Beware of content-aware fill: Stella Kramer on Photoshop CS5

Adobe Photoshop CS5 officially debuts today, and according to PC World, which tested a beta version of the software, “what sets Photoshop CS5 apart isn’t any one killer app but dozens of refinements that will make users’ lives easier, more efficient, and, potentially, more creative.”

One of those refinements is “content-aware fill.”

“One of the biggest requests we get of Photoshop is to make adding, removing, moving or repairing items faster and more seamless,” Adobe notes in a preview of content-aware fill that it posted at YouTube. “From retouching to completely reimagining an image, here’s an early glimpse of what could happen in the future when you press the delete key.”

In a recent post at her blog Sharpen, Stella Kramer also wondered about what could happen in the future as a result of content-aware fill. And as you can  infer from the post’s title, “The End of Any Semblance of Reality,” her forecast isn’t very sunny.

Curious to learn more, I invited Stella to expand on her Sharpen piece by writing a guest column for this blog, and she kindly agreed. I’ve pasted her text below, unedited and unabridged.

(I hope it goes without saying that our guest columns, which I’d like to do more of, do not necessarily reflect the views of Stockland Martel. They do, however, reflect our wish to foster discussion in the photo community.)

Also, here’s Adobe’s YouTube preview of content-aware fill:





What do you want from a photograph?  Do you want to feel an emotion?  Marvel at beauty?  Be informed about something that has happened in the world?  Or maybe it’s all of the above.  But when you look at a photograph do you automatically assume that what you see is what the photographer saw?  I always do.

I can sometimes see where the photographer enhanced the photograph—after all burning and dodging have always been around, and I’m not naïve to think there isn’t some Photoshopping going on.  But I’ve always seen photography as an art, something that requires an eye and an aesthetic and a point of view.


If it takes no effort at all to “fix” a photograph, then why even bother to learn how to compose a compelling image?


Since watching the sneak demo for Photoshop’s new CS5 (where “content-aware fill” was introduced), I’m worried about what effect it will have on photography of all genres.  If it takes no effort at all to “fix” a photograph, then why even bother to learn how to compose a compelling image?  Why try to develop your own aesthetic if you can just take out all the things you don’t want in the photo in post-production?  Why become a craftsperson through your work?  If the image isn’t to your liking, just use the content-aware fill tool and all your problems will disappear.  If only we could do that in our lives.  That would be something!

I’m not trying to revive the “are photographs truth” argument.  I’d like to think that when I look at a photograph I am looking at what the photographer saw, not what the photographer constructed using Photoshop tools.

With everyone bemoaning the state of the industry now, why is this a great new development?  With a tool like this, truly anyone can make a decent photo.  And if that’s the case, why hire a professional?  I’ve read excited comments about how easy this will make things for photographers.  Is that what this is about?  Why should photography be easy?  Didn’t things become easy when the transition from film to digital occurred?  Now you don’t have to learn how to develop film, or edit contact sheets.  Wasn’t that enough?

How can I trust that a photographer knows how to take a great photo when all “problems” can be disappeared to make everything “perfect”?  I don’t want a perfect world.  That seems idiotic to me.  And it also seems strange that anyone would want their lives to be so simplified that they don’t have to learn composition in order to be a photographer.

As for me, I don’t know how anyone is going to be able to trust photography at all anymore. I know I won’t be able to tell that this has been done to a photograph. So what’s going to stop our history from being completely rewritten, with the photos to prove it!

What’s to stop people from removing critical information from photographs, like a person or a weapon?  If you can remove things so easily from a photograph, what’s to stop people from re-creating events to suit their own purposes?  Do you think the Chinese government wouldn’t want to remove the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square?

Maybe I’m kidding myself to think there has every been reality to begin with. But when I saw this demo, all I could think about was what was going to be taken out of the world, what I wasn’t going to see anymore, and how we’ll all be the poorer because of it. —Stella Kramer




  1. D. Cartier
    Posted 04/12/2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I definitely understand Ms. Kramer’s point especially as it relates to news and/or historical images. However, (as example) the use of Blue Screen in movies and videos drop in places and/or objects that did not exist. And movies are still being made everyday. In photography where the subject matter is a person/people, I believe Photoshop cannot replace the feel that the photographer has brought out of that person/people. To use the tools of Photoshop creatively can be wonderful as a further expression of a photographer’s idea.

  2. James
    Posted 04/12/2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Why does every generation of new technology have to spell doom for for all that is good and pure? Jeez, pull yourself out of the bomb shelter and accept the fact that no amount of moaning is going to stop the world from turning. Things change. Try to find a positive way to embrace it.

    • Posted 04/13/2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Far be it for me to think I have the power to stop change. For me it becomes more about imagining how things can be subverted, and trying to nudge people to think and talk about these things. To simply jump on the bandwagon of new technology is not something I can do.
      If it makes you think, even enough to disagree, then I am happy. So thanks.

  3. Posted 04/12/2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I understand Stella’s gripe. It’s an issue I have with the photography world as well; the sea of photographers using Photoshop as a crutch, fixing things in their work they never bothered to get right in the first place.

    It’s dishonest.

    As she said then, why bother being any good when you can get Photoshop to fix it for you?

    Where I differ with her is that I don’t think this is in any way revolutionary enough to warrant a doomsday-like prediction.

    When I heard Photoshop’s content-aware tool being compared to Terminator 2’s Skynet network as if it had developed a conscience, I had to check out what it was all about.

    But when I then saw the demo video, I thought “this is just an evolutionary step”.

    And that’s exactly my point. People have been using Photoshop as a crutch since its inception and I don’t think this new tool is in any way revolutionary.

    It’s just another evolutionary step in the same direction since the birth of Photoshop.

  4. Posted 04/12/2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Photoshop CS5 isn’t going to add any more professional competition than Canon already has.

    It still takes skill to warm up the subject and capture the soul of the talent, all while being able to beautifully light in the process. Not to mention the business aspect of our industry. Does CS5 write accurate estimates, handling accounting and cease-and-desist letters? When it does, then we’ll be allowed to worry.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to the content aware feature because hopefully it is going to save lots of time during the retouching process, especially for those who get it right in camera.

  5. Martin
    Posted 04/12/2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    What “the photographer saw” ultimately is a function of the photograph’s production. Sorry, but this is how it is and not the other way around–always has been when editing, cropping and printing are included. Besides, there’s nothing new here. Content aware fill just makes cloning a faster process. I do understand that in photojournalism, an ethics needs to be established. For everything else, photography is the new painting!

  6. Posted 04/12/2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with Stella’s comments. Really, for me, the less time I have to spend on the computer, the better, even if this means having to spend more time location scouting or composing my images.

  7. ch
    Posted 04/12/2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    editors that want pure content will just have to ask for the RAW files…no biggie…although it is sort of lame how easy it is to change things…but then again its already out there happening so I think in the end it will be better for society as a hole since people will learn to question and ask questions about images they see…I feel the end image is mine to provide to the client but I have no problem showing them the RAW file to show where it came from

  8. Posted 04/12/2010 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    It is not a big deal.
    You have to know composition to do post production anyhow. Who cares if it is in-camera or afterwards in post? What is important is an asthetic image.
    There is really no difference than cropping and retouching…
    A good photo is more than composition: it is capturing the character of a subject or the character of a setting.

  9. photojosh
    Posted 04/12/2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand how this is making photographers less of craftspeople? Photoshop is a tool, just like an enlarger and a burn and dodge stick are. You could argue that today’s photo-editing software is even more difficult to learn than the process of developing film is. You are also proposing that Photoshop has the power to change taste and what humans enjoy aesthetically. Trends come and go, the world changes, and Photoshop and image editing software is part of this. It comes down to an issue of trust. You do not trust photographers and artists to disclose when they are manipulating their images. I do trust these people to be straightforward with what they are presenting. As far as the implications with news photography and the history of our world goes, you act as if photography was a way to save us from deceipt. The history of the world is written with words, which can distort the truth. Contextless images can also help serve this distortion. Whoever has the power writes history. In some cases photography can attempt to thwart this trend, but it’s successes are few and far between. As far as the implications for artistry? Embrace all new tools as new possibilities. Technology is not the enemy of tradition, it is an evolution of it.

    • Posted 04/13/2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I was trying to think about the larger context in how this relates to where photography is headed. With so many people considering themselves “photographers” because they have a camera phone, and with some many publishing outlets using stock which they get from many sources (professional and not), it seems to me that a tool like this can make it easier to distort what I like to think of as reality (at least my reality). I think history is written by more than just words, but by images as well. So many events in history are remembered in the collective consciousness through photography, that I don’t want the easy use of a new technology to influence those memories.

  10. Posted 04/13/2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    First of all, there were tools for changing reality in PS before content-aware fill. Guys from Adobe just made this process easier. This tool doesn’t anything new!
    Of course, photographer should think about the final image before pressing the shutter release button. But sometimes you just can’t remove some unwanted things from the scene… As for me, I know that I will use this tool regularly at least for cleaning studio backgrounds. I do it a lot of times, and with this new tool it will go much much faster! That’s all about this tool – to save some time with this little, but time consuming tasks.

  11. Posted 04/13/2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Content-aware fill is just a tool in your hands, like camera, like your f/1.2 lens, like reflector or polarizing filter etc. To use it or not – that is the question. Using any tool you can improve your photography or completely destroy it. They are just tools. Photographs are made by photographers using some tools.

  12. Posted 04/13/2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    The camera has always lied. Remember when they used to airbrush out members of the Politbureau for the May Day parade in the Soviet Union. This stuff has been going on since the thirties. The real change these days is how simple it has become and that it no longer requires a skilled professional. It will probably be a great tool for the advertising and studio photographers whose work has always been retouched but unfortunately it does not stop there. Ms. Kramer has a point—especially in regard to fine art and reportage.

  13. Carolyn
    Posted 04/13/2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry but I find this post ridiculous. Photography is art and so the final product is the vision of the photographer — whether created in camera or in post-production.

    The only distinction that can be drawn is photojournalism. That is the only place where it matters whether the scene was altered, whether “a gun was removed,” etc.

    You don’t sound like someone who (a) recognizes fine art photography, or (b) understands the widespread use of photoshop in today’s world. Ansel Adams would use photoshop if he were alive today. It is a fantastic tool to further a photographic vision. He dodged and burned for hours in a darkroom. Now you can do it on the computer in less time.

    Moreover, commercial photographers are about to get a huge boost from the ability to use content aware fill. It will simplify their workflow tremendously.

    Tsk, tsk…. This article seems very naive and childish.

    • Posted 04/14/2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Why it’s considered naive and childish to raise questions about new technology? If you can draw a distinction for photojournalism, isn’t that enough reason to bring up concerns? I do know how much post-production work is done by photographers, and that it has gone on forever. But there are many people out there who are now photographers by dint of technology, not by having a creative eye or anything to say for that matter. And because of that I think it’s worthwhile to discuss these topics before the technology becomes accepted and commonplace.
      Just because it will become easier for commercial and fine art photographers to create what they want doesn’t make it great. You’re dismissing me as someone who doesn’t recognize fine art photography, yet you are marginalizing photojournalism.
      I’m just trying to get people talking, so thank you for that.

      • Carolyn
        Posted 04/14/2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        But the technology IS accepted and commonplace — that is the point I was making! Adobe has simply made it easier to accomplish.

        It DOES take a creative eye to create something beautiful in photoshop. Anyone beating their chests and tearing out their hair, wailing “but they didn’t create that in camera!” is going to be ignored. How could you tell in most instances?

        Nor did I in any way “marginalize” photojournalism. I actually have a great respect for it and a strong belief that that is one area where photoshop should be used sparingly, for the reasons I already stated. We have had discussions on other blogs about the disturbing and apparent trend to photoshop and greatly alter images that are intended for news media. Such images by their very nature should present an accurate story to the public.

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