Some Thoughts on the Beta Release of Photoshop CS6
Adobe Labs this week released a public beta version of the upcoming Photoshop CS6. Not long ago, the retail version of Lightroom 4 was also released. After taking a look at the Photoshop beta, I'm less impressed than I have been with previous Photoshop upgrades.
Photoshop has long been the gold standard for working on digital images. It's had its fair share of competition over the years, but nothing that could ever unseat Photoshop from its perch. In the early days when most programs left you with jaggy edges, the biggest advantage Photoshop had going for it was the quality of its results that used anti-aliasing blending. Nowadays, one of the biggest competitors to Photoshop is Adobe's own Lightroom.
I recently had the pleasure of teaching a workshop on digital image editing with fellow photographer Charles Needle for the Seattle Mountaineers. Part of what we wanted to do is compare workflows between Photoshop and Lightroom.
To effectively use Lightroom, you have to understand the concept of a database but other than this the program is relatively user friendly and intuitive. To use Photoshop is fairly easy too once you get over the intimidation factor of all those commands most of us don't really need, but to use it effectively requires much more. First there's the concept of non-destructive editing, something that is inherent in Lightroom but that requires the use of adjustment layers and layer masks in Photoshop. Then there's the whole topic of color management. Lightroom handles this for you transparently with 16-bits per channel ProPhoto RGB providing the scaffolding behind the scenes while you get on with your work. In Photoshop, you have to understand what a working space is and which one to use, as well as why you should not use your printer profile or monitor profiles. You have to understand the benefits of 16-bit workflow and why the default 8-bits-per-channel is a poor choice if you care about image quality. The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say that Lightroom shields users from many of the complexities that Photoshop not only exposes for you to monkey with but in fact forces you to choose in order to avoid image degradation.
Even though Photoshop sounds like it would be a good fit for working on photos, it isn't. True, Photoshop can do much more than Lightroom, but most everything a photographer needs to do for optimizing images can be done in either. The vast majority of what Photoshop has the Lightroom doesn't is either targeted for graphic artists rather than photographers, or consists of legacy features left over from early versions of the program that should be avoided by most everyone. There's a lot of history in Photoshop, and much of it is still there for those who might want it. But users who don't have to learn to avoid the bad parts as well as where to find the good.
Earlier versions of Lightroom made things a bit more complicated since, while you could do many things in Lightroom, you often still needed to open images in Photoshop for fine tuning things. This meant photographers who wanted to use Lightroom were generally forced to buy and learn to use Photoshop as well. Rather than simplifying their learning curve they were forced instead to learn to use both programs. With each release of Lightroom though, Adobe has solved more and more of those problems that forced you to resort to Photoshop. The last major sticking point for me was soft proofing which Adobe finally added to Lightroom as of the new version 4.
New releases of Photoshop add new features too of course, which brings me to the beta release this week of the upcoming Photoshop CS6. Yes, the content aware patch and other new features do look nice. Yes, performance seems snappy and the ability to save an image in the background while I continue to work on other images is a welcome improvement. Yes, I do like the new overhauled print dialog, but I'm used to the quirky nature of the current one. Yes, the tweaked algorithms in Camera Raw 7.0 will likely improve raw conversion, but raw conversion upgrades in Lightroom tend to track closely with Camera Raw releases so I expect any enhancements made to one to show up in the other when they actually release. Interestingly, the user interface looks more like Lightroom than ever. But while I admittedly haven't used it for more than a few days now, I haven't yet found a killer feature that might compel me to upgrade.
At the same time, my feeling is that Lightroom has basically reached maturity with the new version 4 upgrade. If it weren't for the fact that I have so many images saved as layered PSD files I wouldn't often open Photoshop anymore. I still enjoy using Photoshop since it feels like an old friend having used it now for over 15 years. With a code name of "Superstition," maybe its bad luck to say such things about Photoshop, but it's becoming harder to get excited about new releases of the program. And for producing great results quickly, Lightroom is becoming exceptionally compelling.