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Unified Photo Editors- The Future of Photo Editing?

The Diversity of Choice- how much is too much?

The invention of sophisticated photo editor software changed photography forever. Digitally enhanced/corrected/manipulated photographs were no longer accurate representations of reality- instead they were more like “artist’s impression” art. Much has been written about the influence of heavy retouched photographs on popular culture and its inevitable backlash that directly led to the current “untouched” aesthetic preference. Of course, the tools themselves are not at fault, but nevertheless, the entire post-processing industry, an essential part of the commercial photo creation value chain got a bad rap.

photo editor

Even as the ethics of post processing were being questioned, the photo editor software itself was becoming ever-more sophisticated. 30 years after it first went on sale in 1987, Adobe Photoshop is still the industry standard to do deep, pixel level edits of photos. And yet, it doesn’t allow batch edits, or native RAW file processing, which its cousin, Adobe Lightroom does. Sadly, Lightroom does not offer the same advanced edit features that Photoshop does. Oh, and neither of them comes with a Digital Asset Manager. In fact, even as photo editor programs are becoming more powerful, graphic artists are having to scramble to learn more and more of them, when they should be focusing on their creative work. Sure, it is possible to create an integrated stack of one or more photo editors, enterprise DAM solutions and even AI, but these are proprietary and expensive. It is no wonder then, that a few years ago some industry experts began predicting the emergence of a new generation of image editor that would combine the best editing features of current photo editors with the power of Cloud and AI to create scalable editors with integrated digital asset management and a learning algorithm for automation. They called these next generation editors “Unified Photo Editors”, or UPEs.

To UPE or not to UPE

While the majority of post processing and digital asset management takes place on the desktop, it will not be so in the near future. Even today, high end smartphones allow almost the same functionality to edit photos as desktops, such as correcting the exposure, white balance, cropping, etc. As data connectivity around the world improves and devices become faster, they will also become smarter, with AI in the background applying presets, anticipating color/tonal preferences, prioritizing tasks within dynamic menus and optimizing the available hardware and UI space to personalize the workflows. The final blow to the desktop shackle will, however, be cloud storage. Today’s digital asset managers rely on saving metadata for images, but professional photographers often have terabytes of data in individual hard drives that they must rifle through for older photos, which requires them to be near their desktops and in possession of the right hard drives. With cloud storage that need not be the case. This is where UPEs come into their own. Take the case of ACDSee (we love the name!), one of the best UPEs on the market. It combines a powerful photo and video editor, batch processing, RAW file support and an AI-powered DAM with facial recognition to enable auto classification and retrieval. However, its DAM still isn’t powerful enough to allow terabytes of storage and retrieval on any device anywhere. We think this is going to be the biggest change in UPE technology in the first few years after 5G is launched.

Even Adobe recognizes that mobile devices and AI have important roles to play in the future, as indicated with the app versions of Lightroom and Photoshop on ipad. The thoroughly impressive Adobe Sensei AI engine is now fully integrated into both its creative and marketing suites and already demonstrating capabilities like automation and personalization never before thought possible. However, the rise of UPEs does not have to mean the end of desktop based editing, which has its own advantages, such as being part of in-office environments with greater quality control, ability to run more proprietary workflows and automation scripts in secure environments, etc. There are also those who feel that standalone, powerful software programs are too important a capability to exchange for UPEs, which may simply not be future-ready. For instance, Adobe was able to utilize its existing expertise in layers, masks and 3D to quickly support both spherical panoramas and drone photo editing before anyone else. Other schools of thought favour integration of editors, DAMs, Cloud and AI, but feel  API-based workflow customization is a better solution than UPEs.

Our Opinion

In our opinion UPEs are not the sole direction for the future of photo editors. We think they are a cool idea, and certainly represent a strong option for mobile workflows. If the editors can become simpler, more user friendly while remaining powerful enough to do the vast majority of tasks that users demand, all the better. However, we think that the name of the game in the future is flexible workflows. We expect photographers on location, post-processing artists in the studio and the clients on their smartphones will all be able to simultaneously see and collaborate on shots in real time. Therefore, Unified Photo Editors  will likely play a part especially for those on the move, but more importantly, will adhere to a common standard to be able to “talk” to industry standard standalone software.

Conclusion

Unified Photo Editors represent a need to simplify workflows, integrate the post-processing workflow with other tasks like collaboration and approval, and to be future ready in a rapidly changing world. The final version of how that need is addressed remains to be seen; however in the short term UPEs could help transform the post-processing industry with new, parallel workflows that increase efficiency while bringing the client closer to the artist.