The Future Of Photo Editing

A couple of years back, I left my role as CEO of a struggling photo-editing startup called Light Crafts, most notably the producer of LightZone. Not because we could not develop a bright future of photo-editing, but because we lacked visionary investors to execute that future with a vengeance (despite having a very amenable angel investor onboard).

The company has since slipped into its demise and eventually folded four years later (in September 2011), leaving a massive hole in the fragmented and difficult-to-use photo editing software landscape.

Photography is a significant area of innovation, as Steve Jobs was said to have identified also. Everybody uses it, and technology evolution has not brought us much closer to the unique way our eyes detect light. Image distribution has improved substantially only recently. Quality (as in dynamic range) has seen minimal improvement.

Since the company has folded, I feel it is more appropriate to disclose some of the steps I took with Light Crafts to conquer the photo editing landscape, describe some of the vision I pointed the company towards and explain what lesson we can learn from this experience.

Why edit a photograph?

Big deal, you say, who needs to edit photographs? The answer: all of us already do. Subconsciously and often with sub-optimal results.

Some 80% of digital cameras convert images from their internal (let’s refer to it as RAW for now) format into an output format (most commonly JPEG), interpret and optimize that image using an image algorithm (or pipeline) from a single vendor. All photographs have been “edited,” pre and post-capture, to make them look as good as possible without the photographer realizing it. Even the most skilled photographers cannot escape the implicit editing (and compression) from RAW interpretations on digital SLRs that do not accurately reproduce the “raw light” dimensions that entered the lens.

Despite purported “groundbreaking innovations” by camera vendors, the need for serious photo editing remains. Three hundred years of photography evolution has not dramatically improved how the camera detects light to reproduce what the eyes saw. Not in the least because we still don’t know what light is.

While cameras’ resolution and sensitivity have improved technically, no camera today can approach the dynamic range (in its multiple dimensions) of light our eyes can detect. Enter the supplemental interpretive quality of our brain with the selective emphasis and elimination of parts of the image, which produces an even starker contrast between how we perceive the scene and what the camera detects.

So, the need to edit photographs remains. Not just to recreate the most realistic reproduction of our reality, but in some cases to embellish surrealism and turn photography into art to evoke perhaps a prescribed interpretation and emotion of the scene. Whichever reflects the photographer’s vision.

The language

The hole Light Crafts leaves behind is large, and the opportunity to make money is enormous. The adoption of new types of digital cameras with more miniature optimal optics is more pressing than ever. Photography has emerged from a specialty into the mainstream, and market resistance based on budgetary constraints has severely diminished if not been eliminated. Anyone can (and will) be a photographer. Production and distribution of photographs on mobile devices have skyrocketed.

And if anyone can be a photographer, why do photo editing tools lag so seriously behind? To draw a parallel, why do photo editing tools force you to speak Spanish before visiting Mexico? Try editing a photograph in Adobe Photoshop, and you know what I mean (I used to call it the “vi” editor of photo editing). The technical language needed to master and the technology resources required to own or edit a photograph is off-putting to most. They are reserved only for those who can afford to treat it as a specialty.

Photo editing tools should embed the implicit complexity of light and expose that capability in simple terms to the photographer. Photo editing tools that hide the complexity of editing will benefit from significant consumer adoption in the same way English-speaking Mexicans benefit significantly from American tourism.

LightZone already made an impressive start by treating a photograph not as a big jar of linear bits like other software but by interpreting the exposure of light in zones on a logarithmic scale; the way light is measured and detected by our eyes. Not unlike a revolutionary photographer, Ansel Adams edited his photographs in his darkroom. That differentiation gave LightZone some neat editing advantages, but its early incarnation reduced the vocabulary needed to edit photographs. To continue to the analogy, Spanish was still required to enter Mexico, albeit with fewer words.

To see the light

So, five years ago, after saving the company from serious financial woes, I started making some drastic changes in the direction of what the subsequent versions of LightZone (after version 1.8) should look like. A few fundamental changes made it into the versions before my departure; many did not. The roadmap to success was clearly defined.

Power in simplicity

The version 3 UI of LightZone was a first step in opening the software up for a market agnostic user base because photographers can no longer be segmented logically. We implemented a new left-to-right paradigm that allowed for quick style-based editing on the left to precise minute detailing on the right, without hiding or jeopardizing the access to either to anyone.

All editing operations were available to all users on a single screen (without complex HUDs), including the live updates to the edited photograph. We implemented new icons across the board (and removed duplicates with different meanings) and improved the application’s color schemes and branding. Macworld improved our score with a full star to 4.5 out of 5.

Styles based editing

Even though templates were available in an early release of LightZone, we renamed them into Styles and brought them to the forefront for an important reason. If the language of photo editing is considered difficult, then we should be able to reuse interesting editing techniques with ease. And because edits in LightZone were based on instruction layers and dynamic zones, any style application would apply to the zone (not the pixel data) in the photograph and therefore have an active implementation to each picture.

So, if someone had produced a set of editing instructions into a Rembrandt editing style, anybody with access to that style could make their photograph look like a Rembrandt too.

We developed the idea of building an iTunes style library of commercially available and user-specific editing styles, in addition to the ability to make a photograph look like another one without requiring any editing knowledge whatsoever.

Touch and edit

Right after introducing the iPhone in 2006, it became clear that the zones-based approach of editing in LightZone would be ideal for photo editing on mobile devices. Since every photograph is already mapped to the individual zones of exposure, a finger-based tap on the part of the image could intelligently determine which zones needed to be adjusted to highlight the tapped area. Combined with other gestures, one could easily imagine how zones and color-based selections could instantly edit magic without learning any complex editing instructions hidden underneath.

All the above innovations could have eliminated most of the “foreign” language required to edit a photograph today.

Startup lessons learned

This story’s importance is not to toot my own visionary horn but to clarify that the assessment of what constitutes innovation is essential in determining a startup company’s success.

Light Crafts had developed some fundamental new editing paradigms (based on Ansel Adams’ techniques). Still, those technologies at that preliminary stage of evolution did not represent innovation meaningful enough to a large audience.

Conversion rates in the lower double-digit percentages from download to purchase were evidence that a fundamental disruption to the photo editing landscape required a more substantial investment into the elimination of the underlying complexity and language of photography and light, in addition to a build-out of technological resources and skill sets that would implement that disruption on the modern devices where the future of image capture will take place.

Few people understand the business of photography

I have written about photography (my hobby) extensively because its business, the digital photography exchange, is misunderstood. Old marketing theorems stand in the way that photography can no longer be segmented, both from a capture and a distribution perspective.

Even fewer investors understand its opportunity

While we enjoyed the support of a single discretionary investor with deep pockets, our dependence on his technical appreciation left us without the counterbalance needed to turn a product into a viable business. And while I frequently advocate that endorsement from prime investors who can carry the entire innovation runway if need be, an additional and business savvy investor could have balanced out the technical wizardry that still dazzled consumers.

Many innovations do not fit the “VC model”

While I had many contacts in the VC world, we were repeatedly tagged as false negative because we 1/ delivered desktop software 2/ and in a space where they have enjoyed many failures (Digital railroad, Getty Images, etc.). Digital photography represents one of the most significant consumer investment opportunities, that with the proper definition of upside, could (and still can) deliver extremely promising returns. Subprime Venture Capital is not the instrument to get it there.

Achieve buy-in for the runway to socioeconomic relevance upfront

To secure a startup company’s success, it is crucial to secure buy-in for the complete runway it takes to produce socioeconomic value to spawn optimal conversion rates. A product with minimal conversion identifies like nothing else that technology has not yet earned product status. Do not compensate for lack of conversion with marketing expenditures; more “awareness” will reverberate what others before have already voted for.

Trickle funding does not produce prime innovation worthy of prime returns

Even though my progress and presentations to the board (the best one the company’s lawyer described he had ever seen and later wanted to use as an example for other startups) landed us another $1.3M round, these trickles compared to the size of the multi-billion market opportunity are an unstable foundation to build a high-performance engineering team on.

So, before joining a company as a CEO or investor, you better be aware that no real innovation is uniform and can thus be captured by a uniform investment strategy. Nor can it be driven by or with people with a consistent way of interpreting its marketplace dynamics. And very seldom can a startup company with a controlling stake that has traversed down a uniform path be saved because an entrepreneur who is not will mimic a real entrepreneur’s innate stubbornness until it is too late.

We may be seeing part of my roadmap appear in Apple’s future photo products, as that is where Light Crafts’ founder ended up. I hope so because a significant evolution of photography is not only a competitive advantage to technology companies. It is an evolution we could and will all use every day.

The opportunity will exist for as long as cameras cannot reproduce what our eyes and imagination envisioned.

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