Photoshop’s Neural Filters: So Bad They’re Good

If you’ve got the latest Photoshop CC update you’ve got to check out how hilarious the new neural filters are, with strange, face-bending results.Adobe dropped some new artificial intelligence features in the latest version of Photoshop CC a few weeks back to take advantage of Adobe Sensei, their A.I. learning machine. They even released a bunch of beta filters for everyone to try out and give feedback on, and while there are some features that are genuinely helpful, there are others that will have you rolling on the floor laughing.

I decided to try out a few of these features with some pretty standard portrait photos and found some interesting results. Want to smooth skin quickly and efficiently? Great. Need someone to look like The Joker from Batman? Just open up the neural filters and start sliding stuff around. Let’s take a look at what I mean.

Neural Filters Do Some Things Well

I appreciate what Adobe are heading towards with their neural filters. They’re an intelligent set of filters that can take out the tedious technical grunt work that we image editors need to put in before we can start creating our work. That’s self-evident as soon as you click through to the first neural filter, skin smoothing.

There’s no more need for my skin softening plugins that I often turn to when I don’t have time to manually work on skin. I don’t do a lot of this kind of work anyway, but occasionally I’m asked by a client to “make them look a bit younger”. Limited though it is with only two sliders to control the effect, it’s good enough for what I need and it does a nice job. The skin looks realistic and you can vary the intensity with the blur and smoothness sliders as seen above. So far so good.

The Style Transfer Is Great

The next on the neural filter list is the style transfer feature. Photoshop will take the conceptual style of a piece of work and apply it to your photo. It looks really cool and I’m impressed with how well it works. It reminds me a little of the old filter textures I used to play with back when I first got stuck into Photoshop 5, but obviously runs on a much more intelligent level. Due to the requirement to access the cloud to process the photos, transferring the style can take a little while depending on your internet connection. I’d quite like to see the option of adding your own image to stylize from too, but there are quite a few inset pictures to choose from considering it’s new to Photoshop.

Beta Features Are Where the Cracks Begin

Now we get down to the slightly more experimental section where the beta filters live. Adobe has said they’ve released them in the beta stage in order to gain feedback from users, and each filter is met with a “Are you satisfied with the results?” feedback button at the bottom with a smiley or frowny face. I had a go at the “Be Happy!” slider and ticked it on with +6 for a subtle start. It looks okay, the lips have upturned slightly and the cheeks seem like they’re starting to shift which eludes to a happy smile, but what’s that? The right eye is starting to wander down my subject’s face. Uh-oh. I wonder what this will look like if I go above 6 (it goes up to 50!).

Things Start Getting Wonky

“Maybe it’s just a glitch in that one slider,” I thought. So I tried out the “Surprise” filter instead. I whacked it up to 25 this time and the eye started to drift off my subject’s face again. She also didn’t look particularly surprised. I would’ve thought the eyebrows would lift, mouth agape and eyelids would open up, but sadly not. I sifted through some of the other sliders which do mostly the same thing, strange head bulges and eyes wandering here and there around the face. There’s a little expression coming through, but it’s hardly the look I thought it would give.

Go Extreme

You know what comes after a little taste, don’t you? Yep, like me, you’ve probably skipped ahead to whack up the slider to its maximum. Oh deary me. One side of the face has definitely moved around a lot more than the other. What I do like about this beta filter though is that it’s rather seamlessly introduced a set of teeth and parted the lips for me. This is very clever. I’ve seen this kind of facial morphing from various other software and experimental image editing platforms over the years so it’s nothing new to me, but it’s a novelty seeing it now embedded into a program I already own and use on a regular basis. It’s a way off of being perfect, but I can think of some ways to improve it already.

Adobe need to introduce a bit more complexity for users. Think of it as an advanced drop-down menu that we could access to refine the face morphing process. By anchoring certain features (eyes, nose, lips, etc) we could freeze those sections and avoid the wonk we’re getting now. Although, I assume Adobe hasn’t done this because they’re trying to automate the entire process through AI rather than getting us to do the dirty work.

Turn It up To 11!

“So Jase, what happens when you turn everything up to the max?” Well… this. Honestly, I was laughing my arse off when I saw this. I nearly wet myself. I’ve got a very happy, surprised, angry woman now looking off to the side, seemingly screaming at a passerby, all with a strange, thin mane. Of course, this isn’t what you’re going to be doing when leaning on this type of edit, but it’s nice to know just what each bit does.

Although the above photo looks insane I have to admit it still looks like a human. The eyes are convincingly looking off to one side and it gives the appearance of having a tilted head. It’s even now drawn in a rough tongue. Pretty damn cool and I can’t wait to see where this goes in a year from now.

There Are Redeeming Beta Features Though

For all the laughs and japes you can get with the beta filters, there are some genuinely moving and important features being added here. For example, the great colorization option for black and white photos. Okay, it’s not perfect but considering I’ve literally clicked a button, I’m blown away. I’ll be using this as a starting off point for colorization and then editing properly from here. In fact, it looks like that’s what Adobe wants you to do based on their video over here which I only spotted after doing exactly that.

The Colorize filter is a good introduction to those who want to give colorization a go. It’s a bit fiddly to make adjustments with the selective pins you’re given to decide what parts are specific colors. It reminds me a little of the adjustments you can make in Snapseed for mobile (which actually does this better as you can visualize a mask overlay to see what you’re affecting.) I would like to see more masking options for this and expand a little with the complexity of it, as this filter has real legs.


Overall, I’m impressed with what Adobe has done here by integrating the artificial intelligence machine Adobe Sensei with image manipulation. It’s certainly the direction I see lots of photo editing work going in the future. Though, I still think we could benefit from a few more manual controls for those that want it, at least until the A.I. has caught up with the precision that most of the public demands. It could be easy to go down the gimmicky route and make everything look surreal and stylized, but I think the really useful work lies in the subtle face mods and colorization filters. Adobe has already placed examples of other filters that you can register interest in, such as photo restoration (yes please!) and face cleanup, so it’ll be good to try those out if and when they’re released.


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