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Think outside Photoshop - new image editing concept

12 March 2013

Russian translation and discussion:

I love Adobe Photoshop. I really do! I have been using it daily for about 10 years. One cannot over-estimate its influence on the world of image editing - which, in many ways, defines how the world around us looks! I'm sure that right now, in your room, there is at least one thing partly designed in Photoshop. All the images in this article were prepared in Photoshop!

In its market, Photoshop is King. You can also call it "standard" (which is mostly good) or "monopoly" (which is mostly bad). But the fact remains - if you work with image editing, you must think in Photoshop's terms and follow its workflows.

Photoshop is not the most complex piece of software (because, let's be fair, digial imaging is not the most complex thing of all). However, it is quite complex, for several reasons. First, it can really do many things. But also, because it is very old, almost as old as I am! This long history of development means Photoshop did not have a chance to re-think any of its core ideas and start some things from scratch. You know, compatibility; and besides, why fix something that works!


Images by

However, recently an idea came to me that's been bugging me, asking to be written and published. So I am writing it here without any specific goal or wish - just because I'd love to share and see what you think. Nothing can be better than an interesting discussion! (Hint - comments are welcome!)

A problem no one noticed

The first thing you learn about Photoshop is layers. A layer is the key feature of Photoshop. If you don't know what Photoshop layer is, I'm afraid the rest of my article will not be interesting to you :-) But very briefly - a layer is a "picture inside picture". You can put several layers on top of each other, and treat each layer as a separate picture. But in the end, they will be "merged" into single image on your display.


What could be possibly a problem with layers? Something we did not even know was a problem, because we use it all the time?

First, a completely unrelated but interesting fact. Do you know that you can see your nose all the time? Even as you read this, you are seeing it! Your brain chooses to ignore it.

OK, back to layers! Imagine you have a Photoshop document with one layer (pixel-based, such as a photo). Let's quicky look through all the things we can do with this layer:


All these features did not come at once. They were added over the years. Maybe you already start to see where I am going to! These things have different names, and they are designed as different parts of a program. But in the end, they all do only one thing - they modify the layer.

Now, some of these things above will change the layer content directly - it's irreversible. This is how image editing started - no one ever thought about keeping the originals (and even if they thought, hardware was not powerful enough). Other things are reversible - f.e. layer styles, masks.

Recently, Photoshop has been trying to solve the problem of irreversible modifications, by adding even more features on top of existing ones:

Now, I am proud to say I know almost every corner of Photoshop. But, "To enable re-editable smart filters, the selected layer will be converted into a smart object." - huh? I failed to accept and use that. Sorry! It's a hack, not a solution.

When you meet many (great) people around the world, you quickly realize that people may look very different, but their "core" remains the same. Similarly, all these Photoshop features may be produced by different teams in different times, but they all do one thing - they modify the layer.

Eureka! Make everything a layer! Grow the tree ot layers!


Below I intend to borrow two concepts from Photoshop, and build a whole new concept from them.

One is, of course, layer. And the other one is clipping mask.

Imagine there's no Heaven, it's easy if you try... Oops, sorry :-) Imagine you have a brand new image editing program, let's call it Onion (because onions have layers!).

You import a photo from your camera, and open it in Onion as a document with one layer (pixel-based). Say you want to make some modifications, such as contrast. Free your mind! Instead of applying modifications, you add "contrast" layer as a child of your photo layer! This might look similar to adjustment layers in Photoshop, and it is actually. But the idea is that everything is a layer:

... and that layers can be both children and parents. And of course "top level" (technically, children of "document"). Similar to clipping mask in Photoshop, when you make a child layer, its contents (or modification) is only appied to contents of its parent layer.


It may sound simple, but if you think about it longer (I did!), you will be amazed how powerful this concept is.

Some quick visual demos (keep in mind - all modifications are reversible and only take a couple of clicks!):



The possibilities are really endless. Now, you can achieve similar results in Photoshop (I know that, I can!), but it takes years of experience, understanding hundreds of unknown terms, and lots of puzzle-solving - which set of tools to use in which order.

Why I think my idea is so cool:


Time to get some coffee

Thank you for being so patient reading that long. I hope I inspired you and gave you some food for thought. Who knows, maybe one of you will eventually use the ideas above as a base for developing an app that will become next world standard in image editing. Pixelmator, I'm looking at you! :-)

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Comments 59

Igor Feghali · 12 March 2013
very good idea indeed

Vlad Gerasimov · 12 March 2013
Jamion - thanks! The problem you mentioned is "upper level" problem (interface, not concept). The concept definitely needs a nice interface to make working with layer tree easy and intuitive. I am sure that's doable!

Marinet · 12 March 2013
Stunning! Please send out an update if something like that does get developed one day! (Or better yet, send it as an idea to Photoshop. Who knows, they might bring it out in the next version...)

Vlad Gerasimov · 12 March 2013
John - no release date, nobody is gonna develop it yet! :-)

Donna · 12 March 2013
Very kewl, Vlad.

Digitalchet · 12 March 2013
Yup, this is the kind of clever rethinking that Photoshop, and in fact most Adobe apps need. They're simply mired in the muck of decades' old code and they just keep building on top of it. Your solution is quite intuitive and not difficult to pick up. Nice thinking, Vlad.

Ryan · 12 March 2013
This idea is possible if there was an open source alternative to photoshop where developers are responsible for the product.

Vlad Gerasimov · 12 March 2013
There is an interesting discussion happening in my post @ Habrahabr (in Russian, see the link on top of the article) - seems like I invented something like "nodes" in video editors! Never heard of "nodes" before, pity!

Spewak · 12 March 2013
Vlad, It is an interesting idea and approach. One has to consider the fact that the Photoshop engineers designed and created the many terms and ways of editing images simply to keep Photoshop, as it were, on top of the software heap. Layers and complexity! lather, rinse, repeat.

Polo · 12 March 2013
Love to learn something New and Interesting everyday thank you Vlad for that!!! You make my day ;-)

P2 · 13 March 2013
Dear Vlad, a nice idea, that comes familiar to me directly when reading your thoughts (even I'm far away to be an expert in PS) and that reminds me to flexible definable Markup-Trees (e.g. XML).

BoXXi · 13 March 2013
Great idea Vlad, but, would it make my 100 layer image a 500 layer image?? Because I don't think I could cope with that..... lol. (Hope you are OK my old friend? )

Hap · 13 March 2013
Maybe a thing open source community, say gimp can welcome. An original and fone vision.

Anthony Dendle · 13 March 2013
You are so on the money here Vlad. Nice article. We can only hope that Adobe will see this and perhaps listen.

Aneesah · 13 March 2013
Can I just say that I love the doodles you made for this article? :) :) New doodly wallpapers maybe, Vlad? I would thank you muchly for it! ^^

Vlad Gerasimov · 13 March 2013
Hamzadis: excellent comment, thanks! So you made an image editing app as a part of a course! What kind of extreme course it is, I wonder! Many other people (from Habrahabr website, see link on top) also suggested that similar approach is called "nodes" and used a lot in various 3D and video apps. They provided a lot of links, most similar to my idea being this one - - very old image editing app called Live Picture. Also, many people thought I wanted to improve Photoshop, or I was looking for a developer to actually develop a new app. Neither is true - I was just sharing the idea, looking for good discussion, which I definitely received! Thanks!

pfennig59 · 14 March 2013
The idea is great, Vlad, and performance shouldn't be much of a problem with today's systems. If you search for AquaSoft SlideShow, which isn't, as the name says, an explicit image editor, but it comes with a non-destructive image editor, that uses exactly that kind of technology that PhotoShop lacks and it runs without problems even on 6 to 8 year old PCs and laptops.

Lanny · 12 April 2013
I've been using Photoshop since v.1 in 1992. I rejoiced when layers were introduced with v.3. However, I switched almost completely to Fireworks after an invitation to join its alpha testing team. Of course, when Adobe swallowed Macromedia, development of Fireworks essentially stopped, despite its advantages for web design. Photoshop has incorporated some of its features, such as vectors and nondestructive effects, but PS is still a confusing mess of tacked-on features with a bewildering workflow. If you have never tried Fireworks, I think you'll be surprised by how much more logical and consistent it is than Photoshop. Unfortunately, its development stopped before it had acquired the precision and maturity of PS. But I still use it, because given a choice, I'll design with flexible vectors instead of rigid pixels every time.

caRRyOn · 22 April 2013
After you told me that I see my Nose it was hard to continue reading for a moment... Nice Article cool idea, I bet there are lots of ideas in everyone's mind noone ever has heard of.

Chris · 1 May 2013
I always thought that was how it worked! If its not then it should be. Groups of layers should also be collapsible and have the ability to be saved as a new effect or combination layer and be available to be applied to other images in he same way macros work in documents.

Jenny · 30 May 2013
Hi Vlad :) Some of those things you can do in Illustrator. Sooo useful! Thanks for a reminder and to have that in photoshop would be fantastic. The Smart Vector is simply dragging or importing an 'ai' illustrator file into your photoshop file and it appears as a layer. When you change and resave the original ai file, it automatically updates in the photoshop file. People trying to get computers thinking for themselves once again (really... haven't those people seen the movies or read the books?!!!! lol). Have a great day Vlad, and thanks for being ever so inspiring!

sharno · 9 July 2013
I think the concept is a lot similar to After Effects .. Effects applied on layers that could be applied after each other but it lacks multiple nesting (layer inside layer inside layer) but they solved it with something called pre compose (composition). But it's a nice idea anyway :)

Luka · 16 July 2013
Ah, eventually someone names the problem with Adobe Photoshop: Just as with Windows, Photoshop's development throughout the decades has rather been patchworking, bugfixing and programming workarounds than serious software development. That's also the reason why Photoshop still comes with some bugs which we know from its beginning. Unfortunately, the aforementioned GIMP has completely adapted Adobe's concept, thus it would make more sense to program a new software. Non-destructive photoediting software is available though. Capture One from Phase One, for example. Yet, while Capture One is fantastic for professional photo quality enhancement, it does not offer tools for further creative work. But Capture One is an example for the concept of non-destructive editing and proofs that quite usual computers are absolutely capable of such rendering requirements.

Tim · 14 October 2013
Long ago (circa 1997) there was an image editing program. A Photoshop competitor. It was called Live Picture. It was expensive and...awesome! Everything you did in it was completely non-destructive. It was an amazing idea in a time when everything but vector work was destructive. It worked on the hardware of the time and it was fast. Unfortunately, the price kept it from being widely adopted, so Adobe continued to reign. You can still download Live Picture 2.6 and use it if you have an old Mac lying around.

pepe · 9 November 2013
I'm not sure if you already know that, but it's not called a "layer", but a "node", and every node based compositing program has it. Try TheFoundry NUKE or eyeon Fusion.

Vlad Gerasimov · 9 November 2013
Pepe - yes thank you, I already learned that :-)

Carla Berry · 12 January 2014
As a non-Photoshop user (never felt inspired to learn it when I stumbled into it and found that nothing was intuitive for me), I'm least qualified to speak on the subject. However, thinking from a different starting point, I'm wondering whether the Onion software might be built to also create an outline (but in Vlad-tree format, quite like mind mapping). It seems that, if it were a background function, the software could build the visual tree as the user adds layers. The V-tree would serve as a reference/ memory tool for the user to identify which branch, twig or shoot holds which aspect of the altered photo, so it's easier to get back to that place to tweak it. Maybe the tree could even be interactive so the user could click on the branch to Go To the right layer. Vlad and others could probably calculate whether this kind of function could be handled on today's computers. If it couldn't, perhaps the tree could be part of earlier versions, with the Go To functionality added later, when technology permits. And, here's to an open-software Onion! What a wonderful collaborative project for those with the skills to build this very sweet onion. As an only semi-related comment, there is a town in Georgia (USA) that is the home of an amazingly sweet onion that people claim is wonderful to eat by just biting into it. A quick search of Vidalia onions revealed that, in the time that I've lived on the other side of the world, my home state has named the Vidalia onion as its official state vegetable. So I reckon the Onion software should include a big V in its name (V-onion, VOnion, or some clever thing to be thought of by some cleVer person) in recognition of Vlad's inspired thinking, and in tribute to the sweet Vidalia onion. As a comment related only through stream of consciousness after reading the Wikipedia entry for Vidalia onions, I'm delighted to say that I've learned something that could be helpful in dealing with my fructose malabsorption. If low sulfur in the soil is the cause of the Vidalia onion's unusual sweetness, then perhaps sulfur supplementation can help my poor, beleaguered gut to cope with occasional, inadvertent ingestion of high levels of fructose/ fructans. Who'd have thought that reading about Vlad's clever idea could lead to something that could help my well-being? Now, over to you clever ducks to spread the word to the wide community of other clever folks who can collaboratively build the Great Software Onion. Get out there and INSPIRE!

Steve · 8 December 2014
Live Picture, yes it had the attributes you're valuing. It could work with very little RAM as it used a post processing system so was resolution independent. In fact you could process out a file as a thumbnail or a 96sheet poster from the same file without loss. If Adobe hadn't scuppered it it could have developed into a better system. One of the most beautiful aspects of Live Picture was its ability to create seamless vignettes with no banding since it worked in 48bit colour. Photoshop still can't do that.

Jesse Rudolph · 1 January 2016
This is actually a pretty common pattern for all sorts of 'tree like' systems other than image editors. Source code version control, 3d/animation scene graphs, programming languages/IDEs. However, without a way to 'squash' some of these steps together, you end up with a very different but equally frustrating situation to the photoshop one, where you have many MANY poorly organized elements you have to manage, and while you retain a high degree of control (being able to reorder/insert/delete them arbitrarily.. etc), you loose the ability to keep them in working memory, because there are just so damn many of these interacting components, and they interact in non-trivial ways. So you spend most of your time thinking in very abstract terms of how your operations compose, rather than what that composition results in. Its not a very intuitive way to think about images for many visual arts people. Even if you retain the ability to 'squash' them together as you see fit into bigger more digestible chunks, you still actually have to consciously go and do this. So it takes more time and effort to keep your workspace working well. If you take this one step further, enabling the editor to automatically squash them together into chunks the user specifies up front... well, you are back to layers. But having the ability to say whether or not you want your editor to operate in one of these modes or the other would definitely be useful. But even still, with more 'modes of operation', you get a progressively steeper learning curve for new people coming in, old people coming back, and active user keeping up. You have to maintain a much more convoluted 'working knowledge' of the system. For more on that, check out the blender interface. It has many many many 'modes', essentially making it many many many programs all smooshed into one, so it takes quite a bit more cognitive overhead to maintain a enough knowledge about the software to engage all of its modes and interacting components efficiently and effortlessly (if this last one is really even possible). So there is a balance to be struck between granularity of control and the cognitive/custodial overhead of maintaining all that control and the understanding of how to use it. I agree that photoshop's method isn't perfect, and it is definitely a good idea to experiment in this domain, but I think for most people, what photoshop offers is a pretty good trade off between the two.

Jamion · 12 March 2013
I quite like it. My initial concern would be with the possibility of "losing" layers (now where did that blur go?), especially if an editor over-adopted this concept and utilized more than two levels of layering (children-of-children). But that could be handled, somehow. It really is a fine idea! Well done.

Vlad Gerasimov · 12 March 2013
Marinet: thanks :-) But they definitely will not. It's only possible in completely new product.

John · 12 March 2013
Can you please let me know a release date ;) Great idea!

Guy Berthiaume · 12 March 2013
Having used Adobe Photoshop since version 3 was released; I understand what you mean by the limitations provided by layers. At one point I dabbled with "3D Studio Max" which uses your described onion system to modify a 3d model (Modifier List). You can apply several filters to modify the model but still retain the original. Perhaps Adobe should take some notes from Autodesk... As for Pixelmator, I purchased a copy since it looks very promising...

Wendal · 12 March 2013
Vlad, just a thought, as these concepts, at first glance, would appear too simple to not have been thought of by Adobe. It's a phenomenal idea, but I have to throw it out there (I have no clue what I'm talking about...): is it possible that this implementation would be too computationally intensive for today's average computer? Perhaps Adobe is forced to hold off on these features until CPU power catches up. Thank you for the clean article and the food for thought!

Beth · 12 March 2013
The main problem I tend to have is that awful "Oh no, I've been painting on the wrong layer the WHOLE TIME!" realisation :P Layers were very difficult to understand when I was first introduced to them as a concept, too. I'd like to see an entirely new way of visualising them and an easier way of accessing them, perhaps in interactive thumbnail form? But I'm not too sure of the details. Either way, thank you for writing this! It's been very interesting, and it's been quite a long time since I've enjoyed reading an article so much - it's particularly aesthetically pleasing :)

Vlad Gerasimov · 13 March 2013
Wendal: performance can be a weak point. But the only way to find out is to develop a prototype and test. My intuition tells me modern computers have just enough power. It was not true 20+ years ago, when Photoshop started, of course. Spewak: complexity is the correct word. I literally could not sleep tonight thinking about how all so different things can be done with only one simple interface! Beth: visualizing layers themselves is a different topic :-) Hint - you can Alt-click on "eye" icon of current layer to hide all other layers. Thanks to all for your comments!

Yuri Einullo · 13 March 2013
What if abandon layers altogether? I am not talking hardcore photomanipulation here. Ony reason I ever used layers is because I may want to undo one of the adjustments. One feature that I think really misses is "delete one step from history" without deleting all the steps that follow...

henry wijaya · 13 March 2013
Very interesting and long reading

Hamzadis · 13 March 2013
I was making an image editing application as a part of a course on my masters, a couple of years back. I was to make the application, and then the other students were supposed to make various plugins for it. Now I wanted to give the plugin developers as much freedom as possible and at some point I toyed with the idea of making everything a layer. The problem was that I had already completed most of the application and I didn't want to scratch as the deadline was approaching, and other people depended on me making it on time, so I ditched the idea. I still like the idea and I love your write-up here, especially since it's also from an artist's point of view, i.e. someone who uses these applications daily. I think it's definitely something worth trying out at least. Also, on the performance side of the implementation, I think having a lot of caching would improve performance quite a bit, as no-one works on all layers at once, so only the layer-path being worked on would need to be recomputed. But having a lot of caching would require a lot of memory, especially on large images. So it's a trade-off.

Sanskar Tiwari · 16 March 2013
I loved this article...

Karine Delvare · 18 March 2013
GIMP is already going in that direction :)

Tesseca · 6 April 2013
How cool!

Vlad Gerasimov · 12 April 2013
Lanny - thanks! I currently have no option but to use Photoshop, and I do love it actually! My idea does not apply for any existing product (as I know).

Alberto De Armas · 18 April 2013
Nice Idea! Let Me tell you something (I hope you read comments) I've been using Photoshop since 5.5 and I stop using it recently when I switch to Pixelmator (I don't work or am related with it and this is not a spam or ad) My last suite was CS4 and suddenly this little app caught my attention. Give it a try. A REAL try and you will see how powerful it is. A year pass by and I don't need Photoshop no more.

Vlad Gerasimov · 18 April 2013
Alberto De Armas: I do read comments, thanks :-) I also tried Pixelmator, not as much as you - I depend on too many features of Photoshop for it to be replaced by any other tool. My post, however, is not about Photoshop :-) It's about completely new approach to editing graphics.

Lea Hummer · 3 May 2013
Vlad, you are awesome! Similar thinking, I am waiting for this since Photoshop 2 (2, not CS2) Thank you for finally writing »my thoughts«. :) ... hopefully some developers hears you.

hi · 19 May 2013
Very good read. I enjoyed it a lot, but at the same time I agree with "BoXXi". But I thought the article was very well thought. Btw, love your website. I've done one of your tutorials and loved it and I've always loved your art. I recently discovered the puzzles and am thrilled about them as well. Very good and well designed website. Will visit often.

yagraph · 20 June 2013
Hi vlad ! I happy to see that I'm not the only one to think that Photoshop-style image manipulation program have shown theirs limits by now. I'd like you to take a look to this very young project : It's a project of open source node-based image editor, not the same concepts you come with, but their are some common through. We are currently trying to achieve a prototype. Cheers !

Vlad Gerasimov · 19 July 2013
Luka - thanks for your comments! I agree with you 100%. As for Capture One - I want a tool for creative drawing (that is, starting from blank canvas), not for photo editing (although the ideas remain the same). Thanks!

mick · 26 July 2013
can you do a video demo of this?

Vlad Gerasimov · 26 July 2013
mick: video demo is a good idea, and would explain my vision very well, now all I need is enough time to actually do it! Maybe some day :-)

Mishell Steel · 5 September 2013
I'm sure someone has already said this somewhere, but as an artist that has kind of "fallen" into the craft, not really knowing for a long time that I had any kind of talents in the realm of art... I strongly believe that the columns holding Photoshop above so many other little graphics editing programs, need to be shaken until the towering, "assumed" standard is brought down to a more reasonable level. Obviously, fantastic results have been achieved with it for many years...but, many, MANY artists cannot afford the very pricey cost of a program that does not seem to find value in making itself available to bright talents with much to offer. Thankfully, there are less expensive, even FREE applications that have great community sources - sharing creative, talented resources such artists who create plugins that can be used with their program. Even some mobile programs (iOS and Android) are making it easy to quickly edit graphics, and with impressive results at a fraction of the cost that would be paid for a PC or Mac program. Continuing to build off of new ideas provided by bright minds, and making great features available to everyone (not just those able to pay corporate level prices), are smart models for successful image editing programs in today's world! It's the use of iOS programs that introduced me to layers, and I use them for everything, because I'm scared to death I'll mess something up... with a layer, it's easier to fix. Your demonstration above is genius!!

evan oliver · 19 February 2014
"you can have a photo layer, add child sharpen layer, then add child mask layer to it, so that only part of photo layer is sharpened!" I feel like the sharpen layer should be a child of the mask layer, and not the other way around. Parent Mask Effect The mask prevents any of it's children from "seeing" parts of the parent they're not supposed to. At least from a programmer's perspective. Might make more sense the other way as a artist/graphic designer.

Jax · 27 August 2014
Hi Vlad, First of all,great site. I am glad I came across it! Secondly I know its an old article, but I found it an interesting read and very thoroughly laid out thought on image editing. Most of what you said still applies as of CS 5.5 (I have not tried CS 6 but can't be all that different). I do not know if you have tried any compositing software(as in vfx software !=After Effects :D ) which has node based functionality. I cursorily read a comment that what you suggest is merely an interface overhaul to alter work-flows for image editing, but as I understand you suggest something more internal and fundamental. If you look into Compositing software such as Nuke (Fusion even) most of what you've said is basis of their work-flows. Look into that, they even work well as image editors as most of them ARE image editors only they do it frame-by-frame. Just my 2 cents. Have good day!

Alex · 1 July 2015
Nice Point.

Aaron DC · 18 July 2015
Reminds me a bit of Lightroom - in that it's a completely non-destructive editing process.

AlexJh · 24 November 2015
I'm certainly not a professional but gimp (for example) appears particularly difficult to me. i had nice experience with this photo editor for mac and it does the job for me. it also have user-friendly interface

Shamim · 18 May 2016
What a great idea! A layer with his all family and friends come to visit your house or someone carrying his all tools in his pocket (joking). In the context of flexibility it's a great idea, what about space?

Lisa Marie Ramirez · 6 September 2017
Very interesting, I will be checking back on the status or progress new thoughts are always exciting!

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