Adobe Photoshop 5.5


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With its in-built GIF and JPEG optimization and the bundling of ImageReady, Photoshop 5.5 now handles graphics for the Web almost as well as it does photos for print.

Adobe Photoshop 5.5

Adobe Photoshop is universally recognized as the leading bitmap editor  thanks to the unmatched control it offers over the handling of photos  destined for professional print. The program is so dominant that it is  also the most popular tool for the production of Web graphics despite the  fact that it has never actually offered much in the way of Web-oriented  functionality. Adobe tried to remedy this situation (and capitalize on it)  by producing ImageReady, a standalone Web-dedicated equivalent of  Photoshop, but the program was heavily criticized and unpopular. Now, with  this half-point release, Adobe has responded to what its users actually  wanted and has tackled the production of Web graphics from within  Photoshop.

Ultimately 99% of graphics on the Web are in one of two formats - JPEG or GIF - and so the main requirement of any Web graphics program is that it should be able to save to these formats. In the past Photoshop's control over the big two was actually pretty basic but in version 5.5 both the relevant Save dialogs have been greatly enhanced. When saving to JPEG, there is a greater range of compression settings to choose from along with feedback on file size and the option of previewing what the results will look like in the current image window. When saving a copy to GIF, which can now be done directly from any full-colour RGB image, the new Indexed Colour dialog gives serious control over the number of colours in the palette, how they are chosen and how they are generated.

This is already a huge advance on Photoshop 5, but far more power and control is available from the completely new Save for Web command. The initial advantage that this dialog offers is that it provides 2- and 4-up windows in which it's possible to compare an optimized image against the original or against other alternatives. As each window also gives feedback on file size it's simple to hone in on the best compromise between quality and download time. The Repopulate command will even take the current selection and intelligently generate smaller versions for comparison. Using the Image Size tab you can also change the dimensions of your output on the fly without having to change the original image.

Photoshop 5.5 save for web

The Save for Web dialog offers image export previews and rare features such as "lossy" GIF output

More importantly the dialog also offers unmatched optimizing power. When saving to JPEG, for example, you can choose whether or not to embed an ICC profile for colour accuracy and also choose whether to apply a level of pre-blurring that can both cut down on file size and the creation of JPEG artifacts. For GIFs the functionality is even more impressive. Not only is there control over how the overall palette is generated, there's also control over individual colours with the ability to add, delete or snap a selected colour to its nearest Web-safe equivalent. This latter is particularly useful when used in conjunction with the Browser Preview which shows how the image will dither on 8-bit 256-colour displays. More unique power is available through the "lossy" GIF option which throws away some detail in the image but can seriously cut down on file size. All told, apart from a general lack of speed, the power on offer is unmatched. Coming from nowhere, Photoshop can now claim to offer the best Web optimization in the business.

ImageReady 2

However, there's a lot more to the successful production of Web images than just optimization. To deal with the initial origination of the graphics, Adobe has called it a day on ImageReady as a separate product and has bundled it in with Photoshop 5.5. Or rather it has gone one better and included an entirely new version 2. The first difference existing ImageReady users will notice is that the integration with Photoshop is now much tighter with a new Jump to Command available from the File menu and from the bottom of the toolbox. Switching between the two programs can also be made much smoother by setting an Auto-Update preference to ensure that you are always working on the most recently saved copy.

The integration between file formats and working practice has also been hugely improved so much so that it's easy to forget which program you are currently working in. The improved handling of text is a good example. In the past text layers added in ImageReady were fixed in Photoshop and vice versa, but now both programs can happily edit text produced in the other. In fact both applications' text handling has been improved simultaneously so that you can now create faux bold and italic effects, set new anti-aliasing options and switch off fractional pixel character spacing in either program.

ImageReady 2 now offers glow, bevel and shadow layer effects along with some new fill effects.

ImageReady 2 now offers glow, bevel and shadow layer effects along with some new fill effects.

An even bigger problem with ImageReady 1 was that it didn't offer layer effects. This has been largely addressed in the latest version with the ability to set non-destructive and completely editable shadow, glow and beveling effects - a necessity for the creation of web staples such as 3-D buttons and floating text. In fact ImageReady 2 has also seen the introduction of two new layer effects. The Color Fill option enables everything on a layer to be given the same colour, opacity and blend mode, while the Gradient/Pattern option enables all objects and brush strokes to share the same gradient or texture. Again this is ideal for producing such common Web effects as classic wood or modern metallic appearances.

ImageReady 2 also allows multiple effects to be applied to the same layer and any effect or combination of effects can be saved as a named style and then applied to other layers to ensure absolute consistency - especially important when dealing with lighting effects. Adobe has also included a number of pre-designed styles, such as button wood and floating plastic, that can be selected from thumbnail previews in the Styles palette. Disappointingly, however, there is no option for style editing so that any changes to a design have to be laboriously reapplied.

The use of styles begins to take ImageReady into new territory compared to Photoshop 5.5, but the real difference between the programs is that ImageReady tackles the important task of HTML output and integration. Using the Layer Options palette any layer can be given a URL for the creation of client-side or server-side image maps. Rather more useful (though only for rectangular hotspots) is ImageReady's ability to divide images into linked sections that are recombined as an HTML-based table. The tool used to achieve this is the Slice tool working in conjunction with the Slice palette. The huge advantage of the table approach is that different sections of the image can be given different optimization settings to minimize file size. Even better in this regard is the new ability to set sections of the image to be blank or to be a solid HTML-defined colour.

Sliced images are also crucial for the creation of that other Web standard, the rollover. Using the new Rollover palette, you can add image states to each selected slice representing how the image will look when you move your mouse over it, click on it, move away from it and so on. Each state can be given a consistent look, for example to give the appearance of depressing a button, thanks to the use of layer effects and styles. However the process is much more laborious than you would expect as you first have to convert each slice into a selection and then into a layer.

Photoshop 5.5 rollovers

The Rollover palette and image states enable browser interaction but the process of setting them up is complex.

ImageReady also allows the creation of Web animations through the use of its Animation palette. New frames can be added to create flick-book style animations but ImageReady's real strength is dealing with layer-based automated animations. Type some text, add a new frame and then move the text layer. Now if you select the two frames and select the Tween command you can specify the number of frames you want to add and ImageReady will automatically reposition the text on each frame. It's not exactly AfterEffects but for simple Web animations it's probably all you need especially as ImageReady 2 can also tween opacity and layer effects (though disappointingly not size).

ImageReady 2 can even combine its support for rollovers and animations to enable advanced disjointed rollovers where, as you hold your mouse over a button, an automated slideshow will appear elsewhere on the screen. This is undoubtedly advanced Web power and there's no question that ImageReady 2 is better than its predecessor in just about every area and will be used to create some great Web pages. Even so there are still major disappointments.

To begin with there's the integration with Photoshop. The Jump To command is a big step forward, but you still have to wait for the other program to load and for your file to be saved every time you swap apps. Also, although ImageReady now offers much more of Photoshop's core power, you still have to swap back to make even minor colour corrections. Worse, despite the improved cross working you'll still find major differences, such as ImageReady's handling of text in situ whereas Photoshop depends on a dialog. More importantly you still find incompatibilities at the file level, so that Photoshop's adjustment layers are uneditable in ImageReady whereas ImageReady's Gradient/Pattern layer effects don't even appear in Photoshop.

Unfortunately the real problems with ImageReady go much deeper than that. The fundamental problem is that the PSD file format just wasn't intended for Web work. To be able to move any object or to apply an effect it must first be converted to a layer, but handling layers is difficult enough at the best of times and handling multiple layers simultaneously is impossible. Even basic tasks such as setting up multiple buttons becomes much harder than necessary, and advanced work such as creating animations or rollovers is a nightmare. Here the problem is made far worse by the use of image frames and states which can all employ their own sets of layers. The level of confusion is so high that if you need to edit an image, to move a series of buttons and their slices for example, you are probably as well starting again from scratch.

Non Web Features

After the bundled ImageReady again proves something of a disappointment it's a relief to discover that Adobe has also added some considerable general-purpose power to the main Photoshop 5.5 program. Of the two new Eraser options, the Magic Eraser is nothing special as it works like a combination of the Magic Wand and Delete command to automatically make the colour you click on transparent. In fact the new Background Eraser is much more magical. It works by interactively erasing colours within the tool's stroke that fall within a given tolerance level of the central colours that you click on or drag through. What this means in practice is that you can scrub around the outline of an object and automatically pull it out from its background.

Generally the Background Eraser works well, and is far more useful than the Magic Lasso for example, but it is still only useful when the object you want to isolate is clearly defined against its background. For more subtle and intricate work, such as wind-blown hair, Photoshop 5.5 offers a new Extract command. This calls up a dedicated dialog with its own selection of tools. The main one is a Highlighter tool that is used to roughly mark out the outline of the object. A Fill tool is then used to quickly fill in the center of the object and an Eraser tool can be used to make the border more accurate. You then click on the Preview command to see how accurate Photoshop's image extraction is and, if necessary, refine the border and change a Smoothness slider until you're completely happy. Being able to isolate objects is a crucial task in taking control of your image and, with its Eraser tools and Extract command, Photoshop 5.5 is now in a league of its own.

Photoshop 5.5 Extract command

For sophisticated selection jobs Photoshop 5.5 offers its Extract command.

One area that has always been a comparative weakness for Photoshop is its limited range of brushes. To an extent this has been addressed with the introduction of the multi-purpose Art History brush. But don't get too excited. This doesn't work like the natural media art brushes in a program like Metacreations Painter, but rather as a variation on the History brush. This means that you first set up a snapshot or history state source which can be anything from a blank canvas to a version of the current image that has had an artistic filter applied to it. You can then interactively paint this source onto the current image state.

The difference compared to the existing History brush is that the stroke isn't a faithful copy but rather a stylized copy so that the tool acts rather like an artistic clone. Call up the Options dialog and you can see the control you have over the process. There are options for setting the shape of the stroke, its size, colour fidelity and also a tolerance level which limits coverage to areas that are significantly different. Throw in the ability to set opacity and blend mode and the infinite range of potential source versions and the creative possibilities are clearly immense. The downside is that it's difficult to feel in complete control as you are only copying not creating. True natural media brushes remain high on the wish list for Photoshop 6.

As well as its new tools, Photoshop 5.5 has added a number of new commands. These are all designed to work with multiple images and are available from the File>Automate sub-menu. I was disappointed with version 5's Contact Sheet command which worked by opening every file in a directory, copying it into a new document and resizing and repositioning it as a thumbnail. Incredibly the new Contact Sheet II command works in exactly the same way but with options to include subdirectories and filenames as captions.

That the best way that such an expensive market-leading package can come up with to handle multiple images is through crude scripting is frankly embarrassing. On the other hand I have to say that the command is still useful. Exactly the same is true of the other new commands. Picture Package takes an image and produces a page of copies at sizes and in a layout that you specify - ideal for producing multiple prints of digital photos. The Web Gallery goes further and takes a directory of images and turns it into a navigable Web site complete with linked thumbnails and a sequential slide show. The way it produces its results might not be state of the art, but the script is undeniably effective and nicely rounds out Photoshop 5.5's Web functionality.

Photoshop 5.5 Web Gallery command

The Web Gallery command shows that the Photoshop programmers could have integrated ImageReady's HTML output if they'd put their mind to it.

So overall how does the Photoshop 5.5/ImageReady 2 combination rate? Ultimately for Web graphic creation in a production environment no bitmap-only program can ever match the ease of use and flexibility of a vector object program and so, for the Web professional, Macromedia Fireworks still reigns supreme. For the user whose interests spread beyond the Web, however, the combination is much more impressive satisfying just about every requirement for both screen and paper. Adobe has taken Photoshop's most obvious failing and turned it into a strength. Now Photoshop is not only the best print-oriented bitmap editor, it is also the best Web-oriented.



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System Requirements :  Pentium or higher, 64/96MB of RAM, 125MB of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 4.0 (Intel only), CD-ROM, SVGA

Tom Arah

August 1999

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