On Content-Aware Fill in Adobe Photoshop CS5 and the Onus of Editorial Integrity

There's been much grumbling in some quarters about the potential misuses of Content-Aware Fill in Adobe Photoshop CS5. Jack Howard takes a pragmatic look at the situation.

 Dr. Bob Carey of the NPPA calls this new tool in Adobe Photoshop CS5, a "potential ethical nightmare for photojournalists, photo editors, and photo buyers alike."  Personally, I think this statement is a example of catchy, quotable web copy, even if it is a wee bit hyperbolic.

Here's how I see it: Content-Aware Fill is an image-retouching tool, plain and simple.  Certainly, there are potential usages of this tool that go far beyond the scope of the NPPA Code of Ethics for visual journalism; but this is nothing new.  There have always been tools in Adobe Photoshop and other image editing programs and even darkroom techniques that can be used to misrepresent a captured moment. 

Certainly, the public trust in journalists as purveyors of the truth is critical, and certainly, a code of ethics and standards is a very good thing. But tools are simply tools.



Content-Aware Fill did an OK job with the lensflare on this wolf's cheeks, but the selection around the mouth needs manual cleanup to be seamless.


Jayson Blair did not need need Content-Aware Fill to betray that public trust with words recently; and forty years ago, Content-Aware Fill wasn't needed to alter the captured frame at Kent State. (Here is a great list of manipulated images both Before and After the introduction of Photoshop.)

Tools are simply tools. Content-Aware Fill is but a slightly "smarter" evolution of image editing techniques that have been available since the earliest days of Photoshop.

But it is just a tool.  Just like quote marks.

Anyone can create and ascribe a set of words to some purported expert simply by fabricating a name and some catchy verbiage and slapping a couple of tiny sixes and nines around it.

Therefore, should word-processing software companies be required to verify the uses and misuses of quote marks as Carey suggests Adobe track and tattle in metadata each time Content-Aware Fill in unleashed? And what then about quote marks inside works that are plainly labeled as fiction by characters wholly spun of imagined cloth?

You see, it isn't necessarily the tools that are the problem and the issue here.  To quote myself on a message board on this topic recently: "Evolutions of technology should not matter to those who will choose to behave ethically of their own accord, regardless of the tools available." (Here's that whole discussion over at Sportsshooter.com.)

Content-Aware Fill can sometimes accomplish in seconds what used to take a few minutes using the toolkit available in earlier versions of Photoshop including copy/pasting, cloning, and layer masking and erasing. But in either case the decision by a journalist to betray the public trust must be consciously made.  And that is the real issue.

But for many photographers who are not working inside an ethical code demanding an absolute context of truth, Content-Aware Fill is a great evolution. For example, to be able to quickly and easily remove that fool in the background flashing wannabe gang signs on the boardwalk during your child's first train ride is fantastic!

Personal family photos, much commercial work, portraiture, landscape, fine art, and many other genres of photography are not bound by the NPPA's Code of Ethics whatsoever. And seeing what Content-Aware Fill is capable of as a retouching tool for these situations is a great thing for many photographers.

Here's more on Content-Aware Fill and Watermarks.

What are your thoughts on Content-Aware Fill in Adobe Photoshop CS5?


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