Wider Angles: Photoshop “Content-Aware Fill”

Wider Angles: Photoshop “Content-Aware Fill”


Adobe Photoshop Project Manager John Nack previewed the “Content-Aware Fill” feature that will make its way into the Photoshop CS5 later this year. The Content-Aware Fill allows operators to remove parts of the scene without laborious retouching. The implications for image security, watermark removal, and creative expression are enormous.


How should photographers, photo buyers and the industry greet this new technology? And what are its implications, both good and bad?

The experts chimed in:


Vincent Laforet is a Los Angeles and New York based commercial director, DP and photographer who is regularly commissioned to work on a variety of fine art, advertising, corporate and editorial projects. His approach to aerial photography has been singled out as one of the most unique and interpretive amongst photographers today.

I just watched the video on the new “Content Aware” feature for Photoshop CS5 – and I find it absolutely fascinating. This is one of those tools that will definitely garner a love/hate response from the photo community.

For retouchers – this may save them quite a bit of time.  While I can’t judge the quality of the this tool based solely on the YouTube video, I can see that it definitely is at the very least a fantastic head start for most retouching jobs – that may require some follow up by skilled retouchers.   The tool DOES however do much better than I (I’m not a retoucher) could with Photoshop CS4 however.  While I don’t see it replacing my need for retouchers – I do see myself using it to give retouchers an idea of what I’m thinking in terms of removing items from a photograph and then sending that example over to them.

Unfortunately – I do see that more people are going to think that they now can do the job of a professional retoucher “themselves” which seems to be a general trend these days.   And for some things – they may be right.  These are interesting times for almost any profession it seems.  Disruptive technology is just that…

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As far as the implications for image security and watermark removal – this tool has huge implications. And I’m afraid to say: they’re really not good at all. It’s downright frightening. Time for us to look to new measures it seems. I was never a big fan of watermarks anyway.

In the end though – you can’t hold back “progress.”   New technologies will continue to emerge – and fighting or resisting them is quite futile. The only thing to do it seems is to learn how to use these new tools – or at the very least to be aware that they exist … or to do nothing and let others move forward as you watch them do so.


Dr. Bob Carey is President of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Gardner-Webb University where he teaches visual journalism. Prior to teaching, Carey spent 20 years as a photojournalist.

The addition of the “Content-Aware Feature” to the upcoming Photoshop CS5 is a potential ethical nightmare for photojournalists, photo editors, and photo buyers alike.

The demo video done by Adobe Photoshop Project Manager John Nack indicates that photographers will be able to easily change content of a photo and break what the NPPA considers the lynchpin of our profession–ethics. The NPPA Code of Ethics includes this: “Visual journalists operate as trustees of the public. … Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand.”

As technology changes and allows such drastic alterations to images, photojournalists, photo editors, and photo buyers need to demand integrity throughout the process. It is important that photo editors and buyers know when an image has been altered using technology such as this. Integrity is based upon truthfulness and if an image has been altered using technology, the photo consumer needs to know.

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This new feature in Photoshop CS5 will further erode the public’s trust in photography and more specifically in photojournalism. Just recently, I was admiring a large photo hanging in an airport. A mother and her young son were discussing the photo, when the son said, “Oh mom, it’s not real, they photoshop everything.” It is a sad state that so many youth of today view photos as being altered.

We in the photo community need to uphold the truth about an image. If it is altered, then we need to state that. It is the ethical thing to do. I want to encourage Adobe to find a way to note in the metadata or in the thumbnail that the “Content-Aware Feature” has been used on an image. We need to preserve our ethics and historical truths in visual images. Otherwise, images will cease to be an actual documentation of history and will instead become an altered history.


Mike Davis, Picture Editor At Large, has helped scores of photographers at publications edit and improve the quality of their work to achieve the highest levels of photography. He now works directly with photographers.

It’s ironic that Adobe creates a tool to make photo manipulation much easier at the same time that photojournalism competitions are tightening the screws on how much photographers can manipulate photos. This is a black hole running smack into a comet.

I’d start by recognizing that altering images is not a crime; lying about having altered them is offensive. You can be guilty of libel even though you said the truth.

I have two suggestions for Adobe to deter inevitable problems that result from using this new tool, at least in the photojournalism world. 1. Create a disable function for the tool at the system administrator level. 2. Create an imbedded, unchangeable, accessible layer to images that pass through Photoshop so it’s easy to see what has been changed. What a relief that would be.

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A third suggestion, and one that will save Adobe a lot of grief, is to create a 12-step program for getting off the addiction to using this tool – though it would take forever to complete the step that requires telling people that you’re sorry for what you’ve done to the photos they bought.

Another, less time-consuming choice would be to include a paragraph in photography delivery memos swearing that the photographer didn’t remove, add or in any other way dramatically alter your images. Honest.


James Estrin is a Senior Staff Photographer for the New York Times and a co-editor of the Times’ photography blog Lens. He has been on staff since 1987 and photographs, writes, and produces multimedia and video.

As a New York Times photographer, and a co-editor of the Lens blog, I take a very orthodox view of the role of Photoshop in image processing. Simply put: Less is more. I subscribe to the notion that journalistic images should not be manipulated to change the way a scene looked, even if it looks better.

That said, the Content-Aware Fill feature on the new Photoshop seems to be very impressive. It will be a boon for photographers who work in those areas of our profession that rely on retouching. It will also make it easier for those photojournalists who choose to cheat. But the problem isn’t the efficacy of the Content-Aware Fill feature. The problem is those photojournalists. In truth, the lines are already blurred. Over Photoshopping is already rampant and we see more and more photos that are technically virtuosic but have nothing to say.

The question raised by this new tool is: Does the integrity of the image even matter? After all, photographs aren’t objective. All of the decisions that a photographer makes while shooting affects the image the viewer sees. A foot to the left or a wider angle lens? And that’s before editing the picture. Let’s face it, life is not digital. It’s analog and three dimensional.

But I think that integrity does matter. If all I can do as a photojournalist is do my best to try to tell the truth as I saw it, that’s okay with me. And as far as image processing, I’m still going to believe that less is more.


Italian-born, Davide Marchionni, former visual artist ,lives and works in NY,as a creative retoucher and Art Director. His strong fine arts background combined with excellent skills and experience gained the appreciation of high profile clients and industry pros.


Looks like Adobe did it again. Based on youtube.com sneak peak, I’m quite impressed with all the efforts that made possible this very tool.

Although it looks really cool when it comes to expedite the executions of boring operations (especially for web oriented content) the footage shows visible flaws such as soft spots and color shifts in the area treated by the CAF.

As a Pro Retoucher I personally I wouldn’t compromise the quality and color consistency of each channel to save -even conspicuous- amount of time.

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I noticed also that few viewers were concerned/speculating about the possibility of having to deal very soon with a broader competition; again I don’t think this is going to be the case.

Solid retouching is matter of experience, taste and stylistic choices, besides a been understanding of the market’s trend.

I’m also having a similar feeling when it comes to the capacity to counter fact documents more easily, the necessary tools, even if more time consuming. where already there.

In conclusion it seems to me that the content aware fill while will appeal to enthusiasts and some photographers,  (and crooks as well) and will probably relieve the postproduction pros   (for web oriented content -and it’s going to be a massive chunk of the business, considering the upcoming technology/hardware and the serious crisis the publishing industry is going through) won’t definitely change much the way industry pros operate to achieve the highest results many clients are still looking for.


Jim Goldstein is a professional photographer with a focus on outdoor and nature photography. Jim’s photography has been featured in the Washington Post, Sierra Club, Future Snowboarding magazine, Surfmag.com, SFGate.com, and a variety of other publications.

Like many of my peers I have to admit I was blown away by the latest Adobe demo video of the “Content-Aware Fill” feature of Photoshop CS5. At first glance I could think of numerous photos and scenarios where this technology would open up doors by breathing life into images that were previously too labor intensive to edit, would speed up normal photo retouching and enable new creative approaches to create breathtaking imagery. Of course later it sunk in that such a tool could also be used to expedite image piracy by making it easier to remove watermarks, detecting images in complex photo composite, etc.

If we let our fears take control as new technologies arise, as a society, industry and profession, we would be living & working in a much more primitive capacity. New technology should always be embraced and if negative aspects of that technology exist we should strive to enhance that technology to address the problem rather than kill it. Only a couple of years ago there had been discussion of leveraging a Clone Tool Detector that would detect “Truth Dots” as the clone tool rolled out with Photoshop CS3. I’m hard pressed to find a photographer now who avoids using the Clone Tool or Healing Brush due to a larger piracy concern.

Technology enables creatives to more quickly realize their vision far more than it inhibits our ability to conduct business. How people leverage their creativity will always be a double edged sword. Creatives and photo pirates will forever use their creativity to achieve their goals. That being said if you’re always looking behind you you’ll never move forward.


Stephen Best’s role as CEO for APA is only a little over a year old now but his professional career has been all about photography.  For over 30 years he has been a photographer or manager of photography operations for ad agencies and major retailers.  That experience has been very helpful in being an advocate for photographers through APA.

My first knowledge of Content-Aware Fill was from a post on the APAdigital forum placed by David Brabyn on Wednesday, March 24, 2010.  Part of David’s comments was the phrase “Do watermarks stand a chance against this?”  He posted the YouTube link for the demonstration of Bryan O’Neil Hughes – Photoshop Product Manager.

Now Adobe Photoshop Project Manager John Nack previewed the “Content-Aware Fill” feature that is being claimed will make its way into the Photoshop CS5 later this year. The Content-Aware Fill allows operators to remove parts of the scene without laborious retouching. The implications for image security, watermark removal, and creative expression are enormous.

Adobe’s preview of “Content-Aware Fill” as seen on YouTube provides a glimpse into a huge advantage for retouching but also a very alarming source for increased image theft.  Watermarks are a common source of image protection.  It’s not the only way and many people chose not to use it.  Improvements to Photoshop help a photographer and retoucher produce work more efficiently and Content-Aware Fill will be no exception.  Maybe it isn’t going to be as easy and simple as seen in the demo but an improvement it is.

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Will it have an impact on image protection?  I’m sure it will but photographers and other copyright holders need to be as empowering as possible by using all means available to protect their images.  Register with the US Copyright Office, investigate sources for finding image infringements on the Internet and be sure to use Metadata.  Nothing is foolproof and we have to improve our efforts in protection as technology advances contribute to the ease of infringement.

Some comments on blogs are claiming it a fake demonstration.  Maybe, but I’ve always praised technological advances that help workflow but have also been concerned about uses in the wrong hands.

Protect your work with all means available.


David Sanger has made a living as a travel photographer for the past nineteen years, going places and photographing for magazines, books and now primarily stock photography. He serves as a board member and past-president of the Stock Artists Alliance representing stock photographers worldwide. You can find my images and license them at Getty Images, Alamy Images and also directly from his PhotoShelter archive.

Photo illustration has long been a mode of creative expression allowing artists to composite images and replace, remove or recreate individual elements of photographs. Typical uses are the design of advertisements, editorial illustrations,  repair of images scanned from damaged historical prints, visual reconstructions of archeological sites, architectural renditions of building plans, and film animation.

Photoshop CS5 makes this task significantly easier with a Content-Aware Fill feature that seamlessly reconstructs replaced areas using sophisticated pattern-matching and hole-filling algorithms. Developed by researchers at Princeton, U of Washington and Adobe, and reported in the August 2009 issue of ACM the PatchMatch algorithm is 20 to 100 times faster than previous versions and makes possible rapid and more accurate reconstruction of missing areas of images.

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Faster image editing, along with increased processor power, will allow designers, animators, architects, archeologist and image restorers to offer their services at lower prices with better quality.

One new service will be online stock imagery composition. A photo buyer could sublicense portions of images (“the hill without the tree or clouds”) and combine them online before downloading the composite. Inventive billing and licensing options will be needed to sort out pricing and terms.

As for copyright concerns, composited and repaired images further complicate the management of rights. Creators of all component images, along with the retoucher/image editor, will have rights in the resultant derivative image. Hopefully clearance of rights will not end up as an impediment to the creation of composite images, as it has been for some documentary films. Stock agencies and photographers will need simple, creative and cost-effective solutions.

The technology also challenges digital watermarking (Digimarc) and fingerprinting, (Tineye) services that need a minimum portion of an photo for image recognition. They will need to evolve to work with complex composite images, though the trend towards larger, higher resolution online files (eg. iPad’s 132ppi screen) will obviate this somewhat.


John Harrington is a photographer and reknown photo business author/consultant. Based in Washington, DC, he current serves as the president of the White House Press Photographers Association.

I watched the video, and, as most people likely were, I was duly impressed. From time to time, I could see that as a time-saver for commercial work – but in the editorial/photojournalism world, it’s a non-starter, as you can’t (or at least almost all publications specify a policy of opposition) manipulate the photos as shown.

Let’s set aside the issue of image integrity, since the removal of blemishes, wrinkles, and so on have all but killed that expectation. One major problem as I see it, is the potential to remove watermarks, or even steganography protections. Moreover, I expect that photographers will not like to see their images manipulated beyond what they might have been comfortable with. For example, yes, the client may have wanted the tree removed, and that’s all well and good, but I often will place an element in my frame to help focus the eye to where I want it to go, and an element like that which was removed could be problematic from my own artistic approach.

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I am sure that there are a large number of “artistic” photographers (err, uh, photo illustrators, or as some call them, “operators”) that will use this feature to make short work of their creations, or will alter reality to remove the “hand of man” in their nature-scapes. They will create realities that don’t exist, but to the untrained eye, now more than ever, the perception of real will take another hit.

Yes, this technology could be the one feature in CS5 (as I understand it, slated for an April 12th release) that makes people want to buy it. For me, it’s going to have to be a hard slog uphill for me to see something in CS5 that I absolutely must have – heck, there are so many things in CS4 that I don’t need or use. This is just one more step in the evolutionary march towards a “point-and-shoot-auto-focus-auto-expose-do-everything” digital camera version of photo editing software. Retouchers, if you thought India was a threat to your livelihood, Adobe just made it that much easier for your jobs to go the way of the type-setter.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 12 comments for this article
  1. D.A.Wagner at 8:37 am

    I don’t think Content Aware Fill is any more of a potential ethical nightmare (as Dr. Bob Carey calls it), than Photoshop itself. Photoshop has always made some kind of headline by it’s abuse in journalism over the years. This won’t be anything new. Those who abuse it to alter images for the sake of photojournalism have a creative deficit. Photoshop cannot replace hard work and experience. However, when it comes to retouching for the purposes of commercial photography, it’s simply a tool. Watch that John Nack video carefully and you’ll see the differences in tone on those large fills. It’s the healing brush, just bigger and a little better. I love Mike Davis’ idea of embedding a Photoshop history of what has been done to an image. Not just for the sake of preventing fraudulent use of Photoshop in Journalism, but a way of notation for remembering the process. And, on that note, if an image has been watermarked, maybe IPTC adds a field with a watermarked? check box indicating a watermark. That, along with the history, would indicate it had been removed. Frankly, Content Aware Fill is no more a “huge advantage” than the Rubber Stamp Tool. Professional retouchers have been rebuilding large areas of images for years using conventional Photoshop Cloning tools flawlessly. Look closely, Photoshop is a deep, complicated program and has a long learning curve to perfection. It’s not a thinking, breathing, intelligent being. It’s just Photoshop.

  2. Art at 3:51 pm

    This new Content-Aware Fill feature should not have anymore ethical implications than before. This same type of photo manipulation has been possible long before this feature ever came about. All this feature does is make the process quicker. I think that ever since beginning of the digital age of photography, we should take the authenticity of photos with a grain of salt, or treat it the same way we treat other forms of art; simply as an artist’s interpretation, not as truth.

  3. Allen Murabayashi at 4:10 pm

    @gary @art i agree that tools like this have been available for a while. i disagree with your premise that making it easier to use in a widely deployed setting has no effect on how the tool is used by the masses. i think there are very real implications — particularly insofar as photojournalism is concerned that are worrisome. as far as art and commercial photography — i agree that these types of photography are much more interpretations than an implication of reality.

  4. Dwayne at 7:56 pm

    @Israel, Not true at all. If you Google you will find a fix for getting the plugin to work with the latest version of Gimp. I tried it and it was pretty damn impressive. Not nearly as impressive as Photoshop’s implementation though. I’ve got a copy of Photoshop CS5 and it works far beyond my expectations.

  5. Nemo at 10:57 am

    I notice a lot of people are pondering the implications for watermark removal. Why not discuss this a little? What are you affraid of happening if someone removes your watermark? They sell your work as their own? They take credit for your work? These are the two that jump out at people right away. But like anything else, you have a responsibility to know where your own work is. Today there are so many alternatives to visible watermarks, but people don’t know or are hesitant to try, for whatever reason. PS comes with a product (that u need to purchase) that embeds a trackable watermark. So you know where your images are posted. Another alternative is a website called TinEye. There you can upload your pic and it will find all the places it was posted, even if it has been edited. The site isn’t perfect as it hasn’t crawled all websites yet and I am not sure how frequently it’s updated. These are just two many many ways to track your photos…. Remember with or without this PS feature, if people want to remove a visible watermark they will. One way or another.

  6. Portrait Painter at 12:23 am

    It is very interesting to read what photoshop can do, and what new feautes it has. I sometimes use it myself, but as an artist, I really don’t like the sowtware part that turns your photos into paintings (or that they look like paintings). This part of photoshop can never compare to real art.

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