Photoshop is one of those applications that anyone involved in the production of visualisation material should own. It's by far the best image -manipulation tool on the market and can transform a mundane rendering into something special. Adobe has spent years improving the functionality and is about to release version 5.5. Version 5.5 is not a radical update, hence the dot release. What Adobe has done this time around, however, is focus on a small area of functionality - namely the Web.
Adobe has bundled a new version of its Web graphics application - ImageReady - with 5.5, and built close links between the two applications. An icon at the bottom of the tool palette allows you to transfer automatically between applications, giving Photoshop users direct access to the specialised tool set with ImageReady. The reasoning is that Photoshop would become too bloated an application if the features were included in the main application.
The tool bars of the tool application are now virtually identical, as are keyboard short-cuts and palettes, making swapping between them a painless task, yet it does emphasise the applications' many duplicated functions. While ImageReady 2.0 offers a great deal of interactivity, Photoshop 5.5 now provides the tools you need to produce highly efficient Web images.
A new Save for Web option in the file menu opens a new window with numerous image controls and a multi-view preview window. It is possible to view up to four versions of an image side by side, each with a different compression setting. Each image is displayed with detailed information on the compression settings and the resulting file size. A colour palette is displayed, showing the current range of colours used. These can be turned off one by one if you wish. This provides a quick method of assessing the trade between image quality and image size. Indicative download times are also given, based on a 28.8Kbit/sec modem. Once you have optimised your image, the setting can be saved for use of subsequent images.
Two new options appear in the Automate menu: Package Picture and Web Photo Gallery. The first allows creation of a sheet with multiple versions of an image in various combinations - a bit analogous to the typical way you used to get school photos on a sheet, with one large image beside a few smaller ones. It's an inspired idea. What is excellent about this tool is how it creates two resolutions of the image, a thumbnail and a higher-resolution image, then generates all the html pages needed to create a Web-based portfolio. The home page has a series of thumbnails on it and each links to a high-res version. The high-res ones also link to one another in sequence - and also back to the thumbnails. For architects who aren't yet Web savvy, but have some Web-server space via their service provider, this is an excellent way of providing feedback to clients on design progress or even to display site progress photos.
While the Web is the focus of this release, Adobe has not ignored other users, and the application's overall improvements will please old hands.
Many new tools improve general work-flow and productivity. The Magic Eraser tool, for example, allows you to control whether you erase all pixels of similar colour value or only contiguous pixels that are similar. The tool operates by working on the pixels of similar value to the one you first click on, with tolerance settings allowing colour-range adjustment. Related to this is a Background Eraser. Rather than removing pixels of a similar value by clicking, you drag across the image like a standard eraser. The tool also decontaminates 'edge-pixels', removing any hint of the background colour.
Masking images with hard-to-define edges has always been tricky in Photoshop. While third-party plug-ins (such as Vanilla Photoshop) could help, it often meant a tedious selecting of elements for objects such as human hair. The Extract Image command allows you to highlight an object's edges and its interior, then preview and adjust the parameters of the extraction before committing to anything. Also, a new Art History Brush, similar to tools in MetaCreations' Painter program, provides a way of 'painting' stylised brush strokes. Various 'styles' are available: Dab, Tight, Loose and Curl, all producing an Impressionist-like final image. Lastly, 5.5 includes some new, helpful, typographical features - long overdue.