The Changing Role of Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop: once the be-all and end-all of digital imaging; but no longer. There have always been Photoshop competitors, but none ever had the feature set, or the market reach, to seriously compete with Adobe’s flagship image editing application. But what competition alone could not alter, is changing over time, with other shifts in the industry.

RAW Formats Produced the First Cracks

When RAW file formats become common, and RAW converters from each camera company came on the market, Adobe responded with a RAW utility for Photoshop. Adobe Camera Raw became one of the most common ways to convert RAW files to “real” image files, meaning the types of universal file formats (Tiff, Jpeg etc) that we all considered to be the bedrock of imaging.

The changes did not stop there. Applications which performed RAW conversion, plus image storage and other functions, began to appear. Adobe’s entrance into that market came with the release of the first version of Adobe Lightroom. Before long, it became apparent that the types of adjustment tools in these RAW apps were actually more photo-centric than those in Photoshop. Adobe appeared to see the writing on the wall, and changed Lightroom’s name to Photoshop Lightroom. A technicality, but one that keeps the name Photoshop at the top of the image editing heap, one way or another.

Apple’s entrance into the RAW converter/Image Manager field with Aperture created stiff price competition for Lightroom, forcing the intial price of Lightroom to be much lower than Photoshop, and recent version prices to be lower still. This price differential has been an added factor in the move to RAW format apps for the majority of image editing work.

Mobile Imaging Provided the Second Front

The next sea-change was the move to mobile. While Adobe released a minor app for imaging on the iPhone early-on, other companies launched an all-out assault on the mobile image editing market, resulting in the odd situation of smaller companies like NIK providing superior image editing capabilities in third party image editors, and leaving the lesser features of Adobe’s PS Express in the dust. As the mobile imaging field matured further, both Adobe and Apple responded by releasing major image editing products for iOS.

The future of NIK’s award-winning SnapSeed for the iPhone and iPad, as well as their desktop applications, are in question, following the recent acquisition of NIK by Google. But we can rest assured that the surge in mobile imaging apps will continue unabated, from companies large and small, augmented by web apps of the Instagram-type; which seems the most likely field for Google’s NIK acquisition.

Photoshop CS6 Changes the Rules

The release of Photoshop CS6 heralded the next change in Photoshop’s role in our daily lives. The CS6 version defaults to an interface more like that of Lightroom, and a backdrop that covers the main monitor’s screen behind Photoshop’s pallets and image windows, also somewhat similar to Lightroom’s full-screen interface, but without the total-control attitude of Lightroom.

This is a relatively new feature, and not without difficulties. It is most effective when images are “tabbed”, a function that locks them to the top of the screen, and allows them to be viewed by toggling between the tabs for each image. When using free-floating image windows, the new interface has more noticeable weaknesses, including the disturbing habit of “losing” image windows behind the background (which, by definition, should always be at the back), and difficulty accessing other applications while Photoshop is on-screen.

Photoshop CS6 Application Frame Interface

This rather minor change has wider reaching ramifications for casual Photoshop use. Historically, most users linked all common imaging formats to Photoshop, so that double clicking on most any image file would trigger it to open in Photoshop. However the new “black-out” effect of Application Frame mode makes it less practical for use in conjunction with other applications. Perhaps you need to have an image on screen while writing a critique of it, or need to read text from a screenshot while performing the steps it represents, or a hundred other such multi-app situations.

For such uses, Photoshop’s default state is no longer practical, and must be reset to it’s previous interface by choosing Window >Application Frame to uncheck the new Application Frame feature. However, there are some real advantages to having the Application Frame in place while working with Photoshop for serious image editing work. So an alternate solution is to use Photoshop as a dedicated advanced image editor, not a general image viewer. This means finding another application which can be conveniently used for the types of casual image display that Photoshop does not specialize in.

Accessing the Application Frame Interface Control

Image Viewer Utilities Come to the Rescue

For Mac and Windows users, Graphic Converter is one reasonable low cost choice, which allows navigation amongst a group of images. But there is an even less expensive alternative on the Mac, with some clear advantages. That is Apple’s own Preview app, which is installed free with Mac OS X.

Graphic Converter Interface

Preview is ideal for opening a range of file types, including common image formats. And it offers an excellent way to view a group of images. Command click on the various images you would like to view. Now Control-Click on one of them, and from the contextual menu that appears, choose Open With > Preview.

Apple’s Preview Interface

This will result in an image viewing window with a vertical set of thumbnails of your selected images on the left, and the first image in the group at a larger size on the right. The size of the previews can be adjusted by moving the border between the preview and main view sections to the left or right. The size of the larger image can be adjusted by dragging the lower right corner of the window. The Arrow Down and Arrow Up keys can be used to navigate the series of images. Preview is a color managed utility, so your images will display correct color on screen.

This method of displaying one or more images, and an array of other file types, while not losing the convenient ability to work in other applications at the same time, makes Preview a useful tool for everyday imaging tasks. Give it a try, or start your own search for a favorite image viewer for daily use.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: Return to Blog’s Main Page


4 responses to “The Changing Role of Adobe Photoshop

  1. I have been using Breezebrowser in WIndows for years to quickly view my RAW images in black and white. Is there a similar program for black and white for use on the Mac?

    • Both utilities I noted will open RAW files, though Graphic Converter is not listed in the “Open With” list, for some reason. But opening RAW files in varying apps is not straightforward, as it is with Tiffs and Jpegs. Apps either open the Jpeg preview, instead of the actual RAW file, or they interpret the RAW file their own way (since displaying it RAW would make it impossible to view); resulting in different views in different apps. So if you are only trying to decide which file is which, this may be sufficient, but if you are making any type of judgement on the files, you should do that in your official RAW editing app, not some third party utility.

  2. David,
    you probably wanted to say that, starting with Photoshop CS6, the Application Frame is “on” by default – because the feature itself has been added first in Photoshop CS4.

    On the changing role of Photoshop, I personally both agree and disagree. It’s true that the software has been following the mutable destiny of its users in the last decade (professionals who, by and large, can’t live nowadays with just their primary skill – whether retouching, color correction, compositing – and have managed to know video, 3D, etc – those, of course, who didn’t run out of business in the meantime). If trending applications for “””post-processing””” are now considered the ones available in mobile devices, well, this is a strong signal about the health of the imaging/printing business as a whole and its descending parabola.

    On the other side, Photoshop lacks (as you’ve mentioned) a *true* competitor. This is a bliss and a curse at the same time. It’s an old (too old), big (too big) piece of software which underwent many (sometimes, imho, useless) restylings but it’s basically built upon an old, outdated paradigm. Alas, I’m afraid Adobe has no will to really put its hands on the code (I mean, not just rewrite it for Cocoa or 64bits). And the few professionals that must keep using it (myself included) constantly feel frustrated – it’s quite clear that new algorithms enter first in ACR/LR and are not really ported in PS (whether this is just laziness, a plan, or a way to save resources I can’t say).

    An example? The local laplacian filter, that is the base of the revised Clarity slider (and, I strongly suspect, on the better performing subdivision of the luminosity ranges in ACR/LR – Blacks, Shadows, Highlights, Whites). They could have been implementing it also as a Filter in Photoshop, but they simply didn’t – it’s just porting a piece of code they already have.

    Photoshop is just a collection of image processing tools: building blocks for advanced image processing (and when I write it’s based upon an outdated paradigm this is exactly what I mean: in 2012 we could dream of something a bit more advanced than a toolbox!). To use a toolbox and not a more contemporary software is already sad: but to use an outdated toolbox is a shame! So that I would agree with you when you compare (and suggest) Preview over PS as a better, lightweight alternative. That’s where we’re at.

    Kind regards

    Davide Barranca

    • I don’t believe I ever saw the Application Frame in use “in the wild” before CS6; and I now see many users that don’t care for it, but haven’t figured out how to turn it off… so your assumption of total mastery is a higher standard than reality. I find that if I try to toggle it on and off for assorted uses that its always on when I don’t want it, and visa versa; which was one reason I decided that doing my casual image viewing with a utility might be the simplest solution for my needs.

      Your criticism of the giant code base that is Photoshop is certainly valid in many ways, but my goal was less to criticize that giant, than to point out that we are moving in other ways for various reasons. As for WWAD? (what will Adobe do?) I don’t have much of a crystal ball for that one, they continually surprise me with both what they do, and what they don’t do. The only clear indication of change at the moment is in the direction of moving users from a purchased software model to a subscription model.

      Thanks for your thoughtful input.

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