Photoshop started the digital image manipulation revolution 30 years ago, and Adobe’s groundbreaking application continues to move forward as the best photo editing software money can buy (or rent, to be more precise). If you need layered image editing, including typography, 3D modeling, and drawing, then you need Photoshop. Designers and photographers alike find the most —and the most-advanced—tools available for their crafts in this application. AI-powered portrait selection, automatic font download, and better control over raw camera file conversion appear in the latest update. Photoshop remains PCMag’s unquestioned Editors’ Choice for professional photo editing software.
Get Going With Photoshop
To get the latest version of Photoshop, you need a Creative Cloud subscription. This means you need to sign in with an existing Adobe ID or create a new one. The Photography plan is $9.99 per month, and that also gets you Photoshop Lightroom, our Editors’ Choice for photo workflow software, and 10 Adobe Stock images.
You can no longer simply buy a one-payment license for Photoshop, which annoys some users who don’t like the software-as-a-service model. Those who feel this way may want to consider options such as Corel’s surprisingly capable PaintShop Pro, CyberLink PhotoDirector, or even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements, all of which can be purchased outright. And if you don’t want to pay a cent, you can use the free, open-source GIMP software, though doing so is a painful, counterintuitive experience.
To install the application, you first install the resident Creative Cloud helper program, which handles updates and syncing your files online. This is also where you can find Adobe news, stock images, and the Behance creative social community (more about this later).
You should only consider installing Photoshop on a fairly powerful PC or Mac. I tested on an Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IC running 64-bit Windows 10 (the software is compatible with Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 or later). Installation took about 10 minutes. Mac users must be running macOS 10.13 or later.
If you haven’t hopped aboard the Creative Cloud train yet and are still clinging to your ancient licensed version of Photoshop, you miss out on other recent features like Content-Aware Crop, Face-Aware Liquify, Artboards, Cloud Documents, touch and stylus input support, the Design Space view, synced libraries, a glyph panel, and lots more. Photographers and photo editors also benefit from tools for haze removal, more navigation options, and new raw camera file support.
The Photoshop Interface
Adobe keeps making the Photoshop interface more customizable and helpful. You can choose from among several targeted workspace layouts, including 3D, Graphic and Web, Motion, Painting, and Photography, or create your own custom layout of panels and windows. You can even rearrange the program’s toolbar button rail to taste.
Choosing New Document presents a dialog offering templates such as Textured Geometric Masks, Instant Film Mockups, and Photo Collage Layouts. Category filters across the top let you restrict the proposed templates to Photo, Print, Art & Illustration, Web, Mobile, and Film & Video. If you’ve copied an image onto the clipboard, and option to open a new image with its exact dimensions is presented.
You can pick from thumbnails of your recent files, and access presets and libraries from the start page. The page shows personalized tutorial content at the bottom. Those who’d rather stick with the legacy starting experience can switch back to it, but I find that the start page makes it much easier to get to things I’m interested in, such as recent projects.
The ever-present search magnifying glass icon at the top right lets you find program functions, your own images, tutorials, or Adobe Stock images. I think a search function in a complex desktop application is a great idea, and some big-league software developers agree: Microsoft helpfully introduced it to Office 2016, for example. For context-sensitive help, the lightbulb icon is always at the ready for quick demos of how to perform edits.
The interface also adapts to the purpose at hand. A case in point is the Select and Mask workspace, which is an available option whenever you have a selection tool active. This shows only the tools useful during selection, such as Refine Edge, Lasso, Brush, Hand, and Zoom, along with the relevant Properties panel. The interface’s color themes offer a pleasing, context-sensitive consistency, too. If you set the window borders to be light gray, all dialogs will likewise be gray.
Photoshop is keeping up with the times in terms of touch input, for devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro, and now the Apple iPad. Not only can you use touch to pan and zoom images, but Photoshop also recognizes gestures, such as a two-finger swipe to undo and a three-finger swipe to scroll through images. Larger tabs help touch-screen users, as do soft Shift, Ctrl, and Alt buttons. You can’t yet use touch for finger painting, however. For that, you might try Adobe’s Fresco app.
Another input option is enabled by Photoshop’s support for the Surface Dial, which offers a nifty way to adjust brush size, opacity, and more.
Selecting objects and people in photos is one of the top activities in the application—and one of the top pain points. In the last few versions, Adobe has added Object Select, Subject Select, and the Select and Mask workspace just mentioned, along with its Refine Edge option.
Select Subject uses AI (called Sensei by Adobe) to automatically determine and select the main object in an image. Object Select lives in the same toolbar button as the Quick Selection and Magic Wand tools. When either of these is active, a Select Subject button appears in the options bar across the top of the program windows. In testing, pressing this did a remarkable job of selecting people when the background was relatively uniform. More complex backgrounds left some mis-selected areas.
With the June 2020 update of Photoshop an improvement to the Select Subject tool arrives, addressing one of the most common selection tasks and pain points. Selecting people’s hair has long plagued photo editors—even with tools like Refine Edge. Adobe claims to have finally solved this problem for once and all with the update.
In my testing, the tool worked impressively, but we haven’t yet reached the holy grail of hair selection, one and done hair selection. There was still plenty that remained unselected in my test shot, and it was hair fibers on a plain background that’s clearly hair to the human eye. I took screenshots of the tool’s handiwork, showing the original, the dotted-line selection, and the black-and-while mask view, which shows just the selected matter as white. I had similar not-quite-perfect result with both a low-res shot:
and a higher-resolution shot:
Here’s a detail from that last one, showing the unselected fine hairs at top and top right:
And here’s a use of the selection with a gradient background layer:
You can see white background areas that were missed in the selection, and some hair strands look smudged. Still, while it’s not yet perfect, but it is getting better with every iteration, and the current one makes for a good first pass. It’s the most automatic portrait selection tool, but Capture One’s Refine Mask tool does an excellent job as well (below), even getting some hair strands missed by Photoshop. It originally selected some of the background, which I fixed with the eraser.
Though it’s now packed with drawing and font tools, Photoshop got its start as a photo editing and printing application, and it remains the most powerful photo editing software. Along with its completely photography-focused sibling, Lightroom, Photoshop offers the most support for raw camera files, and the most in correction and effects. From removing or adding objects with content-aware tools to lens-profile-based geometry correction to histogram adjustments to stained-glass effect filters, Photoshop has it all. It’s impossible to cover every feature here, but I’ll take a closer look at a couple of the standout tools.
One advance worth mentioning is the Februrary 2020 update’s AI-enhanced Lens Blur tool. This creates a more color-aware effect. The old lens blur is in the left above, and the newer is at the right. The newer tool also give you control over bokeh shapes, which would be created by the blades of a camera iris in real lens blur. Photoshop’s simulated effects, include a choice of polygons from triangles to octagons, and you can also adjust the blade curvature and rotation.
Content-Aware Crop. A few years ago, an app called Anticrop (since renamed to Recrop) gained momentary celebrity in the tech world. Why? As its name suggests, it lets change you change the aspect ratio of an image by adding to the sides instead of simply cutting them off. The Photoshop tool works similarly. Just check the Content-Aware box while using the crop tool, and the app fills in anything in the crop selection that falls outside your image’s boundaries. Content-Aware Crop resembles the Content-Aware Fill tool. Like that tool, Content-Aware crop only works well with patterned image content, such as a forest, pavement, sea, or sky. It’s particularly convincing with skies. Note in the image below all the extra clouds generated in the sky on the right to create a more spacious square composition.
Content-Aware Fill has also been updated, with an interface that shows you what source content it’s using to replace the object you want to remove. You can edit the source area, but the program does a remarkable job with no help—it’s even improved over last year’s version, now identifying objects that shouldn’t be part of the fill pattern.
Face-Aware Liquify. Face detection has reached an increasingly high level of accuracy in recent years, to the point of recognizing individual facial features, as well as whole faces. Face-Aware Liquify resembles a feature we first saw demonstrated by Adobe at Apple’s iPad Pro launch event in the app called Adobe Fix. Face-Aware Liquify tool lets you convincingly transform facial expressions, turning, for example, an RBF into a smile.
This brilliant tool finds facial features like eyes and mouths and gives you the ability to manipulate them with sliders for resizing the eyes, nose, face width, and jawline. You can even edit the eyes independently with Face-Aware Liquify. A chain icon lets you either lock together editing of the two eyes or edit them separately.
You can apply some very flattering changes, or some ridiculously unflattering ones, as you can see in my test images. For me, the coolest part of this feature is that the resulting image still looks human. It’s not like simply smearing a portrait with the old-fashioned, non-face-aware Liquify tool. Note especially the added smile at lower left.
Camera-Shake Reduction. One of the hottest features of Photoshop is camera-shake reduction. The tool analyzes the photo to find the path of shake motion, and then aligns the shifted pixels. It sounds simple, but it’s harder to get right than it may seem. This is because the path won’t be the same everywhere in the photo unless you shook it exactly along a single plane, which is highly unlikely. You can use the tool’s best guess, or select a region (or regions) in which you want the blur trace to be estimated.
You can also adjust Blur Trace Bounds, Smoothing, and Artifact Suppression—the last two let me create a less sharpened-looking result. I’d love to see a simple effect-strength adjustment like you get with Smart Sharpen (which, by the way, has a Reduce Noise slider). Shake Reduction is not a panacea, but it’s definitely a finer effect than even the Smart Sharpen tool. If the subject is simply out of focus, it won’t help you; a simply blurry subject won’t be fixed.
Camera Raw Features
The Adobe Camera Raw module that the program uses with, you guessed it, raw camera files like Canon’s CR2 and Nikon’s NEF, seems to become more of a full photo editing tool on its own with every Photoshop update. With the June 2020 update, you get the ability to make local hue adjustments, rather than having to change the hue values for the whole image. A couple of interface changes arrive, too. The tool now lets you have more than one adjustment panel open, and you can switch between vertical and horizontal filmstrip thumbnail views. You can also create presets based on images’ ISO settings and do panorama merges from a right-click.
Photoshop offers several advanced capabilities in its Camera Raw module, including a geometry correction tool called Upright. This lets you fix parallel vertical and horizontal lines. Its Auto setting attempts to fix perspective errors, but you can choose to align only verticals or only horizontals, or mess with the perspective to taste with transforming sliders for pincushion and barrel distortion, vertical, horizontal, and aspect ratio.
You can even use Camera Raw as a filter, applying all its manifold photo adjustments—color temperature, exposure, geometry, all of it—to any image layer. You can apply Camera Raw adjustments to video, too, and use a noncircular healing brush. As in Lightroom, you also get a radial filter that lets you apply the adjustments to an oval shape, such as a person’s head—very useful for highlighting that bit of anatomy.
Camera Raw Profiles give you options for how Photoshop converts raw files into viewable images. The default is Adobe Color, which produces a more vivid image than the old Adobe Standard profile. You also get Landscape, Portrait, Monochrome, and Vivid Profiles, along with a selection of retro and artistic Profiles that are essentially Instagram-style effect filters. The same Profiles feature appears in Lightroom. Read my review of that application for a more in-depth look at Profiles.
Dehaze is a Camera Raw feature also offered by Lightroom. Open any photo, even if it’s not in raw file format (I tried it on a mobile-phone JPG image), and this slider in the FX toolset does a pretty impressive job of removing—or adding—haze. Below, you can see the before and after (left to right) on a sample.
Mobile Design and Libraries
Photoshop has made great strides in the area of mobile design. Not only can you use views and tools intended to facilitate mobile and web design, such as Artboards and Design Space, but you can also install the Adobe Preview mobile app and see how your project looks on it. When I installed the app on my iPhone, I initially got a connection error. I was trying to connect by USB rather than Wi-Fi, though the Adobe documentation says both methods should work.
Artboards let you create Photoshop documents with multiple views for different device screens. An Artboard can also be thought of as a level above layers. In fact, they’re accessible from the Layers panel. It sounds a little dry, but after playing with Artboards for a while, I find it to be a useful capability.
Design Space uses Artboards by default. It also includes templates for current iPhones, iPads, Surface Pros, and other mobile-device screens. While I appreciate the thought behind these tools, I still expect it’s going to be a hard sell for designers who are used to the full Photoshop interface. It does offer a streamlined way to work with multilevel layer content, though. It also lets you manipulate multiple objects at once, or easily swap their locations.
For a few years, Adobe has offered a way to sync content across multiple installations of the Creative Cloud apps, but the current Libraries feature takes this a step farther. Libraries sync not only documents, but also brushes, font styles, and color themes. They can be created and accessed not only on the full Photoshop application, but also in mobile apps such as Capture, Hue, Photoshop Fix, Photoshop Mix, Photoshop Sketch, and Comp. The Adobe mobile apps support Libraries for acquiring, creating, or editing content. They’re all free downloads, but most require a Creative Cloud account for full functionality.
Related to Libraries are Cloud Documents. Saving your project as a Cloud Document enables you to work on it in the iPad version of Photoshop as well as on other desktops. Cloud Documents are saved instantly and will allow collaboration among multiple creators in later updates. You can also open documents in Adobe Fresco.
Adobe XD (Experience Design) lets designers prototype and design interfaces for websites and mobile apps. It uses Artboards for the various app and site functions, and its work can also be shared via Libraries.
Photoshop Libraries support Adobe Stock templates (see below) and can share read-only access to a public Library and to follow others’ Libraries. You can share a Library with anyone who has a Creative account and set permissions for collaborators, limiting them to read-only rights or granting them full edit privileges.
Adobe Stock, which emerged from Adobe’s 2015 acquisition of Fotolia, is a repository of over 40 million images, vectors, illustrations, and video clips. Non-Creative Cloud members can still buy assets from Stock. Creators can also sell their assets and get a 33 percent cut of all sales. That’s not bad, considering that the industry standard is 25 percent.
You can work within any Adobe desktop apps with Adobe Library support, including Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, and After Effects. The Search Adobe Stock menu choice opens the website, on which you can search for content and either download or sync it to your Creative Cloud Library. But you can also search Stock right in the Library panel and insert it into your image, where it will be watermarked until you license it. After you license it, it retains any edits you make.
Photoshop keeps getting better at fonts. With the June 2020 update, your document’s fonts are automatically downloaded, activated, and synced to your Library. You can also filter searches for fonts with attributes like serif, script, and blackletter, and you can even tell the program to show you fonts similar to one you’ve selected.
The Type>Match Font… tool can actually identify fonts in images and find the closest match on your system or in Adobe’s massive font collection. Its intelligent imaging analysis is improved in the June 2020 update with more fonts, vertical text, and multiple-line detection. I had better results in my testing this time around.
You can also designate fonts as favorites, which is particularly handy. Another nifty touch is the ability to hover over a font choice to see it previewed in your document. As you hover the mouse cursor over typefaces in the search panel, your selected text instantly switches to that typeface. The font size dropdown menu offers a 16-point option, a size commonly used for web content. Web designers will also rejoice now that Photoshop supports SVG OpenType fonts for those wildly popular responsive designs, as well as emoji fonts. You can search fonts.adobe.com for typefaces, and everything is licensed thanks to your Creative Cloud subscription.
Font fanciers who want to go even deeper than just standard typeface sets will love the Glyphs panel. This lets you substitute alternate characters, and even shows you those alternates when you select a character in a Type layer. The tool didn’t always work reliably for me, though, sometimes proposing a previous letter when I selected a new one.
Photoshop also supports Variable Fonts. This is an OpenType font format that lets you play with custom attributes like weight, width, slant, and optical size using slider controls.
With higher-resolution displays becoming more common, your old images sometimes may not be good enough anymore. Photoshop’s upsampling algorithm could be a lifesaver. The upscaler shows up when you resize an image, in the form of the Preserve Details resample setting. This also offers a Reduce Noise option, since the process may introduce noise. It’s definitely clearer than the old bicubic algorithm.
Smart Objects make for nondestructive, reusable raster and vector images that update throughout your project. You can save formatting of type as styles that can be easily applied to other text later. You can also view type in a way that previews the antialiasing used in web browsers. For web designers, Photoshop can generate CSS code that produces the exact look designed in the software. Going in the other direction, the software can also import color from a website’s HTML or CSS code.
Converting Smart Objects back to their components for editing is now a simple matter of using the Convert to Layers menu option. The default swatches, gradients, patterns, shapes, and styles have all been updated with more appealing options. Below you can see the gradient panel on the right, for example.
Photoshop offers a vast array of brushes and pencils (over 1,200). These offer stroke smoothing options, and you can organize brush presets in folders. A recent capability is the symmetry option. This works with Paint Brush, Mixer Brush, Pencil, or Eraser tools. To use it, you click the butterfly icon in the Options bar, and then choose the kind of symmetry you want: Vertical, Horizontal, Dual Axis, Diagonal, Wavy, Circle, Spiral, Parallel Lines, Radial, or Mandala.
Behance is a social network for creative professionals, offering online portfolios and connections. It’s built into all the Creative Cloud applications, letting users post projects for feedback from colleagues and clients. Users can post their files directly from Photoshop via a one-click share button. From Behance they can share and discuss the work and even connect with potential and existing clients and freelancers.
Behance is a great resource for burnishing your Photoshop skills, too: It offers a Daily Challenge (often hosted by the wonderful Adobe Principal Worldwide Evangelist Paul Trani) in which you can see an expert working the program’s magic and interact with the presenter via a chat panel.
Behance’s ProSites are customizable online portfolios, which Creative Cloud subscribers can use with their own URLs. Behance’s presentation is elegant and clean, and incorporates all the essential social features du jour. I especially like that it offers statistics of your page activity. You can also export photos in Zoomify format—a powerful viewer that lets viewers zoom deep into large images. I’d like to see more sharing options, however, such as built-in email and Flickr sharing. Of course, you can do all this from Photoshop’s ancillary Bridge image organizer app.
You no longer need to drop a cool grand to get Photoshop’s 3D image editing capabilities in an Extended Edition, as they come with all Creative Cloud or Photography subscription plans. Adobe has also improved Photoshop’s 3D tools, with faster performance and more realistic shadow rendering. Thankfully, Adobe offers downloadable sample 3D documents to get you started.
Working in the program’s 3D mode is not for the faint of heart: It’s practically rocket science, and indeed, you could design an actual rocket with it! The 3D Scene panel eases using it somewhat, though, as it consolidates many typical 3D design functions. You can create instances and duplicate 3D objects, which reflect any edits that you perform on the mother object. You can even take a panorama photo and convert it into a 360-degree movie, or pin it to a shape like a sphere, cone, or doughnut.
3D printing still has its enthusiasts, and Photoshop’s support for the technology continues to improve. Photoshop can produce support beams and repair surfaces that wouldn’t print correctly without them. Photoshop even shows color-coded 3D print previews and can export 3D models as PDF or SVX files, control bump-map depth, and automatically simplify 3D meshes. It also supports 3D Manufacturing Format (3MF) files.
You can apply all of Photoshop’s still-image adjustments to video clips—including exposure, cropping, and filters. Photoshop is even capable of multitrack and keyframing, using the same fast rendering engine that powers Adobe’s Premiere Pro video editor. Only a few transition options are available, however, all of them variants of fades. Each video track you add becomes a Photoshop layer that can be individually adjusted.
You also get all the standard digital video editing tools, letting you join, split, and trim clips. Audio tools are minimal, but you can set an audio track’s volume percent, fade it in, fade it out, or mute it. Movie files are saved as PSDs, but by choosing File/Export/Render Video you can create a video file with H.264, QuickTime, or DPX encoding. You also get a decent choice of resolutions targeting both big screens and mobile devices, including 720p, 1080p, and 4K options.
Export and Share
Photoshop’s Export options are richer than ever, and the performance is better, too. It now supports the operating system’s share feature. This comes in the form of an up arrow icon at the top right, which opens macOS and Windows’ built-in share targets. So on the Mac, you can use AirDrop, and on Windows, you can use My People, email, and any other Store installed apps that accept photos. The Export option replaces the tried-and-true Save for Web option (though you can still use that if you prefer). It’s faster and it delivers smaller files, especially when it comes to JPGs. You can also export and import SVG (scalable vector graphics) files, which are commonly used on websites.
You can export at multiple sizes simultaneously, convert to the sRGB color space, and export a single layer or Artboard. You can also set up a Quick Export option from the File menu to use the format of your choice. Finally, you can add metadata, such as copyright information, at export.
Photoshop makes it ever easier do amazing things with digital images: Each time I investigate its features to review a new version, I discover new capabilities, so great is the program’s depth. Integrated stock photography, advanced type tools, and organizational and syncing features, such as Cloud Documents and Libraries, are unique to the application.
Beyond photography, you won’t find a better, more complete, or more precise tool for drawing and typography, both of which keep improving. Adobe understands the move toward mobile and web-focused design, along with the need for 3D tools. Photoshop’s position as the preeminent image editing tool remains secure. It earns a rare five-star rating and is the PCMag Editors’ Choice for image editing software.
Adobe Photoshop Specs
|Edits Vector Graphics||No|
|Edits Raster Graphics||Yes|
|Touch Interface Support||Yes|
|Lens Profile Corrections||Yes|