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Dreams From My Digital Darkroom: Reflections on 25 Years of Photoshop

By the guy who wrote the code instead of studying for his PhD.


Twenty-five years ago today, a software application called Photoshop arrived, promising photographers and graphic designers a new realm of digital possibilities. But my brother John Knoll and I didn’t realize at the time just how broadly influential our little piece of software would become.

When I began writing the code back in graduate school instead of focusing on my PhD at the University of Michigan, I had no idea what it would become or how it would be used. Who could foresee that it would one day be used in such a wide range of fields, including Web design, 3-D printing, video games and the medical industry? Who knew that we were about to revolutionize the way special effects were created in movies? And of course, photography.

In the beginning, few understood the possibilities of Photoshop. When we pitched the technology during the late ’80s, quite a few companies turned us down. They said they were working on similar projects and didn’t want to look at ours for competitive reasons. Others said that it didn’t fit their lineup.

When we performed the demo at Adobe, however, it really clicked with them. They understood its potential, and it fit in very well with their existing product line. We agreed to a deal with Adobe, and Photoshop 1.0 was launched on Feb. 19, 1990.

 Photoshop boxes through the years
Photoshop boxes through the years

The early 1990s brought the Web, and Photoshop grew and evolved in new and exciting ways. Now you had website creators who needed to process relatively small images and compress them and make them look good — including the ever-popular .gif format — and Photoshop was one of the best tools for the job.

It took a while longer for photographers to get on board. Back then, the only real way to get a photographic-quality output from Photoshop was to create four-color separations on film and take them to a printing press, where the first copy of your photograph might cost you $2,000. It would cost the same to print a second photograph, printing presses being what they are.

That meant that if you wanted to print a whole roll of 35-millimeter film, it might have cost you $40,000. Try explaining that to today’s creatives.

Luckily for us, the arrival of inkjet printers enabled a real photography workflow to begin, because photographers could scan their film, manipulate it in Photoshop, and then print out the images with an inkjet printer. Things then really exploded when digital cameras became affordable, and it suddenly became easy to get lots of images directly into a computer.

Photoshop icons through the years
Photoshop icons through the years

Photoshop has changed with the times, and I’m continually stunned by what people manage to do with the program I wrote. But what’s really impressive is watching the pros use Photoshop in ways that I wouldn’t begin to know how to mimic, a lot of which you can now see on sites like Behance.

And creative communities like Behance tell us where Photoshop is being used today. The Top 10 cities for creating Photoshop projects: London, Sao Paulo, New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Paris, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro. I love that Sao Paulo is No. 2.

Going far beyond digital photography, people use Photoshop to modify images or create artwork from scratch in ways that I never would have imagined. Photoshop has so many features that make it extremely versatile, and there are artists around the world who manage to create genuine masterpieces with it. I suppose that’s the nature of writing a versatile tool with some low-level features that you can combine with anything and everything else. From a design perspective, that’s also the beauty of Photoshop’s user interface.

There will always be a constant evolution of computer hardware, and Photoshop will continue to evolve to keep up. But the rate at which computer hardware has evolved since version 1.0 is pretty amazing. For many users, cellphones are entirely powerful enough as computers to do anything they want. So there’s a migration from bigger computers down to mobile devices, which means Photoshop needs to continue to make that transition, and that’s a big focus for us now.

We’ve come a long way in 25 years. We’ve even become part of popular culture: Whether I’m watching TV or reading a magazine, I’m still taken aback when someone uses “Photoshop” as a verb. Some legal folks probably don’t like that. But I guess that’s why they chose to be lawyers. If that’s not surprising enough, going into a bookstore and seeing an entire shelf or two dedicated to Photoshop instruction is pretty fantastic.

I’m truly excited to see how Photoshop continues to grow in the decades to come — and the many ways its users will continue to amaze me.

 Celebrating 25 years of Photoshop ([eft to right) Adobe SVP Johnny L; Sr. Creative Director Russell Preston Brown; Thomas Knoll; John Knoll; Photoshop Product Manager Kevin Connor
Celebrating 25 years of Photoshop ([eft to right) Adobe SVP Johnny L; Sr. Creative Director Russell Preston Brown; Thomas Knoll; John Knoll; Photoshop Product Manager Kevin Connor

Thomas Knoll is an Adobe fellow and co-creator, with his brother John Knoll, of Adobe Photoshop. Knoll began writing the code for Photoshop in 1987 while working on his PhD, with Adobe acquiring initial rights to Photoshop in 1989. He continues to work on Photoshop and Photoshop-related products ever since, and is the only person to have worked on every version of the software. He currently works on the Adobe Camera Raw plugin for Photoshop, which is also used as the basis for the develop module of Adobe Lightroom. Reach him @Photoshop.

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