A Fine-Artist’s Perspective

Photographic Workflow and Tool Improvements

By Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller Back to


About every 18 months Adobe releases a new version of Photoshop—now it’s Photoshop CS4’s turn. This article covers what I find most interesting for photographers in this new version.

In mid-2007, I gave a talk at Google called “Non-Destructive, Selective, and Non-modal Editing of Photographs.” At that time Photoshop supported a way to edit photos non-destructively (meaning the settings can be changed later) and selectively by using masks in combination with adjustment layers. Unfortunately, all the adjustment-layer dialogs were modal, meaning that you had to close the current dialog to access different adjustment-layer tools (or anything else). I found that interfered with using multiple tools quickly.

Photoshop CS4 removes this restriction with new adjustments. You can now switch between different adjustment layers (now called simply “adjustments”) at any time. The current settings are always shown in the new Adjustments palette, available for change without clicking out of a dialog box.

New adjustments can be created the old way or by clicking on one of the icons in the Adjustments pallet (Figure 1).

I docked the Layers and Adjustments pallets together (Figure 2). The non-modal nature of the workf low allows switching between layers and adjustments at any time without being blocked by a modal dialog.

If you’ve been using Photoshop for some time, you will, at first, keep looking for the (nonexistent) Close button. Once you’re used to its absence, you’ll enjoy a much smoother workflow than ever before.

Mask improvements

Most experienced photographers use a lot of adjustment layers with layer masks to edit selectively (equivalent to dodging and burning). Often, you need to use some sort of feathering to allow smoother transitions. Unfortunately, before CS4 you had to create a mask that included a rendered feather. That meant that changing the feathering later could be tedious and even error prone. CS4 now offers a new Masks palette. You create a mask with hard edges and change the feathering in the Masks palette—and you can change the feathering later in a dialog box. Feathering is now non-destructive.

Note: You can also use editable feathering with vector masks, which sometimes allows more precise masking than just fixed shapes or the Lasso tool.

You not only can add feathering but also control the density of the mask itself using the Masks palette. Photoshop now offers four ways to control the effect of the adjustment: layer opacity, masking, feathering, and mask density. Like feathering, Density is non-destructive and can be edited later.

Other tool improvements

CS3 included some tools (e.g., the Black-and-White filter) that supported the very elegant Targeted Adjustment Tools (TAT) feature. In CS4, more adjustments—e.g., Curves and Hue/Saturation—support TATs, which help to perform a more direct manipulation by using the mouse to apply corrections. In CS3, the Lightroom Vibrance tool (think of it as a more subtle and sophisticated saturation tool) became very popular. CS4 has added it now by popular demand.

I’ve used the old Color Range tool a lot in the past, but found that it was often lacking precision. The new Localized Color Clusters option makes selections that are more local. This feature requires users to take more samples (use the Plus eye-dropper), but you also gain a lot more precision for your selections. For some this feature alone may be worth an upgrade to CS4. If Localized Color Clusters is not checked, the Color Range performs as in previous versions of Photoshop.

User interface

There are many changes in the user interface of CS4. I’ll mention a few of the most important to me.

I especially like the Application Frame that keeps all open images organized by tabs. The new docking of the tool palettes helps users organize their workspace. The new Flash Panel allows third parties to create tool panels that integrate very well with CS4’s own panels. A small tool called Configurator that allows end-users to very easily create their own arrangements of automation panels should soon be available.

If you use the Photoshop Dodge-and-Burn tools a lot (I don’t use them that often), you will be pleased that they were substantially improved and now allow more precise results that maintain details and affect the tone without affecting color.

Photoshop CS3 allowed very good image alignment. CS4 seems to have even improved on it. The Clone and Healing brushes now provide better previews of the result after carrying out their functions. This is very welcome if you need to better align a source and target.

Overall, CS4 is more of an evolutionary step for photographers than CS3 was when it came out. I personally like to keep Photoshop updated to the latest version in any case—you never know when you might need one of the newer features.

About the Author

Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller
All images are copyright Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller. German photographer Uwe Steinmueller and his wife and partner Bettina came to live and work in the United States over a decade ago. They concentrate on taking photos for fine art prints, mainly nature and urban landscapes. Uwe has authored numerous books and articles about digital workflow. He is also the owner and editor of Digital Outback Photo www.outbackphoto.com.