REVIEW: Photoshop CS4 Extended and Bridge CS4

Filling in the 3D gaps

The 3D features in Photoshop CS3 were an impressive first step, but even at the time there were questions about some shortcomings such as its inability to create its own 3D shapes. Photoshop CS4 Extended has proven itself to be the next step in the evolution of Photoshop as a 3D-ready application:

  • Users can now edit textures and art on 3D shapes without accessing the art files themselves. This is perhaps my new favorite feature when working with 3D in Photoshop!
  • Working with light sources has been improved and it’s now closer to working with lights in standard 3D apps.
  • The Photoshop team filled a huge gap in the 3D toolset by allowing 2D layers to be converted to 3D shapes, meshes or “postcards.” It’s not like an artist can create complex 3D shapes with Photoshop alone, but simple 3D objects are able to be created natively in Photoshop. It works well for me and I consider this to be a major step forward for Photoshop CS4 Extended.

PSCS4-3D

Working with 3D objects in Photoshop CS4 has been improved—for example, you can now edit artwork on the fly. Click the image for a larger view.

Probably the one question to be raised about all these 3D features is whether or not they are being used much in the field. I attended a color-correction session recently and it was asked if anyone was using the new features in the Extended version of Photoshop (CS3 Extended and/or CS4 Extended). No one could really think of any that were must-have tools, though to be fair this was a group of color-correction students and most of their daily work involved a specific set of tools. But I think Adobe sometimes has to grapple with the riddle of whether or not to add tools to Photoshop when it could be said they are simply stuffing the application in order to meet the expectation of an upgrade every 18 months. The 3D tools in Photoshop CS4 Extended are impressive but their usefulness ultimately depends on their being used.

Too many new features to write about

When I write reviews on Adobe applications, there always seems to be a point where all I can do is lump the smaller improvements in one section—there’s too many to write about! Here are some of the more impressive improvements that you may or may not have heard about:

  • Support for audio tracks and 3D layer animation in motion graphics. Photoshop has gone from producing simple animated graphics (through ImageReady) to producing animated video complete with 3D graphics and audio. I think there are better solutions available for this work (Flash, After Effects, etc.) but the convergence of 3D graphics and animation within Photoshop is exciting and it works very well. There can be a learning curve, as there is with any 3D work in Photoshop, but it’s well-executed.
  • Photoshop Lightroom and Photoshop now have more integration: Camera Raw moves made in one application are honored by the other and images can be opened from Lightroom to Photoshop as one of four different formats (layered PSD, HDR image, panorama or Smart Object). The panorama feature is the most valuable of the lot to me. As for the Camera Raw moves, it’s important that both apps honor each other’s adjustments but I always use Lightroom for my Camera Raw work and use Photoshop to get those final adjustments that Lightroom can’t work with. The Camera Raw integration being shown here has not helped my own workflow.
  • A few new features of CS4 involve scientific and medical applications, such as improvements to the Count tool and Volume Rendering. For now these are niche features that have not been helpful to me, but I’m curious to play with the Volume Rendering features some more because there may be some applications for designers, especially motion designers working with 3D. Volume Rendering is designed so medical professionals can render a stack of DICOM images as a 3D anatomical image, but I know it’s also possible to transform text layers into animated 3D text, which is a big bonus for motion graphics designers.

PSCS4-DOF

One more feature I didn’t write about: you can combine images with multiple focal points into one image with sharp depth of field throughout the image.

Care to buy a Bridge?

I have a love-hate relationship with Adobe Bridge. I was a big fan of Bridge’s precursor, the File Browser in Photoshop 7. I was glad to see it evolve into a full application with the launch of CS, but sluggish performance and a failure to find its niche made it the black sheep of the Adobe Creative Suite family (along with Version Cue). I used Bridge when it first came out but quit because it just didn’t perform well and the RSS-based Bridge Home was removed. Now Bridge is up to version 4 and it has some new features:

  • Breadcrumb trails are always displayed, which is a great aid for users. You can access any folder that resides within the filepath to the displayed directory.
  • Full-screen previews are available with the spacebar. This is a wonderful feature that I actually got used to with Mac OS X 10.5, which previews files with the same key command.
  • The new Review mode, which lets you shuffle through a folder’s images in a carousel format. It’s cool and also a nice way to compare images in order to select the right one for your project. I think Lightroom does it better, but Bridge is still useful for this.
  • Several Photoshop features such as creating web galleries and contact sheets, are now done in Bridge (and not in Photoshop). You can actually restore these in Photoshop’s Automate menu, which I hope to cover in a future article.

There’s several more features in Bridge CS4, but I think the one thing everyone wants is “faster performance.” Yes, Bridge CS4 is touted as having “faster performance” and I do think it’s improved over Bridge CS3 to the point where it’s actually quite usable. But if your computer is old and tired then don’t expect Bridge CS4 to be blazing fast. Again, I use a MacBook Pro with 3GB RAM and I sometimes have trouble getting Bridge up and running at top speed. Going into directories with a bunch of images can bring things to a standstill for several seconds. However, back when Bridge first came out I made it my file browser, residing on a second monitor all to itself. I eventually had to turn it off due to poor performance, but Bridge CS4 is good enough that I plan to reinstate it as my file browser of choice.

Conclusion

Photoshop CS4 and Photoshop CS4 Extended are both interesting upgrades. They are not for everyone—several changes in long-standing keyboard shortcuts have annoyed longtime users, including me—but there are some amazing new features and technologies at work. Some new features fall flat for me, while others amaze me. Likewise, Bridge CS4 is an improvement over Bridge CS3 but it’s not perfect by quite a bit. Ultimately I would recommend any Photoshop user to look at the CS4 upgrade long and hard before purchasing—it’s a great upgrade for some and dubious for others. If you are a Creative Suite user and want to upgrade to CS4, I wouldn’t let any shortcomings in Photoshop CS4 keep you from upgrading and enjoying the other great features in the rest of the applications.

Photoshop CS4 Extended
Adobe Systems
US$999/349 upgrade
Rating: 8/10