Thomas Knoll: 4 things I've learned from developing the original Photoshop

Find out what advice Thomas Knoll has for creatives that he gain developing Adobe Photoshop 25 years ago.

Adobe Photoshop celebrates its 25th anniversary this week and during an online Q&A with Adobe Fellow and Photoshop co-creator Thomas Knoll, we learned some new insights into the early days of the development of the industry standard image-editor.

“Adobe thought we’d sell about 500 copies of Photoshop a month,” said Knoll. “Not in my wildest dreams did we think creatives would embrace the product in the numbers and ways they have. It’s inspiring to see the beautiful images our customers create, the careers Photoshop has launched and the new uses people, all over the world, find for Photoshop every day.”

1. Procrastination can be productive

In 1987 Ph.D student Thomas Knoll from Ann Arbor, Michigan, developed a utility on an Apple Macintosh Plus to help him study digital image processing. Keen photographer Knoll was disappointed to find the early Mac couldn't display greyscale levels in an image, so he wrote a subroutine to simulate this effect. More experimentation followed (as well as more procrastination over his Ph. D, admits Knoll), but it was a visit from his brother John, then working as a camera operator at ILM in California, that led to a different outlet for this development work.

“John had seen some of the early work in digital imaging done by ILM in terms of scanning film into computers to manipulate it and then printing it out. [on the Pixar Image Computer]. He had decided that was the future of special effects, so he wanted to teach himself computer graphics as the next phase of his career. So John began writing some CG rendering algorithms, very simple things, but he wanted to find a way of seeing the [output] on his Macintosh.”

Thomas gave him copy of the utilities that he'd written. “He made some suggestions for more features, so I kept adding them. So I was spending my time adding features to this hobby program instead of working on my Ph.D."

"After a few months, my Ph. D wasn't getting any closer to completion and John suggested we could sell the thing, so he started showing it around to various people. He did lots of demos and eventually found Adobe in 1989.”

“The procrastination actually worked out and I never did finish the Ph. D.”

2. Hobbies can lead to careers

"I was an amateur photographer since the age of 11 when my father gave me a Argus rangefinder camera," said Knoll. "He taught me how to make prints in the darkroom and develop my own film. All through my teenage years I was a pretty avid darkroom processor and photographer. But I was always frustrated by some of the technology in the darkroom, in terms of the lack of direct control that you had when making a print.

"With a black and white print, you are constantly trying to get the blacks to be black and the whites to be white, but you don't want to lose shadow detail, or all of your highlight detail. In the darkroom you don't have any control over the process that controls [just] the white or the blacks – adjusting exposure or contrast changes both whites and blacks at the same time.

"That led into the design of Photoshop quite a bit. I invented the Levels dialog for version 1.0, which solved the dilemma of having two parameters to adjust only one thing you wanted to control. Levels can control just the blacks or the whites. So a lot of my design of Photoshop stems from my Photography experience as a teenager."

Knoll's love of photography was reignited when digital cameras started to appear and he now shoots pictures of wildlife and landscapes around the world

I know Adobe legal doesn't like it, but it gives me a little thrill every time I hear Photoshop used as a verb.”

3. The best name for a project can be the obvious one

"The evolution of the name is interesting," said Knoll. "The very first prototypes that I developed didn't do much more than just display images. The tool that I was giving to my brother at the time was called Display. As we added more image processing features, that became kind of a silly name to show to people."

"All this time were aware that if we found a publisher they would do a lot of market research and come up with the ideal name for it, so we were forced to think of a codename. So we came up with ImagePro, which was short for image processing, and also sounds kind of professional. That lasted a few months, until John was doing a demo and found that there was software out there already called ImagePro. So we had to come up with another name, and tried PhotoLab for a couple of months, until John was giving demos again and someone came out with a box called Deluxe PhotoLab. So we were stuck with having to figure out another name."

"At this time I was having a conversation  with someone about all the trouble we were having with codenames and he said why not just call it 'PhotoShop'? So the codename became PhotoShop, with the difference from today being the upper case S, because that was the style at the time. After we had licensed it to Adobe, they started the process of doing their market research on names."

"Photoshop 1.0 wasn't really a product aimed at photographers. It was very difficult and expensive at the time to get images into the computer, and in particular it was very expensive to get images out of a computer. There were no inkjet printers and the only way to get photographic quality output from PhotoShop was to make four-colour separations and go to a printing press."

"So the initial market for PhotoShop was primarily graphic artists and pre-press people who were doing stuff for magazines, newspapers and advertising. Adobe was thus concerned that the name PhotoShop was too similar to photography and had limited market appeal. Adobe tested out a number of names, but eventually at some point gave up and decided to just go with 'Photoshop'. Adobe's change was mainly to make the s lower case."

"It turned out really well," concludes Knoll. "One of the times that I realise the influence this little project has had on the world, is when watching a TV show or a movie and they actually use Photoshop as a verb. I know Adobe legal doesn't like that because of the use of trademarks, but it gives me a little thrill every time I hear that. It's quite neat to have verb that you created.”

Jennifer In Paradise, by John Knoll, the first ever 'photoshopped' image.

4. It'll surprise you what other people will do with your work

"[In the early days] John was working at the time as a motion-control camera operator at ILM [Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects studio behind the Star Wars films]," recalled Knoll. "Photoshop was not directly related to his job and he was trying to do this in his spare time, trying to find a publisher for it. He actually gave a demo to some of the executives at ILM at the time and got a release signed saying that they would not claim rights to it and we'd be able to actually sell it."

"So ILM saw it early on, and before Photoshop 1.0 shipped John actually used it on some movies. The first big movie that I'm aware of [this happening] was The Abyss and that involved some very early computer rendering."

"One of the creatures in The Abyss is a water tentacle, which is made up of water. Water is very interesting to render because its reflective and you can see through it. So to make it actually look like it's in a scene, you have to render the reflection realistically and you have to render the refractions."

"To feed into the rendering algorithm you needed to build a map of the environment that the creature is supposed to be in.  You need photographs in all six directions, of the ceiling, the floor and the four walls, to let the rendering algorithm make the water look like it's in the scene.

"The problem is that a movie set is a very busy place, lots of people walking in and out. So what my brother did was take a number of photographs around the set and, in a pre-version 1.0 of Photoshop, he'd edit these images, combining them, editing out people and lining up seams to actually build this environment that could be fed into the rendering algorithms for the water tentacle."

"So from early on, Photoshop has been an integral part of movie production. It quickly became the tool of choice for creating matte paintings. So all the people who used to paints the mattes became digital artists."

Thomas Knoll's favourite Photoshop features

Knoll also revealed his favourite features of Photoshop - Layers and the Camera RAW plug-in.

“We added support for Layers in version 3.0,” he said. “Technically it's the same model we use today - where we logically create a document as a stack of layers that are transparent in some areas and opaque in others. It allowed the creation of documents where it was much easier to change a feature while keeping all your instructions to build the image.”

“One of the advantages of being the original programmer of Photoshop is that I get a lot of leeway on what I want to work on," continued Knoll. "In 2002, there was an ongoing feature request to add support for RAW camera formats in Photoshop. At the time I had just purchased a Canon Digital SLR which supported RAW format, so I volunteered to look into the process of adding RAW support into Photoshop."

"I started the Camera RAW plug-in project at the time, which I'm still working on to this day. This has grown into a full-blown image processing technology."

"As well as the plug-in it's available as the Camera RAW filter in Photoshop and the Develop Module in Lightroom, a program optimised for dealing with digital photography. It's also used as the basis for a number of Cloud-based,iOS-based and Android-based applications that Adobe is working on that take advantage of image-processing.”

"I spend more and more of my time in it. I'm an avid photographer and for each set of images that I work on, I can do everything I want in the Camera RAW plug-in or Lightroom."

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