Adobe is taking deliberately small steps with this much-anticipated iPad version of its flagship Photoshop image-editing application. The result is some pretty harsh criticism from those who took the company’s promise of “full Photoshop on the iPad” at face value and expected exactly that from the outset. But part of the company’s approach stems from a wish to address the justified perception that Photoshop on the desktop is a cumbersome learn. Nevertheless, if you want to feel closer to your pixels, you should download and install this initial release of Adobe Photoshop on the iPad and nuzzle up. This built-from-scratch app offers the basics as well as some of the most-loved features of desktop Photoshop.
Adobe is starting off simply, with a Zenlike interface and only a few select tools (for now), in hopes of attracting regular folk to test the Creative Cloud waters—without overwhelming them with a flood of features. In fact, last month at Adobe’s MAX conference (which boasted more than 15,000 attendees, including me), Adobe’s prevailing philosophical theme was the democratization of creativity. What that means is that Adobe has been taking impressive strides to create and offer the basics either at reasonable entry-level pricing or for free (like Fresco and XD).
The post-release bout of disappointing press for Photoshop for iPad stemmed from the fact that many saw the app as unfinished and lacking in features. Adobe does have a master plan for the app’s future growth in features, though, and even encourages users to chime in with what they want to see added. So, the criticism may be less a statement about the app than frustration with Adobe’s lapse in expectation management.
Competition for Photoshop on the iPad (actual or perceived) lurks everywhere, the most notable being Procreate and Affinity Photo. Both these apps are full-featured and carry the accompanying full learning curve. Strongly countering this competition and detractors of this first release, however, is a significant new reality: You can now work on PSD files, “Anywhere, Anytime, with Anyone,” and Photoshop for iPad works seamlessly with Photoshop on your desktop.
The Photoshop app requires iPadOS 13.1 or later and an iPad Pro that can run it. That includes all iPad Pro models, iPad 5th generation or later, iPad mini 4th generation or later, and iPad Air 2 or later. It works with any Apple Pencil, but no third-party styluses. I tested Photoshop for iPad using an 11-inch iPad Pro and a 2nd-generation Apple Pencil.
To get you going, you’ll find plenty of tutorials, including in-app interactive ones. Adobe is fully transparent with its bit-by-bit plan to add capabilities and features to Photoshop for iPad. To start with, the app supports some of Photoshop‘s most popular workflows: retouching, layering, masking, and compositing. Once Adobe gleans information about how people use this reimagined mobile- and touch-based tool, it will base future updates and offerings on that data.
A coinciding expansion of Adobe cloud documents (launched in 2018 with XD) now supports the PSD format, which enables that seamless, no-conversion, no-import file access between tablet and desktop.
To test Photoshop for iPad I wanted to build a quickie composition. I started by gathering a few 19th-century public-domain illustrations and a photo of Giant’s Causeway basalt rock formations.
Home, Tools, and Interface
The tools themselves directly reflect those on the desktop, down to the corner triangle on the toolbox buttons to indicate additional tools. If you’ve had a chance to try Fresco, released in early fall, you’ll find the interface is intentionally similar.
The app opens to the home screen which presents you with a dashboard of options for getting started. I appreciate that Adobe makes it so easy for users to suggest new features on the upper-right. Here you can also decide to start with a clean slate, open an image on your iPad, import images from your files folder, pull pictures from your camera roll, open cloud documents—or even take a photo from within the app. If you have saved desktop Photoshop files as a cloud documents, they will pop up when you open Photoshop for iPad.
Note that you can see the assets for my project are already there since I saved them as cloud documents.
Adobe dedicates itself to helping you learn, and they show it by assigning a Learn button right under the Home button on the left. Clicking Learn presents you with the choice of a series of hands-on, interactive tutorials, or if you prefer, video tutorials, all of which are excellent.
Gestures & Touch Shortcuts
As in Fresco you’ll find an innovative Touch shortcut button that acts like a modifier key (Option+, Alt+, Command+), which you can move wherever you like on the art board. Pressing the Touch shortcut button turns your brush into an eraser with the same properties as your brush, and sliding to the outer edge gives you the eyedropper tool.
Handy gestures include a two-finger tap to undo (or click the back arrow on the menu bar), three-finger tap to re-do, and pinching to zoom.
Layers and Properties
Two Layer panel options (compact and detailed) help maintain your clean workspace. Layers work the same as they do in the desktop version; it’s using them that is a little different. More on that below.
After opening my background image and clicking on the three-dot overflow button, I can see all my layer action options.
Now I want to import my other assets, and here is where I really miss Command+O and my familiar, simple desktop. From within my workspace I can browse for my images on iCloud Drive, Creative Cloud, and DropBox, but I was unable to access them from Adobe Document Cloud—a separate service. My workaround was to tap the home button and open them from there. Once each was opened, I cleaned up and isolated my coral, snail, and octopus. What euphoria to do this directly in Photoshop for iPad with my Apple Pencil—I did indeed feel surprisingly up close and personal with my pixels.
My next step, composing my image, was a great way to acclimate myself to Photoshop on the iPad. I became familiar with the paintbrush, the cloning stamp, the variety of layer blending modes, the section and eraser tools, and layer properties. I also learned how the app handles resizing and other transformations, along with other tasks that no longer feel innate in these new waters. Th result is quick and dirty, but I did it—on the iPad!
Cloud Documents and Creative Cloud Files
The difference is confusing, so it’s important to understand that cloud documents are not the same as Creative Cloud Files. Adobe differentiates them for us: “A cloud document is the next generation of document files that are optimized for working on the go. Creative Cloud Files allow you to save, store, and sync any file type in your Creative Cloud.” Photoshop for iPad saves as the new cloud document (PSCD), not as a Creative Cloud File. These two file types live in different locations in your CC account and have different capabilities. Cloud documents offer several benefits like storing all your image layers at full resolution, offering file access from Photoshop on the iPad and desktop Photoshop, and automatically updating edits, which eliminates fears of lost work.
When saving a file in the desktop version of Photoshop 2020, a new popup asks if you want to save to your computer or as a cloud document; and you must access cloud documents from within either desktop or iPad Photoshop apps, or at assets.adobe.com. Note that Windows 7 does not support cloud documents.
What’s Different and What’s Missing
The long journey from desktop and mouse to iPad and Apple Pencil is bound to require inventing some significant distinctions, and the following are notable ones. Unless you have an iPad keyboard attachment, you will need to rewire your head and learn those gestures, touch shortcuts, and where in the pulldown menu tasks live.
Adobe teases, like Santa showing up carrying an unfilled sack, with empty Effects and Smart Filter pull-downs awaiting the goodies. These and many other options say “Not yet supported on this device.” I know I’ll be rewarded for my patience as I work with the two currently available filters: Gaussian Blur and Invert.
Other tools, capabilities, and features I am eager to see include a history brush and panel, blur/smudge tool, a dodge/burn tool, selection hiding, and brush importing. Support for Actions and batch operations would also be welcome; thankfully, the Lightroom iPad app already now supports them.
Pro photographers will particularly miss the raw camera file support in big Photoshop, along with all the tools included inside Adobe Camera Raw—think white balance, dehaze, clarity, vibrance, sharpening, noise and chromatic aberration correction, lens profile adjustments, geometry correction, and the like. And the 3D editing tools are completely left out.
The layer panel on the iPad is a bit different from the desktop version, with a touch-specific, simplified view that allows draggable rearranging and visible masks indicated by a half-circle badge. As in Fresco and on other panels in Photoshop for iPad, tapping the three-dot overflow symblo (•••) reveals more options.
Forging New Muscle Memories
I discovered something interesting since the launch of Fresco, and now Photoshop on the iPad: muscle memory. If you’ve ever moved your waste basket yet continued to toss your refuse at the same old spot (now the floor), then you too have been a victim of the muscle memory brute. Learning new motions, different pathways to access familiar tools, and another set of shortcuts is absolutely the hardest part of learning these apps. Though built to be intuitive (and they really are), it stands to reason that if you are used to doing it the way you have always done it, releasing the grip of that muscle memory is the learning curve. So, I’m preparing myself for the beautiful elation, as well as the beastly curve, for the upcoming Adobe Illustrator for iPad, because it hurts so good.
Beauty and the Beast
Despite its beastly learning curve, requiring you to ditch your old keyboard and mousing habits, and its severely truncated feature set, Adobe Photoshop for iPad offers many delights. Among these are freedom to create wherever you are and a closeness to your pixels that you just can’t get on a desktop or laptop. We look forward to the app’s future augmentation with a richer feature set, but we’re highly encouraged by this auspicious start.