Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended review

As the centrepiece of the Design Premium suite, Photoshop CS4 Extended continues to provide innovative ways to manipulate images. As well as the Application Frame and tabbed documents common to the Mac CS4 family, Photoshop offers a number of new panels, the most useful of which is undoubtedly the Adjustments panel, a one-click way to add an adjustment layer to your image.

Previously, you’d have to go through menus and a separate dialog to set an adjustment layer, with any post-tweaking of the effect requiring a double-click of the new layer in the Layers palette. Now simply click an icon in the Adjustments panel and a new layer and mask is created automatically. A number of icons at the base of the panel allow you to toggle layer visibility, reset the effect to the adjustment defaults or temporarily show the previous state. There‘s also a box offering presets for all the adjustments, so clicking the Strong Contrast (RGB) Curves Preset entry will apply the effect, add a layer and open the familiar curve graph and controls in the side panel.

In the same vein, the Masks panel offers a quick way to perform a previously complex task. A density slider adjusts opacity and another controls the amount of feathering, but the most notable enhancement is the ability to selectively mask an image based on colour range.

A new Vibrance Adjustment also makes an appearance in CS4, a fine-tuner that selectively increases or decreases the colour saturation in an image without clipping. It proves useful when you want to prevent skin tones becoming over saturated. The Dodge, Burn and Sponge tools now offer a useful Protect Tones option too.

Blending and auto-alignment have received a boost, both in terms of panoramic arrangements and a new depth-of-field function that allows you to stack and align images of the same scene that have different focal points. A Seamless Tones and Colors option ensures that colour correction and exposure are smoothed out too.

Another dimension

The ‘big ticket’ item in Photoshop CS3 was 3D, but it was fairly limited. This time there’s a dedicated 3D menu offering commands like New Shape from Layer, and the ability to paint directly onto 3D model layers, as well as auto-hide extraneous layers. However, working effectively in 3D is rarely simple and Photoshop CS4 isn’t yet the one-stop solution to texture mapping. Textures on a typical imported model can be of different resolutions, so you might find that paint isn’t applied in the way you expect. To help, the 3D menu offers a Select Paintable Areas command that suggests parts of the model surface where you can apply paint with the most consistent and predictable effect. It’s still not perfect, but when the task is completed you can merge down the painted layers and have them wrap to the contours of the model.

The other new 3D features include the 3D Panel and a choice of three lighting types. From the 3D Panel you can move lights, change softness and intensity, change the colour of the light, select rendering settings and add or save lighting setups as presets. It’s best to use the Solid rendering setting for real-time work, as presets such as Ray Traced will slow down anything but the fastest Mac. There’s also a new 3D command which converts any 2D Photoshop layer into a 3D layer.

Photoshop and Bridge CS4 use the GPU of an OpenGL card to speed screen redraw instead of the Mac CPU, automatically enabling this option on Macs that support it. The GPU accelerated features include a continuous zoom with a smooth display at all levels, Flick to Scroll, where you flick the hand tool over the image to let it scroll automatically, interactive brush tip, and birdseye zoom, which uses the Hand Tool to provide an interactive Navigator window to zoom into parts of the image. There’s also a sub-tool under the Hand, which allows you to rotate the view of your image interactively.

We could see these OpenGL tricks proving useful but owners of PowerPC Macs will lose out, as the new Advanced Drawing feature, which hands over responsibility to the GPU for colour matching, compositing and tone matching, is only supported on Intel Macs.

A £569.88 standard version of Photoshop CS4 is also available as part of the Design Standard suite (£1,051.62).

OUR VERDICT

We ran this review on a 2.2GHz MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM and found this adequate for most tasks, although you’ll need something more powerful for heavy 3D work. Productivity gains abound and the Adjustments/Masks panel alone will please many designers. There’s plenty here to commend the upgrade.

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