June 17, 2009

Brush locking (aka “Huh?”)

We’d like to discard an obscure feature in Photoshop & replace it with something better. First, though, I’d like to sanity-check that no one needs the existing feature. (Fair warning: This is some nerdy, slightly esoteric stuff.)

In Photoshop 6 and earlier, it was simple to control the relationship between tablet input & brush size and/or opacity. The app featured two independent checkboxes, one meaning “pressure = size” and the other meaning “pressure = opacity.” Easy peasy.

In Photoshop 7, the brush engine became much more powerful, and in the process these options got a bit harder to use. Brushes gained many new parameters (scattering, hue variation, etc.), each of which had the ability to respond to many new inputs (pen tilt, rotation, stylus wheel, etc.). Therefore the two simple checkboxes had to give way, being replaced by a series of popup menus spread throughout the Brushes panel. The placement was less obvious, but the power was much greater.

The real usability snag, however, came from the lack of clarity around brush presets (which include pressure settings & more) and brush tip shapes. People click presets, thinking they’re just changing brush tip, and they end up changing other settings as well. (From this screenshot, you can see why it’s easy to confuse the two.) The results sound like this:

“Okay, where the heck is the setting for pressure = size? [rummage, rummage] Okay, found it. Now, switch to a different brush… Wait, the pressure setting turned off. WTF? Switch it on again, then switch brushes and… [insert stream of profanity]”

At least that’s what I imagine. And that brings us to the feature in question, brush locking. In Photoshop 8.0 (CS), we tried to make things better by adding a little lock icon next to each set of parameters. The idea was that you could set some parameters (e.g. pressure = size), then lock them down so that they wouldn’t change when you applied different brush presets. That is, the locks would override whatever settings the presets included.

Locking was never a great solution, but it was what time permitted back in the CS cycle. Since then I’ve heard less complaining, but I don’t think that’s because people are using locking. (Am I wrong?) I think it’s simply a matter of folks eventually figuring out how things work or learning to live with some strangeness.

In any case, we think we can do better in the future. Photoshop could offer a pair of checkboxes on the Options Bar (the thing that runs below your menus) that control “pressure = size” and “pressure = opacity,” overriding whatever’s set in the Brushes panel. We also have some thoughts about better differentiating brush presets from brush tip shapes.

So, if you use brush locking in Photoshop and see a good reason to keep it around, please speak up. Otherwise it’s toast.



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