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Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 review

Adobe Photoshop CC combines a digital darkroom with powerful smart tools and filters that let you produce a range of creative results

Adobe Photoshop CC review
(Image: © George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

Our Verdict

Photoshop is still the leader of the pack when it comes to image manipulation, but it might be packed with too many superfluous features for the average photographer’s needs. Fortunately Photoshop excels at photo-fixing, creative compositing even photo painting. Its new cloud-based Neural Filters can help you enhance your shots more effectively.

For

  • Smart tools produce fast selections
  • Effective content-aware retouching
  • New sky replacement tool
  • Neural filters use AI to enhance portraits

Against

  • Not as effective as Lightroom Classic for asset management
  • Only available via subscription

Adobe Photoshop CC has carved out its space as the leading image manipulation app, after Photoshop being the first photo editing software on the scene back in the early 1990s. Its arrival was as revolutionary to photo-fixing as word processing apps were to the publishing industry, enabling photographers to escape the chemical constraints of the darkroom and fix problems with color, tone and composition on their computer. 

After years of evolution Photoshop CC now boasts such a wide range of tools and features that it can seem a daunting task for newcomers to approach (let alone master) it.  Over time Photoshop has cast its net wider in an attempt to appeal to digital artists, typographers, motion graphic designers and even 3D modelers. Of course it still offers a comprehensive and powerful set of tools to meet the needs of its original target audience – photographers. 

Adobe Photoshop CC: Interface

Create motion graphics by using keyframes to change the position and opacity of objects in the Layer’s palette. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

As with most contemporary image editing apps Photoshop displays its tools and palettes on a neutral grey background, with clean white labels and icons presenting you with a range of options. This neutral look enables you to focus on the task of editing your images without being distracted by ‘showy’ icons. 

You can access the most appropriate tools for your needs by choosing from a collection of workspaces. For example the Motion workspace presents you with a timeline where you can use key frames to transform a layer’s content from one position to another. You can also animate a layer’s opacity but these animation options are very limited compare to dedicated motion graphics apps such as After Effects. 

The Photography workspace enables you to edit your images with help from relevant tools such as a Histogram that displays the spread of tones in a shot. All the panels in each workspace can be undocked and positioned according to your personal preferences (and you can reset the workspaces back to their default layouts).

The Camera Raw editor will open a raw file from any format camera and let you adjust color, tone and composition as well as applying lens corrections. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

If you open a Raw file in Photoshop CC it will automatically appear in Adobe’s Camera Raw workspace. This gives you easy access to a host of digital darkroom tools that enable you to selectively adjust color and tone using using brush-based or gradient tools. It also offers handy clipping warnings that aren’t accessible in the standard Photoshop workspaces. You can clone out artifacts such as sensor spots too, but for more advanced retouching you’ll need to open the image in the main version of the app to access the Clone Stamp or healing brush. You can also edit JPEGS in the Camera Raw workspace which allows you to focus on applying key photo-fixing tools on an image without being distracted by the more content-packed workspaces in the main Photoshop workspace. 

Adobe Photoshop CC: Key features

Adjustment layers enable you to target and adjust the hue, saturation and lightness of specific colours, enabling you to produce creative effects. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

One of Photoshop’s strengths is its ability to make non-destructive edits. For example after making changes in the Camera Raw workspace you can reset them, even after closing and then re-opening the file in Camera Raw. 

In the main Photoshop workspace you can use adjustment layers to tweak a host of image properties. These adjustment layers float above image layers so the can be toggled on and off (or have their opacity reduced for more subtle results).  You can also fine-tune which parts of an image are altered by painting brush tips on an adjustment layer’s mask. This level of control enables you to produce creative results  - such as showing a red phone box against a monochrome background for example.            

The Mixer Brush tool enables you to use brush tips to smear a picture’s pixels and create realistic paint-like strokes. You can also combine filters to create a range of art styles. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

Photoshop also supplies a collection of smart tools to help you work faster.  For example you can scribble around an unwanted subject and use the Content-Aware fill command to instantly replace them with appropriate pixels from other parts of the image. This saves you the hassle of manually cloning them out with the brush-based Clone Stamp or Healing brush tools.  The Content-Aware Move tool enables you to recompose a subject from one part of the shot to another, again filling the gap that they’ve left with suitable pixels.        

Some features you can file under ‘gimmick’ - such as Puppet Warp. This tool enable you to draw a skeleton within a subject and then manipulate the position of their arms and legs.  You can even computer generate trees from scratch and modify their branches and leaves. These tools won’t be of much use to the average photographer. 

Adobe Photoshop CC: Results

The Select and Mask command provides access to effective tools that can select complex subjects such as hair. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

One area in which Photoshop excels is compositing. Previously you’d select a subject by spraying the Quick Selection brush over them to create a selection marquee. Now the Select>Subject command does the job instantly. If the selection isn’t perfect then the powerful Select and Mask command lets you fine-tune the results. Here the Smart Radius brush can isolate a subject’s delicate hairs from a background in a few strokes to create a clean composite. You can also fine-tune a composited layer’s content by spraying white or black brush tips on a layer mask to show or hide details from the image layer. 

The new Sky Replacement tool does an excellent job of compositing a sky behind delicate details such as tree branches and this viaduct’s rail. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

Thanks to a recent update the new Sky Replacement command enables you to quickly replace disappointing skies with something more dramatic. This takes the hard labour out of trying to select and mask a sky manually and it produces convincing results. 

The latest version of Photoshop also features AI assisted Neural Filters that enable you to quickly retouch portraits using sliders. Here you can smooth skin while preserving natural detail such pores and use AI to reduce the presence of JPEG compression artifacts. 

Adobe Photoshop CC review

Neural Filters use AI data from the cloud to add effects such as a depth map that produces a background bokeh (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

The new Depth Blur filter does a good job of creating a depth map that adds an adjustable bokeh to the background of portrait. As these neural filters need to process image data in the cloud they can take a while to work, especially if you have a poor Wi-Fi connection.

Adobe Photoshop CC: Verdict

With a quick spray of a black brush on a layer mask you can poke a hole in one layer to reveal detail from the layer below and produce a convincing composite image. (Image credit: George Cairns/Digital Camera World)

By trying to be all things to all creative professionals Photoshop could be accused of spreading itself a bit too thin. For example the 3D modeling workspace is very basic compared to dedicated 3D modeling apps.  

However if you want to use Photoshop as a digital darkroom then its Camera Raw workspace provides you with all the tools that you’ll need. You can also access these Raw editing tools in Adobe Lightroom Classic, which is more focused on the needs of the photographer without the superfluous menu items and tools that clutter up Photoshop. 

The Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan supplies you with both Photoshop and Lightroom Classic so you can get creative with Photoshop’s extra image-editing tools as and when you require them (this subscription plan costs $9.99 / £9.98 /AU$14.98 per month). As Photoshop CC is regularly updated you’ll never outgrow the app’s image manipulating abilities.

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