Photoshop CS6 Beta: What Makes This Update Great

Since Adobe announced the beta for Photoshop CS6 a little over a week ago, it has been downloaded more than half a million times. Even if you’ve managed to miss the onslaught of tweets and reviews, the magnitude of eager testers should indicate how anxious photographers and designers were for an update to their beloved software.

A number of articles have been written that overview the new features and changes to CS6. After working with the beta every day for over a week, I will instead try to give my impressions on what features I find most useful and am actually incorporating into my workflow already. Read on to see what features have stood out to me.

A New Interface

The most notable change to the interface is the new default dark theme. While this dark interface is attractive, I find that the icons and text on the dark grey can feel sort of low-contrast.

After working in the app for a prolonged period of time, I feel adjusted to this dark world, and it makes for a more shocking transition when I switch to other apps. For this reason, I decided to switch the interface to the next-brightest option, which captures the native look of OS X best. This theme is slightly darker than CS5, and with the revamped tool icons that Adobe has created, I find the new interface to be an improvement.

For those who would like to adjust the interface colors, you can do so by going to Menu > Preferences > Interface.

For those who would like to adjust the interface colors, you can do so by going to Menu > Preferences > Interface.

Another interface change I really like is the thinner title bar of the app. Adobe has removed the buttons that felt a bit unnecessary at the top of CS5, and given the app a standard OS X title bar.

Improved Vector Handling

The improvements Adobe has made in the vector department are probably my favorite changes in CS6. If you are unfamiliar with vectors, these are the fundamental way that people draw shapes and curved lines, by essentially placing dots (anchor points) and a path that connects the dots.

Vectors are essential to designers, who need to create objects with simple shapes such as buttons, toolbars, and text fields. Thanks to all the love that vectors have received in CS6, working with them in Photoshop is now much less of a hassle.

Strokes

The first sign that Photoshop is becoming a more powerful vector editor is that you can now give vector shapes a stroke, just as you have always been able to do in Adobe’s flagship vector app, Illustrator. The stroke can be set right from the Tool Options bar, and is separate from any stroke you add to the object as a layer style. This means you can easily add two different colored strokes to a shape by combining the vector stroke and layer style stroke.

Set the fill and stroke of layer shapes, just as you would in Illustrator.

Set the fill and stroke of layer shapes, just as you would in Illustrator.

Conveniently, Adobe also provided a way to create a dashed stroke around a shape, which was nowhere near as easy to pull off in CS5.

Now you can easily create those nice, dashed placeholder images.

Now you can easily create those nice, dashed placeholder images.

If you want take the same fill or stroke properties that you have set on one shape and apply them to others, you can simply right click the layer, select “Copy Shape Attributes,” and paste these attributes to other shape layers.

Vector Pixel Snapping

If you work with vectors in Photoshop often, you know that they often suffer from fuzzy edges if the vector’s path is not perfectly snapped to the pixel grid.

Fuzzy edge syndrome.

Fuzzy edge syndrome.

The reason vectors would get off the pixel grid in the first place is largely because of how CS5 behaved when zoomed in. If you tried to draw or move a vector when zoomed in, Photoshop would move the object by just a fraction of a pixel, misaligning it on the pixel grid. When your object’s edges are sitting in between pixel lines in the grid, they end up slightly blurry, which leaves your design with a subtle grossness.

In CS6, you no longer have to worry about this odd behavior because of a feature in the General Preferences, checked by default, called “Snap Vector Tools and Transforms to Pixel Grid”. Now, even when you are zoomed in, moved and resized objects are snapped to the pixel grid. If you still find yourself with blurred edges on a vector, you can automagically get crisp edges by selecting the vector and clicking the new Align Edges option in the Tool Options bar. This will instantly snap misaligned edges of vector objects to the grid.

Merging

Occasionally, you might find the need to combine multiple vector shapes into a single shape that you can apply a style to. In CS6, you can simply select both shape layers, right-click, and choose Merge Shapes. This will create a single layer that contains both shapes, yet allows you still to edit both shapes individually in the canvas. If you combined them as a Smart Object, as you had to in CS5, it would be harder to edit the individual shapes again.

Merge a rounded rectangle and a triangle to easily create an OS X popover.

Merge a rounded rectangle and a triangle to easily create an OS X popover.

Little Things

There are also a few smaller changes that make vector editing a breeze in CS6. For example, the direct select tool has more wiggle room when it comes to selecting very small vector objects. I often create single-pixel lines when designing websites and interfaces, and before, it was essentially impossible to select something that small with the Direct Select tool. Now, anytime you click in the vicinity a small object, Photoshop will give some leeway and select it for you.

Another pleasant little addition I’ve found is that after you’ve adjusted or selected the anchor points on a vector object, they will remain selected whenever you return to that object.

Layer Management

Layer Filtering

Sometimes, after working in a document for a long time, you end up with what Fantastic Mr. Fox might call a “clustercuss” of layers. Being unable to find the layer you need amongst a sea of layers is not fun and can be a waste of time. Thankfully, CS6 now provides a thin strip of powerful tools to narrow down and find the layer you might be looking for.

Filter your layers by Kind, Name, Effect, Mode, Attribute, and Color.

Filter your layers by Kind, Name, Effect, Mode, Attribute, and Color.

Most of the time, I am still using the methods I have previously used to find layers, and generally prefer them. To find vector objects, I like using the Path or Direct Select tools to click the object directly in the canvas, which that will jump you to its respective layer. For non-vector layers, I usually right-click on the object in the canvas; Photoshop will then show you a list of all of the layers under the cursor’s current position and allow you to select the one you’re looking for.

Right-clicking on a layer will show you all of the layers beneath your cursor. This nifty feature has long existed in Photoshop.

Right-clicking on a layer will show you all of the layers beneath your cursor. This nifty feature has long existed in Photoshop.

Sometimes, however, I do find it useful to narrow down my layer list to a certain type of layer, such as text, so that I can easily change all of their fonts or sizes in one swoop.

Layer Styles on Groups

One of my favorite new layer features is the ability to apply layer styles to an entire group. How often do you have a bunch of layers that all need the same styling? Before you would have to change the layer style on one, copy it, and paste it to all the others. Rather than performing this tedious action over and over again, I can now just put all of these layers into a group, and edit the entire group’s layer style. This allows me to easily see the effect applied on all of the layers at once.

Note that the gradient does not apply to each layer individually; it treats all layers in the group as one big object and stretches across them.

Note that the gradient does not apply to each layer individually; it treats all layers in the group as one big object and stretches across them.

Clipping Layers on Groups

You can now also clip a layer over an entire group. Clipping, if you weren’t sure, is when one layer intersects another layer (or now, a group), and only the parts of the layer that intersect the other layer/group are shown; the parts of the layer that do not intersect are invisible.

Clipping a photo over text or a shape always looks cool. Now you can easily do it to a whole group full of text and shapes.

Clipping a photo over text or a shape always looks cool. Now you can easily do it to a whole group full of text and shapes.

Little Things

There are a number of ways CS6 allows you to perform actions on multiple layers at once. This bulk modifying has saved me time in a number of instances already. For example, you can select multiple vector shapes and alter their fill and stroke colors all together. You can now also select multiple layers and lock or unlock them all, or change the blending mode on all layers at once.

One last nifty bulk-modifying action you can perform is closing or opening all layer styles in your document with a single click. If you hold the option key while clicking the button that closes one layer’s styles, this will close every other layer’s styles, instantly making your layer list tidier and easier to navigate.

General Additions and Improvements

Auto Recovery

While some people complain about Photoshop crashing often, I work with relatively large documents (around 100MB), and rarely experience crashes (it does slow down to a crawl sometimes). That being said, it just takes one crash to occur at an inopportune time to really ruin your day. Knowing that unsaved progress will be recoverable after a crash gives me peace of mind those times when I briefly see the spinning beachball of death appear and I can’t remember when I last saved my progress.

Background Saving

When saving a large document in previous versions of Photoshop, an invasive progress bar would pop up over your work, prohibiting you from doing anything as it saved. Now, Photoshop will unobtrusively save your work as you go.

The background saving progress in CS6.

The background saving progress in CS6.

New Crop Tool

Using the new crop tool is a bit tricky at first, like using inverted scrolling in Lion for the first time. Rather than moving and rotating a crop selection around your canvas, you are really moving and rotating the canvas itself around behind the selection. The result of this is that you now always see your cropped selection centered and level on the screen, and I find, you get a better overall feel for how your crop is going to look.

Notice how the canvas has been rotated, but the crop selection appears level.

Notice how the canvas has been rotated, but the crop selection appears level.

On-Canvas Dimensions

This is a nifty little feature that I find myself using often. Any time you select, move, or transform an object, a small overlay will follow your cursor around telling you the dimensions of the object in pixels, or the number of pixels you have moved the object. I use it all the time as a makeshift ruler, making a selection around an object or space that I want to measure.

On-canvas dimensions are especially useful for keeping certain objects uniform in size when transforming.

On-canvas dimensions are especially useful for keeping certain objects uniform in size when transforming.

Create Shapes By Dialog

This is a feature from Illustrator that I have long wanted in Photoshop. If you know the exact dimensions, corner radius, etc. of a shape that you want to create, you can simply select a shape tool, click the canvas, and a dialog will appear that lets you input the info.

This is great for making identical shapes when you know the exact dimensions.

This is great for making identical shapes when you know the exact dimensions.

Dithered Gradients In Layer Styles

When you create a gradient from one color to another, there are many minutely different shades of color that must be displayed in between. Often times, the color mode that you are using does not support all of these slight variants of color, and you experience something known as banding. Banding is when there are noticeable, solid bands of color in your gradient.

Turn your brightness all the way up and look closely at this gradient. You should notice the solid bands of color.

Turn your brightness all the way up and look closely at this gradient. You should notice the solid bands of color.

To fix banding, you can do something known as dithering the gradient, which creates the illusion of a smooth gradient by mixing pixels of different colors together. Unfortunately, dithering had never been an option when creating gradients in the layer styles screen. In CS6 you can simply check off “Dither” in the Gradient Overlay screen to keep all of your gradients banding-free.

Features I Haven’t Really Been Using

I know that there are many people out there who do more in Photoshop than design, and who might appreciate a few features that haven’t played a role in my daily workflow.

Video Editing

Something that I was unaware of until researching for this article was that the premium version of CS5 actually had some modest video editing features available. With CS6 however, video editing has gotten a complete overhaul, and will now be available in the non-extended version of Photoshop as well. Using the new timeline feature, you can employ all of the Photoshop tools you are familiar with to adjust colors, use layer styles, and add things like filters and text.

3D

With the improved 3D editing capabilities, working with 3D renders is much more accessible and simple for all users. Once you make a text layer and choose “New 3D Extrusion From Selected Layer” in the 3D menu, you can actually change the text, which is great since previously you had to start from scratch if you wanted something different.

There are also nifty handles for adjusting the depth of the text on the page and the angle of the light, amongst other improvements in the 3D options and general interaction with the program while creating renders. If you want to see a great tutorial for this feature, check out this video.

New Blur Tools

Photographers are probably going to love these. I recently reviewed a simple Mac app called Focus that attempts to recreate the blur effects made by changing the focus of a camera lens. You can now easily create these blur effects in Photoshop as well using the new Iris, Field, and Tilt-Shift blurs.

With the Field blur, you place pins onto the canvas and adjust how much the area around them is blurred. It takes a little while to get the hang of it, but basically you end up placing pins all around an object to blur the background/foreground, and then you place pins on the object in focus with a blur of 0 px to keep it from getting blurred. After dropping a number of properly placed pins, you can create an authentic lens blur effect on a photo even when the object in focus is oddly shaped.

The focus is on Ron Swanson in all of his glory, thanks to the Field Blur tool.

The focus is on Ron Swanson in all of his glory, thanks to the Field Blur tool.

The Iris blur seems to work similarly, allowing you to place blur pins on the canvas, except the blur emanates from the pins in ovals, and you can carefully fine tune how each of the blurs is feathered. Finally, the Tilt-Shift blur allows you to create extreme perspective blurs around objects in the photo, which is often used to give photos the novelty miniature effect.

Criticism

While CS6 has introduced many features and small improvements that I have always wanted, there remain some long-sought features that I am a bit disappointed we still aren’t seeing yet. These are some things I hope that Adobe gets around to in a future upgrade.

More Native

Granted, the interface looks a lot better in Photoshop this time around, but Adobe failed to add the little touches that would make the app feel more native on OS X. While Photoshop has a fullscreen mode, it does not offer the native fullscreen mode in Lion. This would allow you to keep Photoshop in a separate space and switch between it and the desktop using the three finger gesture.

Photoshop still shows permanent scrollbars and tracks, rather than using Lion’s clean scrollbars that only appear while scrolling, and there is no bounce scroll at the ends of the lists. Apple makes it easy for apps in Mountain Lion to add the Share Sheets button that lets you easily share content from the app. Would it be too much to ask for Adobe to add a Share Sheets button that would let me easily email, chat, or upload and provide a link to a PNG of what I’m currently working on? Yeah, that would probably be too much.

Layer Style Stacking and Rearranging

There are times when using a layer style once on a layer just doesn’t cut it. For example, I often have to apply a drop shadow to a layer in more than one direction. Currently, you have to use workarounds that involve duplicating the layer and applying a style to that. It would be nice if you could stack a style to apply it more than once, and rearrange styles, so that you could decide which ones appear on top of or below others.

Changing Corner Radius of Existing Rounded Rectangles

Rounded rectangles are one of the most common shapes in interface and web design. It can be tough though to get the corner radius, or the extent to which the corners of the rectangle are rounded off, just right. Testing different corner radii involves constantly deleting and creating new rectangles, so it would be appreciated if Photoshop just let you adjust the corner radius of a rectangle even after it has been drawn.

A Unified Deselect Shortcut

When I first started using Photoshop, I remember it took me quite a while to figure out that text has to be deselected with cmd+enter, and vectors with enter. Cmd+d deselects selected pixels in the canvas; why not make cmd+d deselect any selected object in the canvas, so I don’t always have to assess my situation and find the proper shortcut to use? It would also be nice if the shortcut were consistent with Illustrator, which currently does its own thing in terms of shortcuts.

Select Anchor Points From Multiple Vectors At Once

Sometimes you have several vector shapes in the canvas that you want to modify in some way. In Illustrator, it is possible to select anchor points on different vector shapes at once and adjust them simultaneously. In Photoshop, I am often forced to select each vector shape one at a time and make my changes. Since vector support drastically improved overall in CS6, I am hoping we will see Photoshop adopt more of Illustrator’s vector skills in future versions.

Conclusion

Overall, I find this version of Photoshop to be a wonderful update. The whole experience feels more solid, thanks to features like the revamped interface and background saving. I am wasting less time wrestling with vectors because of the improved handling features, and I am finding ways to incorporate all of the new layer filtering and editing features into my workflow.

At around $200, or whatever the final upgrade from previous versions of Photoshop ends up costing, is it worth it? It is hard to assess the value of a purchase this big when people often nitpick over whether a $10 app should really be $5.

As the esteemed Pixelmator continues to progress as a photo-editing app at a modest price of $30, I wonder if we will ever see future versions of Photoshop that are more affordable, or sold through the Mac App Store for that matter. For the time being, I at least recommend that you download the free beta in order to see how much you will benefit from it. I have found it sturdy and reliable enough to use full time.


Summary

Overall, this beta is a wonderful update to Photoshop. The improvements to vector and layer functionality have already become important parts of my workflow. And there are plenty of new features for all Photoshop users, including the advanced video editing and 3D enhancements. Try the beta and see for yourself!

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