Adobe continues its forward march in showing photographers and creative artists that there’s definitely a place for artificial intelligence in the creative workflow. I was skeptical at first but proven wrong after I watched various demos this past fall at the Adobe Max conference. The concepts Adobe presented have begun to roll out to the masses via software updates. The most recent update to Photoshop embraces AI in day-to-day use.

Update 19.1 for Photoshop includes more than leveraging AI. It offers support for the Microsoft Surface Dial, SVG file compatibility, and better UI support on high density monitors (Windows only). Full details can be found on the Adobe blog post.

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What’s the new AI feature?

A new feature, called Select Subject, is now a part of the Quick Selection menu. Selection tools inside Photoshop help isolate items within an image. After isolating an item, you can manipulate it to suit your needs. Whether it’s adding color saturation or blurring or extracting the item from the foreground, the selection tools in Photoshop can come in handy. Unfortunately, not all selections are done swiftly, due to rough edges around the object, such as fabrics or wispy hair. In theory, the machine learning known as Adobe Sensei has learned to recognize what the subject of a photo is and successfully select it for further processing.

Just how good is Select Subject?

I wanted to play around with this tool to see how well it works and whether it could really speed up my photography editing workflow. To access Select Subject, start by pressing W on your keyboard (Figure A).

Figure A

Then, click the Select Subject button (Figure B).

Figure B

I decided to test a few photos to see just how smart the AI was. I started with an image of a young boy playing on the beach (Figure C). After I clicked the Select Subject button, Photoshop cycled for about 10 seconds before completing the selection. And the verdict? Pretty dadgum good.

Figure C

You can see the legendary “marching ants” going around the borders of the youngster. Sure, they encompass some water drops on the youngster’s back, but this is an excellent selection for the first try.

Next, I took a look at an image recently posted on my Instagram page. Here’s a train bursting through the haze of golden hour in all its glory (Figure D). My concern is the golden haze bleeding into the train’s gold and orange paint scheme. I clicked Select Subject button anyway. . . .

Figure D

WOW. Not bad, Adobe. Not bad. No, the selection isn’t perfect, but it’s impressive to see that even in the shadows, the AI attempted to include the wheels of the train. It’s not an accurate selection, but it’s easy to fix. I am impressed that the rail car separation is also considered in the selection since the tool didn’t just continue with selecting a flat area as if the train didn’t have separate cars. The front railing on the right of the image didn’t get selected, but I could easily adjust that using my mouse or Wacom tablet.

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The image in Figure E was a tricky test option. It’s a glass shot against a dark background and a little bit of key lighting. After I clicked the Select Subject button, the AI selected the glass–somewhat.

Figure E

Because of the lack of contrast and/or low highlight (or my poor shooting, if you want to say that), the AI didn’t quite select the glass. Notice the missing portion of the glass selection on the left side. The AI also grabbed part of the glass shadow. I can use the Quick Selection tool to grab this subject in roughly the same amount of time that the AI did its processing. Maybe faster. But you know what? It’s okay that I can.

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Many people out there are going to gripe about Adobe’s efforts with this new feature. They’re going to say that the AI “isn’t perfect” or “will never be better than a human.” The point to understand with this release is that Adobe’s AI is based on machine learning, so it will have to continue to learn the ways of proper selection. It may get better over time. Even though it’s imperfect, the Adobe Sensei AI can save a lot of time in certain editing or compositing scenarios. Eliminating a few keystrokes or brush passes will allow the creative artist to get to through more projects in less time. This is a good thing.

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Your thoughts

Have you tried out the the new features in Photoshop? What do you think of the Select Subject tool? Put the AI through its paces and see if it impresses you. Then, share your impressions with fellow TechRepublic members in the comments below or tag me on Twitter or Instagram.