1993: Digital Imaging with PhotoMorph

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 28 May 2017 |



Last week, I took a look at the moderately retro Adobe PhotoDeluxe image editor of the late 1990s. But now it’s time to draw a deep breath, rattle a few more loose knobs on the time machine, and venture back into the REAL mists of digital imaging history. Destination 1993 (was digital imaging even a thing back then?), and, from the long-absent North Coast Software, the original PhotoMorph…

Digital imaging certainly was a thing in 1993. Okay, so there were no digital cameras. Well, there were, but not in the consumer domain, and prices were stupendously high. Where, then, would the consumer get their digital images? One option was via a home scanner – available through specialist retailers. Indeed, Nikon’s serious-amateur-targeted LS10 film scanner (the “Coolscan 1”) had just hit the market in ‘93, but with a price ticket of two and a half thousand dollars, serious really would have to mean serious.

Flatbed (print) scanners had been available for a few years, initially costing thousands just for a monochrome device. By ’93, prices had dropped, but the decent colour models still commanded well over a grand. Good black and white flatbeds had just about settled into three digit territory.

For the consumer unable or unwilling to invest that kind of money, an alternative route would be that of the Kodak Photo CD. The user would need a compatible CD-ROM drive in their computer (certainly not a given in 1993, or in any way cheap). Then they’d request a Photo CD when having their film processed. Kodak would scan the images to the disc, enabling the user to load them straight into the computer.

So, 'tis the glorious, futuristic year of 1993. People have ways and means of importing images into their computers. All they need now is something to do with them…

WHAT WAS PHOTOMORPH?



PhotoMorph was a multi-award-winning software package, which combined image editing and effects with a movie clip-making system. Its primary selling point was the facility for users to create AVI files which morphed, warped or transitioned a number of still images from one to the next. The results were not exactly a challenge for the Michael Jackson Black or White video, but it’s pretty plain that this was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of that effect – which really captured public attention in the early ‘90s.

Whilst PhotoMorph was obviously not going to turn its users’ desktops into Pacific Data Images, it was a slick and easy way to reproduce the feel of video morphing, within the limitations of what was available to consumers at that time. To create a morph, users would load a Start and an End image into the Project Editor, set a frame rate and transition length, and then, by plotting points on each of the images, determine precisely how the morph would re-shape elements in the frames. The system of point-mapping was remarkably effective, and was, in its day, a jawdropping experience for those with the computing resources to make the best of it. Especially given the craze for graphical morphing in the early ‘90s, it’s no surprise that PhotoMorph was showered with magazine awards.

AS A REGULAR IMAGE EDITOR

PhotoMorph’s image editing options were very basic by today’s standards, but fairly standard in the early ‘90s. In the original version of PhotoMorph, users got…

  • Contrast and brightness, splittable into RGB bands for basic colour control.
  • Hue and Saturation.
  • Negative inversions.
  • Sharpening (including Sharpen Edges).
  • Despeckling.
  • Blur and Median filtering.
  • Monochrome conversion and colour reduction.
  • Sizing, cropping and rotating.
  • Masks.
  • Effects, etc.

Just being able to sharpen an image and make colour adjustments was very cool at the time. Not even Photoshop offered modern day imaging staples such as layers in 1993.

PRICING

In the very early days of digital imaging, and up until around 1997, software developers tended to implement their own ideas rather than simply making clones of Photoshop. The programs might lead on different speciaities, or they might present the image editing environment in a highly individual way. This could make the pricing of many 1990s editors difficult to compare with a direct competitor. Indeed, PhotoMorph didn’t really have an exact rival.

In the US, the original PhotoMorph cost $149. In the UK, depending on the retailer, the converted price may not be that far off a straight switch of the $/£ sign. In fact, some computer software products of that era actually priced slightly lower in dollars than they did in pounds. Whilst the following packages were not direct competitors, the likes of Micrografx PhotoMagic ($149) and ZSoft PC Paintbrush 5+ ($99) would surely have been considered reference points for PhotoMorph’s intro price.

USING PHOTOMORPH TODAY



I’m normally able to get away with installing old image editors into Windows XP, albeit with the odd glitch here or there, but PhotoMorph was having none of that. Given that this was a program designed to run in Windows 3.1 (I know! 3.1! That’s five releases before the positively ancient Windows 95!) I thought I’d better get the period Apricot powered up.

There are two obvious traits of olde worlde computing evident within moments of starting up PhotoMorph…

The sample images are positively TINY. The “hi-res” samples are just 320 pixels across, and lower-res samples weigh in at a width of just 120 pixels. That’s about the size of a forum avatar.

The navigation system looks decidedly alien, courtesy of the old MS-DOS character limit on file names. Before the birth of Windows 95, Microsoft operating systems only supported file names of 8 characters (excluding the file type suffix) or less. Any files with more characters would automatically have their names clipped to comply with this protocol.

So when you navigate to modern content folders to find your images, almost everything you see within the PhotoMorph navigator has been renamed, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s what. Gladly, when you return to the unmodified files using a post-Win 95 editor, you see the long names once again. But modify and save a file with PhotoMorph, and the long name is overwritten with the clipped version.

Setting aside the inevitable traits of 1993 computing, PhotoMorph proves itself surprisingly captivating. Even now, it’s fun to use, and you can find yourself spending far more time playing around with it than you intended. It’ll install and run perfectly well in Windows ME, but after that, if you have the original Windows 3.1 version, you’re pretty much stuffed. There was a version of PhotoMorph written for Windows NT in the mid ‘90s. Whether Windows XP would handle that I don’t know. But getting hold of the NT version today would, I’d guess, be extremely difficult, as it cost $399 and probably didn’t sell in great quantity.



WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?

PhotoMorph’s continued success depended heavily on public enthusiasm for morphing. And unfortunately, morphing, whilst great fun as a novelty, is not something people are going to want, or be able to use, all the time. One of the reasons Photoshop became such a behemoth in the world of graphical manipulation is that it focused on the broadest of applications: improving photographs.

Ultimately, if you set out to ‘milk’ a trend, you’re at the mercy of that trend. And sure enough, before the end of the decade, PhotoMorph was ignominiously bundled into the Aztech Artworks Pack – a 6-CD set of creative tools including a range of other software. It was an easy add-on sale for the staff of the photographic retailer Jessops, at just £5 for the whole lot, in 1999.

By that time, digital cameras were established in the consumer domain, and editing packages were having to fight a lot harder for attention. With Adobe tools becoming more dominant in the amateur market (Courtesy of PhotoDeluxe), only the very most feature-packed and value-loaded rivals were going to compete. What’s more, the features with which each program was packed, HAD to be very widely usable. The era of individuality was drawing to a close. Developers were resignedly adopting an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” ethos, and surmising that their best shot at commercial longevity was perhaps simply to clone Photoshop, then sell it on the cheap.

You have to keep reminding yourself of where the consumer world stood, technologically, in 1993. Only a minority of people had a home computer, and a lot of PCs in the workplace still ran their programs text-only in MS-DOS. You bought your anti-virus in a box, from a shop, and if it could detect over a thousand viruses you were mightily impressed. In the consumer domain, most peripheral printers were excruciatingly noisy dot-matrix jobs. Printing photos was not an attractive proposition. And if you saw the word “scanner” in an electronics catalogue, you may well find it referred to a radio frequency receiver rather than an image-import device.

Amid all that, PhotoMorph was a star. Just a decade later, it was not only gone, but forgotten.

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