What’s New in Photoshop 2021

Photoshop 2021, unveiled at Adobe MAX, is the most feature-rich update in years. From enhancements to everyday tools such as Refine Edge and Live Shapes to groundbreaking features such as Sky Replacement and the truly extraordinary Neural Filters, there’s plenty here to excite and impress even the most jaded Photoshop user.

Neural Filters

The most exciting new feature is a large range of filters powered by Adobe Sensei, the machine-learning tool that Adobe has been developing over a number of years.

Two fully operational filters appear in the Neural Filters gallery: Skin Smoothing and Style Transfer. Skin Smoothing behaves just as described, with simple sliders for Smoothness and Blur. It’s the quickest way yet to clean up facial blemishes, and produces impressive results in an instant:

The Style Transfer filter lets you apply graphic styles from a wide range of presets, although you can’t yet import your own style source images. You can adjust the style strength and brush size, and optionally blur the background; and as with all the Neural Filters, you can choose to apply it to a new layer, a masked duplicate of the current layer, or as a Smart Filter.

The results are often surprising, and sometimes seem to bear little relation to the source style image. But as the effects are applied instantly, it’s easy to go through the options and select a style that you like. Here are three more examples of this filter:

The rest of the Neural Filters are still officially in beta, which means they may not yet give perfect results – but Adobe has included many of them anyway, so you can gauge for yourself their effectiveness. They’re loaded by selecting them from the Beta Filters button.

The most impressive is Smart Portrait, which auto-detects faces in images and provides a range of tools for adjusting the expression – including Be Happy!, Surprise, and Anger. Each of these has a slider that can be negative as well as positive, so a negative value of Be Happy! will instead produce something approaching misery.

The results aren’t always perfect, which is why the filter is still in beta; but they’re hugely impressive nonetheless, with the ability to add a toothy smile to an image with a closed mouth. Here’s a selection of adjusted expressions:

You can see a few glitches where the adjusted head doesn’t quite fit. But because the filters are output as new layers, it’s easy to mask and move them to fit the original underlying layer.

You can use Smart Portrait to move a subject’s eyes left or right, and can even rotate an entire head to one side or the other. Again, this filter is in beta, so some manual masking will be needed for best results. Also useful is the ability to change lighting direction from left to right, which uses a technique that respects the contours of the face:

The Smart Portrait filter can also add and remove hair, and – in a real tour de force – make a face older or younger. They’re extraordinary tools to play around with, and produce compelling results. Here’s the aging filter in action, with the original face on the left, followed by one younger and two older versions:

Neural Filters also include Depth Haze, which adds gradual haze to an image by gauging its perceived distance from the camera. It’s a remarkable tool, which intelligently interprets the scene in question. Here are a before and after, with a negative Warmth value added to make the distance cooler:

The Colorize filter automatically adds color to black and white images, using AI to interpret the scene and add appropriate tints. As with all the filters currently in beta, it isn’t perfect – but it’s a significant starting point:

The Neural Filter gallery also includes a tool for removing JPEG artifacts, and an interesting SuperZoom which intelligently enlarges images. The results here are impressive; but a significant drawback is that the filter only enlarges within the original canvas size, meaning that everything outside that size is excluded. Here’s a section of a face enlarged using standard Image Size enlargement, and with the SuperZoom filter:

For the first time, Adobe allows you to make in-app requests for new Neural Filters to be added. These include Face Cleanup, Noise Reduction, Photo Restoration, and Face to Caricature. Your votes will increase the likelihood of each filter making it into the next release.

Sky Replacement

Photoshop has two new tools dedicated to replacing dull skies. There’s a Select > Sky menu item, which uses AI to isolate the sky area in an image. And there’s also a wholly new Sky Replacement dialog, which allows you to change the sky in an image to one of a large number of presets – or you can import your own sky. You can adjust the brightness, temperature and edge amount, and paint selection areas in and out to correct errors. The tool does a remarkably good job, correctly finding sky even within tricky areas such as these trees:

It’s even more impressive when you allow Foreground Adjustments, which adds tint and luminosity to the foreground to match the new sky:

The result of the Sky Replacement dialog is returned as separate layers for the masked sky, foreground lighting and foreground color, making it easy to fine tune the results afterwards.

Refine Hair

The Select and Mask dialog has received a major update, greatly improving Photoshop’s ability to select tricky hair even from complex backgrounds. In this example, the hair has been perfectly cut out on the left, and even on the right, where it appears against a background of almost identical color and texture, Photoshop has managed to make a fair stab at isolating it:

Camera Raw enhancements

Camera Raw recently went through a major interface change, removing all the individual adjustment panes and piling them all on top of each other in a single window. Now the Camera Raw adds Color Grading, which lets you adjust the hue and brightness of the midtones, shadows, and highlights independently. It’s a major upgrade that provides a serious amount of user control without a steep learning curve.

Better Shapes

The Shapes tool has also undergone a usability upgrade. You can now round corners using on-screen controls, similar to those found in Illustrator, and the creation of stars and other polygons is much more intuitive. Best of all, the simple Line shape, previously an awkward kludge that turned the line into an uneditable filled rectangle, now creates true lines whose width can be adjusted after creation.

Best of the rest

A number of more minor but significant features have been added to Photoshop. Documents stored in the Cloud now have version history, so you can revert to earlier versions; a new Pattern Preview feature lets you visualize tesselations, as well as mirror and rotation effects when building patterns; Smart Objects can now be reset to their original state. You can also turn on the Technology Preview feature in Photoshop’s Preferences dialog to enable additional beta features, such as the forthcoming Content-Aware Tracing tool.

As part of its drive to improve Photoshop, Adobe has added a new Product Improvement section to its Preferences. Disabled by default, ticking the “Yes, I’d like to participate” checkbox allows Adobe to collect image data and view your cloud documents in order to see how you work.

Photoshop 2021 is a major upgrade, with some seriously useful new features. And the Neural Filters, even though many of them are still in the development stage, provide an intriguing glimpse into Photoshop’s future.


March 12,2021

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