Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

Adobe’s artificial intelligence bonanza accomplishes many complex tasks with one-click aplomb

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Adobe)

Tom's Guide Verdict

Adobe has harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to simplify complex, labor intensive operations and amplify Photoshop’s functionality for photographers, graphic designers, and artists.


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    Sky Replacement feature is easy to use and enormously helpful

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    Refine Hair button saves a massive amount of time and labor

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    Plenty of in-app help and resources


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    Some new Neural filters are a bit cheesy

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    Beta versions specifically for ARM-based computers are not officially supported and lack some features

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Update: Adobe has begun rolling out a "freemium" web-based version of Photoshop.

Photo editors can count on regular updates to Adobe Photoshop CC, the company’s subscription-based photo editing program, but there is still a yearly major update of the program that’s designed to make a splash. This year, the company rolled out an immense upgrade for Photoshop 22, also known as Adobe Photoshop CC 2021.

This latest version of Photoshop increasingly relies on Sensei, Adobe’s highly touted artificial intelligence engine, to facilitate a host of impressive features. The most high-profile of these include Sky Replacement, new Refine Edge selections, Neural Filters with an eye toward simplifying complex workflows, and new searchable options for help and other features.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Price and availability

Photoshop CC 2021 is available only via subscription as part of three possible options. However, they have begun rolling out a "freemium" model that can be used in either Chrome or Edge web browsers. This "freemium" version is currently available to select Canadian users, and will give free access to what Abobe calls Photoshop’s “core functions.” 

For $53 per month, you get Photoshop as part of an entire Creative Cloud package that also includes 20 CC desktop and mobile apps like Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Premier Pro, InDesign, After Effects, plus fonts and 100GB of cloud storage. For $10 per month, you get the Photography plan, which offers Photoshop, Lightroom and Lightroom CC for the desktop and 20GB of online storage. For $21 per month you get the same Photography Plan with 1TB of online storage.

Here is a more detailed list of Adobe’s pricing for Photoshop CC.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: System requirements

Photoshop can span multiple systems without a loss in functionality, though users with older systems may have to wait longer for some operations to complete. Photoshop is available both on the desktop for Mac and Windows and also on the iPad.

Windows users need to run Windows 10 (version 1809 or later) with at least 8GB of RAM and preferably 16GB. A GPU with DirectX 12 support and 2GB of GPU memory is the bare minimum. You also need 4GB of available hard-disk space with additional space for installation.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Macs need a multicore 64-bit Intel processor running macOS Mojave (version 10.14) or later. The app requires at least 8GB, and preferably 16GB, of RAM and 4GB of available hard-disk space with more needed for installation.

Adobe has beta versions available for new ARM-based computers for both Mac and Windows, but warns that these versions are not officially supported and are not fully featured as yet.

Photoshop CC 2021 is loaded with new features; we’ve highlighted the highest-profile ones below. 

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Sky Replacement

It’s impossible to calculate how many hours photographers spend trying to make a dull sky look presentable – but it’s astronomical. Sure, you could surgically swap out a background, but that’s detailed work involving painstaking selections, replacements, and blending. With Photoshop 2021, you can simply replace the sky with a command, an easy operation that takes less than a minute. It’s so easy, you might feel guilty. You can use the presets built into Photoshop, which come in three categories: Blue Skies, Spectacular, and Sunset.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

This is a respectable vista, but the sky is quite dull. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

You won’t want to just stop at presets because a sky both represents and affects the lighting for the rest of the photo, which the replacement feature handles automatically. Adobe has also added foreground adjustments like Flip to change the direction of the light, Lighting Adjustment, and Color adjustment, to further harmonize the new sky with your intentions for the photo.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

The Sky Replacement can really liven up a landscape in just the right way. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

There are plenty of choices and endless tweaks to give you the sky of your dreams without hours of hard labor. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

You don’t have to rely on Adobe’s built-in presets at all. Instead, you can easily import your own sky images to work into your photo. What makes this feature really shine is the ability to adjust the parameters after the fact. Each adjustment comes with its own mask so that you can tweak it the same way as any other adjustment. I found the combination of controls easy to work with for dramatic improvements to landscapes accomplished in a few clicks – which is the point.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Neural Filters

Nowhere does Photoshop’s reliance on artificial intelligence reach as far as in Adobe’s new Neural Filters, which are based on machine learning algorithms. Skin Smoothing and Style Transfer are the two officially released filters, with the former the most useful in smoothing facial and skin imperfections. You want the visage to look natural, only better. The Neural Filter – which you toggle on or off when it recognizes a face – mostly does a nice, subtle job, giving you the option to blur and smooth even more.

Skin Smoothing

I found the blurring tweak a bit much, and turned it down on some faces in order to preserve the look of natural skin texture. Mostly the smoothness at 50 percent was enough, but you can crank it up just a tad, and still have a natural looking face.

My only complaint about this feature is that it sometimes doesn’t blend well with necks, so there may be an obvious contrast with the neck, though on the bright side, it prevents you from going too far. You can still tweak the generated mask, adjust exposure, tone, brightness, and other parameters just like any other photo, and the results are non-destructive.

Style Transfer

Style Transfer, the other officially released Neural Filter, imparts the style of an image to your current photo, kind of like the Prisma app on the iPhone. While it’s fun and creative, it may have less practical use.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

The Style Transfer Neural Filter gives the photo the stylistic character of a painting. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

There are plenty of styles to choose from and numerous ways to tweak them. You can be sure no two results will ever be identical. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Smart Portraits

Adobe has a bunch of other cloud-based Neural Filters still in beta — and some are kind of way out. The most interesting of the lot is Smart Portraits, which lets you adjust critical aspects of a subject’s features. You can make your subject look happy, sad, or angry. You can change their age, the direction of their gaze, thicken hair, and alter head or light direction. These filters don’t always give you the results you’re expecting but they’re fun to play with, and even a little scary sometimes.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

It’s really easy to use the manipulation features in Smart Portrait to artificially generate emotions, facial features, age, and hair adjustments. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

The Smart Portrait feature is still in beta, but it managed to shave some 40 years off the subject in a fairly realistic way. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

The angry expression is a fake, generated entirely by the Neural Filter on a portrait that was already heavily manipulated. Still, it looks frighteningly natural. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

In addition to the two released filters, and several beta filters such as Colorize, Super Zoom, Photo Restoration, and more, Adobe is also gauging interest from users for developing a slate of additional proposed neural filters.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Refine Hair and Object Aware

Hair and fur are the bane of existence for photographers who seek to select and isolate subjects from their background. Photoshop has a long history of improving selection tech with its Photoshop upgrades and now, the new Refine Hair button can be a truly one- or two-click operation. It’s super easy to use and stunningly accurate, even on hair wisps blowing in the wind.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

To isolate this squirrel from his surroundings, you need to capture his fan tail. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

The new Refine Hair button works specifically to select hair and fur. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

The button, plus a few slider-based refinements, did a great job on this otherwise difficult selection, right down to his teeny whiskers. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

There are numerous ways to view your selection and then save it to a new layer. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

One reason we are able to mask the fur so quickly and easily is that the Select and Mask workspace now offers an improved Select Subject button and a new refine-edge option called Object Aware, in addition to the older Color Aware. Color Aware is best for simpler backgrounds where it’s easier to differentiate between the subject and the background, while the new option is better at handling busier backgrounds.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Pattern Preview

Photoshop isn’t just about photography. This upgrade offers a huge convenience for designers in the Pattern Preview function, which lets you create a tile that you can use as part of a seamless background pattern for any kind of design.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

You can use any image or image set to start a repeating pattern. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Just identify your pattern, enable Pattern Preview, add any elements you want to one part of the canvas, rotate or transform the objects anywhere on the canvas, and the result repeats endlessly and precisely throughout the canvas. Once you’re done, you can turn off the preview and you are left with the exact tile you can use to create the pattern.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

Add other elements or tweak anywhere on the canvas and it repeats as part of the pattern. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Discover panel

The Help menu now launches a new Discover panel that lets you search for specific help directly in the program rather than having to sign into Adobe’s web-based forum or other third-party help. Discover is designed to help users with specific problems based on your queries and content you’ve already worked with. It also brings up tools and tutorials, and even offers immediate menu-based pointers -- a wee bit like Photoshop Elements’ Guided Edits -- which can be a huge help to both new and experienced users.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

This super helpful panel uses AI to determine what kind of help you may be looking for. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

A single click performs multi-step operations, but everything is customizable. (Image credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide)

One aspect of Discover is Quick Actions, droplet type commands that perform a series of actions in one go. Right now, Adobe includes four actions in the new Discover Panel: Remove background, Blur background, Make B/W background, and Enhance image, but more are promised.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Many more new features

Photoshop CC 2021 has tons of other improvements, and overall they are well thought out and helpful. For example, this version adds Brush Tool search alongside various specific preset searches, quick access to the popular Content Aware Fill feature, one-click reset of smart objects (layers containing editable raster and vector data) from any number of transform operations, permanent offline availability of online stored documents, precise versioning for cloud documents, and a new plug-in menu to discover and install plugins from Adobe’s marketplace.

Adobe updated and revamped its live shape tools, providing new ways to work with lines, rectangles, polygons, and triangles, with new controls that make resizing and adjusting shapes easier and faster. All of these significant features work as advertised.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021: Bottom line

Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 is not fooling around. It delivers a ton of AI-based improvements to your workflow that offer simple, one-click handling that save time and effort for operations that you perform all the time, whether it’s improving portraits, selecting and masking, editing landscapes, accessing content aware fill, or creating backgrounds for print or web.

While the Sky Replacement, Refine Hair, and Skin Smoothing Neural Filter are worth the price of admission, this new version of Photoshop is loaded with enhancements big and small that appeal to a wide range of users from photographers to graphic designers to painters. More casual photo editors may find that Adobe Photoshop Elements ($99) is a more cost-effective option, but for those who need more powerful tools and can benefit from more frequent updates, you can’t beat Photoshop CC. There’s literally something that will benefit every user, regardless of specialty.

Jackie Dove

Jackie is an obsessive, insomniac tech writer and editor in northern California. A wildlife advocate, cat fan, and photo app fanatic, her specialties include cross-platform hardware and software, art, design, photography, video, and a wide range of creative and productivity apps and systems. Formerly senior editor at Macworld and creativity editor at The Next Web, Jackie now writes for a variety of consumer tech publications.