Having joined the Photoshop team just after the introduction of adjustment layers and actions in version 4.0, Russell Williams has helped evolve the product into the cultural phenomenon it is today. See what he has to say about Photoshop engineering from the early days to the present—and get his take on what the future holds for image editing. (The following was excerpted from oral histories taped with Russell Williams and other Photoshop team members in the summer of 2010.)
Q: How did you find your way to Adobe?
A: An opening became available on the Photoshop team, and somebody I had worked with at Apple called me up and suggested I come over and apply for it. And I thought, “Wow! That would be so cool.” And I’ve been here ever since.
Q: What were the early days like on the Photoshop team?
A: I remember being surprised at how small the team was and how little process there was around such a significant product. It was a small handful of smart people just writing code and checking it in. There wasn’t a lot of process, checking, or reviews. It just depended upon the skill of a small team of people being smart and not screwing things up. It seemed like a very stable, clear-direction kind of product. If I went to work on Photoshop, I was pretty sure the next version was going to ship. They weren’t going to throw it away and decide to do something different. One of the core values at Adobe is treating people with respect.
Q: What kind of impact had Photoshop made at that point in time?
A: I arrived just after layers became available. While a lot of people produced magazine images in CMYK with layers, the real effect layers had was on the artistic form that things took. Commercial art shifted to emphasize photo collage in the 90s. It was remarkable after layers appeared in Photoshop and, to be fair, in other graphics programs as well. People started doing lots of commercial art as photo collage. And that went on for many years. It was pretty amazing how the technology influenced the artistic direction.
Q: What would you say to a new Photoshop user who finds the program a bit daunting?
A: Just like an artist’s toolbox, if you open up a toolbox with 50 brushes and 27 paints of three different kinds, you say, “Well, how do I paint a mouse?” If you’re looking for some sort of step one, do this, step two, do that, the toolbox doesn’t give you a lot of help. On the other hand, it has an incredible amount of flexibility for people who knew how to combine layers and set the sliders to make a dark thing fade into the background of something else, and so on. Photoshop has tried to add—and will increasingly, I think, try to add—accessibility. But there’s always this underlying element of, “How do I do that in Photoshop?” Well, there’s 27 different ways to do it depending on what you’re comfortable with, and what kind of effect you want.
Q: How do you collaborate with the other leaders on the Photoshop team?
A: There are three of us who are principal scientists. There’s Seetha Narayanan, Jeff Chien, and myself. When they need technical leaders to sit and decide what we’re doing, what’s possible, negotiate with product marketing over what direction we should take—that kind of thing—it’s the three of us and also John Clauson, who is another senior person. The way that we collaborate in leading Photoshop now tends to be a little more divided by topic area, because no one person knows the whole product and because you can’t have everybody doing everything. So we sort of have areas of specialty.
Q: What is your favorite Photoshop CS5 feature?
A: The new noise reduction in Camera Raw. It’s just miraculous. The noise reduction is one of those things that is immediately visible when I open each picture.
Q: Tell us about the significance of 64-bit support in Photoshop.
A: The basic effect is that it allows the application to use more than four gigabytes of RAM. Processing DSLR images, making panoramas from DSLR images, or doing HDR composites—none of that stuff will begin to push you out of four gigabytes. So, for 90% of the users it is primarily buzzword compliance. For the other 10%—those using huge images or making heavy use of 3D and a few other features—it can be a 10X performance difference.
Q: What part of your work makes you most proud?
A: I am proud of having been on the team that created a cultural phenomenon—something that has empowered millions of people creatively, that’s changed the way people create visual art. The things I can be proud of as part of the team are so much more grandiose than anything I could be proud of individually.
The Photoshop team has a very deep and focused dedication to the quality of the product and to the customers. We have a very strong identification with the product and the impact the product makes and the way the customers feel about it. We’re proud of the fact we work on Photoshop, and we want to keep making it something we’re proud of. We want it to be a good thing that people recognize us as the people who work on Photoshop. Our names are on the splash screen, and we want to keep our names there, and we want to keep being proud of having our names there.
Q: What does Photoshop mean to you?
A: Photoshop means creative potential—visual creative potential, visual creative tools, visual creative possibilities.
Q: What does the future of Photoshop hold?
A: One of the things we’re looking at is the whole area of image forensics. Dr. Hani Farid has done some work with us in detecting modification of images. When you modify an image with Photoshop, usually one of the goals is to make the modification visually undetectable. Usually the reason for that is artistic rather than criminal. But it would be great if, in the cases where the intent is criminal, you could detect it. Even when it’s not visually detectable, there are often ways that modifications are detectable by software. Also, people are moving away from doing everything sitting in front of a desktop computer. People’s experience of creating images and working with information or data is changing to include much more of a mobile component and a cloud component.
Q: Any advice for young engineers?
A: Stay engaged with your enthusiasm. If you’re not enthusiastic, if you’re not invested in it, it’s not going to work.