Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 19, 2009
The price of software, at least according to the conventional wisdom, is rapidly tending toward zero. That may well be true for consumer applications and even some standard business programs, as offerings such as Google’s and Zoho’s Web-based office suites challenge standards such as Microsoft Office.
But don’t even think about free in the world of specialized professional software, where people are prepared to pay big bucks for the tools they need. Two companies that understand this are Adobe and Wolfram Research. I’ll take a look at Wolfram;s Mathematica in a future post but for now, let’s consider Adobe’s new Creative Suite 4. With versions that run as high as $2,499 for a single copy of the all-inclusive Master Collection, contains all the software tools creative professionals need, including Photoshop for image editing, Dreamweaver for Web page design, InDesign for print page layout, Illustrator for drawing, and Flash for creation of Web animations and video, though not all programs are in all packages. CS4 is offered in a variety of configurations with prices starting at $999, or $399 as an upgrade.
The component programs are also sold individually and I’m going to focus on Photoshop, the best known program and certainly the one that I use the most. Considering its maturity, there’s an awful lot new in Photoshop CS4, which starts at $699, or $199 as an upgrade.
I’ve been using Photoshop for years, though I am still far from an expert. The new version incorporates features that will save time for experts while making advanced features far more accessible to the beginner. Two of the most power tools in Photoshop are layers and masks. Layers let you make changes in images that do not alter the underlying picture and which can selectively be turned on an off. Masks let you make changes in a selected part of an image without affecting other parts.
In earlier versions the preferred method to adjust, say the color balance or exposure, of a photo was to create an adjustment layer and then select the appropriate adjustment tool from a menu. The new Adjustments panel offers an easy to use palette of all the adjustment tools. Even better, when you select a tool, anything you do with it is automatically applied to a new adjustment layer. There’s nothing here you couldn’t do before, but you can do it quicker and more simply.
The Curves tool is one of the most powerful weapons in the Adjustments arsenal . It gives you tremendous control over the lighting and color of a picture, but it also makes it very easy to make of complete mess of your image. A new click-and-drag tool helps tame the curves. Drag the tool to a shadow area of your picture and moving the mouse up or down will lighten or darken the shadows. Go to a highlight or a midtone and dragging will change that part of the tonal range
The new Curves panel
Masks are another fundamental Photoshop tool made easier in CS4. You create a mask automatically whenever you use a selection tool such as the magic wand or the lasso and a new Masks panel makes it much easier to manipulate your masks.
One of the most interesting features of Photoshop CS4 is a new tool called content-aware scaling. Often you need to change the shape of a photo, either to fit a specific print size (4x6, 5x7, and 8x10 prints all have different aspect ratios) or to fit a layout in a document or Web page. Often you can get the image to the shape you want simply by cropping the photo, but sometimes you can’t quite the framing right. Content-aware scaling lets you change the shape by compressing or stretching relatively unimportant parts of the image, which Photoshop basically defines as areas of low contrast, while not distorting the key elements of the picture. It won’t work with every picture and you have to be careful not to do it or you can introduce some weird effects, but it is a very powerful tool.
The original image
The image after smart scaling.
Editing large images, especially the high pixel count RAW images generated by the latest digital single-lens reflex cameras, can be very processor-intense. The new CS4 apps are designed not only to take advantage of multiple processors but to make use of the tremendous processing power found on the current generation of graphics adapters. You’ll probably see the biggest boost under either Windows or Mac OS X if you have a relatively recent (GeForce 8400 or higher) NVIDIA adapter with Cuda technology.
Serious amateur photographers don’t find Photoshop’s price too daunting—it still costs less than many lenses. But I hope that these new features make their way into Photoshop’s little brother, the much cheaper ($80) but still very powerful Photoshop Elements in its next version.