Q&A: Lightroom's Tom Hogarty on machine learning, mobile photography and the Zeiss camera

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Adobe MAX, billed as the world's largest creativity conference, is currently underway in Los Angeles. We sat down for a Q&A with Tom Hogarty, Senior Product Manager Adobe Lightroom, to get the latest on the popular image editing and cataloguing app, to find out how LR is adapting itself to new audiences and the potential of machine learning.  

AP: Can you introduce yourself? How long have you been with Adobe, and Lightroom in particular?

Tom Hogarty: I joined Adobe in 2005, and I lead the Product Management team for Lightroom. I manage that team to set an overall strategy and look years down the road to where we want to take Lightroom.

AP: Last year you talked to us about the advances in AI/Machine learning being incorporated into LR, and in particular the idea that Sensei (Adobe's machine learning algorithm) can assist a photographer to take better images. Can you touch on some of the recent developments since then? 

TH: There's a few areas. We keep investing in our auto-tagging technology and search, and it just keeps getting better. Content Aware Fill from the panel is awesome, and this year we have Boundary Warp; if you don't want to distort the geometry of the image, you now don't have to take the time to go into Photoshop and then try to arrange detail there. 

Tom Hogarty, Director of Product Management for all things photography at Adobe.
Tom Hogarty, Senior Product Manager Adobe Lightroom.

It doesn't fit the strict definition of Sensei, but our ability to help you down the search path is also very promising. I think we can get some some really good smarts in there and kind of pre-populate what you might be looking for. 

AP: The challenge for many photographers with machine learning it is can be perceived as taking away their decision-making process, while for a lot of users at the early stage, the assistance is potentially much more valuable. How do you find a balance here?

TH: I think the metaphor I've used in the past is to think about having a photo assistant. And you can rely on that assistant as much as you feel comfortable - it's always there for you. And it will do as much or as little work as you as you find comfortable. It's more as a helping agent, not an imposition.

AP: I wanted to talk about LR Classic and LR. We're now seeing much of the functionality of Classic replicated in LR, and in many ways in a much more user-friendly format. In the past you've spoken about choosing one over the other – as LR becomes more powerful, would you still agree with this? 

TH: So my recommendation, if you're brand new to photography, is you should pick the newer Lightroom. It's going to be an easier place to get started. I would say it really depends on the photographer's preference and workflow. One is cloud based. And so that means you're going to want to have a good internet connection, you're going to want to be able to let Lightroom manage your photos in the cloud. And the other one is file folder centric. If you've got 10 terabytes of images, and you want those in the cloud, and you want to manage them on a raid or on your external hard drives, and your bias is towards full control, then the Classic version makes sense.

AP: How does Adobe manage investment in each?

TH: In terms of investment, they're seeing equal amounts these days. It's currently the biggest Classic team I've ever had working on the product, and the newer one, [Lightroom] is about the same. 

AP: Texture and Dehaze have recently become key tools in the editing workflow. How do tools like this move from the idea stage to making it onto the editing panel?

TH: It's interesting, as there's no single path. One of the things that we've talked to photographers a lot about over the years, especially in the early days, is [asking them] 'What are you doing in Photoshop to really make your images pop?'

And they might say, 'Well, I duplicate the layer and then I do this sharpening, and I oversharpen when I modify the blending mode...' and then we can see the desired effect of what they want to do.

And then we can be like, 'how about we just gave him a clarity slider that gets you from A to B with just one slider?' So that's one pathway.

Another one is if you look at the tonal controls - the highlights, the shadows. There was a SIGGRAPH paper - it was a research paper done by a scientist who was trying to find a way to represent a really high dynamic range, without any of the halos when you underexpose. That [idea] went from a SIGGRAPH paper to being in the product within a year.

We have a pretty tight relationship with the scientific community. We've got a huge research team. And occasionally they'll raise their hand and be like, 'hey this really cool thing just got published, you should check it out.'

Texture was like this and I remember we had this fun debate at the end of all that development where we were like, 'Can you just let it go to 11?' 

AP: Can you talk about the thinking behind the idea of the mobile apps offering a simplified version of desktop?

TH: This started five years ago, when we shipped the first version of it [Lightroom Mobile]. And we saw the trend of where we want to be where the photographers are, which is not just on the desktop anymore. It's on their phone. It's on their tablet, and more and more frequently the phone is being used as a capture device. And so the closer we can get to that workflow the better, and just remove the separation between the capture and edit.

To do this, we need to simplify the experience. When we started, we were pretty honest, that Lightroom [Mobile] was kind of a companion to the desktop. You could sit on your couch and review some images that you had on your desktop and stuff you shot on the phone, and [bring it all back] onto the desktop.

But what's happened over those five years is that it's become a complete standalone solution. We have commercial photographers who are telling us they are doing entire jobs start to finish in it now. 

AP: Last year Zeiss announced a camera (The ZX1) that had Lightroom built in, and Lightroom mobile has really seamlessly integrated within smartphones. Why do you think camera companies have been reluctant to incorporate this tech, but smartphone companies have embraced it?

TH: [This idea] makes a ton of sense to me, but of course there are limitations to hardware with traditional DSLR cameras. We were quite involved with Zeiss because we wanted to make sure that the performance and the experience would be great, because it's not the same form factor as say, a phone or a tablet.

We've seen similar products before, but Zeiss was the first to really see where this was headed and their execution was flawless.

AP: What are some of the features we can expect to see in future Lightroom updates? 

The most exciting thing for me this year, and kind of looking into the future, is this concept that we're moving away from just being a solution to manage and share. Because those have kind of been our pillars in the past.

We have a very strong editing core, and then we have all the management and sharing options around that. The fourth leg on that chair is helping photographers get better at photography. And my perception is this is not expected from Adobe.

I'm going to use a long metaphor, so bear with me. You know, if we build great kitchens with all of the best equipment, you can make a Michelin star meal in there, but there is not a cookbook inside. So you're kind of on your own. With the product guided tutorials, It's better than a cookbook. It's like having a professional chef guide you through what you can do in your own kitchen.

Being able to pick a favourite photographer and follow their edit changes, and people are going to be able to upload their own content too. The other cool thing is people will be able to instantly grab a preset from a certain look they might like. This is our second year of investment in this area. It's a big bet for us and we want to make sure that customers are happy and feel like they are getting better. 

Other than this, I'm super jealous of the object based selection Photoshop has, if that gives you a hint. We've got a ways to go in categorisation too. So instead of me manually having to create albums to organise my photography, what can we automate?

AP: What's your favourite Lightroom feature?

I've got two. One is Target Albums. Because what I do is I run through my images and flag the ones I like, and then I add them all into a collection and if I go through again, it's so easy to remove them using the B-key shortcut, that's one of my all-time favourites. Preview is my other favourite, it being just one button.

Mike O'Connor travelled to Adobe MAX courtesy of Adobe. 

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