Software Review: Adobe Photoshop CS6

September 19, 2012

By Dan Havlik

Is it me or is there something about the even-numbered Creative Suite iterations of Adobe Photoshop that get me a little less excited about regularly updating this venerable image-editing software? On the other hand, the odd-numbered versions have been quite impressive.

For instance, despite missing some key features including any serious tools for editing video, 2010’s Photoshop CS5 was hands-down a great update. Along with small but important tweaks including the advent of Mini Bridge for quickly accessing your images without leaving Photoshop proper, Photoshop CS5 had several new “rock star” tools including Content-Aware Fill; intelligent and masking with better edge detection; and the whimsical but useful Puppet Warp. Throw in the fact that Photoshop CS5 was a 64-bit application for both Mac and Windows computers, and I gave PS CS5 a firm “buy it” recommendation in my 2010 review.

This year’s CS6 (which is actually the thirteenth iteration of Photoshop), however, is more of a mixed bag. While it includes some important, long-awaited additions such as video editing (finally!), some of the other changes feel more incremental than essential. This iteration of Photoshop, particularly the Extended version, also seems to have more new tools aimed at designers than photographers, which is fine for designers but not so great for the rest of us.

Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about this program, which, in its Standard configuration, sells for $699 new or $199 as an upgrade. (Photoshop CS6 Extended sells for $999/$399.)

Dark Look; Revamped Engine & Tools

The most obvious thing you’ll notice about Photoshop CS6 is its new, dark look. My first thought was to panic because, in general, I prefer a lighter interface for photo editing, particularly one framed by a neutral gray background. The trend with programs such as Lightroom, most of Nik Software’s plug-ins and other recent software, however, is to go with a dark background to make your images “pop,” as the press materials say.

But when I’m editing my photos, I don’t want to make them “pop.” I want to evaluate their color and exposure properly and, for me, that means neutral gray. Luckily, Adobe makes it fairly easy to switch Photoshop’s interface to one of four backgrounds including a gray. Phew. (That’s not a major criticism but more of an irritation.)

On the positive side, I immediately noticed what seemed to be an across-the-board speed bump with Photoshop CS6. This was impressive, especially considering that the previous version’s 64-bit status made it work quickly and efficiently.

But Adobe’s added some more processor-intensive features in PS CS6, including the ramped up Liquify, Puppet Warp, Crop, Transform and 3D (in the Extended version) tools. Its new Mercury Graphics Engine does a good job keeping everything humming along, even in video mode.

Speaking of the revamped Crop function, it’s another feature I liked in PS CS6, but it’s not exactly what I’d call groundbreaking. The new, non-destructive crop tool gives you several different overlays including Golden Ratio, Golden Spiral, Diagonal, Triangle Grid and Rule of Thirds to help you frame your crops in what would, presumably, be more interesting ways.

While this might be educational to new photographers (and is sort of a fun nod to old-school photography rules), most pros have a pretty good idea of how to crop an image properly without these tools.

Content-Aware Additions; Blur Effects
The most popular feature, by far, in the last release of Photoshop was Content-Aware Fill, a nifty tool for quickly and cleanly removing background detritus, objects and other unwanted subject matter from your images. (No, this was not a feature that should be used by photojournalists and photo editors to manipulate news photos!)

Adobe expands on this downright magical effect by adding a Content-Aware mode for the Patch tool in Photoshop CS6. This gives you more control over the effect, letting you make a specific selection of what to remove—such as an ugly trashcan in the background—and then allowing you to drag that patch over to sample the nearby background, so the change looks seamless.

With the Content-Aware Move tool, you can move objects or extend areas in your images, to create a cleaner, more polished composition. Both of these additions are great and give Content-Aware more precision, but most people were probably fine with the way the tool worked in the previous version of Photoshop. Not must-have changes but certainly welcome additions.

Plug-ins like Alien Skin Software’s Bokeh or onOne Software’s FocalPoint have been around for a few years, letting you add the simulated background blur (aka bokeh) you’d get from a lens with a fast aperture in just a few clicks. Adobe’s finally added a similar feature to Photoshop in CS6 though I didn’t find it to be as easy or as satisfying to use as some of those competing plug-ins.

Called, simply, “Blur” and available in the pull-down Filter menu in Photoshop CS6, the feature lets you create three different blur effects in your images: Iris Blur, which is the classic bokeh background effect; Tilt-Shift, which replicates the miniaturized “diorama” look of a tilt-shift lens; and Field Blur, which creates a gradient blur, a little bit like a Lensbaby lens does. Much of this is old hat for most folks, though, and easier-to-use versions of these features can be found in photo-editing software far and wide including something as basic as Instagram.

Video, At Last
I’d hesitate to call the new video tools in Photoshop CS6 a “rock star” feature since they probably should have been in the program a few versions ago. (The conflict is likely Premiere Pro, which is Adobe’s main video-editing software and something the company has been hoping photographers would get much more acquainted with.)

With PS CS6, Adobe makes the right move by letting you import a wide variety of video formats, including, of course, now standard AVCHD, MPEG-4 and H.264 files. Adobe also, smartly, leverages its Media Encoder program to let you easily render video projects created in CS6.

The interface is fairly straightforward and familiar to anyone who has edited a clip in a timeline-based video editor. You can also easily add audio as a separate soundtrack entry in the timeline, add and adjust transitions and cross fades, and pretty much do everything you’ve been able to do in, say, Apple’s iMovie since 2006.

The best part? You never have to leave Photoshop and open a new program to do it. This has been a gripe of photographers who have been exploring shooting HD video with their DSLRs for years and simply wanted to stay within the Photoshop workflow.

Background Save & Auto Recovery; Auto Corrections
Adobe’s added several handy, automated features including a couple of potential ass-saving ones. Those would be the new Background Save function, which, as its name suggests, saves even your biggest photo files in the background, allowing you to continue working while your images are saved. Also useful is Auto-Recovery, which saves and finds image edits in case of a heart-stopping computer failure. (Believe me, I’ve had a few of those.)

The best part is not just that these features exist in Photoshop CS6, it’s that I barely noticed they were happening in the background, another benefit of the program’s boosted processing engine.

I also liked PS CS6’s improved auto-correction functionality, including better-automated fixes in Curves, Levels and Brightness/Contrast. Adobe says it’s using a new algorithm in PS CS6, which helps “magically enhance your images in a single step.”

Frankly, I don’t care if it’s pixie dust. As long as it saves me time when I need to make a slew of quick edits on a bunch of images, I’m all for it. These auto-correct tweaks, for the most part, worked like a charm. More please!

The Bottom Line
If it sounds like I liked Photoshop CS6, I did overall. The program was initially introduced as a public beta—a first for Adobe with Photoshop—and the pre-release testing by photographers has made this one of the most rock-solid releases from Adobe in a while. (Bugs were virtually non-existent, which wasn’t the case with the previous version.) As far as being an “exciting” release, however, it’s somewhat ho-hum in terms of interesting new features for photographers. (There are actually quite a few cool, new 3D tools in Photoshop CS6 Extended but those are mostly for designers, as are new text formatting and Vector Layers functions.) In the end, as usual, this comes down to a dollars and cents issue so here’s my suggestion for anyone looking warily at their latest budgets: Owners of CS5, splurge a little and pay $199 for the upgrade to the new Standard version. Everyone else, hold onto your $699 for now.

New graphics engine provides noticeable speed increase; video-editing tools have finally been added; new Content-Aware Patch and Move features offer more control; Background Save and Auto-Recovery could save your ass

No new, super-exciting features for photographers; pricey Extended version with 3D tools aimed more at designers; default black interface seems consumer-y

Prices: Photoshop CS6 Standard, $699 new or $199 as an upgrade; Photoshop CS6 Extended, $999 new or $399 as an upgrade;