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Love 'Em or Hate 'Em, Photoshop Now Has Tabs

Every time Adobe upgrades Photoshop, they change things. That is the whole point now isn't it, but if you've gotten used to the way things used to be, change doesn't always come easy. One of the most obvious interface changes Photoshop CS4 brings is the way it arranges open documents. Yes, Photoshop now opens documents in tabs and not everyone seems to be happy about that.

The new tabbed user interface does take some getting used to. It did for me at least. My first impression was that tabs should help keep things more organized. They sure works that way in Firefox and other web browsers. But as soon as I had more than one image open at the same time I changed my mind. Sometimes having two documents open at once is purely a matter of convenience, but more often than not I want to be able to compare them side by side or even copy and paste between them. The default tabbed document laying in Photoshop CS4 though makes both of these actions cumbersome if not seemingly impossible. All you can see is the image tab you have on top. Zoom way out until that image fills only a small portion of the screen and the empty tab background still covers up your other images. No matter how small the image is, the tab fills the screen. I've heard some frustrated feedback about tabs from other folks who've upgraded to CS4 so I know they've experienced the same as I first did.

You can turn off the tabbed interface entirely of course. Go to Edit >> Preferences >> Interface and you can uncheck the "Open Documents As Tabs" option and Photoshop will go back to opening any new documents the way it used to. But before we give up on tabs it would probably be a good idea to learn about their less obvious but extremely useful features. You may find that you grow to like them after all. I did.

First, when you right mouse-click on a tab you'll get a context menu that helps a great deal. You'll get options to consolidate all tabs (grayed out if they already are already consolidated), close tabs, move the top image in a window by itself, and so on. Moving an image to its own window lets you drag and drop from it to the top tabbed image underneath much as you're used to from previous versions of Photoshop. Or you can move multiple images to their own windows to see them side by side. You can also move an image into its own window simply by grabbing its tab and pulling it out away from the tab bar.

If you do move an image in its own window, you may wonder how to get it back docked as a tab again since there is no corresponding context menu on a standalone window. Clicking on the usual Windows "Maximize" icon in the image's title bar opens the window on top of everything else — all other tabs and most everything else that is part of Photoshop — just as maximizing an image window always did. Instead, to get an image back as a tab, you merely need to grab its title bar and drag it over top of the tab bar. When you get it lined up just so, the tab dock will change color to let you know you're there. Let go of your mouse and the image will fall in line as a tab along with any other open tabs. You can also rearrange tabs the same way. Just grab a tab from one place on the tab bar and move it over to a somewhere else. Let go of it when the tab bar is active as you did when moving it back from being an independent window.

You can switch between tabs either by simply clicking on the tab for the image you want or by using the standard Control-Tab (or Command-~ on Mac OS) to cycle through the tabs in order. Control-Shift-Tab (or Command-Shift-~ on Mac OS) will cycle through them in reverse. By the way, if you have so many tabs open that they won't all fit across the tab bar there's a fly-out menu available to see the rest by clicking on the arrow at the far right of the bar.

The Photoshop CS4 Application BarAn even better way of doing side by side image comparison though is to use another new feature of the Photoshop CS4 interface — something Adobe calls the Application Bar. On Windows, you'll see it as the row of new icons to the right of the main Photoshop menu. On Mac OS the Application Bar occupies a row just below the Photoshop menu. In either case, there are a lot of great tab-related options hidden under the second icon from the right: Arrange Documents.

The first Arrange Documents option, Consolidate All will re-dock all your open images to a single tab bar just the way Photoshop opened them by default. Next to this are options for tiling all your open images horizontally or vertically, or tiling them on a grid of rows and columns. Under that are a series of options to split your default single tab bar into multiple tab bars in various arrangements. You can open images 2-up side by side or one image above another. You can open them 3-up, 4-up and plenty of other configurations. Under that is an option to "Float All in Windows" to cascade all your open images the way Photoshop had done in previous versions. At the bottom of the Arrange Documents menu are options to open a new window, zoom images and so on. With Arrange Documents you're probably starting to see where the power of tabs lies.

But now that you know how to get more than one tab group via Arrange Documents, there are some cool tricks you can do with side by side images. Most people know that if you hold down the space bar you automatically get the hand tool to move an image around within its window. But now you can hold down the shift key at the same time as the space bar to make the hand tool scroll all visible images together. Just hold both keys down together, then click and drag with your mouse. Everything moves together.

Now do you love tabs? Adobe did a great job of implementing tabs. They just did a poor job of letting people know how they work. Hopefully this helps.

3-up images in Photoshop CS4

Date posted: December 28, 2008


Copyright © 2008 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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