Spring 1995

The layers of a floating image

Software: The new Photoshop 3.0

There is something very satisfying about opening a new software product from Adobe. From the packaging and the documentation to the labels on the floppy disks, Adobe’s products emanate the right balance of creativity and reliability. Such attention to detail has probably helped it in its quest to become the de facto software ‘brand’ for designers everywhere.

Not content with its already considerable strength in the market, Adobe merged last year with Aldus, thus ensuring a broad (some would say monopolistic) position. The dust from that merger is still settling, but three interesting results are already evident.

First, the merger gave Adobe a key product that it had previously lacked – PageMaker, a page layout program. PageMaker has been around for a long time and has a keen following, though it is generally less well regarded than QuarkXPress, its nearest rival. PageMaker will be released this year as Adobe PageMaker, and Quark must surely be shaking in its boots.

Second, Adobe Illustrator will strengthen its position as the leading drawing software. After the Adobe /Aldus merger, Aldus FreeHand, Illustrator’s nearest competitor, was given back to the original developer, Altsys, which has now merged with MacroMedia, the maker of Director and Authorware. MacroMedia Freehand was launched in January.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the merger means a rationalising of various image-manipulation products within the new company. Aldus products PhotoStyler and Hitchcock are simply being dumped – presumably because of the overlap with Photoshop and Premiere – while previously strong products such as Aldus Gallery Effects and After Effects are being folded into the Adobe branding machine. If Photoshop weren’t already the leading image-manipulation software in the market, this merger would ensure it.

The recent release of Photoshop 3.01 presents the most profound improvements yet to the program, the most dramatic of which is the new layer control for compositing elements. One of my biggest complaints about earlier versions of Photoshop was the limited ability to undo work done on an image: once a decision was made, it was set in stone, and if you needed to manipulate an image through multiple procedures, you had to keep saving interim copies of the file in case you wanted to go back and make alterations.

The new layer palette changes that. It lets you quickly bring a number of images into a document as separate layers and then work on them much as you might once have done on sheets of acetate. This means that not only can you experiment with different image compositions, you can also effect and treat layers independently with the huge number of manipulation controls in the program. Moreover, layer masks can be applied to individual layers, allowing selective application of effects, or variations on opacity or blending modes, without destroying any of the original data.

Images can be ‘dragged and dropped’ from the layer palette into different documents, and the layers can be rearranged (from top to bottom), linked, flipped, merged or flattened into a single layer for export to a page layout program.

The main disadvantage of this new layer feature is the size of images, which can become almost unworkable. Each layer is, in effect, its own image. So if you have five or six images in a single document, then the overall image size is a function of the number of images times each layer’s size. Unlike the (enormously expensive) program Live Picture, which allows you to work on low-resolution proxy files that the program renders as high-resolution when you have finished, Photoshop requires you to work on files at the resolution needed for final output. In a pre-press situation, that can mean working on a high-end Macintosh with a very fast hard drive and lots of RAM.

One way to overcome this problem is to work in RGB colour mode with the new CMYK preview enabled. RGB files take up less space and processing power on a Macintosh because RGB is a ‘native’ format for on-screen display. Though viewing RGB images does not give a faithful indication of what they will look like when converted to CMYK, the new preview mode lets you view images as they will print, and also throws up a Gamut Warning layer in front of the image indicating the areas that are unprintable. You can then use the tools to correct and balance problem areas.

In addition to the layers feature, Photoshop 3.01 includes several new filters. The Lighting Effects filter is extremely useful. It presents a thumbnail of an image and a variety of ‘lighting controls’ which are extensively modifiable, allowing you to subtly or dramatically alter the overall lighting of your image. User configurations can be saved for later retrieval.

The Dust & Scratches filter is one of my favourites, though it takes a little experimenting with the controls to achieve the optimum effect. This filter‘s basic purpose is to ‘clean up’ marks in old photographs or transparencies by finding ‘hot-spots’ in the image where certain pixels (within a user-defined threshold) stand out from the surrounding pixels. It treats these areas as dust specks or scratches, removes them and replaces them with an average of the surrounding pixels. Finding the right balance can be tricky, as setting too low a threshold results in the blurring of image detail everywhere.

The new Mezzotint filter is disappointingly crude, and I prefer to use several hits of the KPT Hue Protected Medium Noise filter (a third-party plug-in filter from HSC software).

On the de luxe CD that accompanies the new Photoshop release is a ‘filter factory’ which enables users to build their own image-manipulation filters. Not for the faint-hearted, it requires knowledge of pixel-level manipulation, and the user input needed to make it work is more mathematical than graphic.

Another useful feature of Photoshop 3.01 is the Quick Edit acquire module. The best way to describe this is by example: assume you have a huge portrait image in Scitex CT format (say 40Mb or more) and need to retouch only an area of the face. To open the entire image file would strain the resources of your system, but Acquire: Quick Edit allows you to preview the image and select only the portion you want to retouch. That portion opens in its own, smaller, document window. Once you have finished retouching, Export: Quick Edit Save sends the new data back into the original image.

Overall, Photoshop 3.01’s user interface is much improved. All functions can be put on to floating palettes which can be arranged on screen to your liking. These palettes are ‘sticky’ and will align to each other or to the edges of the screen if you drag them to within a few pixels. The new commands palette, meanwhile, keeps your favourite menu items just a single click away.

Two new tools are also worth mentioning. The sponge tool allows users to saturate or desaturate image colours selectively. And, through clever patching of the system cursors, Photoshop lets you work with brush cursors that are the actual size of the brush you are using: if you are airbrushing with a 140-pixel brush, for example, then a 140-pixel circle appears on screen so that you can control precisely where you are airbrushing.

As with most programs now, Photoshop can be installed in one of three versions: 68K, for pre-PowerPC Macintoshes, PPC for PowerPC Macintoshes only, or Universal, a fat-binary version that will work on either platform. There are also versions for Silicon Graphics workstations and Windows-based computers.

There are a few affordable choices for designers in the image-manipulation software market (whatever happened to Letraset’s ColorStudio?). Fortunately, Adobe has not become complacent with the success of Photoshop. Each new version of the program brings with it an exponential increase in control and that, after all, is what a good tool should do. The beauty of the program lies in its flexibility. The open architecture allows third-party companies to develop plug-in technologies to expand the use of the program even further.

The acquisition of Aldus should mean a continuing stream of creativity-enhancing add-ons and complementary products. So, if you did not buy shares in Adobe before the merger, then do the next best thing now – buy Photoshop 3.01.

Brett Wickens, multimedia director, Los Angeles

First published in Eye no. 16 vol. 4, 1995

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.