Just when I thought Adobe had fulfilled my wish list with CS3, along came CS4, causing me to cross things off my wish list that I didn't even know were on it! This is one of the most useful, most workflow-friendly (and coolest) Photoshop upgrades to date.
As with most of the recent Photoshop upgrades, I fall back to an old line I'm fond of using: Any one new feature is worth the upgrades. However, with CS4, there are so many new and updated features, you'd have to be crazy not to upgrade. Let's look at some of my favorites. This is by no means a complete list, but I'm sure it will be enough to get you excited enough to at least check it out.
New Interface: The first thing you'll notice is that the workspace has an entirely new look and feel. While it takes a bit of getting used to, I got comfortable with it right away. One cool new feature is the Rotate View tool. You can actually rotate the image in the workspace without performing a rotation on the actual image.
Goodbye, Palettes: Don't panic! Adobe didn't get rid of the palettes--they just changed the names. They're now called Panels, and they've been streamlined to be more user-friendly. One major addition is the Adjustments panel. We no longer have to deal with a pop-up dialog box blocking half the screen whenever we run an adjustment (such as Curves, Levels, Color Balance, etc.). The adjustments reside in their own place in the panels on the side. Best of all, you don't have to commit or cancel an adjustment to do something to an image. You can simultaneously adjust and retouch.
There's also a new Refine Masks panel, which looks very similar to the Refine Edges panel that was introduced in CS3 but that works on masks instead. How many times have you made a selection and saved it as a mask, or created a layer mask, only to realize you need to modify it? In the past, you had to either start over, paint the mask to adjust it, or go through multiple steps. Not anymore.
Speaking of adjustments: A few were added and all were improved. Adobe added a Vibrance adjustment. Anyone who's used Lightroom knows adding vibrance increases saturation without oversaturating skin tones. Now it's a welcome part of Photoshop. Borrowing another Lightroom feature is the concept of Targeted adjustments. Some adjustments have a Targeted Adjustment icon. Click on it and you can click and drag on the image to isolate your adjustment to the area you just clicked.
New and Improved Camera Raw: When Lightroom 2 first came out, there were features that I wished could be part of Camera Raw. Well, someone must have heard me, because Camera Raw 5.2 is greatly improved. The two things that I love the most about it are the addition of the Adjustment brush and the Gradient Adjustment tool. Just as in Lightroom 2, you can paint in your adjustments, or use a gradient to adjust a larger area with a smooth transition (think blown-out sky).
But that's not all! Though still in beta, Adobe has improved camera profiles that allow us to match the color settings of some of the more well-known pro DSLRs. Photographers who were disappointed with the way Camera Raw rendered their colors no longer have to use multiple software programs to manage, correct, and retouch their raw files. You can do it under one roof--a huge workflow improvement.
One of my favorite improvements in Camera Raw 5 is Post Crop Vignetting. I no longer have to go through multiple steps or use third-party plug-ins to give my portraits that "burned corners" look. And, as a bonus, if I recrop the image in Camera Raw 5, the vignetting I created follows the crop, so I don't have to redo the corner burns. How cool is that?
Bridge: The changes to Bridge are mostly refinements, but they added a lot of useful things. The interface has been redesigned to flow better. There's a path bar that makes it easier to see where you are and navigate more easily. There's also a new Collections panel that lets you organize your files into virtual collections (à la Lightroom).
The biggest improvement is the Output panel. Printing out of Bridge has been greatly improved, and you can create PDF documents, as well as web galleries right in Bridge (Adobe actually removed the Web Photo Gallery feature from Photoshop into Bridge). There are lots of new templates, too. Bridge has really matured into a very useful, powerful program for organizing and managing files.
Tools: Many improvements have been made to all Photoshop's tools, notably Dodge, Burn, Sponge, Clone, and the Healing Brush, which now work much better and are more useful. One of my big "aha!" moments came when I discovered the new way of visually resizing brushes on the fly without leaving the work area to go to a menu or keyboard. It's very cool. Also improved is the Notes tool. It's way more useful and was redesigned so your image doesn't look like it's covered in Post-it notes.
Brush Resizing in Photoshop CS4: There is a new, visual way to resize your brushes. On a Mac, hold down the Control and Option keys while dragging the mouse. In Windows, hold the Alt key, while simultaneously holding the right mouse button and drag the mouse. Dragging the mouse to the right increases the diameter of the brush, while dragging to the left decreases the diameter. You can also change the brush hardness visually. On the Mac, hold down the Control, Option and Command buttons. On a Windows machine, hold down the Alt and Shift keys, while also holding down the right mouse button. With this key combination, dragging the mouse to the right increases brush hardness, while dragging it to the left decreases brush hardness. Or put another way, dragging to the left gives you a softer brush.
The screen grab shows what happens when you hold down the key combinations and drag the mouse. In this case, I'm resizing a soft-edged brush. The circle represents the brush diameter and the red circle in the middle shows the soft brush pattern. If I were using a hard-edged brush, the red circle would be completely solid, right up to the edge of the brush circle. This is very useful, since you never have to move your brush (or stylus) from the area you're working on to resize your brush. It's a much smoother workflow when you're retouching or painting.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what is perhaps the coolest new feature in CS4: Content Aware Scaling (CAS). This goes beyond cool. Imagine being able to transform or scale an image, let's say, from a horizontal image to a vertical image without squishing and distorting the main subjects. With CAS, Photoshop adjusts everything around what it recognizes as the important subject matter, leaving the main subjects completely undistorted. You have to see this to believe it! And yes, you can help Photoshop along by telling it what subjects you don't want distorted, so there's no doubt.
This has to be, in my opinion, the coolest new feature in Photoshop CS4 and I predict it will get a lot of use.
I've barely scratched the surface on the new features, but this should be enough to get you excited.
Gary Small of Photographic Creations, Inc. (www.jsmallphoto.com) has been a pro photographer since 1979. He's been working with digital imaging for more than 12 years and instructs other photographers in digital imaging, Photoshop, and color management.