Adobe Photoshop 4

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The market leader could still improve its usability, but once again  moves the goal posts for sheer photo-editing power.

Adobe Photoshop 4

It's been nearly two years since the last major release of Photoshop and in that time a lot has happened. Windows 95 has arrived and opened up the whole field of 32-bit processing and a number of Adobe's competitors have stepped in to bring out advanced versions of their photo-editing applications. In spite of the threat offered by such programs as xRes, Painter, PhotoPaint, Picture Publisher and PhotoImpact, the old giant has so far managed to maintain a near stranglehold 70% of the PC market. However, a muted discontent has started rumbling amongst existing users and a great deal rides on the new version 4.0.

Some of biggest changes in the latest Photoshop have been made behind the scenes. Although for backwards compatibility there is still a version of the program that can be run under Windows 3.1, for Windows 95 and NT the code has gone entirely 32-bit native which leads to a slight general speed increase for all operations. Since the difference is especially noticeable when zooming, scrolling and moving selections it looks like work has also been done on caching the screen view. Even so, for the general user the difference isn't spectacular and certainly less than that between version 2.5 and 3.0.

For power users, however, two further changes promise great things. The support for symmetric multiprocessing means that machines with multiple processors can divide up the number crunching so that, theoretically, a machine with two processors will be twice as fast as a machine with one. In the real world such advances are unlikely, but it does follow that Windows NT becomes the platform of choice for power-hungry PC users. Don't rush out and upgrade just yet, however, as it is well worth waiting for MMX-enabled chips to become available. Photoshop 4.0's support for these multimedia extensions should see further gains of between 200 and 600% on labour intensive chores such as applying filters.

When the program is up and running, the most obvious changes are the addition of new Navigator and Action palettes, otherwise everything looks pretty familiar. Closer inspection, however, reveals a number of subtle but important changes to the interface. The main toolbox has been rationalized, bringing in the pen tools that used to be found on the separate Paths palette, and it now offers a new polygonal selection tool. A major boon for beginners is the introduction of Tooltips, which reveal what each tool is when you hold the mouse over it.

Another import from the Windows 95 way of doing things is the use of the right mouse button to call up a context-sensitive menu of relevant commands. With the paint tool selected, for example, right-clicking enables the current brush or the way it interacts with the underlying image to be changed. When implemented comprehensively, the use of these context-sensitive commands can become an efficient way of running the program as a whole without the need for intensive mouse work. Sadly, the Photoshop 4.0 implementation is half-hearted with most options still only available by searching through the main menus and on-screen palettes.

This is typical of Photoshop's general approach to usability. Little attempt has been made to make the working environment transparent to the beginner or occasional user. To take one example, when creating a selection with the lasso tool the user must hold down the Alt key to add to the selection or the Shift key to subtract from it. Currently the only way this can be found out is through the manuals or help file, but with a context-sensitive toolbar, these options could be seen clearly and set easily.

The changes to the interface then are very much a case of tinkering at the edges rather than a radical overhaul of the core. For the power user this makes no difference. To them the use of the Shift + Alt + Delete shortcut to fill-a-selection-with-the-current-colour-while-preserving-areas- of-transparency is so commonplace as to seem ordained. For those beginning the learning curve, however, Photoshop 4.0 remains unnecessarily complex and its interface changes a missed opportunity.

One area of the interface that certainly has improved is the control over the working view. In previous releases, Photoshop was limited to preset zoom levels of 1:1, 2:1 and so on. Now it is possible to set any zoom level from 0.13% right the way up to 1600%. In practice this means that if you drag over any area with the Zoom tool, it will fill the current window area to the full. This is definitely a big step forward, making the most of available screen space. On the down side it makes the constant encroachment of the on-screen palettes even more irritating.

When working on a magnified section of a large image, to change your position it used to be necessary to either try some hit-or-miss panning or, more usually, to zoom out to see the full image and zoom in again onto the desired new section. Now with the Navigator palette it is possible to have a constant on-screen preview of your entire image with a rectangle outlining the visible area. Dragging the rectangle, or redrawing it, instantly changes the visible area to match. Again working screen space is lost under the palette, but if you often work on the details of an image, the Navigator is an excellent aid.

Equally helpful when working on large images is the new ability to add guides and grids. Previously if you wanted elements of a picture to be aligned, you would either have to do it by eye or use the Info palette to gather the necessary information on pixel positions. Now it is easy to set up a repeating grid or to drag guides down from the ruler. Once added, it is possible to temporarily hide or turn off the snap effect of both guides and grid.

One of the most fundamental tasks in Photoshop is making selections and a number of changes have been made in this area. The cropping tool, for example, has been moved to be one of the sub-options for the marquee select tool and works slightly differently. The major advance is that the cropping box can now be rotated which is particularly useful if you have scanned an image in at an angle. The down sides are that such a common tool is now only a sub-option and also that, on my display and with the late beta under review, the cropping box is completely invisible against grayscale images.

More fundamental is the change to the handling of selections themselves. In the past, dragging within the selection moved the actual pixel data, now dragging simply moves the selection outline. To reposition the pixels you now have to use the dedicated move tool. This new way of working will undoubtedly throw experienced users the first few times, but as they can instantly access the move tool by holding down the Ctrl key, it is not going to seriously affect productivity. And at least it shows that there is someone in Adobe thinking about usability.

Once a selection has been made it can be transformed in a number of ways. As in the past the various commands to rotate, skew, add perspective and so on are available from the menus. Now however, the final version of the selection is not rendered until the user double-clicks within the selection or presses Return which allows cumulative effects to be built up interactively. More importantly, as the intermediate stages are not rendered, multiple degradations of the image are avoided and so the final quality is improved.

The constant toing and froing to the menus to change between effects is clearly wasteful and the new Free Transform command is designed to make such mouse work redundant. Selecting the command, or its Ctrl + T shortcut, puts a bounding box around the selection. Dragging on the box's corner handles resizes the element while dragging outside rotates it. By right-clicking and using the context-sensitive menu it is possible to skew, distort and add a perspective effect. If such control is a little too interactive, the new Numeric Transform allows similar management but set precisely through a dialog box.

Apart from the changes to the handling of selections, the core working of Photoshop 4.0 is very similar to that in 3.0. There are no changes to the controls over tonal maps, levels, colour correction and so on, presumably because there is nothing further to add. The same cannot be said for Photoshop's tools, however, which have also been relatively unaffected. When shareware programs like Paintshop Pro offer artistic brushes, the fact that Photoshop steadfastly refuses to almost seems like a point of principle.

At least one tool has been given a much need revamp. In the past the gradient tool was limited to basic linear or radial fades from one colour to another. Now Photoshop comes with a range of 20 pre-defined gradient effects including options like spectrum and chrome. It is also possible to create your own gradients by clicking on the Edit command in the Gradient Options palette. By inserting markers it is possible to add multiple colours and at each point to control the gradient's opacity. The end results are far more fluid and realistic, but the limitation to linear or radial effects is a clear weakness compared to the swirling freeform gradient textures offered by some other programs.

Gradients are also important as masks to partially protect and partially apply image filters. Photoshop version 4.0 now comes with 90 of these filters, double the previous number, thanks to the incorporation of the previously separate Adobe Gallery Effects. All of the new filters are genuinely useful, with most, such as rough pastels or stained glass, tending towards the artistic. A major criticism is that in each case the Photoshop preview does not affect the whole image, but only a small thumbnail. Moreover, since there often seems to be little connection between the preview and the final effect, you can be left working blind. On the positive side, the new Fade command allows the strength of the filter to be easily changed retrospectively.

One of the most fundamental changes that has happened to the world of graphics since the last Photoshop release has been the massive explosion of interest in the Internet. Photoshop 4.0 acknowledges this through its improved support for Web file formats. Support for transparency in GIF files was already available through an Export add-on, but now there is also support for progressive JPEGs with total control over compression settings. Completely new is the Portable Network Graphic (PNG) format which offers lossless, highly compressed, progressive, full colour RGB images with the ability to include mask channel information, and gamma and chromaticity data for improved colour matching.

Apart from the improved support for file formats, however, and a link to Adobe's home page, Photoshop's Web offerings are pretty meagre. There is nothing like PhotoImpact's new SmartSaver, for example, which allows the effects of compression settings and colour reduction to be previewed on screen so ensuring the optimum trade-off between quality and file size. Neither is there direct support for creating image maps or background tiles and I have a strong feeling that hell will freeze over before Photoshop offers a button designer or GIF animator.

Although Web graphics are a huge growth area, Photoshop gives the impression that such fripperies are unworthy of its attention. Instead the program concentrates firmly on the high end, professional output of printed images. It is here that Photoshop made its reputation and it is here too that the latest release makes the most impact. Version 3.0's biggest advance was the introduction of layers - the equivalents of acetate sheets allowing sections of an image to overlay and interact with the image below - which opened up the whole world of photomontage and composition. Version 4.0 takes the idea further to put layers at the very heart of the photo-editing process.

To begin with layers are far more integrated into the whole operation of Photoshop. When cutting and pasting from one file to another, for example, rather than creating a floating selection, Photoshop automatically creates a new layer. To begin with this can be very disconcerting. For example if you try and save the new file, since it contains a layer you will only be offered the choice of Photoshop's own PSD format. To save to a TIFF file, you will first have to use the new Merge Down command to combine the two layers.

While this is slightly more effort, the general move away from temporary floating selections to semi-permanent layers is a sensible step. This is even more apparent with the handling of text. Now any text added is automatically assigned to a new layer. Again this means that there is no chance of inadvertently losing the floating selection and so making fundamental and undesired changes to the overall image. It also means that to reposition the text at any time in future you can simply select its layer and use the move tool.

Photoshop 4.0 also extends the use of layers through an entirely new feature called adjustment layers. These are effectively masks through which an image adjustment is applied. Each adjustment can be seen as a lens that is slipped into the pile of layers, adding its effects to everything below it and so bringing colour correction and effects into the compositing process. Moreover, as each adjustment is a mask, it is possible to limit the effect by painting out portions of the layer. This means that colour and tonal adjustments can be interactively painted onto the image by using any of Photoshop's tools.

Each adjustment layer is added either with the command under the new Layer menu or by holding down the Ctrl key when selecting the New icon on the Layers palette. A dialog appears in which the user can specify a name for the layer and choose the type of effect from all of the options - levels, curves, colour balance, brightness/contrast, hue/saturation, selective colour, invert, threshold and posterize. Clicking on OK then calls up the appropriate dialog where these parameters can be set. When the desired changes have been made, the new adjustment layer will appear in the Layers palette, indicated by a half-filled circle after its name.

One of the beauties of having the adjustment as a layer is that it is possible to control how the effect interacts with the image below. With a posterizing adjustment layer, for example, you could change the opacity of the effect to 75% so that some underlying detail still comes through. Alternatively, by setting the effect to only blend with the lighter sections of the underlying image, you could only posterize the highlights of the image. Or by changing the blending mode to dissolve or hard light, for example, you could create completely new effects. Putting everything together, it would be possible to have a text-based mask with a 50% posterizing effect that only affected the hue of the midtones of the image under the text!

The new artistic potential and control is enormous, but this is not what is so extraordinary about adjustment layers. Rather it is the fact that their effects can be edited. Simply double-clicking on the name in the layer palette calls up the appropriate adjustment dialog where all settings can be modified. The actual data in the underlying image is completely unaffected by the changes made, so that the effect can be edited any number of times without any degradation to the image quality. This really marks a huge shift in bitmap-editing giving the expert user the power to produce higher quality, fine-tuned work while giving all users the freedom to experiment. Now if only filters could be applied in the same way.

Another change designed for those professional users who turn to Photoshop everyday, is the new ability to automate repeated processes. By choosing the new command from the Actions palette, specifying a name and then recording your commands as you carry out a task, it then becomes possible to repeat the same actions at any point in future simply by hitting the play button. A good example would be if a user had a number of scans that they wanted to convert to grayscale, equalize and then sharpen.

For repetitive actions like these the Actions palette is a godsend, particularly as the Batch option allows the same commands to be applied to all the files in a directory. For repro houses, this ability to let the program run basic tasks unattended will save them a fortune. For cases where input remains necessary it is possible to fine tune the macro before it is run so that certain steps can be omitted if they are not appropriate to the current image or the macro can be temporarily paused while the user makes particular refinements.

Apart from this, however, the control is limited. The scripts are not editable so there is no way to add conditional intelligence, for example, to save copied sections of a file under an automatically numbered name. Likewise there is no dialog editor so that there can be no customised interaction with the user. Adobe announced a while back that they were licensing Visual Basic for Applications for a future version of Photoshop. The Actions Palette is not it, but it is a taste of things to come.

Photoshop 4.0's final feature again pitched squarely at the professional user is the new watermarking capability brought in from the independent company Digimarc. This addresses the huge problem of protecting the creator's copyright by imperceptibly adding a digital watermark to the image. The theory is that, even from images that have been output and then rescanned, the invisible information will still be readable by the computer. In practice this means that on opening or scanning a watermarked file, a dialog box will pop up to inform you that the image is copyrighted and to give you an identifying code. By contacting Digimarc you will then be given details of the creator and the reproduction costs involved.

Unfortunately, as the feature was not implemented in the late beta under review, it is impossible to tell just how reliable the system is. Surprisingly it is also impossible to tell how popular it will be. A number of the professional photographers you would expect to be delighted are up in arms. Members of the Digital Imaging Group, for example, have been lobbying for a similar world-wide database to be set up, but as an open standard and on a non-profit making basis. Hopefully everyone can come to an agreement, but with Adobe's good track record on open standards it would be a pity if they tried to exploit their huge hold on the professional imaging industry.

Overall the new features in Photoshop 4.0 are impressive, but many features that we have seen in other programs are still missing. Top of the wish list is definitely the modern interface with the infinite - or at least multiple - undo. The lack of artistic natural-media tools is also a drawback as is the limited support for really huge files. Image management has been marginally enhanced with preview thumbnails of PSD files available from the Windows Explorer, but the changes are limited. The control over gradients has likewise been improved, but still falls way behind the competition's textured effects. Finally text handling remains weak and vector handling non-existent.

The end result is very strange. Most upgrades work by stealing the best features from other programs, but it is as if Photoshop has looked at its competitors strengths and deliberately decided to ignore them. As such, while Photoshop might not be under pressure from the likes of Picture Publisher, xRes, Painter and PhotoImpact, the same can be said in reverse. The new Photoshop is still clear leader, but it certainly doesn't offer all users everything they might want.

More importantly, by refusing to learn from the ease of use of much of the competition, Photoshop remains very top-heavy. For the low to mid-range user, this means that the program is needlessly difficult to get to grips with. For those looking to add the occasional image to a report or home page, a modern solution like PhotoImpact is almost certainly a better bet. For professional photo-editors for whom quality can never be compromised, however, version 4.0 again sets new standards. For these users, Photoshop is still the only game in town and the upgrade a matter of course.



Ease Of Use


Value For Money




ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

July 1998


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