August 23, 2010
Software Review: Photoshop CS5 and Engineering Applications
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Jeff Rowe - Managing Editor

by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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The newest version of Photoshop, Creative Suite 5 (CS5) Extended, marks Photoshop's 20th anniversary as the standard in digital photography processing and workflow. I've been a big fan of Photoshop for many years. Even though it's 20 years old, it still isn't perfect. Its ever-expanding features can be complicated to understand and use. And, even though it's well-suited for “creative types,” it's increasingly finding a home in the engineer's toolbox. In fact, I find it to be one of the more useful technical/engineering applications, especially coupled with CAD or analysis software.

As in the past, instead of trying to cover all of the new features and capabilities of Photoshop CS5, we'll stick to applications of interest to engineers, namely, creating 3D objects, analysis, measurement, and using a photographic image as the basis for a design using a CAD product. In other words, this evaluation will only cover engineering-oriented image processing with Photoshop CS5. Note that while I am using Photoshop CS5 Extended, for the remainder of this review I will refer to it only as CS5.

I think some of the most compelling capabilities for engineers are the 2D and 3D creation and measurement tools in Photoshop CS5. These tools let you create and extract real quantitative information from digital photographic images or drawings.

The first thing you'll notice when you startup Photoshop CS5 is how fast it works compared to previous versions. If you've recently invested in a dual- or quad-core CPU and expanded to GBs of RAM, you'll be rewarded with increased performance for Photoshop CS5. If you are running a 64-bit OS (I'm using Windows 7 64-bit), according to Adobe, Photoshop CS5 now processes tasks at up to 10 times faster than previously. In Preferences there is also a RAM slider to set up how much RAM Photoshop can use. You can now use and take full advantage of as much RAM as you have installed in your machine and really crank up the performance.

Now, on to 3D . . .

In Photoshop CS5 there is a full dropdown menu dedicated specifically to working in 3D. The most interesting pick is Repoussé, a term that describes a metalworking technique where object faces are shaped and patterned by hammering on the opposite side. It can be used to create 3D objects, text, artwork, logos, layer masks, or images. In Photoshop CS5, the Repoussé command converts 2D objects into 3D meshes that you can extrude, inflate, and reposition in 3D space fairly precisely. Mesh tools function much like 3D object tools for moving, rotating, or scaling a model. Extrude extends a 2D shape in 3D space. Depth controls the length of extrusion, and Scale controls the width. Inflate
expands or collapses the middle of the front or back of an extrusion. Bevel applies beveled edges to the front or back of an object. Contour options are similar to those for layer effects (long a Photoshop staple).

I was surprised to see that the 3D capabilities in Photoshop CS5 had internal constraints that let you improve mesh resolution in specific areas (with inactive constraints), precisely vary inflation (with active constraints), or poke holes in surfaces (with hole constraints). Along a path you specify on a Repoussé object, constraint curves extend away from an object for expansion, or toward an object for contraction. You manipulate these curves using the constraint tools that are analogous to 3D object tools that most of us are used to.

You can also create some basic 3D objects (shapes and meshes) from 2D images (layers) as a starting point. This can take some doing, though, but it is a start and an indication where Adobe might be taking Photoshop 3D in the future.

All in all, some very cool and capable 3D stuff for a mature software application not necessarily associated with 3D.

In Photoshop CS5, you can measure the dimensions of a photograph or a digital model (2D or 3D) using the measurement feature. You begin by assigning a known measurement to any part of an image or model, then you can take other accurate measurements. For example, you can import a photo of an object, enter a known dimension from the photo, such as the width of a slot, and then generate measurements of any other feature of the object, such as its height, width, depth, distance apart, etc.

Using the measurement feature in Photoshop CS5 you can measure any area defined with the Ruler tool or with a selection tool, including irregular areas selected with the lasso, quick select, or magic wand tools. You can also compute the height, width, area, and perimeter, or track measurements of one image or multiple images. It's best to choose a measurement tool that matches the kind of data you want to record in the Measurement Log that keeps track of data including width, height, area, units, scale, and file name. You can customize the Measurement Log columns, as well as sort data within columns, and export data from the log to a text file or spreadsheet.

To ensure that I was accurate from the beginning for my first experience with the measurement feature, I set my measurement scale using a digital macro photo of a 100-mm machinist's scale. This absolutely ensured that I had known dimensions. I discovered that the higher the resolution of the photograph, the higher the accuracy of the measurement, as I experimented with photos of different resolutions.

Once the measurement scale is established, you can draw lines with the Ruler tool to measure linear distance and angle. Each measurement measures one or more data points. The data points you select determine the information recorded in the Measurement log. Data points correspond to the type of tool you're measuring with. Area, perimeter, height, and width are available data points for measuring selections. You can create and save sets of data points for particular types of measurements to speed the process. The workflow steps for performing the process are pretty simple.

Use the Ruler tool to set the measurement scale for a document. You can create measurement scale presets for frequently used measurement scales. Presets are added to the Analysis> Set Measurement Scale submenu. The current measurement scale for a document is checked in the submenu, and appears in the Info panel. Measurement scale markers display the measurement scale used in your document. Set the measurement scale for a document before creating a scale marker.

If you measure multiple selected areas on an image, one row of data is created in the log containing summary or cumulative data for all selected areas, followed by a row of data for each selection area. Each selection area is listed as a separate Feature in the Label column of the log and assigned a unique number.

For more advanced analytic engineering work, and although I haven't tried this yet, I understand that it is possible for Photoshop CS5 to export to and import data from
MATLAB (a technical computing environment and programming language for visualizing data) and visualize the results of MATLAB algorithms. With Photoshop CS5, MATLAB can be used to view the results of algorithms created in MATLAB from within Photoshop, as well as export images created and/or edited in Photoshop back out to MATLAB for detailed analysis.

The measurement tools in Photoshop CS5 could be used for fairly sophisticated purposes ranging from inspection to reverse engineering. As engineering-oriented features and capabilities such as the measurement tools continue to evolve in Photoshop, expect to see it on more engineers' workstations because of its possibilities. The 3D creation features, not so sophisticated, but will only get better with subsequent versions. After the initial learning curve, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the 3D objects you can produce within Photoshop CS5, without needing an external program. Will it replace even a simplistic traditional CAD program? Well, no, not yet anyway, but it does provide
some interesting possibilities.

Photoshop CS4 Extended Evaluation Quick Guide*

Overall Product: A-

This version: A-

Ease of use: B

Features: A-

Documentation: B
Innovation: A

Value: A-

Price: Pricing for Photoshop CS5 is $699.00 to purchase and $199.00 to upgrade from Photoshop CS4. A free trial download version is also available.

*Editor's Note: The Evaluation Quick Guide is based only on the engineering imaging features and capabilities (3D creation and measurement) of Photoshop CS5.

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-- Jeff Rowe, Contributing Editor.


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