Over the years, one of the most frequent questions I hear as an instructor is "Why is Photoshop running so slow? I have a lot of RAM and a new computer." What many users do not realize is that Photoshop performance (as well as the performance of most Adobe applications) can be greatly improved with just a few easy changes. There are several things you can do to improve your performance, but these tips will give you a definite boost.
Photoshop CS5 is the first 64-bit version on both Mac and Windows machines alike. This means Photoshop can use as much available RAM as you can fit in your machine. Previous 32-bit versions maxed out somewhere between 1.7–3GB of RAM. (You will take advantage of this feature later in Preferences.)
Note that while the screenshots shown are from Mac OS, these tips are the same on either platform.
To find out what version of Photoshop you are currently running, look at the Photoshop splash screen and note the number to the right of the version number (see Figure 1). It will say "x64" (left) for 64-bit and "x32" (right) for 32-bit.
To switch the bit mode on a Mac:
On Windows, you have two versions of Photoshop in your application folder: one is labeled "(64-bit)" and one is not labeled. The unlabeled version is the 32-bit version of Photoshop. Open the 64-bit version.
Changing some settings in the Photoshop preferences will improve your experience as well as Photoshop performance.
Choose Photoshop > Preferences and select General from the left menu (see Figure 3). In CS5, you can now change your HUD Color Picker in the General Preferences dialog box. I use Hue Strip (Large). I also deselect the Resize Image During Place option. I find that I usually resize my images when placing, so this option can become a nuisance.
Note: If you ever need to reset Photoshop preferences to the default settings, press and hold Shift+Option+Command (Mac OS) or Shift+Alt+Control (Windows) when you start up Photoshop. Be sure to press and hold these keys before the startup screen appears. It will ask if you want to delete the preferences file. To reset Photoshop to its default settings, click Yes.
Select Interface from the left menu (see Figure 4). If you are using Photoshop on a laptop, turn off the Enable Gestures option. If you leave it on, you can accidentally rotate and zoom using your laptop's trackpad. I use a Wacom tablet, which leaves me with a phantom left hand that bumps my trackpad at times.
The file handling default settings are fine. Note that the default setting for the Maximize PSD And PSB Compatibility option is now Always, so it won't ask every time you save.
Choose Performance from the left menu (see Figure 5). This is where your RAM and processor get to shine.
Needless to say, with CS5 the more RAM you have, the faster Photoshop will process images. By default, Photoshop is set to use 70% of your available RAM, not your total RAM. You can increase this setting if you experience memory errors, but do so in small increments. It is almost impossible to run Photoshop at 100% RAM. Technically it is possible, but in a practical real-world workflow, you have a font manager and other peripheral apps running that can activate from time to time, thereby causing you to receive a memory error.
I start at the default 70%, and I increase it only after I experience an error. I have gone up to 85% on some machines when working with very large file sizes.
In the top right corner, you'll see the History & Cache settings. The Cache Levels setting helps Photoshop redraw high-resolution images. It saves low-resolution versions of the image to update the image onscreen live. If you are using a large file size, you may want to consider moving your Cache Levels to 8. If you are using a lot of layers in smaller sized documents, you may want to reduce the Cache Levels setting. I've found that if you are using brush-based tools or a Wacom Cintiq, adjusting the Cache Levels setting greatly increases the sensitivity and reduces the lag and redraw of brush tools in larger files.
The Cache Tile Size setting is all about processing data. Photoshop processes data as tiles, and it likes to use larger tile sizes. Larger tile sizes make Photoshop faster when processing complex operations (such as dialog boxes that require you to click OK), but onscreen edits are slower with larger tiles. So this is a setting that I change frequently, depending on what I am doing. If I am doing a lot of processing or batching some files, I increase the Cache Tile Sizes setting to 1024K for processors newer than Pentium 4 or 1032K for Pentium 4 or AMD processors. If I am working onscreen with retouching or brush-based tools, then I decrease this setting to 128K for processors newer than Pentium 4 or 132K for Pentium 4 or AMD processors.
Select Cursors from the left menu (see Figure 6).
By default, the Painting Cursors setting is Normal Brush Tip. That means when you choose a 10-pixel hard brush, you see a 10-pixel circle, and it paints a 10-pixel stroke.
If you soften the brush, it still appears as a 10-pixel hard-edge brush, but when you paint, there is a soft edge that you have to take into account. Instead, change your setting to Full Size Brush Tip, and Photoshop will show you the exact size of your brush, including the soft edge (see Figure 7).
If you have ever lost your brush cursor because you had the Caps Lock key active, worry no more. Turn on the Show Crosshair In Brush Tip option, and you will always have a precise cursor in the center of your brush. I do not like to use the Show Only Crosshair While Painting option, however. It is convenient if you are using an onscreen input device, like a Wacom Cintiq, but if you are using more traditional methods, you lose your brush preview as soon as you click your mouse or press your stylus.
After you have set your preferences, you can optimize your Photoshop workspace to speed up your workflow.
Change the one-column toolbar to a two-column toolbar by clicking the double arrow icon in the top right corner of the toolbar (see Figure 8). I understand why it is set up by default as one column — it saves space. But many students complain of headaches and eye strain after long exposure to this format. It can be visually tiring. As you are working in Photoshop, your eyes have to travel up and down your screen to find the right tools when the toolbar is in a one-column format. The two-column format puts all the tools in one quadrant of the screen.
Photoshop has a lot of options when it comes to panels and workspaces. A default or preset workspace may work for you, but removing unused panels and saving your own workspace can really enhance your workflow in Photoshop. I have several different workspaces depending on the project I am working on — one for retouching, one for painting, one for color correction, and so forth.
I hope you find these tips helpful when working in Photoshop. Be sure to follow the latest tips and techniques from the Photoshop team at www.facebook.com/Photoshop, and check out sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes videos at www.youtube.com/Photoshop.
Kevin Stohlmeyer is an Adobe Certified Instructor, user group manager, and Adobe Community Professional based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has been teaching Adobe products since 2000, both in higher education and at C2 Graphics Productivity Solutions. He has been featured in Photoshop User Magazine (photoshopuser.com/photoshop-user-magazine) and is a NAPP member. You can find Kevin on Twitter @kstohl or on Facebook (facebook.com/kevin-stohlmeyer).