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Adobe Photoshop 5.5

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Jesse Nieminen

Published on August 28, 2001

Photoshop 5.5For several years now, I've been working with Photoshop, and am happy to report that the folks at Adobe continue to keep this relationship vibrant by adding new twists to this sexy app at a regular pace. Sure, I've flirted with other image-editing programs, but Photoshop has proven itself to be the one worth committing to, time and again. Like any digital relationship, I have some gripes, but overall I'm pleased with Adobe's product.

On the surface, the 5.5 update seemed, more or less, to be an encouragement to use the now-included web production tool, ImageReady 2.0. While I admit I don't mind being guided in this direction, version 5.5 is much more than just that. On top of the several web-centric tools that are new or improved in this version, there are also some nice features that artists and producers in all media will appreciate.

Don't let all of the web hype in the ads fool you--you will want this upgrade even if you work strictly in print. That said, the most exciting stuff in 5.5 is geared toward web designers. The most prominent new "feature" is obviously the addition of ImageReady 2.0. Adobe has added a button to the bottom of the toolbar for both Photoshop and ImageReady to allow quick jumps back and forth between the two programs.

ImageReady is Web-Ready
RolloversAlthough ImageReady 2.0 is somewhat new, it makes for a good companion in web production. It offers many of the same tools and has the same editability as Photoshop, as well as just about everything needed for creating web graphics and animations. What makes this app so comfortable to work with are the familiar and smartly organized palettes. When bringing in a document from Photoshop, the layers are preserved on the 'Layers' palette. The 'Type' palette handles type in much the same way as Illustrator, and the color management is a hybrid of Photoshop and Illustrator conventions. Other familiar palettes are here too: Brushes, Info, History, and Actions.

The palettes that prove useful in ImageReady are web-specific. The 'Optimize' palette offers immediate and powerful control over how an image is optimized for export. There are various presets, as well as the ability to customize settings, change colors, and set transparency. 'Slices' handles settings, info, and URL assignations made to image slices. 'Rollover' lets you quickly and easily create rollover buttons with layers, and even allows nearly effortless secondary rollovers, which were always a bit of a head-scratcher for me. The 'Animation' palette is a real winner, giving you a preview of animation frames, tweening and preview controls. Animating with ImageReady is easier than any other GIF-animation tool I've used.


While ImageReady's tool-bar is a bit scaled back from Photoshop's, there are some important web-specific tools here. The image-slicing tool creates editable slices quickly, and the slice selection tool lets you handle these slices with ease. The 'Shapes' tool is not a vector drawing tool, but does just fine if all that is needed is to a filled rectangle, rounded-rectangle, or circle. Anything more complex, or ditable as vectors, and you'll need to whip out Illustrator or Freehand.

ImageReady promises to cut web-production time way down, and has little trouble following through. Just a click on the tabs above the image gives a preview of the optimized version in 1-up, 2-up, and 4-up configurations. Another click and you're back to editing. There isn't any delving into a preview dialog that must be cancelled to go back to the edit mode (which is one of my big complaints about Macromedia's Fireworks). This is very important with a complex sliced image that requires various compression settings within the same layout. ImageReady actually allows a preview of all the slices in a window with their various settings. You will know exactly how a GIF will look abutted to a JPEG without any backtracking or redoing!

Slicing for the webAnd because testing is all-important in web-development, a quick keystroke or pulldown brings up a preview in the selected browser with info about the image, including the compression scheme. When previewing a set of sliced images, the HTML is in this window for simple copying and pasting into your HTML document. You can also copy HTML from the document through a menu in ImageReady.

My gripes concerning ImageReady are minor, and fall mainly in the area of features that should have been implemented in Photoshop, such as the type handling and multiple undos (a la Illustrator). I also have to wonder why, on the Mac, ImageReady uses the Mac's new open/save dialog, and Photoshop does not. One other annoyance is the style palette, which prolongs the unjustifiable existence of beveled web buttons. These are the only amateure touches to an otherwise professional tool.

I am excited about using ImageReady as a regular part of my toolbox. It's effortless to switch back and forth between it and Photoshop to take full advantage of each program's features in a logical, forward progression. ImageReady is very easy to learn and use, and greatly benefits from a user's familiarity with Photoshop.

Photoshop & the Web
Optimize for the webAside from the addition of ImageReady in this upgrade, Photoshop itself has been enhanced for web graphic creation. There is now the 'Optimize for Web' dialog which allows one to produce web-ready images if there's no time or desire to use ImageReady. It also includes the option of up to a 4-up preview, and gives the same quality results. The dialog is limited to single images, however, and doesn't support slicing. Also, Photoshop does not have the advantage of switching quickly back and forth between 'Otimized' and 'Edit' view modes that ImageReady does.

Another web-friendly feature found in both programs is the 'Snap to Web' option in the color picker. This keeps the user from having unpredictable results in browsers and frees him or her from relying solely on the swatch palette for color selection. The new picker also includes hexadecimal input fields. And speaking of web-safe colors, there are several custom swatch sets put together by Lynda Weinman and included on the CD, arranged by color schemes to make it easier to create eye-pleasing results. Adobe has also included 'Ditherbox' in its filter. Set for both applications, it is an intriguing and useful filter for creating optical-mixed colors otherwise impossible on browsers, as well as block and stripe patterns. I have been using this filter for a long time, and must applaud Adobe for including it as a standard feature.

Not Just for the Web
ThumbnailsNow let's move onto the features that will make life easier for those who use Photoshop for any purpose besides web design. There aren't any earth-shaking new revelations, like layers (does anybody else remember pre-layers Photoshop?) or editable type. What we have are several improvements to existing features, a few nice new tools, and some things that incorporate features previously only available in third-party plugins or other applications altogether. For the most part, Adobe's done a fantastic job.

Photoshop's improvements have helped to streamline a number of commonly employed tasks. For example, the auto-contrast function works with contrast in the way "Auto levels" handles levels. Batch processing with Photoshop is now serious business with its 'Automate' menu, which also includes multi-page PDF output, web photo gallery production, and picture package, which fits different-sized versions of an image on the same sheet.

Background EraserThe most outstanding new feature set (not web-related) are Photoshop's new masking tools, including the 'Magic Eraser', the 'Background Easer', and the 'Extract Image' command. These tools provide the same functions as useful but expensive third party plugins like the ones Mask Pro and Magic Mask introduced. Adobe also provides a new option to select contiguous areas of color. You can either fire away with the click of the mouse to take out areas of similar color around an object--bypassing the need to select with the magic wand-- or set edge mask boundaries for tighter control. These tools are easier to use than the plugins (but the jury's still out on who handles the task best) and will erase the need to spend $300 for these crucial time and sanity-saving functions.

Exacting Image CommandThe 'type tool' in Photoshop has also been packed with some extra controls which are very useful. Type can have a bold, italic, or underline appearance at the click of a checkbox. Anti-aliasing is now more than a yes/no decision, with the addition of a pulldown menu offering none, crisp, strong, or smooth options. An ongoing complaint I have with Photoshop type management is the font selection pulldown. It can be a real hassle when I have a variety of fonts open. I'd love to see it handled like in Illustrator or Quark, where the user can type in the name or partial name of the font to select it. I also noticed that the type tool in 5.5 works a bit slower than 5.0, but this might just be my pre-G3 Mac's shortcomings.

The least useful new part of Photoshop is the 'Art History' brush. Basically, this tool can be used to set options for how the brush will mangle the image into a painterly effect. It seems like a very limited tool in terms of creative possibility, and a weak stab at imitating MetaCreations' Painter. Painter does a much better job of adding artistic effects to images and creating traditional-looking digital art from scratch. I use both Painter and Photoshop, and haven't seen much convergence between the two in terms of how I use them. When creating painterly-looking images, Painter might as well be used. The only real usefulness that comes to my mind for the 'Art History' tool is perhaps using it to create uniformity in a diverse set of images. This might also aid in compositing, doing away with the need for detailed attention to the edges--provided you want the end-result to look like blurry, impressionistic brush strokes.

For those that have been using Extensis' PhotoTools, you'll have to purchase an upgrade that's compatible with Photoshop 5.5, at least to retain the functionality of PhotoBars. Since Adobe seems interested in bringing third-party gadgets in-house for this version, I'd love to see them bring something like PhotoBars into a future upgrade. For those who aren't familiar with this product, PhotoBars adds a customizable toolstrip that places the most-used functions and filters at the touch of a button instead of having them buried in a pulldown menu. This is especially helpful for those functions with no keyboard shortcuts. In the meantime, I am going to go ahead and purchase the new version of PhotoTools to get back the speed enhancement it provides.

SlicingOverall, I'm very impressed and thankful for this upgrade of Adobe's Photoshop. Most of the new features offer a great boost in speed, which is always at the top of my wish-list. ImageReady offers a very attractive alternative to other web-specific graphics programs with its tight integration of Photoshop and great feature set. It's quite a seductive move for Adobe to offer it as a "free" component of the 5.5 upgrade. Many designers who have shied away from using ImageReady because of the additional expense may now find it a viable tool for web production. I know I do.

Adobe Photoshop™ 5.5
Retail price: $609
Upgrade price: $199

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