Photo Editing – What Does the Future Hold?

There is change in the air in photo editing software. For the first time in over a decade, Photoshop, which so dominates photo editing that its name is synonymous with touch up, might be vulnerable to new competitors. How is this possible? Photoshop dominates high end photo editing because it is the industry standard, around which users, educators and gurus gather, to form an extensive network of knowledge about the software. This intellectual investment by millions of users makes it hard for other software packages to gain a foothold.

So hard, in fact, that it would require a new and significantly easier and better way of doing things, before a standard like Photoshop could be challenged at all. Photoshop and similar traditional photo editing programs such as Paint Shop Pro, have grown over many years to become large collections of complex tools. It is because of this complexity that a whole Photoshop industry including 'how to' magazines, tutorial websites, books etc has grown around the software.

This is both the strength and weakness of Photoshop. The tool set is extensive and powerful, so just about any effect is possible, but, and this is a very big but, only if the user has the knowledge, technical skill and most importantly, the time necessary to achieve the effects he wants. Further, the great bulk of Photoshop's tools are essentially electronic versions of the traditional stencils, brushes, etc. that artists have always used. Just as a brush is useless unless its owner has the technical skill to know how to use it, so are Photoshop's tools useless without extensive technical training.

But software does not have to be complex and dumb. In fact, just as artists in the past had human assistants, so software, which has been suitably trained, can also assist artists in their work. For example, Portrait Professional software is designed to automatically beautify faces in photographs. To achieve this, the software has actually been 'trained' in human beauty, using many hundreds of portrait photographs. So the software has learnt statistically what tends to make faces more or less beautiful. This is very different from typical photo editing tools, which have no inbuilt concept of beauty at all.

So how does this work in practical terms? After the user has marked up 5 key points on the face, the software analyzes the face that is to be enhanced, and compares it with its statistical beauty model. Based on the variance between the face and the model, the software then creates a custom set of slider controls to adjust different aspects of the face, as required. For instance, there is a slider to adjust the jaw line. The effect of this slider on the jaw will vary depending on what the jaw looks like: bulking it if it is weak, or reducing it if there is a double chin. In this sense that the software 'knows' how to help the touch up artist enhance the picture.

This approach of offering intelligent software that creates 'custom' tools depending on the needs of the particular subjects constitutes a step change in photo editing software. As the software becomes more intelligent, the requirement for purely technical skills will reduce and the emphasis will shift only to vision. This in turn has ramifications for photography and graphics as a whole. Just as cameras going digital has reduced the need for specialist photographers, as well as hugely increasing the number of actual photos taken, so as photo editing software becomes more intelligent and easier to use, more photographers and designers will do their own touch up and the need for specialist touch up artists will decline.

And all in all this will be a good thing. We will shift from a world where mastering complex technical skills is a prerequisite for photo editing to a world were the technical stuff is easy, and where what matters is the quality of the vision of the photographer. And freedom from endless technical tinkering and Photoshop tutorials can only be a good thing.

So, interesting times for Adobe, Photoshop and the photo editing establishment. Will Photoshop evolve or die? Whatever the future brings, the emergence of easy to use, lower cost alternatives to Photoshop such as Portrait Professional can only be good news for photographers and creatives everywhere.