Meet Marc Levoy, Adobe’s new VP and fellow

Adobe VP & Fellow, Marc Levoy.
Photo credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Photo credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Marc Levoy recently joined Adobe as a VP and fellow, reporting to Adobe CTO Abhay Parasnis. In this new role, Marc will spearhead company-wide technology initiatives focused on computational photography and emerging products, centered on the concept of a universal camera app. Marc has a long history of driving pioneering work in computer graphics, spanning academia and industry, with a shared passion of putting computational photography on billions of devices. He will help Adobe reimagine what computational photography can be, extending the company’s heritage of editing to the world of capture, camera and beyond.

We had a chance to talk with Marc about his new role and his career.

So Marc, what attracted you to Adobe?

I’ve used Adobe products throughout my career and have always been impressed with their excellence. Also, I do a lot of work in imaging. While this is a component of the portfolio at other companies, it is absolutely central to what Adobe does. Another factor was Adobe’s emphasis on building tools for serious photographers, ranging from hobbyists to pros. Finally, I thought the expertise I had in cameras would benefit the company.

What has surprised you most about Adobe in your first week(s) here?

I knew many Adobe employees before I joined, and knew they were smart and creative. Nevertheless, I’ve been super impressed at how many smart and creative people there are in the company, and how welcoming they have been to me. The culture in a company comes down from the top, and this company obviously has a great culture.

What is your charter?

Adobe leads the world in image editing, but until recently hasn’t really focused on apps for photographic capture — apps that take amazing pictures. I worked on this at Stanford for 20 years, and then at Google for another 10. I think I can help Adobe in this area. In particular, I’d like to bring burst-mode computational photography to Adobe’s camera apps, meaning that single shutter press triggers the capture of a rapid burst of images, which are aligned and combined to improve final photo quality – higher dynamic range in bright scenes, less noise in low light, more detail, especially when zoomed, etc. The native camera apps in most high-end cell phones do some kind of burst-mode computational photography. I believe that Adobe’s apps should as well. I consider these capabilities to be “table stakes.” Beyond these, there are some magical new features I’d like to work on – features I’ve always wanted in a camera, but nobody has offered yet.

It sounds like you’ll be working on some of Adobe’s next big disruptive areas in capture and computational photography. Can you share more what this means?

We’ll probably start by bringing more computational photography into Photoshop Camera, for as many mobile devices as possible. We also expect the technologies we develop to impact other Adobe applications, and to provide both an automatic camera experience for casual users and a controllable experience for more advanced photographers. Beyond that it’s too early to say.

What do you think the most critical technology pillars are today and what role will AI play in your work?

Classical algorithms are being replaced by AI in almost every aspect of imaging, and the moment of capture is no exception. At Google, we used AI in every aspect of camera operation — auto-exposure, auto-white-balancing, motion metering, tone mapping, low-light imaging, and portrait imaging. I expect AI to play an even bigger role in the future, especially as it becomes more performant on mobile devices — with improvements in algorithms and hardware accelerators.

Creativity for All/Democratizing Creativity For All is a central theme in the new initiatives you are spearheading. Can you share more here?

For me the table stakes are: Can I help a novice take a great picture in a challenging situation? (Strong lighting, deep shadows, poorly lit scenes, fast-moving subjects). After that, can I give users a super-power — a photographic capability they didn’t think was possible with a camera, or better than what they can see with their naked eyes, or more like what they wanted, rather than what they saw? And finally, if they have an out-of-the-box vision of what they want, a blend of reality and fantasy, can I help them achieve that vision as well?

How do you think digital photography (for consumers/hobbyists and professionals) will change in the next 5-10 years? Do you think mobile devices will replace SLR cameras?

For consumers I think it’s already “game over.” Few people carry SLRs. With the growth of mobile phones, it’s no longer that “the best camera is the one you have with you”; it’s now becoming true that “the camera that’s with you (meaning your cell phone) is your best camera!” For hobbyists, SLRs (or MILs – mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras) are still useful if you need their “big glass”, e.g. a telephoto lens for sports or wildlife. I would still rather photograph grizzly bears from a respectful distance. For professionals there might be an integration of computational photography with SLRs, because of their large pixels and apertures. However, that integration hasn’t happened yet.

What does success look like to you after a year?

I can’t promise shipping features or products in one year. What I hope for is to have a team of superstars hard at work on magical new features that will amaze the world and change photography forever. Nothing particularly ambitious 😊.

What is your favorite Adobe product and why?

Lightroom. Otherwise, how would I keep track of all my photos? And how would I tweak them to make me look like a better photographer than I really am? More seriously, I used Lightroom during my time at Google as a way to decide if the pictures our phones were taking were as good as they could be. If I couldn’t think of any tweak in Lightroom, then I considered our camera well-tuned.

What is your most proud invention or innovation?

The camera on the Google smartphone, because it helps so many people take good pictures every day of things (and people) that are precious to them.

What do you think is Adobe’s best kept secret?

Adobe has more imaging experts than any other company in the world.

You are a professor. What is the best career advice you have ever received?

“Write to inform, not to impress; if you succeed in informing, you will also impress.” This was from my mentor and advisor Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., during my PhD at the University of North Carolina. What he meant was to avoid self-trumpery; just try to explain what you’ve done in the clearest and most truthful way possible.

…Best advice you’ve given?

“Fame intoxicates; respect nourishes”. I’ve given this advice to many students as a way to “survive” periods of intense publicity around their inventions, while still keeping their humility intact.

Interested in joining the team? Explore opportunities on our career site.