Photoshop CC caused a storm when it was launched in 2013. From that point on, you couldn't buy Photoshop with a 'perpetual licence' – you had to rent it a month or a year at a time via an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. You choose the plan you need, and the software is then available to you for as long as you keep paying the subscription.
This still causes dismay amongst some users, but there are upsides. Your subscription includes free updates and an increasing range of Creative Cloud services, such as the Behance sharing/collaboration site. And since that rocky launch, Adobe has dropped the price and increased the value. Photographers don't just pay less, they get two programs for the price of one.
Adobe's current Photography plan costs just £8.78/$9.99/A$9.99 per month (if you take out an annual subscription) and includes not just Photoshop CC but Lightroom 5.5. It's a great double-act – Photoshop takes care of the editing, Lightroom takes care of the organisation. The free Lightroom Mobile app enables you to view and edit photo collections on your iPad, while Adobe's new Mix app offers Photoshop-compatible editing tools too.
Photoshop CC and Creative Cloud are now a powerful and compelling option – and Adobe has been releasing modest but useful updates. But June 2014 brought a new version, Photoshop CC 2014, which doesn't replace the existing Photoshop CC app but is installed alongside it.
Photoshop CC introduced an all-new Smart Sharpen tool designed to maximise clarity and reduce noise, together with a Camera Shake Reduction tool that can analyse the direction of movement ('trajectory') and then reverse the blur digitally. On Adobe's sample images it works really well, but not all shots provide the right kind of blur, so don't expect it to be a fix for every shaky shot.
Photoshop CC also brought an 'Intelligent Upsampling' feature to help you scale up pictures for big prints without the image degradation normally associated with upsampling. You don't get any more detail, but sharp edges are better preserved.
But the biggest cluster of new features centres on Adobe Camera Raw 8, Photoshop's companion RAW conversion tool. In fact, you can now carry out so many everyday photographic enhancements in Adobe Camera Raw that you may need Photoshop itself less and less. By the time the photo opens in Photoshop, you'll have already done everything that needs doing.
A new Radial Gradient tool lets you highlight the focal point of your picture by darkening, blurring, desaturating or otherwise subduing the surrounding areas. It comes with grab handles you can use to change the shape and size and a central 'pin' you can drag it around with.
And the Advanced Healing Brush now enables you to heal irregular areas by painting over them, whereas previously you could only heal circular areas. It's not as sophisticated as the Clone Stamp and Healing tools in Photoshop, but it can cope with simple touch-up jobs very easily.
Best of all, though, is the new Upright tool, which can detect lines in your image which it thinks should be horizontal or vertical, and automatically straighten them, correcting perspective problems such as converging verticals. It works so well it's almost uncanny.
Adobe released an update in January 2014 which brought 3D printing capability and a number of enhancements for web designers, illustrators and photographers – photographers could now apply a 'perspective warp' to straighten buildings shot at an angle, for example. It's not unlike the perspective crop feature, or the perspective tools in DxO Optics Pro and Capture One, except that it can correct two planes (or two sides of a building), not just one.
But the biggest changes are in Photoshop CC 2014, released in June 2014. You can now create a wider variety of blur effects, including 'path blur' and 'spin blur'. Path blur can follow a line or curve you define yourself, while spin blur gives a more authentic look to spinning wheels or prop blades.
It's now possible to create a 'focus mask' which selects ares of the image which are in sharp focus. You could use this to create cutouts more easily, for example, or apply a stronger blur to out-of-focus backgrounds.
The content-aware Fill, Patch, Move and Extend tools have have 'algorithmic colour blending', which can produce more natural-looking results – though, as ever, the success of these tools depends on the surrounding objects and details in the image. When they work, however, they can be almost uncannily effective.
There's a significant change to two of the tools in Adobe Camera Raw, too. This is Adobe's raw conversion plug-in – it launches automatically when you attempt to open a raw file. The Graduated and Gradient Filters now have a manual masking brush tool which enables you to mask the effect in specific areas.
For example, the Graduated Filter won't just darken the sky, it will also darken anything sticking up into the sky such as a building – you can now use the mask brush to remove the darkening effect from objects like this.
These are modest but useful changes, but don't seem enough on their own to justify a whole new application alongside the old one. There's a lot more going on under the hood, though, and Adobe has overhauled its 'Mercury' graphics engine, for example, to boost performance. It seems that for now at least Adobe expects some users may want to carry on using the older version, perhaps for compatibility reasons.
Photoshop CC 2014 is a tough program to review because it doesn't really have any rivals – apart from the last 'perpetual' version, Photoshop CS6. Some photographers may get by with lower-cost alternatives like Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro, but in reality Photoshop CC is out on its own.
But to get the most out of Photoshop you do need to know what you're doing – there's precious little help here for beginners. And there's a strong market in creative plug-ins which provide instant effects, inspiration and creative options simply not available in the Adobe program.
The improvements in each update of Photoshop CC itself are relatively modest, but they accumulate – and they'll carry on accumulating for as long as you subscribe. The spectre of paid upgrades is gone, we assume, forever. The improvements to Adobe Camera Raw are equally significant. It's now a powerful image-editing tool in its own right, and you can even use these tools as a filter within Photoshop.
Photoshop 2014 installs alongside Photoshop CC rather than simply replacing it, and with little or no explanation. Annoyingly, our plug-ins were not migrated to the new version, so that means re-installing them or migrating them manually – and using the 'old' version of Photoshop CC until then.
The new mask brush tool in Adobe Camera Raw is really useful, but it's not yet available in Lightroom 5.5, which is unusual since they both use the same processing engine. Hopefully, Lightroom will get an upgrade shortly which includes this useful feature.
Perhaps the main point to keep in mind about Photoshop is that it's designed not just for photographers, but also for illustrators, web developers and 3D artists. As a result, each update may well include a whole host of new features and improvements, but they won't all be relevant to specific types of user. Whatever your area of interest, Photoshop will do a whole lot of other stuff besides that you don't really need.
For a while, you could still buy Photoshop CS6 as a 'perpetual' alternative to CC. That's no longer the case, so Adobe's brave new world of subscription services is the only way forward for Photoshop fans who want to stay current.
But it all seems to be working very well. The Photography plan is half the price of the original Photoshop CC subscription, and you get Lightroom 5.5 too. Adobe's updates may not be on the same scale as the old software version updates, but they add up and they're free.
This is still the world's most powerful image-editing application and Photoshop CC 2014 brings many small but significant improvements that just reinforce its position. It's getting harder and harder to argue against Adobe's subscription-based software system.