Panel extensions can make your photo editing workflow more efficient, but what are they, and are they worth the time, effort, and expense? In particular, in this tutorial, we'll look at the pros and cons of using Universal Photoshop Panel for Adobe Photoshop.
What is a Panel?
In short, a panel is visual metaphor: an arrangement of software controls grouped together in a window or pop-up user interface. Adobe Lightroom uses a number of panels, each grouping similar tasks; for example, the Basic panel in the Develop module provides controls for exposure, contrast, and clarity, and the Presets panel groups all preset actions into one place.
The Universal Photoshop Panel for Adobe Photoshop is a collection of presets for colour correction and creative effects, arranged in a handy panel. You install the extension, run Photoshop, and the panel is there for you, offering a one-stop shop of actions you can use to do your photo editing.
Note that the Universal Photoshop Panel is only compatible with Photoshop CC2014 or newer.
A Breakdown of the Universal Photoshop Panel
The Universal Photoshop Panel offers a number of sections—panels within the panel extension, if you will—each with its own collection of actions. It makes sense to look at each of these sections independently so you can decide whether the group of actions in each section, and ultimately, the whole Panel, would be useful to you depending on the type of photography you do.
The Panel provides a collection of eight tools along the top of the panel. You'll also find these tools in your Photoshop toolbar. This selection is the most often used tools, and they're are available in the Panel no matter which section of the Panel you're using. If you regularly use the Panel for photo editing, it makes sense. For designers or other tasks, just stick to accessing your tools from the Photoshop toolbar.
The Retouch group of actions is designed for portraits. I tried the presets in this section on a few images and I just couldn’t sort out precisely how each of these actions work. The Panel does come with an information sheet (in the download as a PDF file), and the information sheet contains details particularly related to this section. Frequency separation is described in some detail.
In addition to several auto frequency separation actions, Retouch includes selections to add texture, unify skin tone, and retouch hair. I tried the Hair Retouch preset, but it returned an error due to an "unknown command." This could be due to a problem interfacing with earlier versions of Photoshop. (I was running CC 2015.)
The Uniformity Skintone preset lightens skin tone (makes it paler) and removes redness. I'm not sure how useful that is as a preset, but the action uses layers, which are adjustable and have masks, so it’s possible to refine the changes further.
The HDR section of the Panel offers a number of HDR style options, each of which primarily focuses on bringing out details within different tonal ranges.
The Clarity option in the section, based on what I can glean from the layers, seems to use a high pass layer to sharpen the image. (If you're not familiar with high pass sharpening, check out Selective Sharpening Using High Pass in Adobe Photoshop.)
The Make It Glow presets seem to based on achieving the Orton Effect—an out-of-focus, highly saturated look with preserved edge detail. In my opinion, Make It Glow doesn’t add much to the photograph unless you’re going for a very stylised look. (Learn to make your own Orton Effect with Creating the Orton Effect in Photoshop.)
Detail Extractor seems to give the same effect as Clarity, albeit in a more detailed way. Detail Extractor generates more layers for you to adjust and experiment with, but ultimately you’ll get similar results: sharpening.
Colour and Saturation
As you would imagine, the Colour and Saturation section of the Panel concentrates on adjusting the colours of your image, be that increasing or reducing them, or shifting the tones. They presets are all pretty self-explanatory from their descriptions.
Highlights Colour and Shadows Colour are quick ways to add yellow or blue tones (or both) to your image. Using these presets is an easy way to give an image a slightly vintage or retro edge. There’s also White Balance, which gives your whole image a more neutral tone if it’s either too warm or too cool. Saturate SS provides a somewhat restrained overall increase in colour saturation.
Contrast and Sharpness
The Contrast and Sharpness section of the Panel offers a number of presets that create finished filter effects. The Auto Histogram might be useful for balancing the brightness and contrast in your image. I found some of the other options to be a little heavy-handed, even on a hi-res photograph, but you can always lower the opacity of the effect or brush out the effect using a layer mask.
Filmic Contrast is meant to create, well, a look that emulates film photography. If you want deep coloured, punchy drama then it’s a good option, but I’d be tempted to back the effect off a little bit for a subtle look. (If you want to create a film effect in Lightroom, see How to Build a Film Style Look in Adobe Lightroom.)
The Sharpness options in the Contrast and Sharpness section seem more subtle than the Clarity options in the HDR group, which makes sense. Clarity generally focuses on midtones, while sharpening will concentrate on edges.
There’s also a Resize option in this section. It doesn't give you the option of maintaining the aspect ratio, but seems to anyway, as the image didn’t distort when I tried it. (If you need to resize more than one photo, I suggest trying the batch option described in How to Resize Multiple Images at Once in Adobe Photoshop.)
Colour Styles and Instagram
The Colour Styles and Instagram sections of the Panel are similar, so I’ve grouped them together for review. These sections offer one button filters and effects similar to those that you'll find in mobile photography editing apps. I think these two sections are worth your while if you’re looking for a one-stop-shop of filters and effects for your image.
There are a considerable number of options here and some nice results if you’re trying to emulate Instagram styles. I’ve applied a few effects in sections of one image to show some of the options. Each of these was achieved with just one click, without any adjustments. You can see how easy it is to achieve an effect that would ordinarily take a little more work.
Software panels can be great tools, and they certainly have their place. So who is this Universal Photoshop Panel really for?
If you’re looking for a bunch of quick filters to achieve Instagram-like effects, then Universal Photoshop Panel is perfect for you: one click and you’re pretty much done. Also, if you’re not a confident Photoshop user, the panel might be of help with its quick options for editing contrast, saturation, and sharpness, for example.
If you’re a regular Photoshop user and you’re looking for something to improve your workflow, then I’d probably give this panel a miss. I spent more time reading the instructional PDF and figuring out what everything did than it would have taken me to learn the Photoshop methods for the same results. Even then, I came away unsure of how significant portions of this panel actually do what they do. While that isn’t necessarily down to the software, it does suggest the panel is not very user-friendly above a basic skill level.
Something else to consider when evaluating this panel is the length of time some of the presets take to run. I have a pretty fast computer, with high enough specs for photograph and film editing, but I still had to wait a while for some of the actions to run through.
While I don’t see the Universal Photoshop Panel as a perfect fit for any particular Photoshop user, I can see it as an editing stepping stone of sorts, or something to use alongside your regular workflow if you want options for a quick edit or filter on a photograph. But if you want to control your edits and effects, I recommend learning how to develop your own editing style within Photoshop. Concentrate on learning what Photoshop (or another editing program) has to offer without the need for extensions.