Photoshop CS4 packs a number of cool new features, from interface changes to the amazing new resizing tools. But unequivocally, the feature that makes this upgrade a no-brainer is Bridge CS4. While it may sounds a little strange to get excited over what has, in the past, been nothing more than a file browser, over the last few months Bridge CS4 has proven to be the workflow tool that I’ve been waiting for for years.
Bridge has seen a few feature additions that make it the ideal tool for me. I can now whiz through the process of making selects as easily as I could in Aperture, but without having to introduce the overhead hassle that programs like Aperture and Lightroom enforce.
But Bridge is now more than just a browser. With its Collections and Smart Collections, it allows me to manage my entire image library, obviating the need for programs like Microsoft Expression, Extensis Portfolio, or the library features in Aperture or Lightroom.
Best of all, for someone like me, who tends to perform a lot of corrections and adjustments in Photoshop, Bridge provides a quick and easy way to get my images into Photoshop. There’s no kludgy "round-tripping," I can just open my images and start editing.
Here’re the reasons that I think Bridge is now the ideal basis for a photo workflow.
While Lightroom and Aperture both provide good organization tools, they require you to use their built-in organizational schemes. While there is some value-add to this scheme, it can also be a tremendous hassle because it means there’s an additional database and filing system sitting on top of your OS’ file system. If you take files offline, or move them, or want to take an image into another system, you have to jump through a lot of hoops.
With a Bridge-based workflow, you organize your images using your operating system’s file manager – either the Program Manager on Windows, or the Finder on the Mac. Most of us are already very comfortable organizing files this way, so there’s very little new to learn. As long as you know what you’re doing, you’ll probably find this to be a better scheme than having a program like Lightroom or Aperture manage these chores for you.
For working with both desktop and laptop machines, this flexibility can be very handy. For example, if there are images on my desktop that I want to take on the road, it’s easy enough to just copy them to my laptop, and then put the results back on my desktop machine when I get back home. With Aperture or Lightroom, such operations are more complicated.
Also, managing your own files makes it easier to devise multi-user workgroup pipelines. If you have a production team, such flexibility can be essential.
Obviously, images must be copied from your camera’s media card to your computer’s hard drive before you can do anything with them. In Lightroom and Aperture, images are imported into those program’s internal library structure. Both programs must spend time building previews ad thumbnails, and updating their internal databases, which means import can be a little slower than it is if you’re using a Bridge-based workflow.
Bridge includes the Adobe Photo Downloader, which can manage the transfer of images for you, while also allowing you to tag your image with essential metadata upon import.
The advantage of the database-driven approach used by Lightroom and Aperture is that searching your library is very speedy once the database is built. With a Bridge-based workflow, all of the same searches can be performed and, in the end, probably don’t take any more time, but some of the computation that Lightroom and Aperture perform on import is put off until the time that you actually perform a search. Personally, I don’t find this to be annoying, especially when Collections and Smart Collections are used together, as described below.
What I love about the fact that Bridge doesn’t use a database-driven system is that it feels like I can much more quickly get to my images and start working. I simply create a folder, put my images into it, and then point Bridge at that folder. With Aperture and Lightroom, the time from import to seeing my images is too long, and the fact that I have to make them part of this larger Library system — somehow that always feels like extra baggage that I have to think about even when I just want to do something simple.
I know that last bit sounds vague, and it’s hard to explain exactly what the difference is, but with Aperture I always felt like I was being forced to think about long-term organization. This nagging pressure made digging into images seem like more of a hassle than it should have been.
With a Bridge-based workflow, I can just drop images on my desktop, take a look at them, fiddle with them, and then maybe decide that they’re garbage and easily trash them. Somehow, with Bridge I feel less pressure to maintain some kind of organization and library overhead.
While you might argue that it’s good that Aperture and Lightroom force you to stay organized, I’d rather make my own decisions about when and how to organize.
Comparing and Making Selects
One of the features I loved about Aperture was the ease with which I could work through a huge number of shots to find the select images that I wanted to pass to the rest of my workflow. For event shoots, where you tend to shoot a high volume, and often shoot bursts of images, this is an essential function.
With Bridge CS4, I now have this functionality. One of the best new features in Bridge is that I can press the space bar and see a full-screen view of the currently selected image. Using the arrow keys, I can move forward and backward through my images, and rate them with a simple keyboard shortcut. I can even delete images from the keyboard, while in full-screen view. Another press of the space bar and I’m back to my normal Bridge view.
For my purposes, this simple feature allows me to easily work through a shot and find my selects. While this is far less sophisticated than Aperture’s very well-conceived compare features, the fact is it provides all of the power that I need, and without having to learn how to activate and use a fancier compare feature.
Of course Bridge CS4 now also provides a new Review feature, which provides a more whiz-bang type interface, as well as the ability to automatically create collections from images you select while viewing.
Personally, I prefer the larger image that I get in full-screen view, and don’t need the extra little bit of functionality (or somewhat pointless animated transitions) provided by Review mode.
Bridge provides a perfectly reasonable facility for viewing images side-by-side. Simply click on Filmstrip view, and Bridge will tile all of the currently-selected images across the Preview pane. While I miss Aperture’s excellent zoom feature, Bridge does provide a loupe for getting a 100% view of an image, and you can open up separate loupes on each image you’re comparing and, with a keyboard modifier, drag them all at the same time, making it simple to compare the same part of multiple images.
The Bridge loupe can be slow to resolve true 100% resolution, but I don’t really find this to be a problem. For most serious sharpness comparisons, I wait until I’m in Camera Raw.
Bridge also provides a stacking feature, and while it lacks an auto-stack feature, the stacking operations that it has work fine for me. After making my selects, I work back through my images and quickly stack each select with its alternates. This is a very simple process, and my only complaint is that Bridge lacks a keyboard shortcut for promoting an image to the top of the stack. In general, re-arranging images within a stack is a little more cumbersome in Bridge, but I do this so rarely that this isn’t really a concern.
Metadata and Keywords
Bridge has very good keyword and metadata controls. The metadata panel is very thorough, with essential exposure metadata provided at the top of the panel, in an interface that looks very much like the status display on a camera.
Defining and assigning keywords is very simple, and Bridge provides a hierarchical keywords structure. For workgroup environments, you can easily share keywords through a simple import and export system.
How I Organize my images
On the desktop computer that I use for my image editing, I have one internal drive devoted entirely to media. On this drive I keep a folder called Images, and in Bridge I created a shortcut to this folder by simply dragging it into the Favorites panel.
I keep my images organized using folders. There’s nothing especially fancy about my organizational scheme. It makes sense to me, but there are probably plenty of other taxonomies that would work just as well. Some folders are simply full of images, while others are categories, such as "Musicians," and contain additional subfolders.
A single click on the Images favorite in Bridge and I can see all of the folders in my Images folder. I can then navigate through those folders, just as I would in the Finder (or File Manager, if you’re using Windows).
Because it’s so quick to create and delete Favorites, you can easily define a fravorite for a current project that you might need ready access to, and then nix the favorite when the project is done, or has dropped to a lower priority.
What I really like about this scheme is that I don’t have to have Bridge to view my images. I can just as easily view images using QuickLook in the Finder. What’s more, if I need access to the image from any application – Adobe Illustrator, a page layout program, video editing application, or web design system – the images is already in the Finder, where I can get to it. Unlike with Lightroom or Aperture, I don’t have to launch a specific application just to view my images.
Of course, both of those programs also allow me to add images to their library as referenced files, meaning they can live wherever they want. With Bridge, though, I don’t have to worry about moving or deleting those images. So, if I end up viewing an image in another editing program and decide to delete it or move it, I simply can, withouth compromising anything inside of Bridge.
Bridge is just a browsing program, of course, it has no editing features. However, it provides very tight integration to Photoshop and Photoshop Camera Raw, which offer you more and better editing power than any other application out there.
Simply double-clicking on the thumbnail in Bridge opens the image in Photoshop, with no need to create new "master images" or versions or anything.
One of the great advantages of Lightroom and Aperture is the ease with which you can quickly move from one image to another without having to open and close files. With Photoshop Camera Raw you get this same functionality.
After choosing my pick images, which I do by assigning a 3-star rating, I simply select all of those images – easy to do by clicking on 3 stars in the Filter panel – and then open them in Camera Raw. I shoot exclusively raw, but this will work with JPEG and TIFF images also.
Once in Camera Raw, the selected images appear in a filmstrip display down the side of the Camera Raw window. I can easily move from image to image, adjusting raw parameters along the way. More importantly, I can synchronize any or all of the images, so that changes made to one will be made to the others. I can even choose which specific edits to synchronize.
I can then save the processed files, or open them in Photoshop for additional editing. Camera Raw provides so much editing power, though, I can often complete my edits without having to go to Photoshop until I’m ready to sharpen and print. The Bridge/Camera Raw workflow is an excellent, full-featured editing combo.
One of the smartest things that Adobe has done with Bridge is to include single-click access to some important Photoshop functions. For example, I can select a range of images in Bridge and then choose Tools > Photoshop > Merge to HDR to launch the images into Photoshop’s HDR merge capability. Similarly, I can choose Tools > Photoshop > PhotoMerge to stitch the images into a panorama.
After merging or stitching, I stack my merge and panorama sets, and then place the completed image back in the stack and make it the select, providing a simple way to keep the finished image with all of its original parts. Because I can close up the stacks, I don’t have to weed through all those source files when looking through my images.
Bridge provides access to another great Photoshop feature, the Image Processor. Say I want to take a folder full of high-res originals and convert them to low-res images to email to a client. I simply select the images in Bridge and then choose Tools > Photoshop > Image Processor. From the Image Processor dialog I can easily specify size, format, and destination for the new files, and even ask it to fit the images within specific pixel dimensions.
You won’t find a more thorough set of editing tools and plug-ins than what’s provided by Photoshop. Having easy, direct access to these features is one of the primary advantages of Bridge. Trying to get in and out of Lightroom and Aperture drove me nuts. Now I work directly with my files, and move them easily in and out of Photoshop.
What’s nice about this editing workflow is that my edits travel with my images, either within the Photoshop document itself, or as XMP sidecar files. These files can be edited on both the Mac and Windows, in many versions of Photoshop, as well as many other applications.
When I decided to stop using Aperture, I realized something very disturbing: all that non-destructive goodness that Aperture provides would be lost when I pulled out my images. In short, I would have to "bake" my edits, and would never be able to alter them.
Sure, it’s possible that, one day, Photoshop format will go away, but I expect it’s rather a long time coming, and in the meantime, I have much better non-destructive interoperability with Photoshop files than with any other non-destructive solution.
Photoshop is not for everyone, of course, but there’s no reason you can’t substitute any other image editor, and I’ll sometimes launch from Bridge directly into Capture NX if I want to use its excellent u-Point tools (although there’s less need for this with the Viveza plug-in for Photoshop) or let its raw converter take a crack at a particularly tricky Nikon raw file.
The Camera Raw/Bridge combo provides tremendous batch processing capabilities. In addition to the syncing feature mentioned earlier, you can easily copy raw edits from one document to another making it simple to, say, apply the same white balance settings to multiple images.
You can batch convert multiple raw files by opening them in Camera Raw and then clicking the Save button. In the Save dialog box you can specify format and naming options, and process your images into a specified directory.
What’s particularly smart about Camera Raw is that it can be hosted by either Bridge or Photoshop. So, if you want to do some work in Photoshop while your raw images cook, you can host Camera Raw in Bridge. Similarly, if you want to continue to sort images in Bridge, you can host Camera Raw in Photoshop. This is an incredibly flexible workflow option that is very useful.
As already mentioned, you can easily use the Photoshop Image Processor to output batches of images in multiple file formats. Bridge also provides excellent web output, with beautiful transitions, and highly customizable templates. My only concern with Bridge’s web output is its inability to include metadata on the image slides. Hopefully this will be addressed in a future upgrade.
Finally, for printing, you’ve got the entire Photoshop print engine at your disposal, as well as Photoshop’s color engine, for outputting CMYK files, or other formats.
Lightroom and Aperture both provide nice cataloging functions that allow you to maintain a library of images over the long term. Since previous versions of Bridge were truly just image browsers – that is, all they could do was show you the contents of a folder – you had to use additional applications such as Extensis Portfolio, or Microsoft Expression (formerly iView Multimedia) for your library needs.
Bridge CS4 now offers the same Collections and Smart Collections that you’ll find in Lightroom. With them, you can easily perform all of the long-term library functions that you might need.
Collections store references to other images. In that way they’re just like albums in Aperture or iPhoto, and they make it simple to organize images for the long-term.
Smart Collections are Collections that can automatically populate themselves based on specific criteria. For example, I have a Smart Collection called "3-star images". It searches my entire Images folder, including all subfolders, and shows all images that have 3 stars. If I want, I can refine this search to include images with specific keywords. So, for example, I could make a Smart Collection that contained all images with 3 stars and the California keyword.
Smart Collections can take a while to assemble, because Bridge does not have a database of keywords already assembled, as Aperture and Lightroom do.
However, you can also drag images from a Smart Album, or from a search operation into a regular album, giving you an album of images that displays very quickly.
Between Collections and Smart Collections I can easily stay organized, and find images quickly. The downside to Collections and Smart Collections is that there’s no automatic way to back up Bridge’s database. So, all the work you do organizing your images – stacking, grouping into Collections, etc. – could be easily lost if your Bridge database is not backed up.
Also, if you upgrade your computer and want to move your collections, and stack groupings, you’ll need to go through a few extra steps.
On the Macintosh, Bridge’s cache and other important data is kept in Home:Library:Application Support:Adobe. You’ll want to regularly back up this folder, and if you get a new computer, you’ll want to move this folder to the same location on the new machine.
If you’re a Windows user, you’ll find this data in C:\Documents and Settings\[user name]\Applications Data\Adobe\
Bridge also makes a good replacement for your file manager. With it’s built-in Copy and Move commands, you can easily select images in a Bridge window and have them moved or copied to a new location. You even have the option of having them automatically renamed along the way, with automatic numbering. So, when it comes time to deliver a set of files to a client, it’s easy to have Bridge automatically round them up and stick them somewhere.
Keeping a backup of your images is an essential workflow step, and with a Bridge-based workflow, you can use any backup tool you want. I keep a second internal drive for backing up my main media drive, and use cheap backup software to perform progressive backups. For projects I’m no longer working on, I either move those folders to an external set of drives, or burn them to optical disks.
I like having the freedom to only backup certain folders, and to easily restore specific folders, or an entire volume, so I’ve been pleased with this backup scheme.
Bridge and Photoshop may not be for everyone. CS4 is expensive, and Photoshop can be intimidating. I tend to do a lot of editing on my images, and I like to have the option to perform very refined, selective edits, and for that there’s nothing better than Photoshop.
There are definitely changes and additions I’d like to see made to Bridge. I wish there was an automatic way to backup and preserve its cache, and I’d appreciate more keyboard control. I’d also like to see a histogram display within Bridge. Sometimes, when trying to choose the best image from a bracketed set, it’s helpful to have a histogram handy to revel exposure troubles. Right now, I can open multiple images in Camera Raw for a histogram consultation, but I’d still like to have this option right in Bridge. Finally, while performance in Bridge CS4 is very good, and much better than in CS3, changing metadata on a bunch of files can still take a while.
All-in-all, though, I haven’t been this excited about a new photography tool in a long time. In addition to providing the features I want, Bridge has provided me with the flexibility to create a workflow that works the way that makes sense to me.
While Photoshop CS4 has some cool new features, as far as I’m concerned, Bridge CS4 is all the reason you need to upgrade.