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Ready Or Not, Here Comes Photoshop CS3

During this holiday time of year, while most of us have been eating turkey and unwrapping presents, Adobe has been hard at work. Photoshop CS3 BetaThey recently posted a beta version of the upcoming Photoshop CS3 on their website. Now that I've had some time to play with it, here are my first impressions.

Who's eligible for the Photoshop CS3 beta?
The first point to address is the terms of the beta release. Anyone can download it and it will run fine with a two day grace period. To use it longer, you'll need a valid license key for Photoshop CS2 or any version of the CS2 Creative Suite. By entering this, you will receive a code good for activating the CS3 beta.

Photoshop CS3 Toolbar in its default single-column formatRevamped user interface
When you start up Photoshop CS3, you will immediately notice the new logo and new user interface. The familiar two-column toolbar has been replaced by a taller single column. This makes a lot of sense to me since monitors have long been high enough resolution to allow things to fit this way. If you can't live without the old style toolbar, a simply mouse click will give it to you.

Changes are evident over on the right hand side of the screen too. Rather than stacking all the tool palettes down the side of the window, Adobe has tried to cut down on the clutter by making some of the palettes "fly out" when needed and collapse down when not. Yes, the old way did occupy a heck of a lot of screen real estate, but the new way requires more mouse clicks to get at the palette contents. For me therefore, the jury is still out on this change. Some of Photoshop CS3 tool palettesIt probably takes some getting used to. Just as with the toolbar, you can get things to look pretty much as they always have without too much trouble. Adobe must realize that a certain percentage of Photoshop users just like things as they are no matter what.

Camera Raw 4.0: Photoshop meets Lightroom
Fans of Adobe Lightroom will feel right at home with the changes Adobe has made to the new Camera Raw. The sliders are color coded so that white balance literally goes from blue to yellow and tint from magenta to green. The saturation slider goes from a fairly pale rainbow gradient to a more vibrant one on the other end. Even a slider such as contrast goes from gray on the left (low contrast) to black and white striped (high contrast) on the right.

Some of the standard sliders have been replaced too. The basic list of adjustments now runs from Temperature and Tint at the top, down through Exposure, Recovery (highlight recovery), Fill Light, Blacks (what used to be Shadows), Brightness, Contrast, Vibrance and Saturation. Vibrance is an exceptionally nice addition as it seems to improve saturation in areas that need it without the adverse "over saturated" problems that could affect areas that didn't in the past. Fill Light does a great job of brightening out details in shadow areas. I can see this will be a big hit with many users.

Hue adjustments can be done with individual sliders for each of red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta. And there's a whole lot more in ACR 4. Adobe has managed to continue adding new capabilities to Camera Raw without complicating the interface. If only other raw converters could spend as much time on usability analysis.

Printing improvements
Printing in CS2 took a couple of steps forward and a few sideways in my opinion. Finally, in Photoshop CS3 they got it right. The "Print with Preview" option has been done away with and all of its capabilities folded into the standard "Print" menu. All the options are on the same screen with helpful tooltip help for each. Color management either done as part of printing directly or passed through from your soft proofing setup is clear and straightforward. Holding down the Alt/Option key turns the "Done" button into a "Remember" button that saves your choices so you won't need to reselect them every time you print. A nice touch.

Adobe Camera Raw 4.0 basic adjustment sliders
Adobe Camera Raw 4.0 basic adjustment sliders
  Photoshop CS3 Print dialog
Photoshop CS3 Print dialog

Smart Filters
People like me who swear by adjustment layers have long wished for filters that had the same ability to remain fully editable. Well with CS3 our wish has been granted. By converting a layer to a Smart Object, you can apply regular filters to it as Smart Filters. The Layers palette will show the filters as modifications to the base image much as adjustment layers are shown. By clicking on the eyeball icon beside the filter layer you will reveal the unfiltered image just as it was. A huge improvement for those who care about retaining the quality of their images. Unfortunately, you can have only one layer mask per layer rather than one per filter.

Black and White comes of age
If you thought the Channel Mixer was great, wait till you see the Black and White option in CS3. Available as an adjustment layer or Image >> Adjustments choice, Black and White is Channel Mixer on steroids. Adobe now provides sliders for red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta to determine the color filtering. Tinted conversions can now be done easily as well via the additional hue and saturation options. Sepia toning has never been easier. Channel Mixer is still there for backward compatibility too.

Adobe Camera Raw gets new black and white conversion options as well. The same sliders used for Hue adjustment in ACR can now be used for grayscale conversion. Camera Raw too now provides excellent duotone and split toning controls.

Smart Sharpen as a Smart Filter in Photoshop CS3. Pretty smart indeed.
Smart Sharpen as a Smart Filter in Photoshop CS3.
Pretty smart indeed.
  Photoshop CS3 Black and White dialog
Photoshop CS3 Black and White dialog

Curves get a facelift
The standard Curves dialog has gotten a facelift in Photoshop CS3. Finally, you can see the image histogram right along with the Curve just as you can in the Levels dialog.

Curves in Camera Raw has been improved too. The old version gave us a dropdown to select Medium Contrast, Strong Contrast and so on, but ACR 4 goes much further. Below the standard curve control (which you can still freely adjust manually of course) is a set of sliders for highlights, lights, darks, and shadows to let you adjust each band of the curve individually. If you've been a fan of Levels but have steered clear of Curves, this is for you.

32-bit and HDR improvements
The 32-bit HDR (High Dynamic Range) format was new to Photoshop CS2 and Adobe has made some welcome improvements in CS3. Improvements in the image alignment algorithms make for better merges from multiple exposures. Support for Levels and several other options now work in 32-bit mode, but adjustment layers aren't supported yet. Adobe hasn't added any new tone mapping algorithms, but code enhancements have made getting natural looking results easier than in CS2. And you can now freely convert 8-bit and 16-bit images to 32-bit.

Quick Selection and Refine Edges
If you do a lot of montages and photo retouching, this alone may be worth the upgrade. Quick Select is what you always wished the magic wand was. But as remarkable of a job as it does in selecting things, Refine Edges does it one better. With full mask preview capability, you can adjust the edges of your selection to easily select hair, smoke and other previously difficult to select subjects. In fact, the algorithm used is said to have started from the developer claiming he needed to keep all the hair he had after finding that Quick Select selected only his head in a photograph.

Bridge enhancements
Photoshop CS3 Bridge complete with my 'not available' errorI've managed to make the beta of Bridge choke more than once, but it's obvious that Adobe has put a lot of work into it for CS3. I'm sure it's because it is a beta release, but I get a message for Preview that "this feature is not available on this system." Reports from others look encouraging though. For instance, you can now do side by side comparisons of two images, use a virtual loupe to zoom in on parts of an image. What I can report is that thumbnails render very quickly and that filtering options abound.

Other enhancements
The Flash player is now embedded within Photoshop CS3. Look for slick new interfaces on plug-ins and other Photoshop add-ons coming your way in the future. The merger with Macromedia has started to bear fruit.

Brightness/Contrast that actually works. There's a checkbox for "Legacy" if you are fond of the old algorithms for some reason.

Improvements in Vanishing Point to support multiple angle perspective planes. Useful for illustrators and designers certainly; less so for photographers.

The new Adobe Device Central will allow you to create artwork various mobile devices and preview them as they would appear including screen glare and other factors. I am unclear whether this is a feature people have been asking Adobe for, but now we have it.

Summary and recommendations
Photoshop CS3 is highly recommended. I can't wait for the final release this coming spring. The beta is no substitute for CS2 today since, while mostly stable, it is clearly still a work in progress. Right now, Adobe does not plan any subsequent beta releases so if you are curious, now is the time to download it. Photoshop CS3 is being made available for Windows (XP or better) 32-bit and Mac OS (10.4.8 or better) Universal Binary. There won't be a native 64-bit Windows version until the next version. Upgrade options will be available for existing users as in the past, but apparently for no more than three versions back. No longer will new users be able to buy a cheap version of Photoshop 5 and upgrade it to the latest. Given the huge number of enhancements that have been added over the years this seems only fair to me.

Date posted: December 31, 2006


Copyright © 2006 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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