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With new tools, improved selection, multiple undo, editable text, layer  effects, colour management and spot colour support, Photoshop reinforces its dominance in the high-end production environment.

Ps5main.png (117412 bytes)

Adobe Photoshop has had the professional photo-editing market more or less sewn up ever since it first appeared back in 1987. The program's long pedigree helps explain its overwhelmingly dominant market position, but recently criticism been growing. Compared to the modern breed of photo-editing programs with their office-style interfaces, multiple undos, exciting image effects and web functionality, Photoshop has begun to look increasingly cumbersome and outdated. In many ways the program's long history has become a drawback as much as a strength and modern programs like PhotoImpact and Corel PhotoPaint have been able to make Photoshop seem something of a dinosaur - very powerful but no longer suited to current conditions. Photoshop 5 is Adobe's response.

In the circumstances, I had expected the interface to be given a much-needed overhaul, but in fact very little has changed. Photoshop has always relied on a system of floating palettes to control everything from changing brush size to photo-compositing. With this release the number of palettes has increased to eleven with the inevitable result that crucial onscreen space is lost. Since version 4 it's been possible to create more room for images by combining the palettes together as tabbed groups, but this now makes finding the relevant palette more difficult. Compared to the PhotoPaint interface with its context-sensitive property bar and its docker windows, the Photoshop interface does look something of a prehistoric relic. While the continuity will be reassuring to Photoshop experts, this is a lost opportunity to make the interface cleaner, more transparent and so more productive for all users.

There is one huge change to Photoshop 5's working environment, however, which will be universally welcome - the introduction of a multiple undo. In the past working with Photoshop could be a nerve-wracking business as you only had one chance to undo any action. If you later regretted an editing decision there was no way to go back to an earlier stage in the editing process short of the last resort Revert to Saved command. This feeling that if you did something wrong it might be irretrievable, was a major disincentive to experimentation and another reason for non-expert users to feel intimidated when working with Photoshop. The difference to the flexibility and creativity of a program like PhotoImpact, where you could simply hit the undo command as many times as necessary, was immense.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adobe has chosen to implement the new multiple undo through a new palette, the History palette. As you work on an image every action is listed on this palette working from the top down. To return to an earlier stage you simply have to drag back the slider that indicates the current state or, more simply, click on the stage that you want to return to. As you do so, the previous state is instantly restored in the Image Window and all the following actions are grayed-out. At this stage, you can still click on the grayed-out items to step through the history of editing changes, but you have to be careful because as soon as you edit the current image these options are lost.

By default the last twenty actions are stored, though this can be increased memory permitting, and Photoshop now supports up to four drives as scratch-disks for this very purpose. Even so, it's still possible that you'll fill up all available memory in which case the oldest version of the image is automatically dropped off the list to make way for the most recent. If there are certain image states that you know you might want to return to you can make sure that they are kept available by using the Snapshot command at the bottom of the History palette. This automatically adds a named state complete with preview thumbnail to the top of the palette and clicking on the preview immediately restores the relevant editing state. Snapshots act as a useful safety precaution, but they also offer much more. By storing a snapshot of an image and then creating snapshots after applying a filter with different settings to it, for example, you can instantly swap between the various results to choose which you prefer.

Even better, Photoshop 5 offers a new tool, the History Brush, which allows you to paint onto the image with any snapshot or editing state that is set as its source. Most obviously this can be used as an undo brush to locally restore detail to an image that has been lost during later editing. More creatively you can apply a filter, store a snapshot, undo the filter and then use the history brush to paint on the effect exactly where you want it. In practice this means that the history brush can be used for interactively and locally applying any global effect with complete control over brush type and blend mode. As such, the new multiple undo is typical of Photoshop. The feature is by no means as straightforward as that offered in other programs and its complexity can cause problems but, for the user who gets to grips with it, it offers unparalleled power and creativity.

In addition to the History Brush, the latest Photoshop offers a whole range of new tools. Two of these are primarily aimed at high-end users working in a production environment. The new Colour Sampler tool works in conjunction with the Info Palette to give feedback on the underlying pixel values. The difference is that it's now possible to fix up to four points on the image and to see the feedback on each to accurately analyse the effect of any changes. The new Measure tool also works with the Info palette to allow precise measurements of distances and angles to be taken by drawing a line onscreen. By holding down the Alt key it is possible to add a second line to enable the tool to be used like a protractor. Irritatingly, the only way to change the unit of measurement is by changing program preferences rather than by setting an override with the Options Palette.

The new Magnetic Lasso tool is a variation on the existing lasso tool used for creating selections. The difference is that the magnetic version actually looks for lines of contrast in the image and automatically traces them. At its best this results in far more accurate selections created far more quickly, but this only happens when the contrast is clear. Selecting a red flower against a background of leaves, for example, is very successful. However if your selection includes shadow areas, for example, the contrast disappears and the magnetic lasso is likely to get confused and run off with itself putting down inappropriate lines. If so, it's always possible to press Delete to remove the selection outline's anchor points one by one and, by holding down the Alt key and dragging, it's possible to temporarily switch to the normal lasso tool.

The Magnetic Lasso certainly isn't the end of selection headaches, but it's a step in the right direction. Other improvements to the selection process include the fact that when selections are saved as channels these are now clearly labelled "alpha 1", "alpha 2" and so on. This will help those users who are still confused over just what an alpha channel is. For those users who haven't discovered the benefits of storing selections, the new Reselect command will at least enable the last selection to be restored. Finally the new Transform Selection command allows all the interactive Free Transform options of scaling, skewing and rotating to be applied to the selection outline. This is particularly useful, for example, when trying to select a rotated rectangle.

Photoshop's handling of paths has been largely brought into line with its handling of selections. The Free Transform commands are also now available when dealing with paths and the new Magnetic Pen tool works in a similar way to the Magnetic Lasso tool to automatically trace clearly defined objects. In addition there is a new Freeform pen tool that allows paths to be drawn freehand on the image rather than having to be built up with bezier curves. In addition the shortcuts for editing paths have been brought into line with Illustrator. Although there are still no options for automatically adding simple shapes, the changes to path handling mean that vector-based editing can now take on an increasingly important role within the bitmap environment.

The final set of new tools are all relatively minor variations of existing tools. The angular gradient tool shades in a counter-clockwise sweep, the reflected gradient tool mirrors its shading on either side and the diamond gradient creates a diamond pattern. All new power is a bonus, but the limited and artificial nature of Photoshop's gradients remains disappointing compared to some of the naturalistic and futuristic shading effects offered by other programs. At least the new gradient algorithm will cut down on banding. The final new tools are the Vertical Type Tool and the Vertical Type Mask tool. These are identical to their horizontal equivalents except that the text they produce is aligned vertically on a central axis. This is primarily intended for Japanese, Chinese and Korean users - for whom the new double-byte character support is also crucial - but it also comes in very handy for integrating short headings into the image.

When it actually comes to adding text, initially it looks as if very little has changed. When you click on the image a separate dialog still opens up in which the text is added, rather than the more convenient in-place text entry that Corel Photo-Paint allows. As soon as you add text in the dialog, however, the difference becomes clear as the text on the image is now updated dynamically as you type or change settings. Even better, the Move tool is automatically activated which means that it is simple to interactively and accurately size and position the text with the dialog still open.

Exploring the options within the dialog reveals significant further changes. In particular it is now possible to control the tracking, kerning, leading and baseline shift of the text as well as the more obvious factors such as typeface and point-size. Just as importantly, it's now possible to apply different settings to individual words and characters within the text. In the past to have two different fonts in a title, for example, you would have had to create the items of text separately and then position and merge the separate layers. Thanks to character level formatting this can now be easily achieved within one layer.

Much the most important change to Photoshop 5's new text handling, however, is its new editability. In the past when the Text dialog's OK button was selected the text was automatically and permanentely rasterised. If you wanted to change the typeface or the spelling you simply had to delete the text layer and create a new one. Now though, Photoshop keeps text layers editable, marking them as such with a "T" icon in the Layers palette. If you need to change the text or formatting, all you have to do is double-click on this icon and the text dialog opens with the current text ready for editing. Incredibly simple - and long overdue - but incredibly useful.

With dynamic updating, character formatting and editability, Photoshop 5's text handling is leagues ahead of previous versions. However, its control is still not comprehensive. There are no features like bulleting or inter-paragraph spacing, for example, let alone features like multiple columns with automatic text flow. Where necessary, though, it is now possible to control the placement of text layers using the new alignment controls. As Photoshop doesn't allow more than one layer to be selected at a time, this is a complicated procedure that relies on first linking the layers and then using the various new alignment and distribution commands from the Layer menu.

In normal circumstances, ordinary text is still best controlled in a dedicated DTP or drawing program. The main strength of text handling within a program like Photoshop is the ability to apply special effects not possible outside a bitmap environment. Photoshop's text layers can still be given blend modes just like any other layer so that the text can be integrated with the underlying image. However it isn't possible to apply filters to text layers to create a motion blur look, for example, without first converting them into bitmaps. Surprisingly there is no way to do this from the Layers palette so the only option is to use the Render Layer command on the Type submenu under the Layer menu.

The inability to apply filters directly to text layers severely cuts down on the creative options available, but Adobe has come up with a partial solution in its new Layer Effects. These work rather like adjustment layers to apply a number of automated effects without permanently changing the underlying pixel values. By far the most common of these effects is the drop shadow. This is applied to the currently selected layer and allows a whole host of options such as blending mode, opacity, blur and intensity to be set. Again as with the text dialog, the preview on the image is dynamic and it is possible to interactively drag the shadow to position it exactly where you want. Once created, the Layer Effect is marked with an "f" icon in the Layer Palette and double-clicking on this opens the dialog for fine-tuning. If the effect is applied to a text layer, it automatically updates if the text is edited.

The other effects all work in broadly similar ways to the drop shadow to produce inner shadows, glows that emanate outwards or inwards and bevels and embossing that use highlights and shadows to give the impression of depth. Originally I thought that each layer was limited to one effect, but in fact any combination of effects can be applied simultaneously by using the dialog's awkward Next and Prev commands - presumably tabbed dialogs have proved as beyond the capabilities of the Adobe developers as toolbars! Interestingly, the Layer Effect remains live so that it is possible to paint onto the image with paint that has a shadow or glow. Thanks to the Global Angle command it is also possible to set up all Layer Effects to automatically share the same apparent lighting source to maintain an internal consistency.

Despite some awkwardness, the dynamic Layer Effects are a big practical step forward as the effects they create are such common design staples especially when it comes to highlighting text. They are undoubtedly worthy and will boost productivity but, as each of the effects was achievable before, they can hardly be said to set new creative standards. Sadly Photoshop's filter set is beginning to look old-fashioned especially compared to the striking particle and artistic effects seen in the latest PhotoImpact, for example. In fact the latest Photoshop only offers one new filter, the 3D Transform plug-in.

It might be the only new filter but it sets a new standard for power. Its purpose is to allow the user to manipulate a section of the 2-D bitmap as if it were a 3-D object. If you have a product shot, for example where you can see the top of one cereal box but not the others, you might want to rotate the box to also make it head on. To do this you first have to set up a wireframe 3-D version corresponding to the box using the cube primitive supplied. You can then switch to the virtual trackball to rotate the box and if necessary use the dolly camera to shrink or magnify it. When you click on OK, the object is rendered. For relatively small adjustments with simple shapes, the results are impressive but there are limitations. It must be possible to map the object with the basic cube, sphere and cylinder shapes and obviously Photoshop isn't able to create information that wasn't already there in the image - you won't be able to rotate the box to see what's on its back.

It isn't exactly a filter, but some striking effects are also possible with the new Channel Mixer command available under the Image Adjust sub-menu. This can be used to redefine any of an image's colour channels - most commonly the red, green and blue components in an RGB image - as a custom mix of the original. The dialog allows an output channel to be chosen and offers sliders to control the input from each existing channel. This can be used, for example, to move information from the blue channel to the red to create a Martian skyscape. Alternatively in a production environment in can be used to boost a weak green channel with a strong red or, with the monochrome option selected, it can be used to interactively control the input of each channel in the process of converting to a rich grayscale.

The Channel Mixer is the only completely new colour correction dialog, but two of the existing commands have also been enhanced. The changes to the Curves dialog are relatively minor with the ability to specify points on the tonal curve numerically and to select multiple points to move together by shift-selecting. The changes to the Hue/Saturation command are more fundamental. In the past you could select and adjust just seven predefined colour ranges. Now it is possible to select any colour from the image with the eyedropper tools and to interactively set the affected colour range around it. The selected colour range is shown on an input colour bar at the bottom of the dialog and as the hue, saturation and lightness sliders are shifted the effect on the colour wheel is shown on the output colour bar below it as well as being previewed on the image. This offers far more control and opens up a far wider range of colour shifting special effects.

It's good to see that Adobe is on the lookout to improve its existing colour correction power, but there's still more that could be done. Many users, for example, have been crying out for the ability to more finely control the effect of the Levels dialog, but this has remained unchanged. The same "not enough" criticism can be made of the improvements to Photoshop's actions, the macro language used to record and play back editing scripts. The support for actions has been expanded to include almost all tools including the gradient, marquee, crop, lasso, line, move, magic wand, text and paint bucket. In fact just about the only tools not supported are the various brush and retouching tools. As these are probably the tools you would most want to be able to record, this is a huge handicap.

Another drawback to Photoshop's simple macro-based actions compared to a full scripting language is the lack of support for conditional processing and custom dialog box creation. Adobe has at least partially solved this, by making a new automation plug-in API available to third-party developers. This allows the creation of more advanced conditional and dialog-based wizards. Four examples of these are available from the new Automate command under the File menu and - bizarrely - another two are found under the Help menu. The Contact Sheet command is a typical example. It allows you to select a directory, a page size and resolution and the number and layout of the image thumbnails. It then proceeds to open each image, resize it and paste it into position on the contact sheet in front of your eyes. It certainly works, but it's hardly cutting-edge and looks rather embarrassing in the top-of-the-range bitmap editor.

Photoshop always seems happier being judged on its results rather than its methods. Ultimately, as with any photo editor, these results are determined by the program's handling of the colours that make up its images. In the past accurate colour control was largely left to the user and to their appreciation of the fact that the ultimate reality of the colour was in its numeric RGB - and especially CMYK - values rather than in how it appeared on screen. Professional users learnt to come to terms with this, but it was always a shock to the average user to find out that there was actually no reason to assume that what they saw onscreen would be what came out on paper. Now Adobe has bitten the bullet and has implemented a colour management strategy designed to ensure greater colour accuracy onscreen and on paper and across platforms and applications.

Underlying this is the new ICC colour profiling that both Microsoft and Apple have committed themselves to. Essentially this allows information about the colour space in which the image was originated to be embedded in the image itself. This means that when the image is opened on another system, any ICC-supporting application can read the colour space and translate it to the current monitor space and so show it - as accurately as possible - as it appeared to the originator. The first step in the colour management process then is to ensure that your monitor is set up to display colours as accurately as possible. To enable this Photoshop now comes with the separate Gamma monitor calibration utility that is installed into the Windows control panel.

The Gamma utility allows an ICC profile of your monitor's colour space to be produced, and this is then used to calibrate the display each time Windows starts. However it isn't the monitor colour profile that is embedded in the image. Instead Photoshop offers a number of independently-defined working colour space profiles and automatically translates between these and your monitor space. The advantages of this are that the image's working space remains independent of the vagaries of each monitor and that there is a known standard to which software and hardware developers can work. The default is the sRGB space developed by Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, but it is possible to change this with the new RGB Setup command.

When ICC- and sRGB-supporting applications and hardware become the norm, the advantages of Photoshop 5's colour profiling will be fully realised. However, at the moment the benefits are less compelling and there are some potential problems that Adobe should have highlighted, but has chosen to play down (to be covered in RWC column next month). Most obviously, the fact that using the default settings means that all Photoshop 5 RGB images are working in a slightly different colour space to all previous versions, is an important factor that the professional user needs to know about. At least these advanced users can still fall back on Photoshop's unmatched CMYK handling. This has been improved again with the merger of the previous Printing Inks and Separations Setup dialogs into the new CMYK Setup dialog. The new ability to precisely control dot-gain curves also leaves the alternative ICC profile-based system of RGB-to-CMYK conversion looking over-simplified and inadequate.

In addition to its new colour management system, Photoshop 5 introduces two further much-anticipated colour features. The first is the ability to work with 16-bits of colour information (65,536 separate values) per channel to produce 48-bit RGB and 64-bit CMYK images. Theoretically this means much greater colour accuracy with the new RGB mode supporting billions of distinct colours. However this doesn't mean that converting your images will suddenly make them infinitely more colourful and accurate than they were before. To get the full benefit of the larger tonal range you will need a scanner and monitor able to pick up and show the finer distinctions and, even then, final print will almost certainly be disappointing as CMYK print struggles to match current tonal ranges. Still, to maintain maximum information while colour-correcting, the new modes are a useful option. However, they will be a lot more useful when Photoshop makes all of its tools, such as the magic wand and layer-based compositing, available for 48- and 64-bit work.

More immediately useful is the new support for spot channels. If you create a selection with the magic wand tool, for example, you can now convert this into a spot colour channel based on any colour from the Photoshop libraries. Most obviously this means that you can select a Pantone colour, either to enable accurate matching of corporate colours, or to open up the wider colour range available through the use of non-CMYK inks. The process is slightly awkward, involving the Channel Palette's flyout menu and various colour selection dialogs, and the preview is limited by the inability of the monitor to reproduce many of the Pantone colours such as the speciality metallic inks. However, this ability to add spot colour bump plates to process images is a huge step forward that professional users will seriously appreciate.

It's possible to colour separate these multi-channel files directly from Photoshop but to be able to use them in a normal production cycle, within PageMaker or XPress for example, it's necessary to save them to the new DCS 2.0 Encapsulated Postscript format. Photoshop's Postscript support has been boosted all round with print support for Postscript 3 devices and more robust EPS import. In addition, one of the new commands available from the Automate menu is Convert Multi-Page PDF to PSD which is intended to bring Adobe's Postscript-based Acrobat format into high-end print workflows. With the ability to control output resolution, image mode and anti-aliasing this opens up the possibility of using Photoshop to colour-separate any Acrobat file, though the enormous size of the resulting files is an obvious drawback to the bitmapped approach.

Apart from the improved Postscript support, the only other change to import/export filters is the new support for FlashPix format files. These are designed to speed the transfer and display of large, high-resolution files, but although Photoshop can open and save the files it isn't FlashPix-optimised so cannot benefit from the format. Generally this lack of support for the real-time handling of resolution-independent image processing is the one area where Photoshop lets down the professional user and leaves the door open for specialist solutions like xRes and Wright Design. There is some comfort for the power hungry user, however, with improved MMX support speeding up the regularly-used gaussian blur and unsharp masking filters and all image mode conversions. For those needing maximum performance, the rewritten multiple-processor support also now offers improvements of up to 80% on some operations on dual-processor NT workstations.

For the average desktop user dealing with images of less than 10Mb such high-end performance questions are largely irrelevant. For these users other issues, such as image management and creative impact, are more important. With the proliferation of graphic images from scanners, digital cameras and CD-based collections it's increasingly important to be able to visually handle whole directories full of images. Even the budget Paintshop Pro (see page ) offers a Browser view of image thumbnails, but Photoshop only offers a preview of the currently selected file and only then if it is in one of a few supported formats. Likewise, most competing programs now offer a range of traditional artistic and modern effect brushes which expand creative options enormously. Photoshop seems to frown on such fripperies and joylessly sticks to its basic brush and airbrush tools.

In fact as soon as Photoshop strays outside its print production focus, its power tails off dramatically. As such, it's hardly surprising to find that the program fails to support any video or animation formats. Admittedly at the moment such frame-stack editing is something of a niche demand, but there can be no excuse for Photoshop's poor Web support. Because of the program's penetration, Photoshop probably produces the majority of images on the Web, but its dedicated support for such images is minimal. While other programs have added URL-based image mapping, colour Hex codes, browser previews, GIF animation support and visual smartsavers for optimising the trade-off between file size and quality, the latest Photoshop's only concession is to offer a live preview of the effect of palette choices when converting to indexed colour. The reason for the inadequate support becomes patently clear with the imminent release of Adobe ImageReady a standalone application designed solely for producing Web graphics - a responsibility that every other bitmap editor has already taken on board.

These omissions are major drawbacks to Photoshop especially as there is no intrinsic reason why improved image management, a wider range of brushes, video and Web support and a more transparent and more modern user interface couldn't be grafted on to the program's existing bitmap engine. Adobe has simply chosen not to. As a result, it's probably fair to say that the majority of users who use Photoshop today - normally because it came bundled with their scanner and has such a good reputation - would actually be better off with another solution. The average office-based user would actually be more productive and producing more exciting images - and certainly having more fun in the process - with a modern bitmap-editor like PhotoPaint or PhotoImpact.

In a way though this isn't so much a criticism of Photoshop itself as of its positioning and its perception. Because the program is so powerful and dominant the assumption is generally made that it must be more than capable of dealing with all bitmap-based tasks. To be fair to Adobe, however, it has never claimed that Photoshop is all things to all people. While you might expect a graphics program at this price to throw in a screen grabber and GIF animator, for example, Photoshop clearly doesn't feel the obligation. While it would certainly be preferable if Photoshop was more versatile, the program has always been and defiantly remains a resolutely print-production based tool.

When taken on these terms, there is no question that Photoshop is out on its own and this release simply increases the gap. In particular by giving its professional users the three features they most wanted - a multiple undo, editable text and spot colour channels - Adobe has ensured that Photoshop 5 is a must-have upgrade. Photoshop 5 is very much a product of its past but, despite its reluctance to adapt to modern demands, the program's unmatched power and focus on professional imaging for print mean that its high-end niche remains absolutely secure. Photoshop is not the program for all users, but for high-end studio-based bitmap editing it stands head and shoulders above the competition.

On this showing there is still plenty of life left in the old dinosaur.

Features

6

Ease Of Use

4

Value For Money

5

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

Jan 1999


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