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EXCELLENT

Verdict: Photoshop 6 redefines the standard with massive improvements in its user interface, layer handling, text control, workflow support and paper and Web-based output. And now it handles vectors too!

Adobe Photoshop is so dominant when it comes to print and Web-based bitmap-editing that in many ways it has come to define the whole field. Almost every professional designer has the program in their toolkit so, by its nature, each new release redefines the boundary of what is creatively possible. As such expectations are always high, and it’s easy to feel a sense of anti-climax when the product finally ships. The good news is that with version 6, Adobe has pulled out all the stops and no one is likely to feel disappointed.

Interface

The fact that this release represents a radical overhaul is immediately apparent on loading. The Photoshop interface has hardly changed throughout its history – until now when Adobe has finally bowed to the pressure and provided a context-sensitive toolbar! Users are no longer expected to simply know in their bones that holding down Shift with the Marquee tool will add to the current selection, while Alt will subtract. Now they can set the selection mode in the toolbar along with all other relevant parameters such as feathering and anti-aliasing. With other tools the benefits are even greater. In Free Transform mode, the toolbar becomes live so that you can enter precise positions, widths, heights, angles and skews and then choose to accept or reject the change with the cancel and commit commands at the end of the toolbar.

The new context-sensitive toolbar prompts users with all available options.

The difference is immense. Where in the past Photoshop seemed almost to be hiding power from users, now it is constantly prompting and enabling. This is most apparent with the toolbar’s drop-down lists. With any tool that is based on presets, such as the paintbrush or pattern stamp, the toolbar lets you choose from a dedicated drop-down panel of preset thumbnails. What’s more, if the option you are looking for isn’t there, you can use the drop-down panel’s own palette menu to load a new set with a single click. Photoshop even provides a dedicated Preset Manager where you can control your libraries of swatches, patterns, brushes and so on from a single, central location. In the past I doubt whether 10% of users had ever looked beyond Photoshop’s default presets - now there’s no excuse.

The toolbar isn’t the only interface change, Adobe has also rethought its use of palettes. To begin with it has added a Reset Palette Locations command to immediately regroup and return palettes to their usual position down the right-hand of the screen. Even better is the Palette Well, an area to the right of the toolbar. By dragging palettes onto the Well they are automatically minimized to just their title. Click on the title and the full palette appears: make your selections and then click elsewhere and the palette minimizes back down to its title. This is ideal for palettes, such as Navigator and Swatches, that you only want temporary access to – though only if you’re running the program on a screen larger than 800x600.

The toolbox has also been given a makeover. Fundamental options such as the Crop tool have been promoted to their own slot while less frequent options such as the Measurement tool have been demoted to become fly-out alternatives. In the process Adobe has taken the opportunity to add text to distinguish between fly-out icons, to indicate areas that are about to cropped with a colour overlay and to provide a new perspective cropping option that simultaneously crops and straightens distorted image areas.

Other minor interface changes are numerous. You can now change the current image measurement system on the fly by right-clicking on the rulers. Alternatively you can just mix and match units by, for example, specifying a marquee that is 1 inch wide and 85 pixels tall. When opening files you can also now browse preview thumbnails in the dialog. In fact this proves disappointing as the view is limited to just three images at a time, and multiple image management is one area that Adobe still needs to address along with interface customisation. It would be mean-spirited to criticize too much however. The Adobe programmers have taken their time to tackle Photoshop’s interface failings – but it’s been worth the wait.

Layers

The area of the Photoshop working environment that is more heavily used than any other is the Layer palette and so it’s no surprise to see this given a complete overhaul. At the top of the palette are new command icons to let you lock the layer’s transparency, pixels, position or everything. At the bottom are new icons to let you quickly add layer masks, effects and adjustment layers. Where appropriate these offer drop-down alternatives so that you can add a new channel mixer adjustment layer or drop shadow layer effect with just two clicks.

The biggest change in layer handling is the lifting of the previous limit of 99 layers per image. As layers have become so central to photo-editing this change is crucial, but it means that organisation can become a headache. The new colour coding of layers helps but Adobe has also come up with a more fundamental solution – layer sets. These work as folders into which you can drag and drop existing layers. You can then click on the drop-down arrow next to the layer set’s name to expand or collapse the list of layers it contains. Even better you can treat the set much like a layer itself so that you reposition multiple layers simultaneously or temporarily hide or lock all contained layers, or change their overall opacity, blend mode and so on.

Layer sets and colour coding helps bring layer management under control.

The handling of adjustment and layer effects has also been drastically improved. Photoshop now marks off each adjustment layer with its own icon so that it is instantly recognisable. You can also use the new Change Layer Content command to swap between adjustments without losing any layer mask that you’ve created. The changes to layer effects are even more comprehensive. As you add these to a layer, they are now automatically listed under the layer name so that you can instantly see which effects are in operation. You can also now toggle effects on or off, either globally or individually. Alternatively, if you don’t need this level of control, you can always collapse all effects down to a marker icon. Best of all is the ability to instantly copy existing effects from one layer to another by dragging.

The improvements aren’t limited to ease of use. Photoshop 6 also adds a new range of layer functionality. To begin with there are new Satin and Stroke options for creating metallic and outline effects to add to the existing drop shadows, glows and bevels. Then there’s a whole new category of "content" layers with fill, gradient and pattern variations. These are actually applied as either layer effects or adjustment layers so that applying a semi-transparent gradient fill as an adjustment tints the entire underlying mage whereas applying it as an overlay effect limits the content to the current layer. As ever the effect is non-destructive so that you can always change a content layer simply by double-clicking on it in the layer palette and choosing a new option. And effects can be combined so that you can create a unique fill based on a semi-transparent gradient overlay on top of a pattern.

New content layers let you apply and non-destructively edit fills, patterns and gradients.

Another change to layer handling shows how usability and functionality can work hand in hand. Whenever you apply a layer effect this is now managed in the new Layer Style dialog. This one dialog gives you instant access to each of the ten layer effects, including the new content overlays. For each effect the control is extraordinary with the Shadow effects, for example, now adding spread and noise parameters to the existing angle, distance, size, colour, opacity, blend mode and contour! The real beauty though is that you can now easily experiment with multiple effects and save collections of settings as layer styles. These are then quickly accessible from the dialog either as thumbnails previews or as named lists. Best of all, you can instantly apply the styles to any selected layer from the new floating Styles palette.

All layer effects are managed through the new Layer Style dialog and then instantly available through the Styles palette.

Shapes

Generally the combination of unmatched creative power, professional control and ease of use in Photoshop’s new layer handling is jaw-dropping – but the biggest surprise is yet to come. Photoshop’s huge strength has always been its pixel-based bitmap handling, but with version 6 the program branches out into completely new territory to offer resolution-independent and fully scalable vector-based shape layers.

The process of adding these is simplicity itself. All you have to do is select one of the five new vector-based tools – the rectangle, rounded rectangle, ellipse, polygon, line or custom shape tools – or the existing pen tool and begin drawing on screen, and a new shape layer is automatically added to your image. This initially had me worried that every shape would have to be stored on its own layer with all the organisational difficulties that this would involve, but if you now select another vector-based tool its objects are automatically added to the current layer.

The shape tools open up huge new power.

Generally the range of control over each tool is impressive. With the polygon tool, for example, the toolbar offers control over the number of sides, radius, indent and smoothing factor. The toolbar also lets you specify how overlapping objects should interact with each other with add, subtract, intersect and exclude options. This makes it easy to create a crescent, for instance, by subtracting one oval from another. You can then use the Edit > Define New Shape command to add your new shape to the wide range of stars, arrows, and other symbols already provided in the Custom Shape drop-down.

Once you’ve added your shapes, the amount of control on offer is again encouraging. Originally I thought the only way of moving shapes would be with the awkward layer-based Move tool, but instead Photoshop provides the (awkwardly named) Path Component Selection tool which acts much like the Select tool in any drawing program. Using the tool’s bounding box option you can quickly size, rotate or skew any object, while if you select multiple objects you can use the toolbar’s alignment and distribution options. Alternatively, using the Direct Select tool or the various pen tool variants, you can edit the object’s defining nodes.

This is seriously impressive power and it’s important to realise how Photoshop is pulling it off. If you look at the Layer palette you’ll see that each shape layer is actually made up of a new content layer with a layer mask. In other words each shape is actually a vector-based clipping path on the layer mask letting you see through to the content below! By default this content layer is a solid fill but using the Change Layer Content command you can change it, for example, to a posterizing adjustment layer which will act as a lens on the image below. Alternatively you can use the shape tools to directly produce a clipping path to quickly create a vector-based image mask.

The clipping path nature of shapes can be used directly to produce vector masks.

This fact that shapes are actually based on masked content layers has important consequences when it comes to formatting. To begin with it means that you can simply double-click on the layer to select a new content option. More importantly it means that you can apply any effect or style to your shape layer. In fact, when you first create the layer, the toolbar prompts you to choose a layer style along with a blend mode and opacity. The creativity this opens up is frankly mind-boggling. With the combination of drop shadows, glows and bevels and the new colour, pattern and gradient overlays, the formatting and reformatting power at your disposal is virtually unlimited. The obvious use is to create photo-realistic 3D Web buttons, but really this combination of vector control and bitmap sophistication can be used for anything.

But there is a down side. The problem is that, as each shape is actually a mask onto the layer, it must share that layer’s formatting. In other words, while you can mix multiple shapes on the same layer, they will all have to share the same appearance. If you’re creating a series of simple Web buttons that’s potentially a strength but if you’re trying to create something more advanced like a multi-coloured, multi-object logo then you’re going to have to create each shape on its own layer. Even with layer sets this can quickly become awkward to handle especially as you can’t use the Select Component Path tool to select across layers.

Style and effect based formatting of shapes is powerful but means that most shapes need to be handled on their own layer.

Depending on the job in hand then Photoshop’s layer-based shape handling can be a sheer joy or a bit of a chore. It’s not going to replace Illustrator or Corel Draw quite yet then, but again it’s important to put this in perspective. For a first implementation of vector handling, most users would have been happy with some crude rectangle and oval tools and flat fills, but this is way beyond that. Whoever it was in Adobe that thought of the underlying content layer and mask approach which allows vectors and pixels to be merged so seamlessly deserves an immediate promotion.

Text

So far there’s been one vector object that hasn’t been mentioned and it’s the most important – text. In fact Photoshop has offered the editability and scalability benefits of vector-based text for some time through its text layer capability but again this has been thoroughly overhauled. In particular where in the past you had to enter and edit text in a dedicated dialog, you can now edit it live on canvas. In conjunction with the toolbar, which offers all the main options such as typeface, point size and text colour, this makes for a far more interactive and efficient experience.

And when you need more power it’s only a click away in the new Character and Paragraph palettes. As you would expect the first of these offers control over character-based features, such as leading, kerning and glyph scaling, while the second offers control over paragraph-based features, such as left and right indent and above and below spacing.

What you probably wouldn’t expect is for Photoshop to offer an entirely new category of text object. If you drag with the Text tool rather than clicking, you create a text block within which your text flows. Drag on the edge of the text block to resize it and the text reflows accordingly. Even better, you now have advanced control over text justification within the text block including managing hyphenation zones, last line alignment and hanging punctuation. There’s even the option of using Adobe’s advanced every-line composer to ensure the most attractive and readable spacing across the paragraph as a whole.

Amongst all these new DTP-style features, Photoshop hasn’t forgotten that its main interest is in eye-catching creativity and has introduced a range of warp text effects. There are fifteen options on offer ranging from Arc to Twist and, while you can’t interactively edit the resulting envelopes, the control over bend and horizontal and vertical distortion gets pretty close. Each effect works happily with Photoshop’s new text blocks so that you can quickly give multiple paragraphs a waving flag or fisheye effect. Or if you decide that you don’t like it, thanks to the non-destructive vector nature of the warp, you can always remove it or change it.

Warp effects can give your text an eye-catching edge – though these aren’t fully customisable.

There’s always more that could be done with font previews, linked text blocks and text on a path topping the wish list. More disappointing is the fact that text still isn’t treated like other shapes but rather handled as separate text layers with just one section of text per layer. This adds unnecessary complexity especially when dealing with multiple short sections of text such as button titles. Again though, the new control and interactivity take Photoshop onto a completely new level. In the past serious text handling was an immediate cue that you had to shift to a drawing or DTP package. Now for work such as posters you can complete the whole job within Photoshop’s more creative environment.

With its shape and text handling, Photoshop takes full advantage of the editability and scalability benefits that vectors offer as you work. When it comes to output, however, it’s always been a different matter. Combining vector and bitmap output is a hugely complex job and normally vector information is simply rasterized when it comes to print. Not anymore as Photoshop is now able to maintain vector data when outputting to Postscript devices. The example Adobe gives is of a poster based on a bitmap layer containing a model’s flowing hair (incidentally now much easier to isolate thanks to an improved version of the Extract command) overlapping a vector text layer. When printed to a Postscript printer the text remains pin-sharp, even if the image is scaled until the bitmapped hair becomes clearly pixelated.

Workflow

This is great when outputting directly from Photoshop but nowadays it’s also essential to work as part of larger workflows. The problem this poses is that existing file exchange formats tend to deal with vectors or bitmaps but not both. Adobe’s solution is to completely revamp Photoshop’s support for its own Acrobat PDF format including adding in full support for duotones, spot colour channels and, crucially, layers. Most important of all, if you select the Include Vector Data option, all shapes and text are also retained as vectors, ready to be incorporated in larger PDF workflows or to be output from Acrobat. In other words it looks like Photoshop’s native PSD format will eventually merge into the PDF format in the same way as InDesign’s IND and Illustrator’s AI.

Images with both pixel and vector layers can be output directly from Photoshop or exchanged as PDF.

PDF looks like the preferred format of the future but Adobe hasn’t forgotten current standards. In particular it has completely revamped its TIFF support. This now includes the ability to save TIFFs with LZW, ZIP and even JPEG compression, along with transparency information and multi-resolution pyramid data. What’s truly amazing though is the new ability to save all of an image’s layer information including vector shapes! After picking my jaw off the table, doubts began to surface regarding compatibility, but the applications I tested such as PageMaker and Word happily opened multi-layer bitmap and vector files as flattened bitmaps. If this is true across the board it means that the TIFF standard becomes a powerful alternative to PSD when working with Photoshop, while degrading gracefully with other applications.

An integral part of any efficient workflow process is collaboration and Photoshop adds a set of annotation tools to make this possible. The Notes tool lets you add written notes while the Audio Annotation tool lets you record and playback comments. These tools make most sense within a PDF-based workflow, where clients can use Acrobat rather than Photoshop to add their comments, but annotations can also be handled within PSD and even TIFF files. For team working, Photoshop also now offers various Workflow commands to enable images to be uploaded, downloaded, locked and unlocked on servers that support the WebDAV (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) protocol.

Photoshop also sees fundamental changes to colour management that should help to ensure consistent colour throughout the production process. Photoshop now shares the Adobe Colour Engine (ACE) that first appeared in Illustrator 9. More importantly it brings together everything that you need to manage colour space settings and ICC profiles within the new unified Colour Settings dialog. With tips in the dialog and comprehensive online help this finally makes the colour management process intelligible to the average user, especially as Adobe now offers a simple choice of workflow-based presets such as Web Graphics or European Prepress. This last option is particularly useful with the new Soft Proofing views as it enables you to inspect individual CMYK plates fine tuned to your final output target.

These main colour management options are also now available from the new Print Options command so that you can output CMYK coated and uncoated proof variations while still maintaining your image within the RGB colour space. This Print Options dialog is also where you set your output to include vector data, but the change that will be most immediately apparent is the inclusion of a print preview. If you select the Bounding Box option and deselect the Centre Image option this preview becomes live enabling you to interactively resize and position your image.

The Print Options dialog now offers a print preview along with proofing-based colour management.

Sadly Photoshop can still only print one copy of an image at a time, but you can work around this using the Photo Package command to create image layouts based on templates – and the command no longer adds unwanted borders to your images. Another of the Automate commands, Web Photo Gallery, has also been revamped to use templates when it outputs image sets as Web pages. Using the new horizontal and vertical frame-based options you can now have thumbnails and full images onscreen simultaneously. This is a big improvement but, as with all the Automate commands, the lack of advanced customisation is seriously limiting.

Web

More useful is the new ability to store action-based batch processes as "droplets". Once created, all you need to do is drop a file or folder onto the droplet EXE and the images will automatically be processed. The obvious use for droplets like this is in the production of Web optimised images and, since version 5.5, this is an area that Photoshop prides itself on. Photoshop 6 continues this trend and, with its new vector shape support, is now seriously pushing itself as the natural successor to Fireworks as the ideal Web image creator.

Central to this role is Photoshop 6’s new ability to slice an image into separate areas that are then reassembled as an HTML table. This is done simply by dragging over an area with the new Slice tool with Photoshop automatically generating all the necessary surrounding "auto-slices". Using the Slice Select tool you can then resize or reposition your "user slice". Alternatively you can use the New Layer Based Slice command to create a slice based on the contents of the current layer. This has the huge advantage that the link is live so that as you add to your layer or move it, its associated slice automatically updates. On the other hand this feature can’t work where it would be most useful with multiple similarly styled buttons on the same shape layer, so hopefully dynamic shape-based slices are in the pipeline.

Photoshop now offers image slicing complete with URL control.

The use of slices has two main benefits. Firstly it allows HTML links to be set up with the Slice Options dialog where you can set a URL link, frame target, message text and ALT tag. Secondly it allows you to set different optimisation settings for different areas of the image. This is easily done by selecting individual slices with the new Slice Select tool in the revamped Save for Web dialog. This helps to keep file size down, while the unique new Weighted Optimization capability lets you boost image quality by using grayscale channels to vary the level of JPEG compression and GIF dithering, lossiness and colour reduction across the slice!

Once you’re happy with your optimisation settings you’re ready to output both your image slices and the HTML that brings them together again. Using the Output Settings dialog you have complete control over your HTML including the choice of CSS or table-based output, file naming and tag formatting. This is the first time that Photoshop has involved itself with code as in the past this was left to the standalone ImageReady. Unfortunately all ImageReady’s capabilities haven’t been rolled into Photoshop so the program lingers on. In particular you still have to turn to it whenever you want to produce dynamic images such as rollovers and animations.

ImageReady 3

At least Adobe has taken the opportunity to improve the co-operation between the two programs by automatically saving files in the background when you swap application. The ImageReady 3 environment has also been improved with features such as an in-built rollover preview and the ability to launch your browser directly from the toolbar. In addition ImageReady supports all Photoshop’s new features such as layer sets, layer effects and vector shapes so that you can roundtrip files with confidence.

In terms of additional power, ImageReady offers advanced image map handling using the new dedicated rectangle, circle and polygon tools and also offers layer-based image map management. Slice handling is also more advanced than in Photoshop with a dedicated menu offering commands for linking, merging, deleting, aligning and distributing slices. There’s also the new option of saving multiple slices in named sets so that you can quickly select, optimise and output just those slices.

ImageReady offers advanced control over features such as Web animation.

What really sets ImageReady apart from Photoshop though is its dynamic image handling. Once you’ve selected a slice, you can quickly turn it into a rollover by adding over and down states and applying layer effects to non-destructively format them in the Rollover palette. You can even set up animations to occur as rollover states by, for example, setting ImageReady to tween between two frames to automatically animate a text warp. Much the most powerful capability though is the new ability to save rollovers as styles complete with all layer effects and automatic layer-based slicing. In other words, if your buttons are stored as separate layers, all you need to do to turn them into fully functional rollovers is to drag a rollover style onto them!

This is serious power once the style has been set, but doing this is anything but child’s play. In particular ImageReady makes it only too easy to get confused between layers, slices, states and frames and so to discover that your rollover is affecting an entire layer rather than just the current slice. Trying to produce animations based on controlling multiple layers is also a nightmare, especially when it comes to trying to synchronise simultaneous tweens.

It’s even more confusing trying to work out just what ImageReady can and can’t do. The fact that the program doesn’t offer advanced colour corrections is reasonable enough, but many inconsistencies and limitations go right to the heart of the program’s Web functionality. While you can add vector rectangles, ovals and lines, for example, you can’t add custom shapes or edit or create your own and, bizarrely, you can’t add shapes to existing layers. Familiar actions also have unexpected results so that double-clicking on a shape layer’s effect calls up a completely new Effects palette rather than the expected Layer Style dialog, while double-clicking on a content layer calls up the Layer Options dialog for renaming rather than letting you choose a new content option!

When ImageReady’s developers are hopelessly confused the inevitable result is that end users will be too. It’s a pity as the potential is there, but at the moment ImageReady is a mess. Dedicated users will be able to find their way through the minefield and produce some excellent results, but the average user is likely to run screaming. With the introduction of features, such as object-based slicing, cross layer selection and style updating, along with the incorporation of the Rollover and Image Map palettes and the well-deserved goodbye to ImageReady, Photoshop 7 might well become the Web graphics tool of choice - but for the moment Fireworks’ crown is safe.

The strides Photoshop 6 has taken are immense, however, and it would be wrong to end on ImageReady’s sour note. It’s back to the main program then for one last feature – the new Liquify command. At first sight this looks like little more than a Goo-inspired piece of fun enabling users to interactively paint distortions onto an image. When given the Photoshop treatment, however, with separate Warp, Twirl, Bloat, Pucker and Reconstruct options and the ability to Freeze and Thaw areas of an image it turns into a serious tool. Using it you can do anything from adding life to hair to imperceptibly broadening a smile.

The Liquify command allows distortions to be painted onto the image.

This combination of maximum creativity and maximum control is absolutely typical. When Photoshop does something it makes sure that it does it right. Photoshop has always been the choice of the creative professional and, with its improved interface, layer handling, text control, workflow tools, print output, Web optimisation and above all its new vector support, version 6 is the best Photoshop yet. By a mile.

Features
6
Ease of Use
5
Value for Money
5
Overall
6

ratings out of 6

Photoshop
Software / Upgrade
Save $$!   Save ££!
Books / Reference
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System Requirements :  Pentium or higher, 64/128MB of RAM, 125MB of disk space with another 125MB for scratch disk, Windows 98, 2000 or NT 4.0 with Service Pack 4, 5 or 6a (ie not Windows 95), CD-ROM, SVGA

Tom Arah

September 2000


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