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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Photoshop CS6 3D Tools Reviewed

With the recent release of Adobe CS6, Photoshop's 3D functions have undergone a thorough rewrite, although I don't think they are yet a replacement for a dedicated 3D package. As in past versions of the program, these 3D functions come only with the extended edition, which frankly seems a bit disappointing, but I am not a marketing wizard, so who knows :)

Possibly the most important changes are around the new improved workflow (3D panel, 3D layers), the new options for rendering and GL previews, the camera positioning, and materials. In spite of these improvements, I still don't find that using Photoshop for high end 3D rendering is a realistic (no pun intended) option. I find the tools a bit clunky and old-fashioned—especially when compared to modern render engines, unbiased or not. However, Photoshop is a good tool to create quick product mock-ups intended for traditional publications. 3D models can be incorporated in several ways: via a 3D postcard function that turns an image into a flat 3D object; by adding built-in shapes (cubes, spheres, donuts, displacement map planes); by importing files in 3D formats, like .obj; finally, as in older versions of the program, one can extrude sections of an image to generate an editable 3D object.

Materials are handled much more like in other 3D packages, with the ability to define diffuse, specular, transparency, and bump maps. Actually, this might be Photoshop's strongest advantage in a 3D workflow: many 3D artists are already used to switching to Photoshop (or an alternative, like Gimp) to work on textures. Since Photoshop can now generate UV maps, even though its current UV tools are pretty limited, it is conceivable to adopt a Photoshop-only texturing workflow. It could be its strongest point. Photoshop's built-in materials are great for those who still learning about creating materials, and for those who are in a hurry.

Moving around in the 3D space is more intuitive and more resemblant to other 3D packages. Earlier versions had these funny tools on the toolbar for moving around. 3D navigational tools are now placed in the 3D context, not on the toolbar, and can be keyboard-accessed. Also, a grid floor with colored axes is available now, with an extra orthographic inset panel to help positioning. This makes positioning of the camera and objects much easier, which makes compositing a real possibility from within Photoshop. Actually, in my opinion, it would be wise to invest more energy in improving the compositing potential of Photoshop's existing 3D functions, even if it means losing some quasi-3D modeling stuff which is best left to more capable apps.

Rendering has also been improved. Photoshop now can take advantage of the GPU to render and preview scenes faster. Also, now it has a better raytracing render engine, which makes renders look much more professional and nice. Personally, I'd still recommend using some proper render engine for that, unless there's nothing else available. Lights have been improved as well. There are now more types of lights (like a sun-like infinite ray light), and it is easier to control where they go in the scene. Also, a new option for IBL (image based lighting) has been added, so one can place an image on the background, to act as both a lighting source, and be reflected off shiny surfaces.

Overall, I think Photoshop Extended 3D tools are pretty decent for a 2D program :) However, until there is serious camera and compositing control, I don't think many 3D pros or hobbyists are gonna switch any time soon. On the other hand, Photoshop's 3D tools might just be perfect for, say, a fast-paced studio needing to generate no-fuss, get-the-work-done product visualization mockups.


  1. "Since Photoshop can now generate UV maps, even though its current UV tools are pretty limited, it is conceivable to adopt a Photoshop-only texturing workflow"

    I'm not seeing any evidence of this. Any more info on how I can create and apply even a simple UV map to a mesh in CS6 would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Photoshop is quickly becoming bloatware. Who wants to edit video in a photo editor?

    Painting textures would be awesome, but that process needs serious improvement to be viable.