Photoshop: Changing Your Photo, Changing an Industry
A discussion with three Photoshop luminaries on how the product pushes the boundaries of digital creativity.
For the better part of three decades, Adobe Photoshop has helped us re-imagine reality. And with the product’s constant evolution, Photoshop magic just keeps on coming.
In celebration of Adobe’s 35th anniversary, we asked three luminaries from the Photoshop team — Russell Preston Brown, senior creative director; Julieanne Kost, principal evangelist for Photoshop and Lightroom; and Stephen Nielson, group product manager — to share their perspectives on the iconic product. They discuss everything Photoshop — from its genesis to the future of digital creativity.
Adobe bought the distribution license for Photoshop from Thomas and John Knoll in 1988 and shipped Adobe Photoshop 1.0 in 1990. Russell, you’ve been part of the Photoshop team for a long time. What are some of some of the key milestones and evolutions that stand out to you?
Russell: I’ve been working with Photoshop since the very beginning — I remember when John Knoll pitched it to Adobe founders John Warnock and Chuck Geschke. He showed us capabilities I’d only ever seen in $100,000 mainframes. The power he demonstrated on a Macintosh was just astounding.
I’ve always had a passion for all things digital — you could say that I was a kid, and my digital candy store had arrived. That power was now accessible to a common person; you no longer had to be a programmer to process images.
As for milestones, there are many. But layers, smart objects, and camera raw stand out to me. Layers opened up a whole new avenue for design and photography, making things much easier and blending things together without the workaround we once had to do.
Smart Objects lets you put elements inside a shell and work non-destructively on them. You could scale or warp the type inside of it, and everything remained in its same resolution and quality.
As for Thomas Knoll’s development of Adobe camera raw — Oh, my! We were so used to levels and curves for adjusting images, and now you could work on images with all new tools and change things you never had the ability to change before.
I love your enthusiasm for the technology advances! And Photoshop wasn’t the only part of photography that was evolving. Digital photography burst onto the scene and the combined software and hardware seem to work together to drive innovative creations. Julieanne, what do you see as the output of these innovations?
Julieanne: Photoshop has opened up a world of possibilities for creative expression. While most people immediately think of Photoshop as a tool that is used to “fix” things in post-production, I have always thought of it as a tool to further the creative process.
Photoshop isn’t just a shortcut for what is possible with a camera, but instead it allows us to discover what is possible in no other medium. And, with the digital realm being so forgiving and offering so many options for exploration, Photoshop enables us to take our work in different directions that were far more limited when using traditional photographic tools. Photoshop allows anyone — regardless of whether they are artists, designers, or photographers — to modify a photograph and apply their own personal style, whether it’s in the form of subtle color and tonal adjustments or complex multi-image composites, and to share their story with the world.
Photoshop has really democratized photography — and creativity — overall. Stephen, how do you continue to fine-tune the product so it works for everyone?
Stephen: We spend a lot of effort picking our priorities for each release. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to choose from so many good ideas; we try to select a portfolio of improvements that will make an impact on all our customers.
Once we’ve set our priorities, product managers work closely with designers and engineers to scope out a feature. We do a ton of research — reviewing suggestions from users, conducting in-person visits, building prototypes, and discussing feasible options with engineers.
Once we have something usable, even if it’s still a little buggy or incomplete, we give that to our pre-release program, where several hundred people provide feedback. It’s an iterative process from there until it’s ready to ship.
Are there other ways you incorporate feedback from people using the software into the development process?
Stephen: We have a site, feedback.photoshop.com, that’s been around since 2010. It’s a really useful way to understand our users’ most common requests. We’ve received around 3,000 requests and almost 10,000 votes from customers.
Sometimes we see requests for something small and easy that might not otherwise get prioritized. For those, we developed the term “JDI” (just do it), and we add it to the list. The feedback site is always a big part of the input for planning.
From basic cropping, to layers, to content aware fill and beyond. Editing digital photos has evolved significantly since Photoshop was introduced.
Adobe is already really focused on enhancing digital creativity, but how do you see technology evolving to make the creative process even more intuitive?
Russell: I’d like to see something I can train based on my judgment, where I teach the product how I like to edit my photos. I can’t wait for the day when it watches the way I work on a photo and then makes a suggestion!
Stephen: Certain innovations are accelerating the demand of Photoshop content and usage. One is a new emphasis on usability — we’re putting emphasis on helping new users be successful, while maintaining the workflows our professionals need.
There’s an industry trend toward designing things to be more intuitive, and we’re executing on that as well. Part of that is using machine learning to automate and assist our customers in creating their content. Content-Aware Fill is a great example of using technology to automate and assist in the creative process. We are exploring new technologies to assist in making better selections and automating repetitive tasks.
We’re also doing research around using voice and voice control. These are fun and exciting areas to explore.
Scene Stitch was sneaked at Adobe MAX 2017. The technology goes beyond what is possible with Content-Aware Fill and is powered by Adobe Sensei to automatically find related content and fill holes in edited images.
Each of you has worked for Adobe for many years. How do you define success for Photoshop, and how have you seen that over the years?
Julieanne: While some of the more well-known success stories of Photoshop might make the headlines more often — for example, it’s used for adult age projection by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children — in my experience, success is more accurately measured on a personal basis.
I’ve seen photographers achieve success when Photoshop is used to create an image that causes the viewer to ask questions or look at the world from another perspective. For a scientist, success can mean having the ability to count, measure, and record specific elements in an image, reveal subtle details, or apply false color as an educational tool when publishing their research.
For a designer, success can be the creation of a meaningful experience that allows customers to access information, communicate with others, or otherwise enrich the lives of the people that use their products. For an artist, success can be the expression of personal experiences, documentation of life events, or the creation of an imaginary world.
I’ve seen customers be successful in all of these examples (and more) and, regardless of the specific subset of Photoshop tools used in their work, the unifying thread between all of these customers is their ability to create images in Photoshop that wouldn’t be possible by any other means. Images can change the way we see the world, spark our imaginations, and communicate new ideas, and when that happens, both Photoshop and our customers succeed.
Stephen: My favorite type of customer response is when they say something like, “I didn’t even realize that I wanted this, but I want it so much now that I have it.”
I think we’ve achieved a great balance between responding to customers and providing new features that nobody asked for but that they find incredibly valuable. That comes from understanding our customers.
Content-Aware Fill is a perfect example; most customers didn’t know this feature was possible, but it’s incredibly popular. Artboards is another; it wasn’t a big request, but we believed it would be very popular, and that turned out to be true.
Looking ahead several years from now, what do you envision digital creativity will look like?
Julieanne: I have no doubt the creative community will continue to flourish. The digital creativity “toolbox” will continue to evolve, opening up new possibilities and making them accessible to more people than ever before. I personally look forward to the continued advancement and expansion of artificial intelligence and machine learning to help automate repetitive tasks — such as tagging images, applying specific effects, automating workflows, etc. In addition, new tools for working in 3D and augmented reality will continue to be exciting areas of exploration and ingenuity. And, as Adobe continues to innovate, digital tools will allow us to spend more time on the intent and the meaning of the work, enabling deeper expressions of creativity.
Read more stories of innovation from Adobe’s 35th anniversary series.