Photoshop at 25: The changing face of digital imaging

Adobe is celebrating a big milestone for its landmark image editing software Photoshop. The venerable software package's 25th anniversary this week. Few apps have had Photoshop's industry-changing impact and popularity, and fewer still are as directly linked to the Macintosh's enduring success as a tool for creative professionals.

Humble beginnings

While Adobe celebrates Photoshop's 25th anniversary today, Photoshop can trace its lineage back to 1987, when Photoshop's creator, Thomas Knoll, first wrote code to display grayscale images on his black and white Macintosh Plus.

Knoll, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, showed the app to his brother John, who worked at Industrial Light & Magic, the movie visual effects company started by Star Wars creator George Lucas. The two brothers collaborated on the development of image editing features that would ultimately become the core of Photoshop, the earliest shipping version of which was bundled with a photographic slide scanner.

Knoll pitched the software to dozens of app publishers. Russell Brown, Adobe's art director, saw not only what the software could do, but what it could be. Adobe purchased a license to distribute the software, and would release Photoshop 1.0 for the Mac exclusively, in February, 1990.

Photoshop 1 box

The desktop publishing world would never be the same.

True industry disruption

The term "disruption" gets abused about by PR and marketing teams these days, but that's truly the effect that Photoshop had on the desktop publishing market.

Before Photoshop, digital image retouching was an incredibly expensive endeavor: Dedicated high-end computer systems were needed to manage this feat. Businesses paid hundreds of dollars an hour for the privilege. After Photoshop, anyone with a color Macintosh and a scanner could produce incredible images for a fraction of the price.

Six years before Photoshop, the Mac came on the scene at a time when printing and typography were expensive and rarified professional markets, open only those with years of training and machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

Within less than half a decade, the Mac completely remapped that industry. Almost anyone working in graphic design and publishing could afford their own professional rig. The graphic design and publishing market exploded as a result: Designers old and new were able to work with digital imagery and precise layout technology at a fraction of the price they could before.

Adobe's work on Illustrator and font management had already helped to secure the Macintosh's place as the centerpiece of desktop publishing. Quark established QuarkXPress as as the premier page layout tool of the age. Adobe would eventually unseat Quark with InDesign, but at the time, Photoshop was the fourth pillar. Combined, the world of graphic design, page layout, typography, image editing and printing would never be the same.

Photoshop's enduring legacy

Photoshop, and the industry of image editing tools and techniques that have developed in its wake, has had an incredible impact not just on the way we edit images, but the way we perceive images too. Photoshop has also become so seamlessly enmeshed in our lives that we look skeptically at almost every image we're shown: Is it real, or is it Photoshopped?

Barely a magazine exists whose cover photo hasn't been airbrushed and retouched extensively with Photoshop. Photoshop isn't just used to as a creative or artistic tool that improves lighting and adds special effects: The abuse of Photoshop and other image editors by the media propagates harmful messages that affect women and girls' body image and self esteem.

"95 percent of the human images we see are retouched," said Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of the nonprofit organization About-Face. Berger is an expert in how media shapes our sense of self.

"The problems with Photoshop happen when it's used to remove more than small blemishes, and instead waved over an image to remove wrinkles, bulges or enlarge breasts, lengthen necks, or other such body modification."

We've even seen image editing software used for government propaganda too.

But the bottom line is that any tool can be used for good or ill. Photoshop is no exception.

Photoshop, and the work it does, has become such a routine part of life that it's become a generic verb in English and other languages to describe image retouching. Photoshop is part of our daily lexicon like "Xerox" is for photocopying, "Hoover" for vacuuming, "Kleenex" for facial tissue and, arguably, "iPad" for computing tablet.

Photoshop's future

Adobe's relationship with Photoshop users changed in 2013, when the company announced it was discontinuing development of Creative Suite in favor of Creative Cloud, its cloud-based subscription service.

Customers no longer wait years for monolithic updates that cause major workflow disruptions. In exchange for a monthly fee, users get more frequent, incremental updates and feature changes.

Those who prefer paying once for software and forgetting about it have been left by the wayside, or in search of alternatives. And the good news is that there are alternatives. Photoshop isn't the only image editing software out there, and never has been. Photoshop is an icon, however, and a sounding beacon for an entire industry of software applications.

Since Thomas Knoll's work on a black and white Mac Plus in the 1980s, Photoshop has had a secure place in the pantheon of digital image editing software. It's a legacy Adobe is sure to protect far into the future.

Here's Adobe with the final word:

9 Comments
  • I have Photoshop CS5 at work, but I rarely use it. it's just too complicated for what I need to do.
  • Creative Cloud actually opened me up to this software for the first time. £9 a month instead of around £650 is much more manageable, especially since I'll keep getting the latest version. If only I knew how to use more than 2% of it. Sent from the iMore App
  • Photoshop has gotten to be like Microsoft Word over the last 15 or 20 years, everybody thinks they need to have it, everybody thinks they need to learn it - but they don't. There are many alternatives that the vast majority of Photoshop users can use very well and provide more than they will need even without using Photoshop. Photoshop was a good and amazing thing in its beginnings, but it has become, along with its developer, a behemoth that really is in serious need of some serious competition - and it looks like maybe there is some of that on the horizon. Whether a professional artist/photographer wants to admit it or not, Photoshop is no longer a must-have. The same goes for Adobe Premiere too.
  • What do you consider good alternatives for Photoshop and Premiere for "prosumers" or amateurs who go a little further learning image or video software than most but not as far as the pros? Thanks!
  • Premiere alternatives on Mac are Final Cut Pro X for only $300 and DaVinci Resolve which is both free and can be either Mac or Windows. A good option that is windows only is Sony Vegas. Photoshop I'm less familiar with working alternatives. Gimp I suppose is an option but I'm not sure as I don't use photoshop. My photo editing was done in aperture. Sent from the iMore App
  • Aperture is a workflow and raw development app it's like saying you can replace photoshop with Lightroom, which isn't exactly the case unless your uses fall squarely within its niches. On OS X there are no decent Photoshop Alternatives. On Windows the best is PaintShop Pro (which can also stand in for Lightroom to some extent). As for Premier Pro replacements on OS X you're stuck with Final Cut. OS X is strangely terrible for consumer/prosumer level video editing. Windows has Vegas Platinum, VideoStudio, PowerDirector and a ton of other high quality options. That means upgrading your video Editing on Windows costs $30 (check Amazon), but is a $300 investment on OS X (pretty much all the cheaper options are useless compared to the Windows software available). I had same issues when I was looking for a wave editor. I ended up buying Windows software. On face, since buying my Mac I've bought everything for Windows and literally no OS X software because the ecosystem is so weak for desktop software. Windows has way ahead for Prosumer options for media creation. It's also ahead for Pros but OS X also supports most industry leading packages so that isn't a tier at which there's an issue.
  • I first used Photoshop in 1993 in a photography class in high school. I believe it was version 2, the next year I began taking Journalism classes and continued on with photography classes through my first 2 years of college. I used versions 3-5 extensively, and version 6 a little bit. I owned version 5. I dabbled with CS versions, and have had photoshop express on my iPhone's since its release.
    I'm not in the photography or Journalism field as a profession, but I still enjoy using photoshop when I get a chance to. I use it so infrequently now though that I couldn't begin to tell you how to use all the features... But it is great software and deserves the badge of a true game changer in the history of photography and photo editing! Sent from the iMore App
  • When I make a software purchase, I have always preferred a physical copy despite the Mac (and Apple's software too) itself has been trimming away optical storage. I can see the unspoken reasoning for Adobe going this route like Microsoft has for better control of their product . Photoshop itself has been a topmost venue for decades as pirated software on the Mac and even in greater numbers on Windows. The rest of the various software releases over the years has been rampant. Ever so more over the years with the lowering costs of recordable media and counterfeit copies sold in rather odd places or online and until some got what a poor quality pirated version of these major application suites and in the case of Microsoft, various versions of Windows as well with some rather high quality counterfeit products. So I do understand the more taboo subject when it comes to the risk of software piracy with the common physical release vs. a lower cost digital distribution and subscription business model. Still, with such an investment, I still like having something tangible with printed documentation. My first course in college with Photoshop 101, we had the option of either having to buy the required course textbook or we were allowed to use our included manual that came with the version of Photoshop instead (any means to save $$$ was good) for my goal in college. Including Photoshop 6.0 back then bundled along with other software. Now today, the latest Adobe bundle I own is no longer compatible with my Mac. CS2... PPC only with a tight budget supporting my hobby of digital photography, I now just use Aperture with my DSLR and more often, my iPhone 6 Plus. Wish I could afford the last physical release of the Adobe Creative Suite but with the cost being quite a barrier for a fixed retired income, I also see why the very same software I'd like to buy and use the 64 bit muscle in my Mac is the most pirated for many years.
  • Photoshop's best alternatives are on Windows, and that's an issue for Mac users. Unless you use no commercial Plug-Ins (at all) you're beholden to it [and Adobe's subscriptions]. On Windows you can get something like PaintShop Pro and still use a lot of Plug-ins that are also offered for Photoshop.