Adobe Photoshop CC Review: Photo Editing for Experts

Who it's for: Professional photographers, graphic artists and dedicated enthusiasts.

Photoshop CC is the de facto queen of photo-editing software, providing just about every tool and option you might need to fully realize your vision for your images, and prepare them for display, exhibition or publication. However, this $10 to $20 monthly subscription-based program is also complex and difficult to master.

Photoshop CC is best suited for professional and enthusiast photographers who need or enjoy using top-of-the-line creative tools, even if the process can be time-consuming and require developing an expertise with the program to use it effectively.

Packages and Pricing: What You Need (and Don’t) 

Photoshop is available as part of a full Creative Cloud membership, which includes about 20 Adobe applications ($50/month), as a standalone product ($20/month) or in the Photography Plan ($10/month). All of these plans include two full installations on a Mac and/or PC.

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The standalone Photoshop CC includes Adobe Bridge, Camera RAW, Typekit (access to Adobe’s extensive font library) membership in Behance (a photography social network) and a Behance Prosite (portfolio website), Extension Manager, Photoshop Mix and 20 GB of online storage. 

If all you care about is Photoshop, it makes more financial sense to purchase the Creative Cloud Photography Plan, which includes the photo-processing program Lightroom (see review), Photoshop CC, Bridge, Camera RAW, plus 2 GB of online storage, and the mobile apps Photoshop Mix and Lightroom Mobile. However, the Photography Plan doesn't include Typekit or Behance.

For many photographers, the full $50/month Creative Cloud membership is intimidating and overkill, because it includes dozens of programs that most photographers have no interest in using, such as Premiere Pro video-editing software or Flash Professional Web graphics software.

Design and Interface: Extensive, Intimidating but Tamable

Following traditional standards, Photoshop's interface is essentially a blank screen surrounded by the expected toolbox to the left, drop-down menus and a tool options ribbon on the top, and palettes to the right. Buried under that arrangement is an incredibly wide array of tools, commands and functions.

To help you tame this extensive network of features and options, you can choose from among several default workspaces to display the palettes most needed for Essentials, 3D imaging, Motion (video and animation) editing, Painting, Photography editing or Typography.

For instance, the Photography workspace displays nested palettes that include Layers, Channels, Histogram, Actions (macros), and so forth. You can also save user-defined workspaces, depending on what palettes you use frequently and want to have always open. Recognizing that the empty Photoshop workspace can be intimidating, Adobe recently added a Welcome screen with links to tutorials, tips and how-to's.

Even experienced users should find the Welcome screen of value, since it also has a regularly updated New Features section. That's part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud promise – that it will roll out additions and improvements on a regular basis. At the time of our testing (December 2014), the newest feature was Shared Libraries. Previously, in October, seven videos on new features had been posted.

Organizing Your Photos: Limited Capabilities of Bridge

Photoshop is first and foremost an image-editing program. Asset management is handled by Bridge, a separate but tightly integrated program.

Bridge manages and organizes your photo and video files (as well as the files related to other Adobe products in your system). It has the usual keyword and metadata controls, star ratings, virtual Collections, and so forth. But it lacks the quick workflow or rich feature set of Lightroom, nor does it have the easy geotagging available in competing programs, including Photoshop Elements (though it does capture editable geographical metadata from your camera).

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Photo Editing: Smarter, New and Evolving Features

Photoshop has already achieved a pinnacle of quality and power, and it continues to evolve, adding new features, functions and methods, while trimming or expanding others. A number of recent improvements focus on streamlining the user's workflow by making tools and features more intelligent. (If you want to try some upcoming changes while they are still in development, you can now check to enable Experimental Features in the program's Preferences menu.)

Focus Mask

The new Focus Mask analyzes an image to find the portion that is most in focus, which is typically the subject of the picture. Based on that analysis, the program will automatically generate a mask or selection of that portion of the image.

This tool works best on images with a shallow depth of field. The selection is almost never perfect, but it gives the artist a much quicker starting point.

Layers

A single Photoshop image can have scores (or more) of layers, which used to make it difficult to find and work on one specific one. In the improved Layers palette, you can now filter your view of the layers by type (picture, adjustment layer, text, shape or smart objects). In addition, it's possible to now select several layers in the picture itself and isolate them within the layers palette.

Smart Guides

Smart Guides have become significantly smarter in Photoshop CC. By default, they now provide visual clues and measurements as you draw or move objects around in your picture. This is a great help with aligning objects and distributing them evenly whether on the same or different layers.

New Motion Blur Effects: Spin Blur and Path Blur

Adobe has also rethought some of the more established tools. For instance, the new Spin Blur creates a radial blur that provides control points for size, shape, center point and so forth, for more realistic or creative effects. With a Path Blur, you can draw any shape path in your image, and the blur will follow it.

3D Printing

Photoshop already had the ability to create models for 3D printing. The latest version includes a new rendering engine to produce more realistic previews of 3D models with higher resolution for showing textures.

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Sharing and Output: Syncing Through Creative Cloud

Given the name, Photoshop CC – Creative Cloud -- Adobe puts a suitable emphasis on Web-based functions and services. These include free online storage for your images, which you can also share even with those friends or collaborators not on Creative Cloud, and integration with Adobe's Behance online portfolio community.

In addition, Photoshop Mix -- a free iPad app extension that works with layered images and selection tools – can share edited pictures with Photoshop CC. (Adobe hasn't indicated when Mix will be available for Android devices.)

Sharing in Photoshop focuses not on social media but on productivity and collaboration. For instance, you can sync your program and tool settings to the cloud, so your workspace is identical on any system where you install Photoshop. Since your purchase includes two installations of the program, this is useful, as well as a helpful backup for your program preferences.

Similarly, the new Libraries are sharable, project-specific collections of the colors, styles, fonts and such used for a specific project or client.

In addition, you can now extract assets from a PSD (Photoshop native) file. Say you're on a committee that is creating the signs, posters and invitations for a charity event. You can be sure that everyone is using the same colors, fonts and graphics that have been designed for that event, creating a unified "look" and brand.

In the past, when you shared a project, such as a poster or invitation with lots of fonts or embedded graphics, you had to remember to send all the linked files. Now you can select Package from the File menu, and Photoshop will automatically gather and save all the related media, fonts and so forth that your partners will need to work on that project.

Help and Learning: Improving but still problematic

Adobe has a well-earned reputation for excellent tutorials, helpful blogs and how-to videos. However, it isn't always easy to find the specific help you need on a specific tool or feature when you're working in Photoshop.

The new Welcome screen is major improvement, providing immediate access to information about new features, how to get started, and tips and technique videos. However, Help is entirely Web-based, with a very poor search engine that isn’t specific to Photoshop.

For instance, if you are looking for how to use a particular tool, you need to type "Photoshop CC" in the search field. Otherwise, you'll get links to instructions for the entire collection of Adobe products. Even a search limited to Photoshop CC will typically result in lots of links, only a couple of which are relevant to the user's current question.

Bottom Line

Photoshop set the standards for just about every other photo-editing program. As such, it has everything you'd need to fully realize your vision for your images, as long as you don't want or need a consumer program-type assist with projects.

While many users are unhappy that Photoshop is now available only via a subscription membership, the Creative Cloud environment means that Adobe rolls out new features and improvements on a regular basis. The newest additions have emphasized more efficient workflow and productivity with a handful of attractive and useful creativity enhancements.

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