Almost two years have passed since we ran the rule over Photoshop CS5. Now CS6 has arrived, but does it set a new standard in image editing?
Each time Adobe launches a new version of Photoshop, photographers ask: can it really improve on the previous version? Well, not one to rest on its laurels, Adobe's development team is constantly listening to users via the Adobe Labs website to find out how it can improve the product and in this latest version, CS6, it claims there are
65 user-inspired enhancements and no fewer than 62% of new features.
We're used to Adobe launching a new Creative Suite every two years and looking back at Photoshop CS5, the features it offered and how well it performed, CS6 certainly has its work cut out to make it a worthier purchase for newcomers to photo editing, or those looking for a viable upgrade from the CS3, CS4 or CS5 versions.
In Photoshop CS5, Adobe refined Camera Raw 6 by introducing new algorithms to improve Noise reduction. In CS6, Adobe has introduced an all-new Camera Raw 7 plug-in that benefits from an improved processing engine, designed to offer finer control over the spread of tones in an image. The reworked tonal controls are identical to those found in Lightroom 4 and the new Highlights and Shadows sliders replace the Fill Light and Recovery sliders. The Highlights slider works in a similar way to how the Recovery slider used to function, helping to retain detail in areas where it had been lost due to over-exposure. The Shadows slider works at the opposite end of the scale, preserving detail in the darkest areas of images and the Whites and Blacks sliders beneath are used as clipping controls. Without a dedicated Brightness slider, the Exposure slider is now used to set the overall brightness in an image and the new Adjustment Brush controls enable you to selectively tweak Temperature, Tint, Highlights, Shadows, Noise and Moire Reduction.
Outside of Camera Raw, CS6 improves on the Content-Aware technology that evolved in CS5 with a Content-Aware mode for the Patch tool and a Content-Aware Move tool. The former allows you to draw around an imperfection before dragging it over the pixels you'd like to use for replacement, while the new Adaption options from the Toolbox govern how the patch is blended with the image and how much of the surrounding area is included in the process. The Content-Aware Move tool is designed to let you copy a selected area of an image seamlessly from one part of the picture to another, and will fill in the space that's left.
Elsewhere, the Crop tool has also seen major renovation. It now works in a non-destructive manner, much as when cropping a RAW file, meaning any cropped pixels aren't permanently deleted so you can undo a crop at any time. Adobe has also added a very useful Straighten option to the Crop tool to check images are perfectly level, and adding to an impressive list of overlay preview modes is the option to save Crop presets from the options bar.
There are also three new photographic blur effects using a simple interface with intuitive controls. These are accessed via FilterBlur and include Field Blur, Iris Blur and Tilt-Shift. Field Blur enables you to customise blur with multiple focus points and Selections, whereas Iris Blur is designed to replicate the look of lens-based depth-of-field effects. The new blur workspace is superbly arranged, with the option to customise the central point of blur, plus fantastic control of how the blur radiates outwards from this point. You're also given the option to control the strength of the blur using a circular slider within the image preview and all adjustments occur in real-time. This is in part thanks to Adobe's new Mercury graphics engine that permits real-time results – even when working with large images and processor-hungry tools such as Liquify, Puppet Warp, Crop and Transform. The greatest advantage of the new Graphics Engine is that you no longer have to wait around for adjustments to take place and even though you may only be saving yourself a few seconds here and there, it all adds up to time you could put to better use when post-processing.
Another addition is the introduction of Adaptive Wide Angle Adjustments. Designed to straighten out objects that appear distorted after shooting with wide-angle lenses or creating panoramas with Photomerge, it's available from the Filter list and works by using the physical characteristics of individual lenses to automatically correct and straighten curved objects. It's similar to the Lens Corrections in Camera Raw but has an advantage in that you can fine-tune the effect much more precisely and create constraints by using the selection of on-canvas editing tools. Photoshop CS6 also supports HD video, which no other version has done. Basic editing can be done using the Timeline, with clips arranged in the Layers palette. Audio tracks and effects can be added to projects, but while the Timeline panel took just a few minutes to learn, you shouldn't expect the kind of control available in bespoke video-editing packages like Adobe Premiere.
The good news is that CS6 also now includes a Background Save and Auto-recovery function. Designed to recover work in the event of your computer crashing, Background Save is customisable from the Preferences dialog box and can be set to save at a variety of different intervals including 5, 10, 15 and 30 mins, or 1 hour.
Interface & performance
If you do decide to upgrade from CS3, CS4 or CS5for the reduced price of £190 you'll notice a change in appearance to the interface; CS6 is notably cleaner-looking and though most tools are located in the same place, Timeline and Mini Bridge now line the bottom and the workspace options are found in a drop-down list from the top-right corner. The tabbed document display first seen in CS4 is still there and makes it easy to work between a number of images at once.
In our test, CS6 performed faultlessly and fast. Our RAW files loaded speedily and it supports many of the latest cameras straight from the box, including the Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800, Sony A57 and Olympus E-M5.
Adobe camera raw version 7
With each new release of Photoshop there's a new version of Camera Raw to support it. Photoshop CS6 comes with Camera Raw version 7 and it has seen a number of developments in key areas:
Camera Raw version 7 benefits from an improved processing engine that's been designed to enhance workflow when editing RAW files. A new tone mapping algorithm offers an intuitive set of sliders for finer control over the spread of tones and the sliders that have been lifted from Lightroom 4 include Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks.
The Adjustment Brush has also seen modification and it's now possible to take specific control of variables such as Color Temperature, Tint, Noise Reduction and Sharpness.
For camera support, Camera Raw 7 also opens RAW files from all the latest models to hit the market including the Canon 1D X, 5D Mark III, Nikon D4, D800, and Olympus OM-D E-M5.
Better, faster & more responsive
Adobe has focused on the time it takes to process large images with key editing tools. In the previous versions of Photoshop there's often been a slightly infuriating lag when using processor-hungry tools such as Liquify, Puppet Warp and Lens Blur. With CS6 you can expect a much more spritely performance thanks to the new Mercury graphics engine Adobe has specially developed. It has been designed to offer unprecedented speed and responsiveness giving a fluid feel as you work and this most certainly proved to be the case in our test – CS6's performance was very impressive indeed. Provided your computer meets the minimum system requirements, you'll be able to see the effects of your editing as you apply them, and not have to wait until an edit is finished to assess the results. It's a tremendous improvement that makes editing a more intuitive process and will undoubtedly speed up the workflow for CS6 users.
The best new creative tools
When you purchase or upgrade to CS6 you can expect a good selection of new and creative tools to experiment with. These have been added in a number of areas to improve retouching, enhance the way you add blur to images and return a cropped image back to full size. Here's our pick of the best:
Having the option to crop your images non-destructively in CS6 is a huge advantage. If you apply a crop and later regret making it you can simply select the Crop tool and drag the corners back out to the edges. If you make a specific crop that you'd like to apply to some of your other images there's also the option to do that, too, from the Save Crop Presets option that can be found listed beneath the Options bar.
Blur Gallery tools
Click on Filter from the menu bar and scroll down to Blur and you'll find the three new blur the filters - Field Blur, Iris Blur and Tilt Shift – used to replicate the type of blur you can create by using specialist, expensive camera lenses. Selecting any one of them loads the new Blur Gallery. From here you control the blur effect on the image itself rather than having to rely on any sliders. Beneath the Blur tools you can also fine-tune the Bokeh effect with three sliders – Light Bokeh, Bokeh Color and Light Range.
Adobe has introduced its Content-Aware technology to the Patch tool for those who want to remove imperfections seamlessly by choosing the pixels they’d like to replace the distraction with. For it to find the best pixels to use for replacement you’ll need to make a Selection that’s slightly wider than your imperfection.
There’s a new skin tone-aware option within Color Range that can be used to isolate skin tones in your pics incredibly quickly. Reasons to use it might be to subtly perform tonal changes or inverse the Selection afterwards to preserve the skin tones from being affected by any other editing. In use we found it did a very good job once we’d also ticked the Detect Faces option.
As has been the case in the past, this latest release of Photoshop shares its RAW functionality with the most recent release of Lightroom, but as an editing package, it's a more advanced option and offers many more tools. It's also notable that features like the Pen tool, Channels and Curves are yet to creep into Elements, so CS6 is unquestionably the best option for photographers and designers who desire the very best. However, at £667 for a boxed copy it's not cheap and for enthusiast users a combination of Lightroom 4's RAW processing and Elements 10's image editing (at under £200 for the pair) is arguably a more sensible option.
- Street price: Discontinued (Photoshop CC Photography plan available for £8.57 per month as of July 2016)
- Visit: www.adobe.com/uk
This review was first published in the July 2012 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.