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Adobe Photoshop CS3 review

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At a Glance
  • Adobe Photoshop CS3

It’s simple, really: if digital imaging is an important part of your creative life, you’ll want Adobe Photoshop CS3. The new version provides so many improvements in so many areas that no serious digital photographer, video artist, or designer should be without it.

But although the program is a must-have, it isn’t perfect. While some of Photoshop CS3’s new features shine, others need polish. What’s more, Photoshop now comes in two flavors, so you’ll need to decide between the standard version and the pricier, more fully featured Photoshop CS3 Extended ( ).

Interface hits and misses

Photoshop CS3 sports numerous user-interface enhancements, many of which appear across the CS3 product line. Fortunately, Adobe didn’t change the vast majority of keyboard shortcuts that many Photoshop users perform in their sleep—so Photoshop veterans will feel at home even as they enjoy exploring their new surroundings.

Foremost among these enhancements is a new scheme for managing Photoshop’s many tool palettes, now calledpanels.Panels can reside in docks that you can show and hide with a keystroke and have appear or disappear as you mouse toward or away from the edge of your screen. You can drag panels between docks and opt to have panels be represented by space-saving icons: click on an icon, and it expands into a panel. Spend a few minutes customizing your panels and docks, and you can create a very efficient workspace.

Alas, although you can stash free-floating panels on a second display, you can’t group them into docks that reside there. In general, Adobe could have done a better job of creating workspace presets that took advantage of a second display, as Apple did with Aperture ( ).

Another panel-related quibble: In Illustrator CS3, you can customize panels so they appear in muted grays that distract less from the image you’re working on. Photoshop CS3 provides no such nicety.

The new Black & White dialog box provides several presets that simulate various film filters—even infrared. Photoshop CS3’s new Clone Source panel appears at the right edge of this screen; its dock is collapsed to icon view.
Other usability improvements abound throughout Photoshop CS3. The new Black & White adjustment command lets you control how an image’s colors are converted to grays by clicking and dragging directly on the image instead of futzing with dialog-box sliders. Photoshop CS3’s Channel Mixer and Curves dialog boxes now let you save and recall presets. (The new Black & White dialog box does, too.) And the Print dialog box has been completely remodeled. Replacing the old Print With Preview dialog box, it provides a larger image preview that’s color-managed, reflecting changes when you choose different rendering settings and printer profiles.

Despite these interface improvements, Photoshop remains a daunting program for imaging newcomers. The little smatterings of engineer-speak that you find here and there don’t help. For example, Photoshop’s Brightness/Contrast command is greatly improved in CS3, but Adobe hides access to the old-style Brightness/Contrast adjustment command behind an option called Use Legacy. Exactly what will that phrase mean to a professional photographer who’s only now making the move to digital? (It certainly doesn’t provide any warning that it’s a substandard way to adjust brightness/contrast.) I wouldn’t trade Photoshop’s power for simplicity, but I do think that Adobe could make Photoshop more approachable.

Better images

Photoshop users have long relied on features such as the Channel Mixer to control the conversion of color images to black-and-white. The new Black & White command makes the process much easier.

The Black & White dialog box sports presets that simulate numerous film filters; there’s even a preset that simulates infrared film, though it often blows out image highlights. As for the Channel Mixer, it has also been improved and now offers its own black-and-white conversion presets.

The venerable Curves dialog box gets some long-overdue attention in Photoshop CS3, gaining new controls that make it the best place to adjust image tonality. Like the Levels dialog box (its tone-adjustment partner in crime), the Curves dialog box now lets you make black-point and white-point adjustments. As with Levels, you can show shadow or highlight clipping by pressing the Option key while moving the black- or white-point slider. A histogram display, several useful tonal presets, and new curve-display options round out the revamp.

Like Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom (  ), Photoshop CS3 includes Camera Raw 4, the latest version of what many people regard as the best raw-image processor available. Camera Raw 4 sports a large array of new image-processing capabilities, including superb monochrome conversion and new controls for lighting, tonality curves, and color. The Camera Raw window even has a new Retouch tool that lets you do rudimentary cloning and dust-spot removal—great for getting rid of sensor dust spots that appear in every frame of a shoot.

It’s also worth noting that you can now open JPEG and TIFF images in the Camera Raw window and apply nondestructive edits to them. This has some interesting workflow advantages—for example, a news or sports photographer can use it to apply nondestructive edits and submit them, along with the original JPEGs, to a waiting photo editor. On his must-read blog, Photoshop product manager John Nack has published some interesting thoughts about this.

Camera Raw 4’s Retouch Tool lets you clean up sensor dust. Here, a spot in the lower right corner of the image is being cleaned up.

Filters get smarter

With each new version, Photoshop becomes less destructive—it gains new features that enable you to alter images without changing their original pixel data. In Photoshop CS3, you can, for the first time, apply image filters nondestructively. Select a layer and choose the Filter: Convert For Smart Filters command, and Photoshop converts the layer to a smart object that you can apply filters to. Better still, you can change filter settings at will, and you can even reorganize the order in which the filters are applied, by changing their position in the Layers panel. A smart filter also has a built-in layer mask, so you can selectively paint away parts of the filter’s effects.

Smart filters provide more imaging flexibility, but with compromises. For example, retouching a smart object requires extra steps if you want to paint, dodge, heal, or erase: In those instances and others you must double-click on the smart object, make changes in a separate window, and then save and close to return to your image. And while being able to selectively turn filters off and on is convenient, when you turn a filter back on, Photoshop must crank through the filter’s calculations all over again. These compromises are understandable from a technical standpoint, but they can discourage experimentation. Turn the Lens Correction filter off and on a couple of times on a 16-bit, 10-megapixel image, and you’ll quickly understand—or maybe not so quickly.

Selecting and retouching

Making detailed selections in an image is often a tendon-taxing experience. Photoshop CS3’s new Quick Selection tool makes it easier. Activate the tool and paint across an image, and Photoshop samples a range of colors or shades and draws a selection where it detects significant differences.

As with any “automatic” selection tool, Quick Selection works best when there are fairly significant differences in color or tonality between edges. With subtler edges, the selection tends to stray, but you can clean up sloppy selections by pressing the Option key while painting, or by using other Photoshop selection-tweaking techniques, such as the Lasso tool.

Speaking of selections, Adobe has plucked the Feather command from the Select menu. Its successor, Refine Edge, provides a dialog box that lets you feather a selection, as well as expand and contract it in various ways. This is a great enhancement for tweaking selections and layer masks created from them. The Refine Edge command also offers new Radius and Contrast sliders for even more precise control.

For serious retouchers, an even better enhancement is the new Clone Source panel. Its Overlay option lets you see a semitransparent, tracing-paper-like version of the source image beneath the brush as you paint, making it easy to precisely position your pixels—no more flying blind as you clone. The Clone Source panel also lets you scale and rotate the pixels you’re copying—great for special creative effects. Photographer Martin Evening has published an excellent tutorial on the Clone Source panel at

Native performance

For Mac users, one of the best reasons to upgrade to Photoshop CS3 is that it now runs natively on Intel-based Macs. In Macworld Lab tests performed on a 2.66GHz Quad Xeon Mac Pro, Photoshop CS3 took about half as much time to start as the non-native CS2. A suite of 16 scripted tasks performed on a 50MB image was completed nearly 39 percent faster.

But the stopwatch doesn’t tell the entire story. I tested Photoshop CS3 on two machines: an aging dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 and a brand-new 2.33GHz iMac Core 2 Duo. Photoshop CS3 was much more responsive on the Intel-based iMac. For example, the Quick Selection tool provides an Auto Enhance option that fine-tunes a selection when you release the mouse button. On the G5 system, delays of a few seconds were common as Photoshop ruminated. On the iMac, Auto Enhance was far more responsive.

In short, owners of Intel-based Macs can finally run Photoshop at full speed—and owners of older Macs may want to start saving up for some new iron.

Line it up

Several Photoshop CS3 improvements involve aligning multiple images or multiple image layers. The new Auto-Align Layers command lines up a set of selected layers, moving and scaling the layers as needed. It’s ideal for combining multiple versions of a group shot: put each shot in a layer, align the layers, and then use layer masks to selectively show and hide portions of each layer until you’ve created a photo in which everyone’s eyes are open.

Photoshop CS3 Extended takes image alignment even further by enabling you to align and process multiple images to remove digital noise—and even people. That feature is so useful for mainstream digital photography that it really belongs in the standard version.

Photoshop’s Photomerge feature, which stitches multiple images into panoramas, is also dramatically improved in CS3. In earlier Photoshop versions, ugly diagonal lines often appeared at the blend points between shots. In my CS3 tests, these artifacts rarely occurred, and when they did, it was due to sloppily shot originals.

Adobe has also enhanced two features that originally debuted in Photoshop CS2. The Vanishing Point feature, which lets you edit and paste graphics in perspective, now supports multiple image angles. And Photoshop’s high dynamic range (HDR) features now provide better results. Both the vanishing-point and HDR features are particularly powerful in Photoshop CS3 Extended.

Photoshop CS3 includes Device Central, a program that lets you preview how content will look when displayed on a variety of mobile devices. With Photoshop (and Illustrator) CS3, you can use Device Central to see how images will look when displayed as wallpaper or as user-interface elements. With Flash CS3 and Dreamweaver CS3, you can test interactive designs. (You can learn more about Device Central at Flash Devices .)

At the other end of the size spectrum, Photoshop CS3 lets you export large, high-resolution images for Web viewing using the Zoomify technology . When you export an image for Zoomify, Photoshop creates a bare-bones Web page containing the HTML code necessary to display the image and the Zoomify panning and zooming controls. It’s a slick way to deliver extremely high-resolution images.


Adobe Photoshop CS3 and CS2 Tested

Adobe Photoshop CS3 Adobe Photoshop CS2 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Adobe Photoshop CS2

Mac Pro Intel Quad Xeon/2.66GHz 0:15 0:27 0:54 1:28
Power Mac G5 Quad/2.5GHz 0:22 0:19 1:16 1:09
  <Better <Better <Better <Better

Best results in red .

All tests were run with Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended version 10.0 and Adobe Photoshop CS2 version 9.0.2. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.9 with 1GB of RAM. The Startup test involved opening Photoshop with a 50MB file. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 16 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent, and History was set to Minimum.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Brian Chen


Macworld’s buying advice

Photoshop CS3 packs refinements and additions that will please digital imagers of every kind. There’s room for some interface polish here and there, but CS3 is also the most refined version of Photoshop yet. And while Intel processors deliver the best experience, CS3 performs acceptably on older Macs.

So should you consider Photoshop CS3 or its Extended cousin? If you’re into video, 3-D graphics, or scientific and medical imaging, CS3 Extended is for you. I’d give my right mouse button to have CS3 Extended’s image-alignment features in the standard edition, but aside from that, the dividing line is fairly straightforward.

And the bottom line is that Photoshop CS3 is the best, most full-featured image-editing program available for photographers and designers.

[ Senior Contributor Jim Heid specializes in digital media and is the author of The Macintosh iLife ‘06 (Peachpit Press, 2006) and its companion Web site . ]

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Imaging and productivity enhancements throughout
    • Dramatically improved Camera Raw module
    • Superb new image-alignment and monochrome-conversion tools


    • Interface has some rough edges
    • Some compromises in smart-filter functionality
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