If you ever need proof that we’re living in the future, allow me to introduce you to one of Adobe Photoshop’s most unique new image editing tools: Neural Filters. It may sound like something straight out of science fiction, but Neural Filters are very real. And they have the potential to become a very practical tool for fast and powerful editing enhanced by machine learning powered by Adobe Sensei, the company’s artificial intelligence platform.
Neural Filters are fundamentally different than traditional editing filters in that they aren’t bound to the existing pixels in an image. Instead, Neural Filters can generate new pixels based on the content of the image and what Adobe’s neural network knows about images like it. If you’ve ever seen a deepfake video or a Snapchat live filter, that’s the kind of thing that such AI makes possible. In Photoshop, those tools have a much more practical purpose, however, that can ground these tools in reality—at least if you choose to use them that way.
One example, for instance, is that it’s always been possible to modify a subject’s face via the Liquify tool, which allows us to push and pull existing pixels into new positions. But because Neural Filters aren’t tied to those specific pixels they can generate new pixels and turn a frowning face into a smile or turn a head, change focus, colorize a grayscale image or even alter the direction of the lighting.
Think about it like this: instead of just knowing how to identify a mouth and which pixels to move to change a smile, Neural Filters also know to adjust the other facial features that add up to a smile—exposing teeth, squinting eyes and so on. It’s harnessing the power of machine learning to automate astounding image edits. And it’s presumably only the beginning.
What’s perhaps most astounding when browsing the available filters (as well as those included for beta testing) isn’t just that you have new options for adjusting light direction, head position, hair thickness and smoothing skin, it’s that there are editing sliders for adjusting things like “happiness,” “anger” and “surprise.” We’ve reached a level where instead of simply moving pixels, we can tell Photoshop to translate mood and emotion cues into, well, mood and emotion.
To start using Neural Filters, look for the Neural Filters heading on Photoshop’s Filter menu to open the Neural Filters panel. From there, you’ll see currently available Featured options—which at the moment are Skin Smoothing, JPEG Artifact Removal and Style Transfer. The first two are fairly self-explanatory—albeit powerful and effective—while the third offers a way to take a sample image and map colors, patterns and textures from it onto a new image. Exploring this filter reminded me of those early 1990s days when I first experimented with Photoshop 3.0 filters—often to tackily disastrous effect. But, surely, like those, we will soon learn what works and what doesn’t and how all things can be good in moderation.
Moderation is in fact key with many of these Neural Filters—particularly those that move around body parts. You’re not likely to turn a person’s head 90 degrees and be happy with the results. Nor should you expect to turn a frown into a toothy grin with anything approaching realism. But if you find yourself thinking, “I wish their eyes were just a bit more to the left,” or “if only they had smiled a little less,” then these Neural Filters might be just the fix.
Switching between before and after views of the effects is easy with the toggle button adjacent to the active filter. There’s also a Preview Changes button on the bottom left of the panel.
Below the Featured options tab is a group of Beta filters, which are still in the refinement stage. The good news here is we can download them already and get to work with them, then provide feedback right from the filter panel in order to help improve future results.
At the bottom of the Beta filters list are a handful of filters Adobe is working on but hasn’t yet released. If you’re particularly interested in one of these, click for more information and to let the developer know by clicking the “I’m Interested” button.
Each of the Neural Filters needs to be downloaded prior to use, typically just one time even though some filters require internet access to be applied. The good news is that Adobe makes that easy, and simply clicking the cloud download icon puts the fully functional filter at your fingertips in moments. Then, depending on the filter, simply drag sliders and check checkboxes to toggle effects on and off or change their intensity and direction. All of the filters I have experimented with have been very self-explanatory.
If you’ve got an image file opened in Photoshop and it doesn’t contain a face, Photoshop won’t show you the portrait-specific Neural Filter options, which will instead be grayed out.
At the bottom of the Neural Filter panel is an Output heading, which allows the user to change how the filter is applied. Much the same way as the Select and Mask tool can be told to apply an adjustment to a new selection or apply it to a layer mask directly, Neural Filters can be applied to the currently active layer, a new layer duplicated from the original (if you didn’t do this ahead of time), a duplicate layer with a mask, a new layer containing only these newly created pixels and as a Smart Filter—all of which maintain the fundamentally non-destructive editing power we’ve come to expect from Photoshop.