Adobe Photoshop CS6 Product Review

Faster, improved interface, video, 3D and more!

Adobe Photoshop CS6 is here! Our Photoshop guru takes a hands-on look at its new features, and tells you everything you need to know to upgrade software.

Adobe Photoshop CS6 reviewIt’s been two years since Adobe Photoshop CS5 burst upon the scnee, and today its successor, Adobe Photoshop CS6, was officially released.  In this Photoshop review I’ll concentrate on what’s new in CS6 and my first impressions, but I can’t avoid tossing out a few tidbits here and there.  If you’re skipping a version or two or are new to the program you may find useful information in my reviews of earlier versions: Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop CS4.

If you were using the beta version you should uninstall it before installing the final version. Here are the directions from Adobe

Performance: Time To Upgrade Your Graphics Processor?

In recent versions of Photoshop, the video card’s GPU (graphics processor) is used to enhance performance, but a relatively new and powerful card is needed.  A minimum of 512 MB of video RAM is suggested but more is better.  Once Photoshop is installed you can check the level of support you have by going to Preferences > Performance > Advanced Settings.

Even though my aging (a little over four years old) Mac Pro tower doesn’t have a new enough graphics card, graphics performance while using Adobe Photoshop CS6 was significantly improved over CS5 for some tools, including Liquify and Puppet Warp. The program also loads and quits much faster. My favorite performance improvement is that a save operation, which can take quite a while with a large file, can now be done in the background while you continue to work on the image.  With previous versions I might forget what I was doing while waiting for an image to save.

Photoshop CS 6 no longer runs on old 32-bit Mac systems, and requires OS 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard) or later.  There is a 32-bit version for Windows systems, but it may be limited in functionality. You can check system requirements on the Adobe web site.

The New Adobe Camera Raw 7.0

First I tried to open a RAW file from my new Canon 5D Mark III, but it wouldn’t open, despite the fact it would in the beta version using Adobe Camera Raw 6.7, and despite the fact that the camera is in the supported list for Camera Raw 7.0. 

I discovered I needed to download the release candidate for Adobe Camera Raw 7.1.  A release candidate may have some bugs but probably won’t be fatal to your computer.

I use Adobe Lightroom 4.1 and do my RAW conversions, anyway.  It’s just a different interface to the same RAW conversion engine, but the version in Lightroom 4.1 is slightly more advanced that the one released with Photoshop CS6, in that it supports the Canon 5D Mk III, and has more options for chromatic aberration correction.  The update to Camera Raw 7.1 for CS6 is coming soon.

I think the most exciting improvement in Photoshop CS6 is the new Adobe Camera Raw, Process 2012. This same RAW processing engine is used by Lightroom 4, but is not backward compatible with earlier versions of either Lightroom or Photoshop.  You can use older files that were “developed” in the previous Process 2010 or 2003. You have the option of leaving files as they were or updating them to the new process, where you will have more adjustment latitude and fewer artifacts.

As newer cameras are introduced, adding their RAW file decoding (they’re all different) requires an updated Camera Raw. Photoshop is updated by installing a newer version of Adobe Camera Raw, which is an independent helper program, but Lightroom has the Camera Raw engine built in, so the update is done with a new Lightroom version; Lightroom 4.1 is the first Adobe Camera Raw update for Lightroon 4, and you should update even if you don’t have a new camera; there may be a few relevant bug fixes. There are some changes to the Develop module, and using Lightroom and Photoshop together is smoothest if the updates are kept in sync. That is frustrating, however, because they are not released in sync.

In Process 2012 the Develop sliders have changed, and there are greatly improved image processing algorithms. Modern digital cameras (especially high-end cameras) can capture a wide tonal range, and with the new Process 2012 it is possible to extract highlight and shadow detail to the extent of a moderate HDR image. You won’t see the maximum tonal detail when you first open an image with the default slider positions, but you will see more than in the previous process version. Significant detail can often be brought out even if the histogram is showing some degree of blocked-up blacks and blown-out highlights. 

Here’s an example of recovering highlight detail. The leaf on this dew-covered grape bud, below, was overexposed, but I could recover an amazing amount of detail just by moving the Highlights slider all the way to the left. (The image is an animated GIF and may take a few moments to load.) The brighter version is the image as it came into Camera Raw.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


Here’s another example.  (The sky color is strange due to the limited palette of a GIF.)  In this case I moved the Highlights slider to its far left position and moved the Whites slider slightly to the right, brightening up the lightest tones.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


These light tones can be further optimized in Photoshop, but it’s always better to get as much tonal detail as possible (up to what you want) in the RAW conversion stage where you are working with all the information the camera captured.  Doing this is about a thousand times better than the old method of duplicating the layer in Photoshop, putting the top one in Multiply mode and masking out everything but the lightest tones.  In the last few years there have been much better ways than that to bring out highlight detail, most notably some from Topaz and Nik. They are even more powerful when used on a file with detail maximized in the RAW conversion.

The sliders are named differently and the neutral point is now in the middle, so they can be adjusted either way, toward lighter or darker.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


The sliders are much more intuitive than with the older process.  After an initial adjustment you may need to go back and refine some of the slider positions, but it’s generally easy to get to a very good setting.

The Exposure slider can be tweaked if necessary, for mid-tones. The Highlights slider works on mid-light tones and the Whites slider on the lightest ones. The Shadows slider works on mid-dark tones and the Blacks slider on the darkest ones. Move them around and watch detail appear as if by magic.  You can go either direction with them, increasing or decreasing tones. Keep an eye on the histogram as you work on lights and darks. Tones pushed up against the right and left walls contain no detail; they are pure black or white. Sometimes that’s what the image should have, but usually a more pleasing image will result if you recover some detail in darks and lights. Now you can do it much better than you could before.

There are also some new additions to the adjustment brush: white balance, moiré reduction and noise removal.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


In older versions extreme tonal adjustments would often create halos. That has now been reduced to the point of a non-issue. And contrast can be increased for a “flat” image, as well as decreased for a high contrast one, with more pleasing tonalities than were possible before.

In the Lens Correction tab, correction for chromatic aberration is now in a separate checkbox at the bottom of the window, so it can be done independently of the other corrections if desired.  In the upcoming Adobe Camera Raw 7.1 it is in a separate tab, with additional control, as it is now in Lightroom 4.1.

Adobe Camera RAW Versions

When you open an older image that was worked up in a previous “Process Version” of Adobe Camera Raw, you will get the older sliders, from the version you had when you worked up the image, and there will be an exclamation point in the lower right corner of the image window. If you click it you will get the new sliders with some adjustments already made to match the previous sliders. You will see that you now have leeway to go even further with the adjustments.

The first time you use Adobe Camera Raw, check the settings at the bottom of the screen; you may want to change these important but stealthy defaults. I always bring images into Photoshop in 16 bits, to give me the most tonal steps in the histogram to work with. If you do most of your tonal adjustments in Camera Raw, there may not be a huge advantage to the higher bit depth, but if you do significant adjustments in Photoshop you will get a smoother gradation of tones by having more overhead. The only advantage to working in 8 bits is that the file sizes are half that of 16 bits, but that is rarely a factor with today’s larger hard drives and simple external storage options. 

The resolution is just a choice for your convenience; it doesn’t affect file size or quality. If you print images, using 240 or 360 is claimed to be a good choice for Epson printers and 300 for HP.  Keep the Size at the default of the camera; you should save any resizing for the output stage. You don’t want to add or throw away any pixels (both are destructive operations) for what will be your master image. 


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


Bridge or Lightroom

Because I use Lightroom I have limited use for Bridge, although it is very handy for browsing the content of folders of JPEGs I have exported to my desktop or other locations, for output to various places. I can’t say that I see any changes in it.

Interface Changes

The interface is now in dark gray, to make the image stand out better. If you don’t care for this, it can be changed in Preferences > Interface.  The choice shown here gives a similar appearance to previous versions.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


The icons are slightly different and the panels have been rearranged somewhat. The most obvious change is that an adjustment panel now pops up to the left of the Panels; see the section on adjustment layers below. There are also new settings for many tools on the Options Bar, which is below the Menu Bar.

Presets, Plug-Ins and Preferences

You’ll want to bring in your presets from your previous version of Photoshop—things you have added, such as actions, brushes, shapes, gradients and styles. You’ll also want to add your plug-ins to your new version. Here’s a document from Adobe giving you complete information. Plug-ins are programs from third-party sources such as Nik, Topaz and OnOne.  It’s safest to download these again. Your existing serial numbers may be picked up, and at worst you may need to re-enter them. 

Then you need to set your Preferences, which is the first thing I always check with any new program. (On a PC, go to the menu item Edit > Preferences and on a Mac go to the Photoshop menu.) See my earlier tutorial on Setting Up a New Version of Photoshop  to learn what to do with some of these issues, including color settings, which is extremely important.

In Preferences > General the default for resampling operations is now Bicubic Automatic, which will allow the best resampling algorithm to be set automatically for upsizing and downsizing.

You will want to set your choices for some tools, such as whether painting a Quick Mask gives you selected areas or protected areas (double-click the Quick Mask icon at the bottom of the Toolbar) and the sample size for the eyedropper tool (the default of 1 pixel is too sensitive to noise; I prefer 5x5 in most cases and you can change it on the fly.) 

If you experience graphics problems you can go to Preferences > Performance and uncheck Use Graphics Processor. If you didn’t update to CS5 you may find it more comfortable to uncheck these graphics behavior items in Preferences, at least until you get used to the other new things:

General: Animated Zoom, Enable Flick Panning
Interface: uncheck Open Documents as Tabs

The Workspace

In the upper right of the screen, I changed the Workspace to Photography (new with CS5), which is almost the same as the custom one I have been using for years and is much more suited to digital darkroom work than the default workspace. I seldom use Paths (in the panel containing Layers and Channels) so I dragged that tab out to the image area and closed it and added History, which I use frequently. I can get Paths (or any other panel) back from the Window menu. The History panel comes grouped with Actions, which I also use often, but I like to separate the two. Just drag one of the tabs and pull them apart. I like to dock Actions with the Histogram panel and put History where Paths was.

Once I get it like I want it, I go to Window > Workspace > Save workspace, and give it a name; that way I don’t have to rebuild it if it gets trashed.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


Docked to the upper left are flyout panels for Properties, Information, Brushes, Brush Presets and Clone Source. The Properties flyout applies to each adjustment layer and contains a tab for the adjustment itself and an Info tab. You can click on the adjustment thumbnail (circled in the figure below) or click on its mask thumbnail for mask adjustments; see the figure below. 

Adjustment Layers

If you prefer words to icons there is a flyout menu for the Adjustments panel that lists what the adjustments are. As long as I have been using Photoshop (a long time), I have no idea what these little pictures are supposed to represent. (I could guess at Curves for the third one; that’s it.) You also have the list of adjustment layers at the bottom of the Layers panel, by clicking the black-and-white circle.

Adjustments accessed this way are added as layers, a must as far as I’m concerned.  The adjustment window now appears to the left of the panels, and when you are done with it just click the double-headed arrow in the upper right to collapse it. Click the adjustment icon on its layer to re-open it for further, non-destructive, tweaking.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review

As in previous versions, there are still a few adjustments that can’t be done as layers and are therefore destructive, meaning they can’t be undone without some permanent degradation to the image. The full list is found in the menu item Image > Adjustments. If you have an option, do adjustments as layers (created as shown above or with the menu item Layer > New Adjustment Layer).


Further improvements have been made to content-aware operations, which were introduced in CS5. I absolutely loved Content-Aware Fill, but when it was used to remove an offending item in a clear sky you could often see a subtle posterization of the tones in the replaced area, which was otherwise a beautiful match for any gradients. It appears to be the same in CS6. 

You can see this by adding a temporary Curves layer and greatly increasing contrast by sliding the bottom left slider to the right and the top right slider to the left. The colors will become very saturated and may obscure any posterization. Go to the top of the layer stack and change he mode from Normal to Luminosity. The effect is obviously greatly exaggerated by doing this, but I like to see any artifacts so I can clean them up as much as is practical because they may show more in a print than what I see onscreen. They can also be brought out in subsequent adjustments, such as those that saturate or darken a sky.

There is a new alternative in the Patch Tool (the seventh one down in the Toolbar, grouped with the Spot Healing Brush) that now has a Content-Aware choice on the Options Bar.  The posterization problem may have been reduced with this option, but I have seen it still happen. On the Options Bar there are five choices for Adaptation. Very Strict gives you less blend with the background, while Very Loose gives a more natural blend. You may want the strict option if an element is nearby that you don’t want to blend in. This new technology isn’t always perfect but at it’s worst it usually just needs a little touchup, and the Spot Healing Brush used at a large size will often do the trick. It sure beats cloning.

A similar new tool is Content-Aware Move, which lets you select an object and relocate it in the image. While no tool is complete magic, in most cases the final appearance can be amazing. Sometimes a little more patching or cloning is needed, but it’s usually easy to fix. 

The Crop tool is now more efficient. When you choose it a crop frame is dropped onto the full image and you push each edge in as desired. There are now several overlays that are very helpful, accessed on the Options Bar. There is also a checkbox there to delete or leave the cropped pixels. The latter makes the tool non-destructive; you can go back later and tweak the crop. And I was delighted to discover that you can now crop to a certain number of pixels. On the far left of the Options Bar is a dropdown menu, and one of the choices is Size and Resolution. One of the choices for size is pixels. If this was possible before, I never figured it out.

There is a checkmark on the right of the Options bar; click it to do the crop. The crop frame will continue to show until you select a different tool.

Select > Color Range now has a choice in the dropdown color list for skin tones, making faces easier to select.


In the Filter > Blur menu there are now three options: Field, Iris, and Tilt-Shift. Iris Blur mimics the blur of an out-of-focus lens.  Tilt-Shift is a linear blur that mimics a tilt-shift lens, giving a graduated blur on ether side of a line that represents the plane of focus. All have an option to control a bokeh-like effect.

The Lens Correction filter (Filter > Lens Correction) has been one of my pet peeves and it hasn’t been changed.  Although the correct parameters are displayed in the lower left below the image (circled in red in the figure below), only the Camera Make is listed in the parameters. I have to manually select the Camera Model and then choose the Lens Model from a tediously long list. And if I’m working on a file from the Canon 5D III, and I haven’t updated to the Camera Raw 7.1 release candidate, there is no option for Canon cameras at all. That final release update will be forthcoming. At any rate, it’s better to do this correction in Camera Raw. In Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom’s Develop module, the camera, lens and settings, including zoom, are read from the metadata and the correct profile appears in the dialog.

It bears mentioning that if you wait until you are in Photoshop with an image to do an automatic lens correction, you should do it before any cropping. Doing the correction in Camera Raw is safer because any cropping you do there is non-destructive and the correction will be correctly applied to the original frame.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


Two additions have been made to the set of filters (accessed by the Filter menu),
Adaptive Wide Angle and Oil Paint. Adaptive Wide Angle allows you to correct the curvature of extreme wide-angle distortion. It reads the metadata for the lens, and you draw lines along the curved lines you want to straighten. Then you can do further perspective correction, if desired, in the Lens Correction filter.

There is a new Oil Paint filter but there aren’t many controls. It looks more like a cross between Topaz Clean and a rough watercolor paper texture than oil paint. If you must, do it on a layer copy (drag the layer to the icon to the left of the trash can, at the bottom of the Layers panel, or go to Layer > Duplicate Layer) so the filter is non-destructive. You can then do things like mask it, lower its opacity, put it in a blending mode, or clip adjustment layers to it.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review



The Print dialog box has undergone some streamlining, but things work the same as before. Printing from Photoshop to the range of beautiful papers available today is a joy, but it can be frustrating to get all the settings correct. Miss one and you have a bad print. You can find further information in my tutorial on printing.

There are two big pitfalls. It’s important to go first to the Print Settings and make sure everything is correct. Then choose whether the printer or Photoshop will manage the printing. If it’s Photoshop, you have to specify the correct Printer Profile for the paper and your printer. I like to resize the image as desired in Photoshop and leave the Scale setting at 100 percent.


Adobe Photoshop CS6 review


Video Editing

Video is becoming increasingly important (and fun!) with the amazing quality available on almost all cameras, and Photoshop now has some very usable video editing features.  You can import and export from the File menu, and access Video Layers from the Layer Menu and filters from the Filter > Video menu. You can combine clips, control sequencing, trim clips and do transitions. You can add titles and audio, and you can use any of the features in Photoshop to change the color and tonalities of clips and to add creative effects.

Conclusion and Recommendation

I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here. There are many small enhancements to make working faster and easier. And there are many features in Photoshop that aren’t commonly used by photographers, for things like web design and desktop publishing, and those have also been enhanced in Photoshop CS6. One that may be of interest to some photographers is new support for type styles and formatting.

And of course the designation CS6 applies to an ever-growing number of programs in Adobe’s Creative Suite, now also encompassing many tools to support the creation of content for the new world of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

If you want to try before you buy, you can download a 30-day free trial. It will be the Extended version, but if you choose to purchase you will have the option of paying for the regular version, which is all most photographers need. You will get a serial number and when you put it in, if you paid for the regular version the program will have the extra features of the Extended version disabled.  And if you are upgrading from a recent version, you will need to specify that to get the appropriate price of $199.  The upgrade price is valid for owners of CS3 and later, but only through December 31, 2012. After that the price will remain valid only for owners of CS5.


Diane Miller is a widely exhibited freelance photographer who lives in the California wine country and specializes in fine-art nature photography.  Her work, which can be found on her web site,, has been published and exhibited widely.  Many of her images are represented for stock by Getty Images.




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