Photoshop on iPad is still by turns fun, fantastic and infuriating

The latest update adds much-needed typographic support and the Object Selection tool, but mask refinements and more are still in the future.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
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Photoshop on iPad will probably be great when it grows up, but at least it's moved on from toddlerhood.  Adobe obviously spent a long time laying the groundwork for this generation of its mobile apps , but after its official launch it still had that inevitable minimum viable product feel (a personal pet peeve). With its first major feature update since it launched in November 2019 -- falling on the 30th anniversary of Photoshop's birth -- it adds much-needed typography controls, as well as the Object Selection tool rolled out with the last version of desktop Photoshop. but essential mask refinement tools are still not here yet, though Adobe hastens to demo a Refine Edge brush that's in the works. And still no word on the availability of Illustrator on iPad

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Photoshop's great fun to fiddle with, especially as a trip down memory lane -- back to the glory days of creating drop shadows manually and fine-tuning selection edges by painting in the alpha channel. But fiddling gets old when you're trying to get work done. I continually hit annoying limitations. All of the additions are on Adobe's roadmap, but until they're available, it's not worth plunking down a subscription fee. (Though Effects and Smart Filters have placeholders in the interface, they aren't on the roadmap for the first half of 2020.) Of course, if you already subscribe to Creative Cloud, there's no downside to booting it up and giving it a test drive.

A familiar-ish friend

Photoshop on iPad is clearly meant for pros, especially those already familiar with its desktop sibling. The high price of at least $10/month standalone or as part of one of the subscription options is a dead giveaway for that, as is the interface which will likely confuse neophytes. 

Its core set of features consists of masking, retouching and some ancillary features, like blend modes, that you need to put it all together. While there are a large handful of brushes, for example, they're not nearly as customizable as in Fresco or desktop Photoshop. It does inherit the great brush eraser from Fresco, which lets you erase with the same brush you painted with.

To be fair, there aren't a lot of direct competitors for this. The closest is probably Affinity Designer. That has more of an illustration bent, combining vector and bitmap graphics, but with a far more developed feature set. Photoshop Mix, Adobe's free, consumer-focused app, actually has a big overlap in features -- and in some cases, better fleshed-out capabilities -- but lacks masking tools. 

Figuring out exactly how the masks work, how they differ from what you may be used to, and the workarounds needed to compensate for limitations is the biggest time sink in becoming proficient with Photoshop on iPad. But Adobe supports the keyboard shortcuts we're used to, for a connected Bluetooth keyboard, in order to speed things up. It's invaluable for things like nudging or reselecting.

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Photoshop on iPad's interface. Unsurprisingly, it's a lot like Fresco's.

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Performance is generally excellent, even when you work on large files: With the December 2019 update, Adobe really improved the speed of opening files from the cloud. And it needs to be because file sizes balloon fast. A basic 14-layer file hit 363GB, for example, and that's nothing compared to what most pros generate. Plus, there are exceptions to that speediness, like manipulating text, which I found laggy enough that it made placing it precisely frustrating, or painting with big brushes inside selection areas.

Aside from the occasional first-version glitches, the interface operates smoothly as well.  Aside from the keyboard shortcuts, it also has a touchpoint that modifies the selected tool (like Fresco) and the usual gesture support. Because the screen is so small, a lot of options are buried in scrolling panels and overflow menus to keep from overwhelming the workspace, though you can move the shortcut spot and contextual-tool option pane to get them out of your way. You don't need an Apple Pencil to work in it, but it helps, especially if you fatfinger a lot like me.

Adobe supports iPadOS' new font interface, so you can download and install any non-native font on an as-needed basis. Woo hoo! With the February 2020 update, Adobe added an almost-complete set of typographical tools: Kerning remains absent for the moment (interface limitations), but otherwise it offers advanced adjustments such as baseline shifts, tracking and leading.

Behind the mask

Masking can be cumbersome, and the manual selection tools are terrible: There's a rectangle, an oval, a lasso and automask, which is your only option for anything beyond the tedious manual work of selecting complex edges. Subsequent to launch, Adobe introduced the Select Subject tool, which debuted in Photoshop 2020. It automagically decides what the subject of the image is and selects it.

The magic feels a little more Aziraphale than Houdini, though. Select Subject works relatively well on simple images but not on ones with more cluttered backgrounds, compound objects (like a flower with a stem) or with hard-to-distinguish color separation. That's not surprising, but it just means that the easy to mask subjects are still easy, while the hard to mask subjects are still hard. 


The few errors on this one-click Select Subject mask are easily fixed, but it's also a big, clearly delineated subject on a simple background.

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While Select Subject makes the same decisions on both mobile and desktop -- it should since it's using the same Adobe Sensei AI technology for it -- the edges on each differ. It seems like the iPad version is more aggressive, with deeper antialiasing, color decontamination, feathering or something. It's possible the defaults are different, or that it could result from computational constraints on mobile vs. desktop.

Object Selection advances that a bit; it's essentially Select Subject but allows you to define the area from which it should automatically extract. It also has an automatic edge refinement option.

At least on desktop, you've got tools to fix selections. But there's no feathering, antialiasing or refine controls for automask, and those other three 30-year-old tools only have feathering.  You can't fine tune automasking's sensitivity threshold for determining what constitutes a match, the same drawback that applies to the only other selection shortcut, select similar. And forget about creating a mask from a complex grayscale image. Photoshop Mix has better tools. 

Want to copy a mask from one layer to another? You can't just cut and paste it. In fact, you can't replace the contents of a layer in any way, which adds to the file size problem unless you're constantly managing layers. Every paste or import creates a new layer. 

And when I returned after a while without using it (only a month), I was greeted with the message "Creative Cloud font authorization has expired ... and the fonts have been removed. To reinstall them, open the app." Though the CC app will give you a list of fonts that have previously been installed on the iPad, you still have to reinstall them one at a time -- there's no reinstall all -- and there's no way to do it from within a document (in other words, if a font is displayed as missing, have a one-touch "install missing font" option). It does give you a display-only render of the typeface and asks if you want to substitute a system font. Adobe says that "this happens if you disable background processes for an app (in this case, it's Creative Cloud mobile), and the app hasn't been opened in a month." Basically, Adobe wants to make sure you're up-to-date on your subscription.

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Because there's no way to copy a color or save a swatch, I just said "what the heck!" and made all the reds different rather than memorizing the hex code for it.

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There's no way to rotate the entire document if you've decided it needs to be landscape instead of portrait. You can't set crop aspect ratios. There are no alignment tools. There's no easy way to import another Photoshop file. No swatches so you can reuse colors for consistency. Roadmap, roadmap, roadmap, roadmap, roadmap.

I'm not a huge fan of cloud documents yet, either. They save automatically, which I kind of understand. But it means if you've accidentally, say, resized a layer on your way out of the app -- something I've done multiple times in this and in Fresco and only realized when I saw the thumbnail update -- you have to go to your personal assets site to restore to a previous version.

And those are only a subset of the issues I've run into. But you get the idea. 

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Editors' note, Feb. 19, 2020: Updated with details about upgrade rolled out today, typography tools and Object Selection. Originally published November 2019.