Photoshop CS5 Review

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This review supplements Photoshop Extended CS5 First Impressions, which I wrote just after CS5 was announced. That article explains most of the new features in Photoshop CS5 like other reviews, but the goal of this article is to share my experience in the field with Photoshop CS5 and to tell what works and what doesn’t work for me.

The best upgrade in a long time

In my “First Impressions” article I said Photoshop CS5 could be the most exciting upgrade since Photoshop CS, and I think that’s turned out to be true. Photoshop’s performance is noticeably speedier for me, thanks to the rewritten 64-bit code that employs more memory and handles larger files. Of course, your performance will depend on the processor, memory and video card you are using so for some users the 64-bit change will not add much.

I find myself using Content-Aware Fill and the Spot Healing Brush with Content-Aware more and more, and it’s become my main retouching tool. Content-aware technology was jaw-dropping in Photoshop CS4 but the fill and brush are superior methods to apply it and it finally achieves a complete one-step retouching technique. The Clone tool, which Photoshoppers have used for years, is great but its one weakness is you have to replace the brushed area with something already existing in the image. Content-Aware technology naturally has to do the same thing—it can’t choose pixels that aren’t in the image—but it has an uncanny ability to mix things up and create a very natural replacement for what’s removed.

The one difficulty I have with the Spot Healing Brush is it will still make the same mistakes it has in previous versions—even when I’m using the Content-Aware mode. I often have to remove timestamps from point-and-shoot photos and the tool will sometimes replace the timestamp with bits from the same timestamp, even when Content-Aware is the selected mode. It seems Content-Aware works best with larger areas that don’t overlap with busy backgrounds or foreground elements, which is what all the retouching tools work best with.

I had also expressed some reservations about the Refine Edge feature, which I hoped would perform as a background removal tool like the Extract filter used to do. After testing, I’ve found that Refine Edge works well in some situations but in others the Background Eraser tool does a better job. What’s missing from Refine Edge is the ability to analyze how background contaminates fine edges such as hair, which the Background Eraser tool also lacks.

On an image with frizzy hair on a white background, I got a decent background extraction with Refine Edge but the hair’s edge was gray—a combination of white and the dark hair color. I got a much better result after applying a high radius and shifting the edge, but this also knocked out some of the foreground subject too. A two-layer approach would probably be the ideal Refine Edge workflow—one layer with aggressive Refine Edge to get the fine edge and another to restore the foreground as needed. This is not as precise as the Extract filter used to be, but it would be faster.

What I’m not using

Maybe it’s because I’m too used to my old working methods, or maybe it’s because I just haven’t needed them lately, but there are some things in Photoshop CS5 that haven’t proved useful to me:

  • I never got into HDR photography, mostly because the ghastly colors HDR techniques have created never appealed to me. The new Merge to HDR Pro is designed to get HDR back to its original intention of expanding dynamic range, but I’ve not used it much at all. Another reason why I don’t use it is because most of my imagery is either going to print—which doesn’t show maximum range—or being used as graphics on a website.
  • When I want to paint digitally, I use a Wacom tablet and Corel Painter. Photoshop CS5’s new Bristle Tips and brush engine work very well but I sometimes come across performance issues, especially when I’m mixing paint with other colors in a photograph, and I haven’t used the new brushes much except when I want to make some artistic effects. For all my retouching work, the usual soft-edged circular brush works well.
  • A few months ago I was used to docking Mini Bridge to the bottom of my screen as a quick and easy way to access files, but even at its small size it took up enough of my screen that I decided to close it and just access images with the Open Recent command. I am usually working on a small set of images over and over again during a project, and Open Recent gives me access to them without needing another open panel. I still think Mini Bridge is a great addition that makes things a lot handier.
  • I’m still not into Photoshop’s 3D features very much, including Repoussé, Photoshop CS5’s 3D extrusion tool. When I want to produce 3D assets I’m used to using Strata 3D, though if Adobe were to produce a standalone 3D application and include it in the Creative Suite I’m sure I would use that. But the 3D tools and panels in Photoshop CS5 don’t seem as intuitive to me despite the various improvements to 3D in CS5. The best thing Photoshop 3D has going for it is its compatibility with the other Adobe CS5 applications, such as After Effects.

Conclusion

No matter whether or not you use all of Photoshop CS5’s new features, every one of them works as advertised and I don’t have a major complaint about the upgrade. Professional Photoshop users will want to upgrade for the Content-Aware technology alone—it’s twice as useful when applied as a fill or a stroke instead of when scaled, like it was in Photoshop CS4. HDR enthusiasts will want to look at Merge to HDR Pro and 3D enthusiasts will really want to see Repoussé and the expanded 3D features.

Photoshop CS5
Adobe Systems
US$699/$199 upgrade

Photoshop CS5 Extended
Adobe Systems
US$999/$349

Rating: 10/10