like all these great new features, you have the option to revert to "classic" crop mode, but why on Earth would you want to?

One massively useful new feature is one of the least glamorous. Photoshop CS6 now has auto-save. As good as Photoshop is, like any very complex program, it can crash unexpectedly, but now that doesn't have to mean losing an hour's worth of unsaved work. Photoshop automatically saves your work to a temporary file at pre-determined intervals, by default ten minutes.

On that note, I will add a small caveat. I'm running CS6 on my Windows 7 PC, a fairly high-spec machine with a quad-core i7 CPU overclocked to 4GHz. It's been perfectly stable with 99 per cent of other programs, but the CS6 version of Adobe Bridge, the file browser installed with Photoshop, caused my machine to crash completely, with the dreaded "blue screen of death", every time I ran the program. I reduced the overclocking slightly to 3.65GHZ and so far, both Photoshop and Bridge have remained stable. Judging by questions on Adobe's support page, I'm not the only person to experience this. It's not really a problem with the program, but I felt I should mention it.

One feature that has received a lot of attention is the Blur function. Previous versions have offered several different ways to intentionally add blur to your images, but CS6 adds three more. Field Blur allows you to set specific levels of blur at multiple selected points on the image, Iris Blur lets you create an adjustable blur everywhere except one specified area, while Tilt-Shift blur adds that "miniature photo" filter effect that Ricoh must really wish it had patented when it first introduced it on the CX2 compact camera back in 2009. While the first two might certainly have their uses, the Tilt Shift effect only really works on photos of things like cars or buildings shot from a high angle, and once you've done it a couple of times the novelty, such as it is, wears off. The new blur options also feature new controls that let you dial in the amount of blur and the limits of the mask and feathering by dragging markers around on the screen, while the filter effect preview updates in real time. It is able to do this thanks to another new feature, the Mercury graphics engine. This uses hardware graphics acceleration to produce the real-time previews. It is also used in the updated Liquify and Lighting Effects filters.

Another much-touted new feature is the Content-Aware Move, which is added under the Spot Healing brush on the tool palette. The Content-Aware Fill feature was added in Photoshop CS5, and proved to be very useful for filling in low-detail areas in cropped images and removing unwanted objects from scenes. Content-Aware Move uses the same technology, and allows a selected element to be moved to another part of the image. The program then fills in the area from which it was moved based on a sampling of the surrounding scene. I spent some time trying this feature, but to be honest I was rather disappointed by most of the results. It only works well with a very specific type of image, one where the bulk of the scene is made up of uniform textures, such as a cow standing in a green field or a single tree with the plain blue sky as a background. If there's the slightest degree of non-random detail in the background, the results look very crude. While Content-Aware Move could prove useful under certain circumstances, better results can be obtained by careful use of other tools.

As I mentioned, most of the improvements are fairly minor, but add up to a lot. Tools that all photographers will use regularly, including Colour-range Selection, Levels, Auto Curves, and Brightness/Contrast have been improved to give more versatile control and better looking results, and the addition of layer group effects and the ability to filter types of layer in the layer palette window are very useful when creating multi-layer composite images. Most of the filters are now Smart filters, so they can be applied to a single layer and adjusted independently.

Another photographic feature that some will find useful is the Adaptive Wide Angle feature. Another product of the Mercury graphics engine, this enables quick and easy correction of optical distortions caused by using ultra-wide lenses, or when making wide-angle panoramas.

Photoshop isn't aimed solely at photographers, and there are plenty of new features for graphic artists, designers and others. The Type tool has undergone a complete overhaul, with a whole swathe of new typesetting and text editing features, so that designers can customise text right there in Photoshop instead of switching to a separate text editor.

In fact this and a few other new features do look suspiciously like "mission creep" on the part of the developer, features that have been bolted onto to Photoshop because someone thought it's be a neat idea, but which are well outside of its core remit as an image editor. For example, Photoshop now includes a surprisingly complete multi-track video editor and sequencer, essentially a cut-down version of Adobe Premiere, complete with soundtrack, fades, zoom-and-pan and screen-in-screen effects, plus the ability to add Photoshop adjustment layers to video clips. The justification for this unexpected addition is that many DSLR users also shoot video on their cameras, but surely anyone seriously interested in editing video should buy Premiere, not Photoshop.

Similarly, the 3D creation and editing features introduced with CS4 Extended have been revamped into a full 3D editing program, with the ability to import 3D objects from programs like 3D Studio and manipulate them within Photoshop. This feature also uses the Mercury engine and hardware acceleration, and features details such as 3D text that can be edited as text and then moved in 3D without the need to rasterize first. Again, a potentially useful feature under some circumstances, but anyone serious about working in 3D will have programs like Maya and Z-Brush, which are far more capable.

There are lots of other smaller features, such as a couple of new painting effect filters, "eroding" dynamic brushes, improvements to the Airbrush tool to make it more realistic when using advanced pen tablets such as the Wacom Intuos series, and new vector drawing tools, but if you want to know more about these and more you should look at the tutorial videos that Adobe has released. I'm no artist or designer, so I'm not really qualified to comment.

One element that has seen little improvement is the Adobe Bridge file browser, but to be fair it didn't really need all that much. It now features cross-platform 64-bit support and has received a few tweaks to improve overall performance, especially the speed with which it creates thumbnails, but that's about it. It may be that with many of its features subsumed by Lightroom, Adobe doesn't consider Bridge to be a high priority, or maybe it's just a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The final question is the big one; Photoshop CS6 is breathtakingly expensive, with the standard version currently selling for around £650, and the Extended version with all the extra video bells and 3D whistles costs around £930, so is it worth the money? Unfortunately the answer is, as usual, "it depends". If you're a professional working in the design, graphics or high-end digital photography businesses then you're going to buy it anyway, or at least the company you work for will buy it, and you certainly won't be disappointed. On the other hand if you're a single user, for instance a semi-pro photographer who already has Photoshop CS4 or CS5 plus Lightroom 4, then the answer is probably no. While the new features are certainly impressive, and the results of which it is capable are fantastic, the enormous cost is difficult to justify unless your job requires it.

As a footnote, I'm somewhat disappointed to report that Adobe has stuck to its usual "dollars to pounds" UK pricing policy. Photoshop CS6 costs around US$950 in the USA, and the standard version around US$670, which at the current exchange rate works out as £606 and £427 respectively. It's almost worth taking a cheap flight to America to buy it for two-thirds the price.

Verdict

With the release of CS6, Photoshop once again confirms its position at the top of the image-editing field, with a long list of improvements that add up to the biggest overhaul the program has seen in years. There are some great new tools for photographers, artists and designers, performance is improved and the new-look interface is superb, however some of the new features, particularly in the Extended version, take on roles for which there are other specialised programs that do the job better. While imaging professionals will of course upgrade, it's hard to justify the enormous cost for anyone else, especially at rip-off UK prices.

Pros: Camera Raw 7, many new or improved features, unparalleled versatility.

Cons: Extremely expensive, very complex, "mission creep" features.

Score: 8/10

Manufacturer: Adobe

Price: £952.80 (Extended, boxed); £667.20 (Standard, boxed) - from Adobe UK website.