Are photo retouchers doomed to become obsolete? Content-Aware Fill and the future of retouching

by Heather Young

Recently, Adobe previewed an upcoming feature called Content-Aware Fill. It was so immediately obvious how cool this feature was that it received coverage all over the internet, even on sites that don't make a point of talking about Photoshop. If you somehow missed it, take a look now:

For an even freakier peek into Photoshop's possible future, watch this:

PatchMatch: Structural Image Editing from Dan Goldman on Vimeo.

The reaction to this sort of stuff is generally: 1) "cool!" 2) slack-jawed disbelief, or 3) ohmigod, I'm out of a job. But stuff like this no longer gives me career anxiety. Let me explain why there's no reason to be afraid.

In Ken Robinson's Ted presentation, amongst the many excellent points he make is that in designing our schools' lesson plans, no matter how prudent we think we're being, we're attempting to prepare students for a world that we just can't anticipate. So it is with image editing. You can take every Photoshop class your school offers, you can read every Photoshop book, watch every training video, or do every online tutorial, but the reality is that Adobe (or maybe, someday in the future, some other company that's surpassed Adobe as the dominant company in image editing—shock horror) may bring out some new feature that renders a task that used to require several (billable) hours dead easy. Say goodbye to the meticulous, carefully honed technique that took you years to perfect—if you can't do the new faster technique, your clients will find someone who can. Someone cheaper, probably.

(Also, as a side note, I have to think that whenever a video like this comes out and gets coverage outside of Photoshop-nerd circles, you worry if less-savvy clients will form even more fantastical ideas of what Photoshop can and can't do, and how long it actually takes to get things done in Photoshop. "Hang on, if you erase the top of the building in Photoshop, the sky will be behind it, won’t it?")

The unavoidable fact, if you're going to be a retoucher, is that you will have to be committed for the rest of your career to staying on top of the technology. You'll have to discard the techniques that took you months, maybe even years of blood, sweat, and tears to develop the moment something quicker comes along without a second thought. And you better not waste time mastering every important new technique that comes your way. No matter how good you are, the progress of technology will never stop. That's why I think that if you're going to survive in this industry, it's crucial that you are (or make an effort to become) the sort of person who never gets tired of learning new things.

Not such a big deal, right? Who doesn't think of themselves as the sort of person who enjoys learning new things? But try to imagine yourself in the future, imagine how you'll feel after years of dealing with ground beneath your feet constantly shifting. Sounds grim, doesn't it? Who wants to stand around waiting to be made obsolete?

Coincidentally, I just finished Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, which depicts a dystopia in which technology has rendered all labor obsolete, except that of a tiny elite cadre of engineers. Although many of the particulars seem quaint (how worried are you about vacuum tubes making you redundant?), the fear that technology will make us obsolete is every bit as powerful today. I expect it's especially acute amongst those in careers that require dependence on changing technology, including photo retouchers. After all, history teaches us that not only is change inevitable, it is often terrifying, unfair, and inhumane. (No wonder those who predict an imminent apocalypse are always with us. Somehow it's very easy for societies to forget just how many wonderful things we have that our ancestors didn't. Things like not dying of the Black Plague, not being burned alive for one's beliefs, like children going to school instead of being maimed in filthy factories, and infinite other marvels that make it a pretty good time to be alive.)

The unpleasant fact is that the changes that will come as image editing technology evolves will not always be unmixed forces for good in our industry, just as Photoshop itself has always had a decided dark side. Someday all the most complicated things you can do, the things you considered you specialty, will be rendered so simple that the proverbial relative of a client who owns copy of Photoshop actually could do them. Or maybe, and this is more likely, you'll be able to do new things with the new techniques that the dabblers of the world couldn't even imagine. Because you know how to experiment in Photoshop, you have a honed and sophisticated understanding for what gives an image impact, your knowledge of Photoshop, and photography, and color theory, etc., is deep in a way they couldn't even begin to grasp. You will grow and change with the technology. It will be scary at times, but it will also be stimulating, even fun. If you're dedicated and experienced enough to choose to make photo retouching your career, at some point you passed through the wall of understanding and you began to see inside the image. You know what it needs, you know what it can do, you see the possibilities. When new technology comes along, you will be able to explore its possibilities in a way the inexperienced amateur couldn't even imagine. Even if Adobe came out with a one button interface in Photoshop that said "make my image beautiful" and came with a device your clients could plug directly into their brains, it wouldn't be able to do what a knowledgeable, artful retoucher could do. The technology is only a starting point. Embrace it.