Editors Note: Do It Your Way – Customize Photoshop with Preferences | From Photo Life was originally written by David Tanaka for PhotoLife and has been reproduced with permission.
Do It Your Way – Customize Photoshop with Preferences
Photoshop’s features are deep and its toolset expansive. It can be intimidating. Not too far away, however, is a set of controls that allows you to customize it to your way of doing things. These settings are aptly named Preferences.
The Preferences Panel has long been a feature of Photoshop. Version CS3 contains more than 50 adjustments clustered into nine groupings. Several are particularly helpful for photography workflow. This article is based on the Preferences panel in Photoshop CS3, but the one in Photoshop Elements 6 is very similar. Moreover, although the Preferences panel was redesigned in CS3, many of these settings were art of earlier versions of Photoshop—you may have to look in different clusters to find them.
On Windows systems, you access Preferences through the Edit menu; on Macs you’ll find it in the Photoshop menu. The shortcut is Ctrl-K for Windows or Cmd-K on the Mac.
I’ll start with the Performance panel because settings there can make a difference in how responsive Photoshop will be. Performance tuning is a balancing act: increasing speed or responsiveness in one area will often degrade performance in another.
The performance panel is arranged into four groups. The Memory Usage group tells you how much RAM (random access memory) your computer has and how much of that memory Photoshop would like; it has a way for you to control how much memory Photoshop gets (a slider along with a direct entry field). On my computer, which has two gigabytes of RAM, the setting is 70% and that’s generally acceptable. It leaves at least 700 MB for other tasks the computer has to perform. If you work with many applications at the same time, reducing Photoshop’s portion will improve overall system performance. On the other hand, if you normally work with large or complex images, increasing PS’s share of RAM will make it perform better. Having lots of RAM, say 4 GB, makes the balancing act easier.
Related to RAM is the Scratch Disk group. A scratch disk is a portion of a hard drive that Photoshop treats as RAM, allowing it to work as though it has more RAM than the computer actually has. The penalty is that scratch disks are much slower than actual RAM.
If you have just one hard drive on your system, the best thing you can do is keep it defragmented, because the scratch disk needs a chunk of unfragmented memory. If you have more than one hard drive in your computer, you can use either to store the scratch disk. The rules of thumb are: pick the fastest drive; pick the drive with the most free-space (that you defrag regularly); if you are a Windows user, pick a drive that Windows doesn’t use for its virtual memory. External drives aren’t good candidates for scratch disks—data transfer rates are too slow (although technologies like SATA and FireWire 800 are quite speedy), and you’ll need to ensure that it is always connected.
The History & Cache group allows you to adjust history states and cache levels. History states define how far back you can reach with the Undo command. You can specify up to 99 undos, but the larger the
number, the more memory Photoshop will need to keep track of them. (If you get low memory warnings you can manually dump these using Edit > Purge.)
Photoshop uses caches to hold low-res versions of the image you are working on, which helps speed up screen redraws. Tuning cache levels can be tricky because as you increase cache levels, screen
redraws will be faster but image loading will be slower. The factory setting is 6 and a setting of 1 turns off caching. If you want to tune your cache levels, Adobe recommends starting at level 2, and working up from there until you achieve an acceptable balance.
The General Panel is something of a catch-all. The Image Interpolation dropdown menu is the most relevant to photographers. It defines the algorithm Photoshop will use to resample when you want to change the base or native resolution of an image. By default it is set to Bicubic Sharper and includes the helpful hint (the best for reduction). Since we usually want to reduce the pixel count when we resample, this is a good choice. However, if you have a batch of photos you want to “up-res,” changing this preference to Bicubic Smoother (better for enlarging) will save you from having to change this in the Interpolation dialogue box for each image you want to enlarge.
In the Options checkboxes, “Export Clipboard” is selected by default. If your computer has limited memory and you don’t typically copy from Photoshop and paste into another application, you can
uncheck this selection.
Tuning the Workspace
The Interface cluster is new in CS3, although many of the selections existed in different clusters in previous versions. In the Palettes area, the “Remember Palette Location” is selected by default. If you set up your interface just so, having this checkbox selected will preserve that; otherwise your interface will revert to the factory default each time you launch PS. One situation in which you might want to go back to a default layout is if you take a Photoshop tutorial: the screens are based on a standardized layout. It will be easier to follow if your workspace looks the same.
Auto-Collapse Icon Palettes is not selected by default. Selecting it automatically closes palettes when you click in the image window. If you work on a laptop or system with a small screen, checking
this button can be a convenience as it gets the palettes out of the image space; the downside is re-opening them often.
Think of this as the diplomacy panel. These settings determine how well your files get along with other platforms (Windows vs. Mac) and other software applications, including earlier versions of Photoshop. In the File Compatibility grouping, the “Prefer Adobe Camera Raw for JPEG files” item is unchecked. If you check this, when you double-click on a JPEG file the file opens into ACR rather than Photoshop. There may be some reasons why you’d want to do this, but generally it’s better to leave this unchecked.
The “Ignore EXIF profile tag” is also unchecked. When this is checked Photoshop will ignore colour profile information that your camera may have written as EXIF data. If you are getting profile mismatch errors between the camera’s RGB and Photoshop’s, checking this item may resolve the problem.
If you routinely save layered files in tiff format, you may want to uncheck the “Ask before saving layered tiff files” selection. This will end those nagging caution prompts. For maximizing compatibility with Photoshop’s PSB/ PSD file format you have a dropdown menu with three choices: always, never and ask (ask is the default setting). To ensure compatibility with other applications or older versions of Photoshop, a flattened version is saved along with the layered image. The downside is that the file
becomes bigger. Generally speaking, it is safe to select “never” or leave it at “ask” if you don’t mind the nag messages. There is one exception: if you use Lightroom to catalogue your PSDs, use the “always” setting.
Access all your Plug-Ins
The Plug-Ins panel simply lets you tell Photoshop to also look for plug-ins in another location. This is useful if you use another application that has Photoshopcompatible plug-ins in its own folder or
if you’ve collected third-party plug-ins in a separate folder.
Add Precision to Cursors
If you need more accuracy in locating the centre of a brush tip, select the “Show Crosshair in Brush Tip” checkbox. This works for brush-based tools. The other group in the Cursors panel allows you to choose between a standard or precise cursor for the other tools—for example, dumping the lasso cursor in favour of a more precise crosshair.
The Oops Factor
By experimenting with the Preferences settings, you can create a better working interface. You might also regret the changes. If you can’t remember which settings you changed and want go back to the way things were, a three-finger salute is the path to redemption. Hold down Alt-Ctrl-Shift (Windows) or Option- Cmd-Shift (Mac) while launching Photoshop and you’ll get a dialogue box: “Delete the Adobe Photoshop Settings File?” Say yes and the Preferences will be restored to the factory defaults.
THE RULES OF THUMB ARE: PICK THE FASTEST DRIVE; PICK THE DRIVE WITH THE MOST REE-SPACE (THAT YOU DEFRAG REGULARLY); IF YOU ARE A WINDOWS USER, PICK A DRIVE THAT WINDOWS DOESN’T USE FOR ITS VIRTUAL MEMORY.
About David Tanaka
As a technology writer, David Tanaka has tracked digital photography’s evolution from crude curiosity into the mainstream. His work as a photographer includes magazine assignments and supplying stock to textbook publishers. You can contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org.