What’s new in Photoshop CS4 by Martin Evening

Photoshop CS3 had some mixed reviews. It didn’t have quite as many features of interest to photographers as say, previous versions of the program. I think such responses may also have been influenced by the introduction of Lightroom 1, which was definitely designed with photographers in mind. It is probably fair to say that there was a certain amount of envy among the Photoshop team to the ‘new kid on the block’. Well, Photoshop CS4 has arrived, hot on the heels of Lightroom 2 and it’s time to see how the new version of the ‘mother ship’ program shapes up.

As far as Photoshop CS4 itself goes, I think photographers will be very pleased with some the new changes here. Photoshop now has a smart dark gray interface and adopted a task-based approach to image editing and this can be seen in the way image adjustments are now accessible within their own panel. When you combine this with the ability to non-destuctively edit a layer mask, you’ll discover that the  Photoshop CS4 image editing system offers the most flexible yet for pixel image editing.

The new CS4 interface
The most noticeable changes are in the interface design appearance. The panels can be docked within an application frame window as shown below in Figure 1 (although it is easy enough to revert to the floating panel and document window behavior). There are some nice touches to the UI design, such as the way you can  easily access different workspace settings from the new application bar at the top. I am not so keen on the all-caps panel headers, but if you set the interface preferences to Small UI, you are unlikely to be bothered much by this particular cross-product change in the UI design.

Figure 1. This shows the new Photoshop CS4 Application window program workspace for the Mac OS, showing the Window menu that allows you to switch between the classic mode workspace and Application Frame workspace shown here.

Spring-loaded keys
As usual, you can use keyboard shortcuts to select specific tools, but if you hold the key down instead, you can temporarily switch to using the tool associated with that keyboard shortcut. Release the key and you can revert to working with the previously selected tool.

Open GL performance
Photoshop CS4 can now take advantage of OpenGL video processing, so long as you are using a video card that is OpenGL enabled. When this preference is switched on, zooming and scrolling images becomes a lot smoother and there are also several other little tricks that you can do when OpenGL is switched on. You can get a quick birds-eye view by holding down the H key as you click on the image. This will zoom out to show a full-frame view, where you can. Release the key and you return to a normal view again. Or, drag the cursor to a new area of the image to zoom in on and release the mouse key to zoom in on that new area. You can also flick pan images using a simple flick of the mouse. Plus you can also access the new Rotate tool, which allows you to swivel the angle of the image on the screen, thereby allowing you to retouch an image without having to turn your head sideways as you do so (see Figure 2)!

Figure 2. The new rotate tool.

Adjustments panel
Adjustment layers are now managed via an Adjustments panel (see Figure 3). While this may not seem a big deal at first, doing away with the modality of the Adjustments dialogs means you can now add adjustment layers and have immediate access to the adjustment settings. Imagine you have three different adjustment layers applied to an image. As you click on each, you can immediately access the adjustment settings. As you tweak the adjustments for an adjustment layer you can also go directly to the Layers panel and adjust the layer blending mode. There is a lot of scope here to work faster and more efficiently.  Figure 3 shows the Adjustments panel list view where you can select an adjustment by clicking on one of the button icons. You can also select adjustment preset settings from the adjustments list. You will notice there is now a new Vibrance adjustment (just like the one in Camera Raw) and some of the adjustments, such as Curves will allow on-image adjustments.

Figure 3. The Adjustments panel in list view.

Color Range selections
Color Range has been improved. There is new option called ‘Enable Localizes Clusters’ , which when selected can carry out more advanced calculations when you add and subtract using the selection eyedropper tools to refine a Color Range Selection. The net result is that Color Range has now become a very powerful color selection tool. When you link this with the new Masks panel feature, it is possible to build masks based on color that are much more accurate than anything you could have achieved before using Color Range.

Figure 4. The new Color Range selection dialog.

Masks panel

The Masks panel offers direct editing control over the shape of an active layer mask, so that you can dynamically adjust now the mask density as well as the feathering. When editing a layer mask there is a Refine Edge mask button that opens the Refine Edge dialog so that you can tweak the mask settings further. You could already do this in CS3 of course, but it’s now made more obvious in CS4.

You can now add a vignette in Photoshop by adding a darkening Levels (or Curves) adjustment, make an elliptical selection and fill the pixel mask with black. If you go to the Masks panel you can increase the Feather amount to make the hard mask edge softer. However, let’s say you wanted to soften the transition between the masked and unmasked areas. By decreasing the Density one can make the black areas of the mask lighter and thereby reveal more of the adjustment effect in the center of the image. This technique is not just limited to pixel masks and Figure 5 shows how I could just as easily use a subtractive elliptical pen path shape, apply this as a Vector mask and use the Masks panel settings shown here to soften the mask edge.

Figure 5. An example of the Masks panel being used to feather the edges of a hard-edge vector layer mask.

Content-aware scaling
This is probably the star feature of Photoshop CS4, yet also the most controversial since it invites Photoshop users to tamper with photographs in ways that are likely to raise the hackles of photography purists. Does this spell the ‘death of real photography (DORP)? I don’t know, but Advertising and design photographers will at least appreciate the benefits of being able to adapt a single image to multiple layout designs. To use this feature, you need an image that’s on a normal layer (not a Background layer) and you simply go to the Edit menu and choose Content-Aware Scale. You can then drag the handles that appear on the bounding box for the selected layer to scale the image, making it narrower/wider, or shorter/taller.

Figure 6. This shows an example of where I used the Content-aware scaling feature to stretch the pengins further apart and add more sky to the image.

Depth of field blending
Photoshop CS3 users will have appreciated the advances made to the Photomerge blending. These allowed you to obtain perfect results when stitching panoramic images together. Well, Depth of field blending has taken this concept further. Basically, if you take a series of photographs where the point of focus is different in each shot, you can use a combination of the Auto-Align command followed by an Auto-Blend command, where the ‘Stack Images’ blend mode is used (rather than a Panorama blend). Photoshop then cleverly analyzes each image in the assembled layer stack to detect which portions are the sharpest on each layer and auto-masks them to create an extended depth of field blended image. Now there are some limitations to this technique. Photoshop can only make all areas of the picture sharp if there is sharp information in every portion of the image. It works quite well in the extreme example shown below in Figure 7, but it is more likely that photographers may use this to achieve enhanced focus where there are smaller differences in focus between exposures than the extreme example shown here.

Figure 7. On the left you can see an example of one of 5 images in a series of photographs taken at different focus settings. On the right you can see the result of a depth of field blend using Photoshop CS4.

Photoshop CS4 extra items
There are a lot of other new features in CS4 that I’ll be going into more detail in my forthcoming book. For example, there is the ability to see a preview inside the clone stamp cursor as you retouch, drag resizing of cursors and Smart Object enhancements that allow Smart Object transforms to be linked to a layer mask. I was also impressed with the Configurator demo that John Nack did at Photoshop World recently. While I am not sure if this is going to be part of the final shipping product, I reckon it should become available soon via the website.

Camera Raw 5

Camera Raw editing has been updated too and everything you saw added in Lightroom 2 is now here in Camera Raw 5 for Photoshop CS4 (see Figure 8). This means that in addition to the Camera Raw capture sharpening that was added in the Camera Raw 4.1 update, you now have localized editing, negative clarity, post-crop vignetting plus the new Camera Profiles. In case you haven’t heard already, the new Camera Profiles allow you to apply different looks to your raw files to provide a variery of base-level settings before you start adjusting the Camera Raw sliders. In many cases this include a Camera Profile that matches the default JPEG rendering of the camera. Basically, if you don’t have Lightroom 2, Camera Raw 5 alone is reason enough to upgrade.

Figure 8. Here is the Camera Raw dialog (hosted by Bridge), showing the main controls and shortcuts for the single file open mode.

Bridge CS4

It is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Bridge CS4 and Lightroom 2. To be fair, Bridge is a file browser while  Lightroom is (among other things) a cataloging program, so you shouldn’t really compare the two directly. The thing is, when it comes to the tasks that both programs do happen to share, Bridge CS4 is still in some ways lacking in speed and ease of use. Let’s deal with the positive aspects of Bridge first, because there have been some clear improvements and innovations here.

Figure 9. The Bridge CS4 interface.

As with Photoshop, we have a new interface and a task-based menu that can be used to switch between workspaces. This means that you can quickly switch from a folder navigation workspace to one that is suited for image metadata editing.

The Collections panel has made a return and includes ‘Smart Collections’, which you can use to build collections based on selected criteria. There is also an Auto-Collect feature that can cleverly analyze photos in a folder and stack them according to whether they are candidate images for creating panoramas or Merge to HDR image sets. It does this by analyzing if the photos were shot within an 18 second time frame and whether they overlap a little or a lot. It can be a little slow, but it does work automatically. You can also use the Process Auto Collections in Photoshop to automatically take the stacked images and process them in Photoshop (either as panoramas or Merge to HDR images). This is a feature that could do with some further refinement, but it is a promising start and will greatly appeal to photographers who shoot a lot of panoramas or HDR image sequences.

Large image previews
There is now a neat one-click preview option in Bridge CS4, where you just click with the spacebar, to make selected images appear full frame on the screen. You can then use the keyboard arrow keys to navigate through the selected images. It’s brilliantly simple and effective! What then is the point of the Bridge Review mode? (see Figure 10) This reminds me very much of the Cover Flow navigator in Mac OS X 10.5. Basically it is intended as a tool for browsing selections of images, but it’s an odd addition to the program given that the one-click previews allow you to do the same thing but more elegantly.

Figure 10. The Review mode.

The Output panel is designed to replace the previous Web Photo Gallery and Contact Sheet plug-ins. The good news is that when you generate a Web Gallery you can get to see a preview of how the gallery will look (but only up to the first 10 images) and all RGB files can now be converted to sRGB (which overcomes the color matching problems that dogged Bridge in the past, such as when the source RGB files were in Adobe RGB or Pro Photo RGB). The bad news is that the output models don’t make use of an image cache. This means it is still a frustratingly slow process to configure a gallery template. Even if all you do is change the name of the gallery title, Bridge has to convert every single image again in order to generate a new preview image. Even if you do find a configuration that you like, there is no way to save this as a custom template. The Web galleries are mostly all new, but some of the old favorites such as the Feedback template are unfortunately missing.

Similar problems beset the PDF output. Again, you have regenerate the preview to see the outcome of any layout changes that you make, you can’t save template settings and there is no direct print output button, which means going through the extra step of generating a PDF file and having to print from the PDF. Lastly, there is no draft print mode either, so everything has to be generated long-hand from the original master files. If you own Lightroom, you won’t be bothered by such shortcomings. However, there is another option. You can still manually install the previous Web Photo Gallery and Contact Sheet plug-ins and use these as before. Overall, the Output model is, in my view, a disappointment, but with some form of image cache management and some thought given to adding more interface options, there is no reason why it can’t one day in the future begin to match the speed and functionality of Lightroom.

My CS4 verdict
Apart from these few niggles I would say that Photoshop CS4 is an excellent upgrade, not just for the features I have listed in Photoshop Camera Raw and Bridge but for lots of other significant little changes to the program. Whatever your interest in Photoshop this is in my view, an essential upgrade.

The above examples are highlights taken from the forthcoming Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Photographers book by Martin Evening, published by Focal Press (no release date can be given yet). This edition has been revised to provide detailed coverage of all the essentials in Photoshop plus what’s new in CS4. This edition is the biggest revision yet, with many more new image examples and provides greater detailed analysis of all the key areas of Photoshop that should be of interest to photographers.

A second book in the Photoshop for Photographers series is also planned, titled ‘The Ultimate Workshop’. This is a book co-written by Martin Evening and Jeff Schewe. It will mainly be a techniques book in which Martin and Jeff guide you through some of their favorite Photoshop techniques for intermediate to advanced users of Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Photographers
704 pages + DVD
Publisher: Focal Press
ISBN: 9780240521251
Price $49.95 / £29.99

The Ultimate Workshop
(Page number to be confirmed) + DVD
Publisher: Focal Press
ISBN: 9780240811185
Price $49.95 / £28.99