Adobe Photoshop CS6 Extended in Review

Product Review: Adobe Photoshop CS6 Extended

If it was a disease it would be an epidemic. Adobe Photoshop is the de facto image editing standard for professional graphics world wide. Go to a visual effects boutique in Newport Beach or a run-down garage in the Midwest, and what's on the monitor? Photoshop. It's mentioned beneath more Exposé images than any other software. In a moment, we'll see why it continues to be so popular.

I received Adobe Photoshop CS6 Extended as part of the Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection. This collection probably includes more software than I'll ever use in my life: After Affects CS6, Audition CS6, Bridge CS6, Dreamweaver CS6, Encore CS6, ExtendScript Toolkit CS6, Extension Manager CS6, Fireworks CS6, Flash Builder 4.6, Flash Professional CS6, Illustrator, InDesign, Media Encoder, Photoshop CS6 Extended, Prelude, Premiere Pro and Speed Grade - Did I miss anybody?

It was like having a complete graphics studio in a box. This review focuses on Photoshop CS6 Extended, as well as some of the features available in Photoshop CS6. There's a lot of new features so, unfortunately, as a reviewer I have to play roulette with the "what's new" document and pick out just a few to cover. There are way too many cool new features for any single review to encompass. Enough intro - let's rock!

New Look - Same Great Taste

Photoshop is starting to look more like other high end software packages that use what I like to call "the colors," i.e. muted dark grays. Users can now choose between four color themes via Edit -> Preferences -> Interface. You can stick with the old-school gray or pick anything from almost white to almost black.

Naturally, I chose almost black. I much prefer the dark UI as there is less distracting brightness that surrounds whatever I'm working on. It makes your images pop and lets you focus on pixels, not buttons and menu bars. Regardless, they're all pretty slick. So is this screen shot I made to show them all off :)

That's the good news. The bad news is that while the new color themes look cool, they aren't implemented uniformly throughout the software. For example, most menus and floating windows will not be affected by your choice of color themes. Instead, these are controlled by your window manager, i.e. operating system level window themes.

On systems with generally crappy out of the box support for custom window themes (i.e. Microsoft Windows) this is disappointing. What you're left with is kind of a vitiligo version of Photoshop. You can try and find a Window theme that sort of matches your choice of Photoshop colors, but this kind of nonsense shouldn't be necessary:

I'm not sure whether to blame Adobe or Microsoft for the injustice, but it's all ridiculous and we'll leave it at that. Moving on.

Mercury Graphics Engine

The MGE as they call it, I think will be the biggest boon to Photoshop CS6 users, especially those who deal with very large images. The best part is that it's automatic. If you have a supported GPU (see the NVIDIA link at the bottom of this page), Photoshop CS6 will take advantage of it. Let's digress for a moment to see exactly what the MGE is and why it is important.

Hardware designs, superscalar architectures, instruction level parallelism - all of that nonsense aside - a CPU is not an ideal solution for most graphics workloads. To dramatically simplify things: Most CPUs execute a single thread of instructions. Point is, that fancy super-mega multi-core CPU you got last year, generally supports only one thread of instructions per core at any given time. While those threads are executed really fast, they're still not ideal. This brings us to...

Embarrassingly parallel problems. It's a term used by computer science professionals to describe problems which are trivial to break up into smaller pieces and compute each piece in parallel. E.g: if the value of pixel A doesn't directly depend on the value of pixel B, we could compute the value of each on a separate computing core. Thus, it would be great if we had lots of computing cores just laying around even if, taken individually, they were slower than our CPU. Apparently a bunch of really smart people thought so too and, around 1999, NVIDIA birthed the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU).

The GPU found on modern graphics cards often have several hundred computing cores. For example, the NVIDIA Quadro 5000 I used for this review has 352 cores. Any single core is much slower than my CPU, but together they form an army of computational beat-down. And while GPU programming used to be a mysterious black art, this is no longer the case, thanks to advances in programming libraries like NVIDIA CUDA and OpenCL. These make it easy(er) for application programmers, like the people who wrote Photoshop, to tap into the GPU and execute general purpose instructions. The result?

Speed. Any function that has been written to take advantage of your GPU will be much faster, often by orders of magnitude. This is what Adobe's Mercury Graphics Engine (MGE) is all about: harnessing the parallelism of the GPU for embarrassingly parallel problems. The real question is does it live up to the hype?

For tools written to take advantage of it, the answer is a resounding yes. You'll see a vast improvement in performance. Other tools not written specifically for MGE show no performance gain, just as expected. That said, Photoshop isn't going to suddenly become a mystical beast that shoots greased lightning from its finger tips just because you have a beefy graphics card. Some specific tools found within Photoshop CS6, however, will. Examples include Liquify, Warp, Lighting Effects and the Oil Paint filter, among others. On compatible hardware, like the NVIDIA Quadro 5000 I used for this review, I can affirm that these tools indeed perform much faster.

Need to liquify a 21,000 pixel wide image? Go for it. When I liquified the image shown here, I had no perceivable slowdown. Even when I used brush sizes of of 10,000 pixels or more, everything remained as smooth as a well greased - well, as smooth as butter anyway. The most important tools making use of this new GPU acceleration, however, are actually among the least exciting.

Pan and zoom. Yes, of all the fascinating new tools and features found in Photoshop CS6 that Adobe stands so proudly beside, I'm pushing the pan and zoom tools. Ridiculous, I know, but I'm serious: Once you've experienced the fluid zoom in and out, not in discreet steps, but in a continuous fluid range simply by holding and scrubbing the zoom cursor - you'll never go back (unless you use the liquify window, in which case the scrubby zoom is not yet implemented). I know what you're thinking - the scrubby zoom isn't exactly new and you're right, but the added performance of the MGE makes it significantly faster.

As an example, on another project I had to stitch together an elevation map I was using for a terrain displacement. It was in geoTIFF format at 32-bits per-pixel, courtesy United States Geological Survey. The final texture was 16,204 x 15,651 pixels. It describes a region of about 100 square miles of the northern Rockies. That's about 254 megapixels of data. In previous versions of Photoshop, even moving around the image was a slow process. With the new MGE this is no longer the case.

Unfortunately, the actual terrain that resulted from using that displacement texture was generated in Maya. Photoshop and 32-bit per-pixel images are still not on the best of terms. Granted, 32-bit displacements do work, but 254 megapixels of displacement on a postcard was asking a little too much. Manipulating the texture that produced the terrain, however, was much faster.

When dealing with files of ridiculous dimensions, they're no longer sluggish, oversized monsters. You can now pan, zoom, liquify and transform them with gusto. For this, I applaud Adobe. It makes Photoshop about the most responsive image editing software out there. Dealing with enormous images was once an exercise in patience. It is now a genuine pleasure. However, the images had best not be 32-bits per pixel or doom will smite thee. More on that later. For now...

New and Improved 3D

Go 3D! The 3D features have been completely re-worked. They're now integrated directly into the canvas workspace. You get the usual on-screen 3D widgets for translate, rotate, scale and so on. You get camera controls, lights, shadows, materials, reflections, refractions, bump maps, textures, specular highlights, environment textures, image based lighting, text extrusions and bevels, displacements - even editing 3D text after it's been 3D-ified is now possible. You now have everything you need to go 3D.

Photoshop's answer to 3D targets users wanting to make web, print graphics, logos and the like with the added 3D impact, but without having to spend thousands of dollars on dedicated 3D software. Matte painters and texture artists alike will love it. In fact, I can't think of anybody who won't.

While you can do some pretty impressive extrusions and deformations in Photoshop CS6 Extended, don't count on it to help you sculpt your next character, or model your next architectural masterpiece anytime soon. I grant amnesty to Adobe simply because, quite frankly, that's not what the tools were designed for.

What you can do, is import 3D content in popular formats such as OBJ and incorporate them with the 2D tools you already know and love. The guitar shown here was imported as an OBJ, rendered in Photoshop CS6 Extended, and then filtered and painted over. The on-image controls in the screen shot are part of the new Field Blur, which allows users to define multiple points in an image and have the blur interpolate between them:

While it was nice to be able to toss a fully textured OBJ back and forth from Photoshop to Maya, one irritation I did find, was that when I exported the current layer as an OBJ, Photoshop re-saved new copies of all textures. This happens each time you export an OBJ, even if the textures were never edited. That is, there's no attempt to simply reference the existing on-disk files. This happens even when you click 'cancel,' upon being presented with a choice of texture output formats. Textures are saved, generating new files, taking up more disk space - whether you like it or not. Users working on network file servers with filesystem level deduplication won't have a problem with this, but unfortunately that's not most users. That, and it makes for a lot of clutter.

The other thing that took some getting used to was less of a gripe and more of a pleasant surprise. It was the fact that each layer can be its own 3D scene with its own independent lights, camera and so on. I guess it should have been obvious, and navigation of the scenes was certainly no problem, but it was the concept that I had to get used to. It was almost the complete opposite of what I was accustomed to with programs like Maya, where you work in a single, unified 3D scene. I'm pleased to say that users should have no problems with this once they wrap their heads around it.

Here's another shot of the field blur in action. This time, several points are defined with a blur value of zero to effectively prevent the central strip of the Milky Way from being blurred. You could do this with a mask, but now you don't have to:

Rendering

Like most 3D programs, what you see is not what you get. Photoshop CS6 Extended is no exception. While the interactive 3D view is pretty good, you still have to click 'render' and refill your coffee before you get to see the final high quality result. In itself, this is nothing new. The bad news, however, is that the render times in Photoshop CS6 Extended aren't so great. They're not atrocious, but they're not great (dependent on canvas size and quality settings, of course... and greatly depending on what other rendering engines you're accustomed to).

Getting the final image can take a while. The render appears to be a multi-threaded software render, but it doesn't appear to be spatially adaptive ( i.e., areas of empty canvas took just as long to render as areas containing 3D elements). Still, one must bear in mind that Photoshop is a relative newcomer compared to many of the other 3D veterans on the market, so we must grant Adobe at least some slack in this regard; optimizations come with time. When the render finally did complete, the quality was excellent:

It should be noted that I'm completely and totally spoiled rotten in respect to 3D software. I've been lucky enough to test drive tools that cost more than my house. Thus, it is with both great sorrow and great pride that I say this: The best 3D text tools on the market exist in Photoshop CS6 Extended. The speed and ease of making, tweaking, refining and formatting complex text extrusions is unmatched. The new text formatting tools only add to this.

Content-Aware Move

The Content-Aware Move tool has two modes: Move and Extend. The idea behind Extend is that you can seamlessly replicate an object to accomplish tasks such as making a building taller, or a panoramic slightly wider, etc.

The Content-Aware Move tool, covered here, is a tool that permits users to make a rough selection of an object and move it to a new location. Photoshop CS6 will then attempt to seamlessly fill the hole that would otherwise remain. It also tries to blend the moved object into its new surroundings. This is done with more than a naive transparency blending: the Content-Aware algorithms actually look for similar pixels and attempt to make an educated guess as to the best pixels to use as blend and fill. So, the question is: how well does it work?

After playing with the Content-Aware Move tool, I was both impressed and disappointed. It works pretty slick, as long as the object you're trying to move or extend is fairly contrast-isolated from its surroundings. By that, I mean a building against a blue sky, or a pebble on a relatively featureless beach, or a person standing in front of a nondescript wall, etc. The tool is basically akin to a (somewhat) smart blending tool combined with a Content-Aware fill:

What it doesn't do (and God how I wish it did), is take into account actual features present in the image. There's no attempt to adjust for perspective shifts or lens distortions as the result of the move - there's no scale invariant feature transformation algorithms at work here or any other brand of black magic.

In fact, I was a little disappointed with it in some ways, not because it sucks - it certainly doesn't - but because it was hyped far beyond its abilities. It only ever works "like magic" in carefully chosen, often contrived example images. In real images, under non-ideal situations, it sometimes works and sometimes needs a little extra help:

Make a selection. The more breathing room you leave around your object the better. In the example shown here I could have had slightly better results, had I left more space between my selection and my object. Finally, select the Content-Aware Move tool and set it to 'Move' mode and drag the bird to the left. You can play around with several 'Adaptations,' which determine how much slack Photoshop is granted in trying to make a seamless transition:

The result isn't a bad starting point for further refinement with a patch tool, but it's no Houdini:

Content-Aware Move is a good tool if you know when and where to use it. In some situations, it can save a lot of time, but in others it's no better than using a Patch tool or a Clone Brush. Your mileage may vary, but for the amount of time it can potentially save in the situations where it does excel, it's worth a shot. It will be interesting to see where Adobe takes Content-Aware tools in future versions of Photoshop.

Video

The video interface has been completely re-worked as well. While it's no competitor to a more dedicated video solution such as Adobe Premiere Pro, it does provide all the tools videographers and webcast artists need to get started. It's also pretty handy for frame doctoring with all the tools you're already familiar with. Almost any tool in Photoshop can be used to edit frames of video. Need a healing brush or a curve adjustment? You can use those, or pretty much any other tool you're used to:

Applying image filters to videos produces some unique results, but the real boon will be frame-by-frame retouching and layer based color corrections. It's also good for quickly blocking out video projects. Basic keyframes and interpolations or 'tweens' are also supported. You can even make simple keyframe animations.

Background Saving and Crash Recovery

The new background saving and crash recover features are like your own personal life preserver. In the event that Photoshop, or anything in the software stack below it crashes (such as the operating system), Photoshop CS6 has your back. Upon re-launching, the program will open up the recovery files, i.e. the backup version of your image that Photoshop automatically saves every few minutes (every 10 minutes by default, but you can configure the frequency in the preferences window).

I'm glad to say this feature has no affect on the original document, i.e. it won't ever clobber a deliberately unsaved experiment. This shouldn't be confused with an unsaved document. The auto-save and recovery feature does work even on images that have not been saved at all: Those 'Untitled-' files you have lying around - they're protected too.

I hadn't originally intended on testing this feature, but, by happenstance, I killed the Photoshop process in the task manager one morning. I restarted Photoshop and was pleased to see that the unsaved screen shot I had been working re-appeared just as I'd left it:

Good feature :)

Things I'd Love to See

How could Photoshop be even better? There are some limits on what can be done with images of 32-bits per pixel. I would like to see future versions boast further support for these high bit depth formats. Doing so would open up a new realm for HDR photographers - more than just tone mapping. It would also be a boon to film and cinematic artists working with huge, high bit depth data sets. That, and I would love to see even more tools take advantage of the new MGE. In my humble opinion, it's the most unseen, yet coolest feature of them all.

Final Words

It's Photoshop. Despite Adobe's sincerest efforts to guard their trademark, the word itself has almost become synonymous with, "something amazing." I don't see this changing anytime soon. With the new tools outlined here, plus all the ones I didn't have time to cover, I can say with confidence this version is deserving of the name. If you were sitting on the fence about upgrading before, this version should be all the encouragement you need. Loss-less crop tools, new content-aware tools, including patch and move, completely re-worked 3D and re-worked video, new blurs, advanced text formatting, the new MGE... the list goes on. I could write an epic about Photoshop CS6 and Photoshop CS6 Extended, but I'll spare you some time.

Go to Adobe's website and click 'Try' under Adobe Photoshop CS6 Extended to download a free trial:

http://www.adobe.com/downloads/

Also be sure to check out NVIDIA for the latest in CS6 compatible hardware:

http://www.nvidia.com/object/adobe-cs6.html

Finally, check out the impressive Quadro lineup:

http://www.nvidia.com/object/workstation-solutions.html

Adobe


Editor's Note - Be sure to check out the following related links:


All supporting images are copyright, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission


Kurt Foster (Modulok) falls somewhere between programmer and visual effects artist. When not sifting through technical manuals, he takes on freelance roles in both programming and visual effects, attempting to create a marriage of technical knowledge with artistic talent. He can be seen helping out on the Renderosity Maya forum, when time permits.

 

 

 


August 27, 2012

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