As many of you may know, Adobe released Photoshop CS6 today.  The burning question in a lot of peoples’ minds, including my own, has been whether or not Adobe Photoshop CS6 is worth the $199 upgrade.  If you’re using an earlier version of photoshop than CS5, the decision to upgrade now is a potentially costly decision once the upgrade for pre-CS5 users expires at the end of this year.  When Photoshop CS7 is rolled out next year, pre-CS5 users will effectively be locked out of the upgrade price and will be forced to purchase the full retail installation of Adobe Photoshop CS7.  So the question remains: to upgrade, or not to upgrade, that is the question.

Like many of you, I scoured all the photography blogs the moment the CS6 beta was released, looking to see what exciting new features Adobe was bringing to my digital darkroom.  Much of what I read seemed promising, but was written by either some tech magazine editor, and tried to encompass every single new feature Adobe has added, or simply a youtube review talking about the cool new interface without really saying anything meaningful about the functionality.  There are probably a gazillion reviews of the Photoshop CS6 beta at this point, but 99% of the reviews I was able to find simply were not written from the perspective of a working, professional photographer, particularly, a wedding and portrait photographer.  Many of the new features of CS6 are great, but have little to no relevance to someone that burns the midnight oil in the digital darkroom working on photos of people and not on videos or graphic design projects benefiting from 3D text editing capabilities.  I’m going to preface this review by stating that this is not an attempt by any means at a comprehensive review of the new features of Adobe Photoshop CS6 .  My aim is simply to provide a tangible review of Photoshop CS6 from the perspective of a professional photographer that photographs and retouches images of people for a living.  What follows are my first impressions on the release day of Photoshop CS6.

When I first learned of the new features of Photoshop CS6, I really wasn’t blown away.  Perhaps it was due in part to coming to expect Adobe to always over promise and under deliver, like they did with the initial CS5 teasers that flaunted their awesome Patch Match content aware technology that never made it’s way into Photoshop CS5, and now recently, with the mind-blowing deblurring function that I’m sure many of you drooled over when you watched the video clip from an Adobe conference last year.  I wasn’t exactly floored when CS5 was released and touted for being the fastest yet version of Adobe Photoshop. After my initial excitement over the new content aware features had waned, I found myself searching for justifications as to why CS5 was worth the upgrade.  To be honest, I dont think it was, at least not from the standpoint of someone that uses photoshop primarily for retouching purposes.  For starters, the liquify tool was crippled in CS5 and made my 2009 8 core mac pro grind to a halt, often leaving me stressing over the question of whether or not a costly hardware upgrade was in order.  Like many of you, I also found myself frustrated with large amounts of cursor lag while drawing with various brushes, and dont even get me started on my futile attempts to use surface blur/smart sharpen or simply the time delay/lag when trying to save a file.

What piqued my interest when they announced CS6 was the mention of their new Mercury Graphics Engine, which purported to add a dramatic performance increase by leveraging your GPU in addition to your CPU.  Adobe claims that certain features are up to 1,000 times faster thanks to their new graphics engine.  I was a little skeptical of this because, as with CS5, Adobe talked up the increased performance benefits of finally being able to leverage your graphics card’s processing power.  I played around with countless configurations with the GPU performance settings with CS5 and really didn’t notice much, if any difference, with GPU acceleration turned on or off.  I also read several performance boosting articles on how to optimize the tiles and cache settings to speed up CS5, but the results were pretty unimpressive after tweaking all the settings.  Was this simply a dormant feature that was added in CS5 as more of a marketing afterthought?  It looks that way.  Either way, I decided to take the risk and invest in the upgrade to CS6 to figure out if the promised performance benefits of the new Mercury Graphics Engine were for real.

To give you an point of reference for all subsequent references to speed, i’ll state the specs of my $6,000 mac pro:

2009  2.23GHZ 8-core Mac Pro


120GB Crucial SSD running OSX LION

1TB RAID array using 3 x 10,000 RPM Raptor drives

1TB Hitachi 7200RPM drive

4TB OWC External Raid Array

ATI 4870 500MB GPU

and a tiny hamster fueled by Rebull.

Just kidding about the last part, but you can clearly see that my machine, at least by Macintosh standards, is no slouch.  The GPU is a bit slow compared to current PC graphics card standards, but still a very good card compared to the $1000 + Nvidia Quadra graphics available to mac users.

I’m stoked to report that CS6 is legitimately faster than CS5 in a way that is immediately apparent.    Images open faster; saving an image is almost an immediate action, and it’s very cool how they’ve shrunk and integrated the save progress bar right into the window pane tab.  I used to curse in frustration as I went to save an image, hit ENTER at least 2-3 times before the SAVE AS dialogue box disappeared and Photoshop actually started saving my file.  This time around, it’s nearly instantaneous.  No more wasting excessive amounts of time waiting for my images to save.  Saving your files to an SSD or RAID drive should never be a bottleneck in your workflow, and i’m happy to report that the laggy save times of CS5 are a thing of the past.  This is all achieved by Adobe’s new background save feature, which minimizes the save progress dialogue box to the window pane tab.  Images aren’t necessarily saving THAT MUCH faster.  Adobe, however, has implemented a clever trick that dismisses the save process to the background and lets you get back to work instead of freezing your workflow until the save process is finished.  It’s a fantastic new feature that i’m glad to see implemented in CS6.  I use the liquify tool a lot in my workflow, and CS5 CRIPPLED this tool.  Yes, I’m aware of all the work-around techniques like reducing your image to 8-bits, only running liquify on a small selection and never the whole image, and even down-sizing the image and saving the liquified mesh and loading it onto the original image.  Despite these tricks, the liquify tool was practically unusable for me.  With Photoshop CS6, liquify is so rediculously fast that I closed the filter and reopened it several times to make sure that it wasn’t a software fluke.  My 128MB TIFF image opened immediately in the liquify workspace–literally, like it flashed onto the screen. With CS5, I watched, annoyed, as the image was loading in quarter sections until the whole image was visible to edit.  With CS6, it’s instantaneous–BAM! DONE!  Manipulating images takes on an almost three-dimensional CGI feel.  You can see your liquify manipulations in REAL TIME; there is no lag.   Use a large brush and you’ll marvel at the massively smooth pixel pushing power in your fingertips.  It’s just so damn fluid that I found myself playing around with an image haphazardly simply because it was FUN.  The CS6 liquify tool is like rediscovering your first experience with touch navigation on an iPhone.  It’s now a very rewarding experience.  Another improvement that I noticed is that I can now use my wacom tablet for liquify tool operations.  I dont know if it was a product of lag or poor programming, but the liquify tool was always extremely sensitive using my Wacom Intuos 4 tablet. They’ve since reduced the sensitivity to the point where you can make very accurate adjusts using your wacom pen.  I noticed that it no longer takes a millenium when using the bracket keys to increase your brush size–little improvements that go a long way to boosting productivity and reducing frustration.

Running plug-ins like Nik Color efex Pro also benefits from the new Mercury Graphics Engine in Photoshop CS6.  The user API in Nik Color efex opens much faster, and is a refreshing change from this time last year when everyone had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for most of the 3rd party plug-in developers to release 64-bit versions of their photoshop plug-ins.  I’m happy to report that the entire Nik software suite works with CS6.  Simply re-install your plug-ins, or copy them from CS5 into the CS6 plug-ins folder, and you’re good to go–no need to reactivate the software or reenter your serial keys.  Your plug-ins are much snappier and happier inside CS6.

My mac pro would literally freeze up when I tried using processing-intensive filters such as surface blur or smart sharpen.  It was particularly laggy in showing the filter preview pane, and was beach ball city after I tried to apply these features.  Now, the previews are instantaneous, and these advanced filters can be used at a quick pace now.  Surface blur provides an easy way to smooth skin tones when run on a duplicate of the low pass layer using split frequency separation techniques.  It’s not the most accurate technique, but it’s great for batch processing skin jobs.  Until now, I’ve had to use the less accurate gaussian blur filter because surface blur was all but unusable.  Now, it’s dramatically faster and can be incorporated in my workflow.  Smart sharpen is also something i’ve avoided, but have long wanted to incorporate into my workflow because it’s the most accurate, nondestructive sharpening algorithm that photoshop offers.  I  currently use a custom sharpening action, but will definitely be making use of smart sharpen now that it’s no longer lag city.

One of the new features of Photoshop CS6 that caught my attention was the new ability to specifically select skin tones in the color selection dialogue.  True, there was nothing stopping you from shift-cmd-clicking the skin to include all of the skin tones, but now you can simply select the ENTIRE RANGE of skin tones by using only the feathering slider.  This new feature is probably not going to get a ton of press compared to the more dramatic features like the content aware move tool, which I’ll talk about shortly.  But it is a very powerful, and efficient tool for any retoucher’s workflow, as it now enables to you create quick, effortless and easy masks to selectively apply your skin enhancements.  Programs like Imagenomic’s Portraiture have been masking their inverted high pass skin smoothing plug-ins to skin tone selections for some time now, but you can now do the same thing and create your own, FASTER, actions running natively inside CS6 instead of within a 3rd party plug-in that you have to wait for each time it opens.  This new feature is not without it’s flaws, as I found that even using the minimum feathered selection still capture a good bit of hair detail in my mask.  But a simple selection of the face using the quick select brush, followed by invert, delete gave me a very good skin mask with very little effort.

Being a wedding photographer, i’m keenly aware of the Tilt-Shift obession that has swept the wedding photography industry.  There are literally wedding photographers that shoot exclusively with TS lens for novelty’s sake and have based their style solely around the unique blurring effects that TS lenses create.  There are also plug-ins that aim to replicate the TS effect, although every single one i’ve seen to date utterly fails at replicating the bokeh that a tilt-shift lens produces.  I’ve personally avoided this trend like so many short-lived wedding photography trends that come and go, but I’ll admit that i’ve seen some beautiful photos using the tilt-shift effect in moderation.  Adobe must have picked up on this in one of their late-night think tank meetings, as CS6’s new blur tools reflects their attempt to capitalize on the tilt-shift pandemonium.  At first glance, the TS blur tool in CS6 looks like so many other failed attempts at replicating the unique look that only a TS lens can provide.  But once I played around with the tool for some time, I started to see it’s potential.  Adobe added the ability to create bokeh based on what I can imagine to be a  subtle tone-mapping of the specular highlights in your image.  You have to be careful to balance the bokeh slider with the blur slider, as too much of the bokeh slider just looks plain ridiculous.  A feature that sets this tool apart from the other TS plug-ins is that Adobe has give you the ability to blend the blurred region with the in-focus areas so that it doesn’t simply look like a straight gaussian blur that smears the image and drops off quickly to the in-focus area.  You really have to take the blending markers and pull them beyond the edge of the canvas to get a decently blended blur that doesn’t look amateurish.  Even so, Adobe hasn’t really given you the ability to feather the edge of the blur; they effectively let you shift and extend the blur inward or outward as much as your like, but the area of transition from in-focus to out of focus still falls off much to sharply to accurately represent a tilt-shift lens.  To solve this, you have to manually feather the edges of the filter using a mask.  What really impresses me about this filter is not that it’s successful in replicating the tilt-shift effect but rather it’s ability to create very natural-looking bokeh and out of focus areas from an image that was shot with a large depth of field.  The bokeh feature on the TS blur tool is very effective when used on images with lots of specular highlights and dappled lighting, such as pretty much any photo involving nature and contrasty lighting.  Wedding photographers often shoot wide open to deal with cluttered backgrounds and to improve compositions.  Several of my favorite photographers often shoot through colorful decorations, trees and even other wedding guests in an attempt to creatively frame their subjects.  A good number of them also use light overlays in their post processing, using various bokeh and flair patterns set to the screen blending mode to create very interesting compositions–and thereby also hiding distracting elements behind the blurred areas.  With the CS6 blur tools, you now have a way to create natural-looking bokeh that can be used as an added compositional aid in your images (and that’s all you’re going to hear from me about that before everyone catches on 😉  )






Another feature that’s probably not going to get a lot of press but deserves mentioning is the reintroduction of the lighting effects filters, now in 64-bit glory.  There has always been some controversy surround the the lighting effects tools; some people thought it was fake and an unused feature, others, like me, were left searching for 3rd party lighting plug-ins or were left to do things manually after Adobe removed these filters several versions ago.  The old spot and single point lighting filters are back, but new to Photoshop CS6 is the addition of the Infinite Point lighting filter.  This filter heavily leverages the new Mercury Graphics engine to show you a 3D shaded representation of how the shadows look depending on the angle of the filter.  Try tugging on the control point and dont be surprised when a three dimensional half sphere pops up looking like the Star Wars Death Star and shadows the main sphere in real-time as you move the control point around in three dimensions.  I didn’t get a chance to create any new images using this tool, but inclusion of a lighting filter that lets create directional shadows based on any direction within any X,Y,Z coordinates you fancy has a ton of potential for very cool image enhancements.  While I applaud those of you that have the time to set up lighting and get everything right in camera, sometimes there isn’t always time to add a fill light or edge light, and that’s where this new feature holds a lot of potential.  Be prepared to see some stealth lighting effects created using this tool in the near future.

CS5’s claim to fame was the inclusion of the ‘all-new’ content aware features, and so too with Photoshop CS6, we see the introduction of a brand new content aware tool: the Content Aware Move Tool.  This clever little time-saver lets you “move” an object by using content aware technology to cover up the original image so no one will catch on to your photoshop trickery.  Like CS5, this tool works brilliantly in the Adobe videos but leaves a lot to be desired for any serious professional.  Still, like content aware fill,  content aware move has its place and can produce some great results when used in the right image environments.  Content aware move really shines when you’re dealing with an image with a background with uniform textures such as blue sky dappled with puffy clouds that dont overlap each other, or on areas of dense grass and vegetation where no one will be the wiser if you remove a fencepost or any other random object that happened to flaunt its ugly head in your composition–just as you follow the general rule of avoiding using content aware tools on non-uniform areas of detail and texture.  Adobe’s content aware technology’s behavior using all the information available on screen, so it helps to draw a selection around only the areas you want to fix AND to invert-delete/fill w/ black the rest of the image so on your taret area is visible on screen.  You might get lucky when you roll the content aware dice, but more often than not, you’re not going to be happy with the crazy interpolations that content aware technology produces on unique areas of your images.  Arms sticking out of heads: yep, content aware fill can put even the worst of Dr.Zhivago’s creations to shame.  I should add that all the content area tools seem noticeably snappier and probably around 15-20% faster than in CS5–not a dramatic improvement, but still an improvement nonetheless.

I could go on and on about the other new features of CS6 such as the content aware crop tool, the autosave feature, new vector layer and masking effects, video editing capabilities and 3D text features (available in Photoshop CS6 Extended), but very few of the supposed 62% new features will make it into your daily workflow if your primarily photograph people and are not a graphic designer.  So i’ve chosen to focus on, at least for me, the most promising new features that will enhance creativity and speed up my post-processing workflow. One of the most dramatic changes Adobe has made to Photoshop CS6 is the radically redesigned interface.  Ok, maybe you wont find yourself going “Whoa.” like Keanu Reeves, but it’s a sharp departure from the tried and true two-tone gray interface theme that that’s pretty much remained unchanged since Photoshop’s inception.  Photoshop CS6 borrows heavily from the ‘digital darkroom’-themed Adobe Lightroom, that features a predominantly dark interface to make things much easier on your eyes during long editing sessions.  I’ve always found Photoshop’s default background to be too bright and distracting while editing images, and so I use a custom, darker shade of gray to make things easier on my eyes. CS6 takes this even further and made the ENTIRE INTERFACE something around 75% gray.  It’s easier on the eyes, but I also found myself searching a little more to find my way around the interface because there’s less contrast in the theme.  I’m sure it’ll  take some getting used to, and you can always switch back to the classic view, but it’s a nice change that makes your image the focus of the darkroom and not the interface.  The menus are now more streamlined and will auto-hide when not in use, and can be expanded by clicking a tab.  I’m not a huge fan of this, as I like to be able to see the channels and my recent history states rather than having to take an extra step to make them visible.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of learning a few shortcuts or preference changes, but i’m not really seeing a productivity benefit to this change.  Another notable improvement to CS6 is Adobe Camera Raw version 6.7, which many of you have probably experienced in Lightroom 4.  I’m not going to go into details on what ACR 6.7 brings to the table, but it’s a welcomed improved, and a noticeably faster interface in CS6 compared to CS5.

Should you upgrade to Photoshop CS6?  In a word, absolutely.  The performance benefits are no joke, and Adobe’s statement that performance has been boosted by up to 1,000 times in certain applications is confirmed by my experiences.  The whole experience is just snappier, more fluid and is FAST in areas where previous versions of Photoshop used to crawl to a halt.  It’s worth upgrading alone for the new Adobe Mercury Graphics Engine.  It will boost your productivity and is much, much less frustrating than previous versions of Photoshop.  CS6 also brings several new features that you will likely use on a regular basis to speed up your workflow and expand your creativity.  These new features are more evolutionary than revolutionary, but are a much welcomed addition to my digital darkroom.  Finally, there’s the new controversial upgrade policy that Adobe is instituting at the start of 2013 that will lock pre-CS5 users out of purchasing upgrades instead of full installations.  As much as it sucks to be forced into spending money when you weren’t intending to, CS6 is well worth the $199 upgrade cost when you balance all the improvements over the idea of paying $699 because you waited until 2013 to upgrade from CS2/3/4.


Adobe Photoshop CS6


Mercury Graphics Engine is FAST.

Certain applications are really 1,000 times faster, while others are 15-30% faster.

Fully compatible with 3rd party plug-ins.  Noticeable performance boost with 3rd party plug-ins.

Several new features that aren’t one-hit wonders but will become an integral part of your workflow and enhance your creativity.

Create Skin tone selections using the color select tool.

New blur filters offer novel ways to create realistic-looking bokeh.

The liquify tool is now a very rewarding experience.

Auto-save feature and no more save-as dialogue box lag.

New 64-bit lighting filters.

Adaptive wide-angle tool now lets you define perspective lines to guide wide angle distortion corrections.

Cool, new streamlined interface provides significantly less eye-strain during long hours in the digital darkroom.

Pay $199 now instead of $699 January 1st, 2013.


The hyped deblurring technology is nowhere to be seen, and the Patch Match technology seen in the pre-CS5 beta videos only makes its way into CS6 in the form of a rather unimpressive content aware move tool.

New interface takes some getting used to.

Performance boost is dramatic, but not across the board.

Pay $199 NOW instead of $699 January 1st, 2013.