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AECbytes Product Review (January 15, 2009)

Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended

Product Summary

Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended is the new release of the specialized version of Photoshop targeted towards some specific fields that require advanced digital imagery including architecture and engineering, science, healthcare, film, and video.

Pros: New Adjustments panel cuts the time it takes to make re-editable, nondestructive adjustments to an image without needing to go to a separate dialog box; new Masks panel simplifies the creation and adjustment of pixel and vector masks for applying effects to specific parts of an image; Content-Aware Scaling feature intelligently resizes an image while still preserving all the vital areas; new options in Photomerge produce panoramic images that are more seamless with better color blending from one end of the scene to the other; new tabbed interface with a convenient Arrange Documents option; enhanced 3D capabilities include the ability to work on 3D layers directly and convert 2D images to 3D objects in various ways; growing integration with other Adobe applications and the extension of its capabilities through the development of plug-ins.

Cons: May require video card upgrades to use the 3D and more advanced imaging capabilities; no increase in the number of 3D file formats supported, which remain limited to 3DS, OBJ, COLLADA, KMZ, and U3D; 3D navigation tools do not automatically maintain the verticality needed for buildings models, which makes them somewhat difficult to use; does not work as well as specialized applications for architectural rendering.

Price: $999 for a new license; $349 for upgrade from any previous version of Photoshop.

The last release of Adobe Photoshop that I reviewed back in April 2007 was the first to include an Extended version that was specifically designed for professionals in fields requiring advanced digital imagery such as science, healthcare, film, video, and AEC. While the standard version of Photoshop continues to cater to a diverse array of design professionals in different fields for their digital imaging tasks, the introduction of Photoshop CS3 Extended marked an important step in the development of the application to make it more focused towards the specific needs and workflows of certain industries, one of them being AEC. It could be used to import 3D models and manipulate aspects such as camera views, the size and orientation of the model, lighting, render modes, and the textures applied to the model, opening up a whole new slew of possibilities for the use of Photoshop in architectural design. It also included new measurement and analysis tools for extracting and recording quantitative data from images, and a cross-sectioning capability, allowing architects to display not only sectional views inside their buildings but also combine the use of two rendering modes on a model for interesting and creative results.

The new version of Photoshop Extended that was released in October—as part of Adobe’s extensive CS4 suite of applications that also includes Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash, and many more—continues to build upon the 3D capabilities of the application that were introduced in the CS3 Extended version. It also includes all the enhancements for the core 2D imaging tasks that have been engineered in the standard version of Photoshop CS4. Let’s take a detailed look at both types of enhancements and determine whether they add up to make Photoshop CS4 Extended a compelling upgrade for AEC firms.

Imaging Improvements in Photoshop CS4

Photoshop CS4 comes with a slightly different look and feel, with some interface enhancements intended to make it less cluttered and more fluid. Multiple documents now open up in tabs, making it easier to switch between them. There is also an Arrange Documents option that allows you to quickly select from different layouts for displaying multiple open files (see Figure 1). Docked panel groups keep to the side of the images, so you have fewer things to move around. Individual panels expand and contract automatically to show the needed controls, and entire panel groups can be collapsed to their header rows with a single click. If required, floating windows and panels can still be manually arranged if required. The complete interface, including all the windows and panels, are self-adjusting, and get automatically resized to maintain their relative proportions when the main application window size is modified.

Figure 1. The new tabbed interface in Photoshop CS4 and the use of the Arrange Documents option to arrange the open files in a predefined layout.

There are several improvements for image editing tasks. A new Adjustments panel cuts the time it takes to make live, re-editable, nondestructive adjustments such as Brightness/Contrast, Curves, Levels, and others, without needing to go to a separate dialog box (see Figure 2). There is also a new Vibrance adjustment that provides greater control over color saturation while preserving delicate tones. On-image adjustments are now available for Hue/Saturation and Curves. The Adjustments panel also includes a variety of modifiable presets for each type of adjustment, including more than 20 new preconfigured, customizable starting points for more convenient and faster editing.

Figure 2. The new Adjustments panel makes it easier and faster to apply various re-editable, nondestructive adjustments to an image. The original image was shown in Figure 1.

Along with the Adjustments panel, a new Masks panel has also been introduced to simplify the creation and adjustment of pixel and vector masks for applying effects to specific parts of an image. It includes sliders to quickly adjust the sharpness of the mask edge and how much of the adjustment effect is to be revealed, a Refine Mask feature to precisely control the mask size and edges, and an upgraded Color Range that lets you automatically create detailed masks based on single or multiple colors. Other image editing enhancements include refined Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools that help preserve tonal quality while spot-correcting exposure and color saturation. The Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools now feature a live preview of the source pixels at the cursor, making it easier to precisely replace or heal specific areas of an image.

A key new feature in Photoshop CS4 is Content-Aware Scaling that lets you resize and recompose images simultaneously, allowing an image to be resized to different proportions while still preserving all the vital areas of the image. It works by analyzing the image in the background while you adjust its size, and intelligently recomposes the scene to preserve the most visually interesting areas. If required, you can also use selection tools to predefine the most important areas before you begin scaling, so that these are retained in the reconfigured image. An example of how Content-Aware Scaling works, in contrast to a regular Scale operation, is demonstrated in Figure 3. As you can see, this can prove to be a very useful option when compositing renderings of 3D models into site photographs, allowing the site photograph to be manipulated in addition to the building image to ensure the best fit. Content-Aware Scaling is an excellent example of the use of computing power and capability to make applications increasingly smarter and capable of handling more intelligent tasks.

Figure 3. A comparison of context sensitive scaling versus regular scaling for the same image.

Recall that Photoshop CS3 had introduced automatic alignment and blending of image layers that made advanced image composites faster and easier to create, especially useful when stitching individual images into a single panoramic image with the Photomerge command. In Photoshop CS4, this capability has been further enhanced with the introduction of two additional options in the dialog of the Photomerge command: Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction. Checking both these options improves the results, as shown in Figure 4, producing a panorama that is more seamless with better color blending from one end of the scene to the other. Additional improvements include the ability to create 360-degree panoramas, automatic detection of fish eye lenses to compensate for their inherent distortion, and a new Collage option which rotates and scales individual images as they are combined using Auto-Align and Photomerge. The enhanced auto-blending feature for layers can also be useful in situations where lighting and depth of field are in short supply— you can shoot the scene with a series of focal points, and use the enhanced Auto-Blend Layers feature to automatically combine the individual shots into a new, single image with an extended depth of field encompassing the entire series.

Figure 4. The enhanced results achieved by using the Photomerge command with the new Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction options. They were checked for the second panorama but not for the first one.

Other enhancements in Photoshop CS4 include the ability to rotate the canvas to work in the angle that is most convenient for a task, the ability to smoothly zoom all the way down to the level of individual pixels and still have good clarity, a streamlined printing interface and the ability to preview out-of-gamut colors, availability of 16-bit printing (in Mac OS X only) for increased color depth and clarity, and several other smaller improvements and additions. Photoshop CS4 also comes with an improved Adobe Bridge CS4 which makes finding, previewing and managing image assets faster and more convenient and includes speedy transfer of images to Photoshop. There is tighter integration with Photoshop Lightroom 2 that is used by professional photographers, as well as the ability to make localized, nondestructive edits in the Camera Raw plug-in which works with the raw data from a digital camera (described in my review of Photoshop CS2). Additional plug-ins for Photoshop are being continuously developed and can be downloaded at For example, there is Adobe Configurator, an open source utility that allows you to easily create custom panels (palettes) for Photoshop CS4 containing just the tools, commands, actions, scripts, and widgets that are needed for a particular workflow or set of tasks. The panels can be shared with others, if required, by using Adobe Extension Manager CS4.

3D-related Enhancements in Photoshop CS4 Extended

Photoshop CS4 Extended comes with some interesting new 3D capabilities. You can take any 2D image and convert it into various kinds of 3D objects, some examples of which are illustrated in Figure 5. Figure 5-a shows a 2D image of the Disney Concert Hall converted to a 3D postcard. Figure 5-b shows a 2D image of a wood texture being converted to a cylinder. Figure 5-c shows a simple gradient being converted to a cylindrical mesh object. And finally, Figure 5-d shows a plain color image converted to a cube, which is subsequently being painted on using the Brush tool. As you can see, the Brush tool is aware of the different 3D surfaces it is being applied to and adjusts the color according to how each surface is oriented and shaded.

Figure 5. Some of the new 3D capabilities in Photoshop CS4 Extended.

In Photoshop CS3 Extended, all of the work on the 3D layer could only be done by first activating it, whereas in Photoshop CS4 Extended, the 3D layer can be edited directly, without entering into a special editing mode. Also, in CS3, you could not apply any textures, or even plain colors, to those surfaces of the model that were not textured to begin with. In CS4 Extended, you can paint directly on the surfaces of the model, as shown in Figure 5, which allows you to modify even those surfaces for which no texture has been applied in the original authoring application. That said, I was not able to test out these capabilities with actual building models, as it turned out that the video card on my one and a half year old laptop is not supported by Photoshop CS4 (although it has been perfectly adequate for all the other AEC applications I have reviewed so far). The 3D engine in CS4 has been completely re-written and it makes use of the video card's GPU instead of the computer's main processor (the CPU) for many of the 3D features. Thus, while I am still able to use Photoshop CS3 Extended to import and work with 3D building models in the supported formats (3DS, OBJ, COLLADA, KMZ, and U3D), CS4 Extended could not open many of these models correctly on my computer. A list of the video cards that work with Photoshop CS4 can be seen here.

In addition to the 3D enhancements, Photoshop CS4 Extended improves upon the video and animation support that had been introduced in CS3 Extended. You can preview and export the audio content of a video file as well as its frame comments. Preview of non-square-pixel images has been enhanced.  New keyboard shortcuts are enabled for the Animation panel for faster editing between frames and keyframes. 3D objects and their camera position, render settings, keyframes, and other properties can be animated. Video layers can be placed into the textures of 3D objects, turning any 3D object surface into a video display screen. There is also integration with the Adobe After Effects CS4, the application targeted towards film and television professionals, which can now directly read and import 3D layers from Photoshop CS4 files. A detailed tutorial on how to use Photoshop CS4 Extended for creating an architectural animation will be published later this month in the AECbytes Tips and Tricks section.

The new Count tool introduced in Photoshop CS3 for tallying features in an image—useful in scientific imaging applications—has been further enhanced in CS4 Extended to allow for multiple counts, as well as resizeable labels and markers in separate colors for each count. This data is saved into the file for future reference, and can be collected in the Measurement Log panel for comparison and export to standard text files.

Hits and Misses

Photoshop CS4 comes with some terrific enhancements on the digital imaging front. The ability to make re-editable, nondestructive adjustments to an image and the improvements in masking will be greatly appreciated by all users who rely extensively on Photoshop for editing images, as it makes the process much faster and more direct. For AEC users, the Content-Aware Scaling feature that intelligently resizes an image while still preserving all the vital areas can be extremely helpful when creating visualizations of proposed designs within their surrounding context, and could prove to be the most compelling reason to upgrade to Photoshop CS4. The improvements in generating panoramic images are also very relevant to AEC. The new tabbed interface takes a while to get used to, but can eventually prove to be more convenient. The growing integration with other Adobe applications and the extension of its capabilities through the development of plug-ins such as the Configurator may not be appreciated right away by AEC users but have the potential to be useful in the long run. 

The 3D enhancements in Photoshop CS4 Extended are useful, but not a compelling build-up to the 3D capabilities that had been introduced in Photoshop CS3 Extended. According to Adobe, the 3D engine has been rebuilt from the ground up to provide faster performance, allow editing of properties like light, and provide the ability to create more realistic renderings with a new high-quality ray-tracer. But it seems that in the course of making these changes, it also required hardware upgrades to be able to use them effectively.

I was also disappointed to find that the number of 3D file formats that can be opened in Photoshop remains the same as in the previous version (3DS, OBJ, COLLADA, KMZ, and U3D), making it impossible to bring, for example, a Revit model into Photoshop without the use of some intermediate application (as Revit does not export to any of these formats). If Adobe wants to attract more AEC users to its Photoshop Extended product, it needs to make a concerted effort to support more popular formats such as DWG, DXF, DWF, and even IFC. After all, if Acrobat can now open an IFC file (as described in my review of Acrobat 9 Pro Extended), it shows that Adobe already has the know-how and should be able to extend it to Photoshop as well. Even the 3D navigation problem I had pointed out in my review of Photoshop CS3 Extended—where there is no easy way to maintain the verticality of a building model—has not been addressed in this release.


The standard version of Photoshop CS4 features some excellent improvements for 2D imaging that would be well worth the upgrade, but the 3D related improvements in the Extended version are far from compelling, at least for the AEC industry which deals with relatively large 3D models. I have been waiting to see some Piranesi-like capabilities for architectural renderings in Photoshop for some time now, but Adobe seems to more focused on developing broader features that will work across a range of disciplines rather than the requirements of specific ones. While this will hardly detract from the ubiquitous use of Photoshop in AEC firms for 2D imaging, it seems unlikely that Photoshop Extended can gain widespread acceptance for 3D-related tasks, unless Adobe makes a concerted effort to understand the 3D needs of AEC firms and provide those capabilities in perhaps a discipline-specific version of Photoshop.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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