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Adobe has updated its flagship photo-editing tool with a 2018 version, so what’s new? Find out in our Photoshop CC 2018 review.
What is Photoshop CC?
Photoshop is the world’s most famous image-editing program and so widely used that it’s entered the English language as a verb – to ‘Photoshop’ something is to apply a digital manipulation that distorts, enhances or even manufactures versions of reality.
Photoshop is used for much more than that, of course. Photographers can use it to retouch portraits, enhance landscapes, create special effects, merge frames into panoramas and build composite images from separate photos.
Artists and illustrators, meanwhile, use photoshop for designing posters, developing application interfaces and creating technical diagrams and digitally painting original artwork. Photoshop is a multi-purpose tool with many uses not connected to photography, which goes some way to explaining why it can appear so complex and technical.
Nevertheless, for photographers there’s no other tool, with the exception of Serif Affinity Photo, which offers the same detailed, technical, professional level of control over photographic image enhancement and manipulation.
Photoshop’s mastery of digital illusion is unquestioned – if you can imagine it, you can create it.
Photoshop CC 2018 in use
For all its power, the Photoshop CC 2018 interface is actually a refreshingly straightforward place to work. Tools are displayed in a narrow vertical toolbar on the left side of the screen – tools with more than one option display them on fly-out menus – and the program’s numerous palettes are arranged on the right side of the screen and can be stacked, combined with tabs, shrunk and expanded at will.
It’s a very efficient use of space. At first you might have to hunt around a little to find the panel you need, but it’s easy to customise the layout and Photoshop also offers a variety of ‘workspaces’ for different kinds of work, which can hide the tools you don’t use and make those you do need more accessible.
Along the top of the window is a row of tool options which change according to the tool you’ve currently selected. These can include gradient and brush settings, for example.
Most digital manipulation centres on the layers panel, where you can combine images, adjustments, filters, text and shapes. Each layer can have its own layer mask, to control which parts of the layer are visible, and blend modes, to control how the different layers interact with one another.
Photoshop’s Layers panel makes managing multiple image, adjustment, type and shape layers remarkably straightforward.
To create layer masks you need an understanding of Photoshop’s selection tools, and this is another area where it excels. Extracting objects from their backgrounds is not always easy, but with Photoshop’s arsenal of selection tools and some practice skill and judgement, it’s possible to select and mask almost anything.
Photoshop is very good at retouching too, with a Clone Stamp tool for covering unwanted objects or blemishes with pixels from surrounding areas, and Healing/Spot Healing Brush and Patch tools for semi-automatic repairs.
Photoshop has also become infamous for its ability to stretch, flatten and twist the human form into allegedly more attractive shapes via its Liquify tools.
There is probably no digital image manipulation you can imagine that can’t be done in Photoshop, but it will often require a considerable amount of know-how and skill. If you’re a photographer rather than a technician, there are other programs which will give you a wide range of one-click photographic ‘looks’ with considerably less effort.
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What’s new in Photoshop CC 2018
One of the new features in Photoshop CC 2018 is connected with changes made elsewhere in Adobe’s Photography apps. The new version of Lightroom CC, Adobe’s professional-level image cataloguing program, has swapped over to a cloud-based image storage system, and Photoshop CC 2018 can now display your Lightroom photos directly from its start screen.
It’s more likely, though, that if you use both you’ll start Lightroom CC first and then open images in Photoshop from within that.
Spherical panoramas are now easy to create with low-cost 360 cameras, and Photoshop CC 2018 can edit them directly.
The world of imaging is no longer restricted to two dimensions, so Adobe’s done the smart thing in adding spherical image support to Photoshop CC 2018. 360-degree VR imaging used to be a highly complex, technical thing, but with the introduction of simple and affordable 360 cameras like the Ricoh Theta and Nikon KeyMission 360, capturing spherical images is now no more difficult that capturing regular ‘flat’ photos.
It takes a little mental reorientation to understand and navigate around these 360-degree images in Photoshop, but that’s part of the 360 learning process and Photoshop makes it pretty straightforward. You can apply adjustments, clone out unwanted details (like your tripod!) and adjust the angle and skew before exporting your modified version.
Adobe also says that Photoshop CC 2018 can not only open the iPhone’s HEIF image files but it can also import the depth maps created with the iPhone camera’s Portrait mode and potentially create better background blur effects.
Adobe says Photoshop’s masking tools are faster and more effective, though good results still need some skill and judgement.
This version of Photoshop brings more accurate and realistic results when making and modifying selections in the Refine Mask dialog, so it’s a little easier to mask complex outlines with irregular edges, though this can still take some skill and persistence. For man-made objects with clear edges, the new Curvature Pen tool might be better.
Photoshop’s Pen tool is useful for creating precise paths around object – unlike regular selection tools, it enables you to modify the shape of the path very precisely, even after you’ve created it. The Curvature Pen tool provides a more intuitive way of following curved outlines.
One of the more interesting improvements in Photoshop CC 2018 is not in the main program itself but in the Adobe Camera Raw plug in. This is the tool used by Photoshop to convert raw images into editable photos, and its editing tools are also available as a filter within Photoshop.
The new luminance and color range mask tools in Adobe Camera Raw make it easier to adjust specific areas of a raw file. Now, if you apply a gradient or radial filter effect, you can mask out specific brightness or colour values so that the effect is restricted to just those areas you want.
For example, if you use a graduated filter to darken a bright sky, you can use the luminance or color range options to prevent it from also darkening a tall building that sticks up into the sky.
In practice, the colour range masking works better than the luminance masking – it’s more common to find areas you want to adjust sharing the same broad colour values, and it’s relatively uncommon to find objects of a single brightness.
The new color range masking in Adobe Camera Raw makes the graduated and radial filters much more selective.
Some of the enhancements in Photoshop CC 2018 are aimed more at artists, illustrators and designers, including the new and improved Brush tools. These include improved presets and brush management, performance improvements and, perhaps most usefully, brush stroke smoothing tools which could be especially useful for those using a mouse to paint with rather than a graphics tablet.
The new version of Photoshop also brings support for variable fonts, which are designed specifically for live adjustments to weight, slant and more.
Photoshop has a reputation for being difficult to learn, and Adobe has responded by adding in a new Learn panel with step by step tutorials for common editing tasks. Experienced Photoshop users will probably find these a little simplistic, but everyone’s got to start somewhere. These are backed up by new ‘rich’ tooltips with short explanations of tool functions, images, and sometimes even animated GIFs to show the tool in action.
Finding Photoshop too daunting? The new Learn panel offers step-by-step guides for beginners.
Other improvements include the ability to cut and paste layers between documents. Previously, you’d have to drag layers from one document window to another, so even though this copy and paste feature might seem a rather obvious and basic sort of feature, it’s actually not been available until now.
Adobe also says that there have been numerous performance enhancements, from the time taken to create a new file through common blending and layering operations through to the way the computer’s virtual memory system is managed.
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So is Photoshop CC 2018 still the ultimate image-editor? The answer to this question comes in two parts. First, if what you want is a supremely precise, technical and efficient image manipulation tool, then Photoshop CC 2018 really is the ultimate. It does have a rival in Affinity Photo 1.6, though, and it’s a very serious one.
Affinity Photo goes about the same jobs in a slightly different way but ultimately if you put the same effort into learning Affinity Photo as you might Photoshop, then you’ll discover a program that can match it for power, control and precision – and without having to pay a monthly subscription fee.
But while Photoshop is supremely powerful at what it does, it may not do everything you want, and that’s the second part of this verdict.
For managing your image library, enhancing raw files in bulk, sharing your work with clients and fans and assembling a portfolio, you need Adobe Lightroom or one of its rivals. Photoshop works on single images, it doesn’t attempt to act as a kind of digital hub for your photography in the way that Lightroom does.
Lightroom is perfect for quick photo effects and regular photo enhancements, but you still need Photoshop for layered image montages and masking effects.
And with Photoshop you have to bring your own ideas and inspiration. Unlike some other photo-editors, it doesn’t show you how your images could look with a dozen different photographic effects applied.
With Photoshop, you definitely have to bring your own ideas, which can be a bit of an issue because that’s what a lot of us actually want some help with.
To a degree, Lightroom can help here, with its collections of preset image effects, and Lightroom and Photoshop really do make a very effective double-act.
Indeed, for photographers the most cost-effective way to get Photoshop is via Adobe’s Photography plan, at £9.98/$9.99 per month (paid annually), which includes both programs.
Photoshop CC 2018 is an excellent tool for a very specific set of tasks, but in a broader context the imaging world has moved on and it’s more likely you’ll use Photoshop as just one of your photo-editing tools rather than the only one.