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Exclusive: Adobe’s new camera app will offer more than just a single “take the photo now” button, opening up new computational photography options.
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, microprocessors, digital photography, quantum computing, supercomputers, drone delivery, and other new technology. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Adobe is working on a camera app designed to take your smartphone photography to the next level.
Within the next year or two, the company plans to release an app that marries the computing smarts of modern phones with the creative controls that serious photographers often desire, said Marc Levoy, who joined Adobe two years ago as a vice president to help spearhead the effort.
Levoy has impeccable credentials: He previously was a Stanford University researcher who coined the term computational photography and helped lead Google’s respected Pixel camera app team.
“What I did at Google was to democratize good photography,” Levoy said in an exclusive interview. “What I’d like to do at Adobe is to democratize creative photography, where there’s more of a conversation between the photographer and the camera.”
If successful, the app could extend photography’s smartphone revolution beyond the mainstream abilities that are the focus of companies like Apple, Google and Samsung. Computational photography has worked wonders in improving the image quality of small, physically limited smartphone cameras. And it’s unlocked features like panorama stitching, portrait mode to blur backgrounds and night modes for better quality at night.
Adobe isn’t making an app for everyone, but instead for people willing to put in a bit more effort up front to get the photo they want, something matched to the enthusiasts and pros who often already are customers of Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom photography software. Such photographers are more likely to have experience fiddling with traditional camera settings like autofocus, shutter speed, color, focal length and aperture.
Several camera apps, like Open Camera for Android and Halide for iPhones, offer manual controls similar to those on traditional cameras. Adobe itself has some of those in its own camera app, built into its Lightroom mobile app. But with its new camera app, Adobe is headed in a different direction — more of a “dialogue” between the photographer and the camera app when taking a photo to get the desired shot.
Adobe is aiming for “photographers who want to think a little bit more intently about the photograph that they’re taking and are willing to interact a bit more with the camera while they’re taking it,” Levoy said. “That just opens up a lot of possibilities. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do and something that I can do at Adobe.”
In contrast, Google and its smartphone competitors don’t want to confuse their more mainstream audience. “Every time I would propose a feature that would require more than a single button press, they would say, ‘Let’s focus on the consumer and the single button press,'” Levoy said.
Levoy won’t yet be pinned down on his app’s features, though he did say Adobe is working on a feature to remove distracting reflections from photos taken through windows. Adobe’s approach adds new artificial intelligence methods to the challenge, he said.
“I would love to be able to remove window reflections,” Levoy said. “I would like to ship that, because it ruins a lot of my photographs.”
But there are plenty of areas where Levoy expects improvements:
Adobe’s success isn’t guaranteed. A more discriminating market of serious photographers are less likely to be forgiving about computational photography glitches that can show up when performing actions like merging multiple frames into one or artificially blurring backgrounds, for example.
At the same time, mainstream camera apps that ship with phones have steadily improved, adding features like computational raw image formats for more editing flexibility. And Adobe doesn’t get quite the deep level of access to camera hardware that a phone maker does, raising performance challenges.
But Levoy clearly is enthralled with what computational photography can bring.
“It’s just getting exciting,” Levoy said. “We haven’t come anywhere near the end of this road.”