In bloom: the secret history of Photoshop's 3D-rendered trees

As the software enters its 30th year, a look back at one of its weirdest, most wonderful features.

Adobe Photoshop, the powerhouse photo-editing software that makes blemishes disappear and powers the meme-industrial complex, was released 30 years ago last month. Since then, the program has added a seemingly endless number of features for fine-tuning your images. There are now so many options available that you could be forgiven for not delving into Photoshop’s deepest, darkest menus.

But if you did, you might be surprised by what you found. Hidden in Filter > Render > Tree is a virtual forest of 34 different tree options, ranging from the Ginkgo ⁠— native to China and highly endangered because it’s a key component in Chinese medicine ⁠— to the Acer maximowiczianum, a species of maple whose long, slender leaves turn a burnished copper in the fall. There are also a handful of generic trees.

The idea is simple: you pick a tree species, change how voluminous you want your leaf count to be, on a sliding scale from zero to 100, and tinker with the size of the leaves and the height and thickness of the branches. Then fill the landscape with pre-rendered trees. Or, if you prefer, plunk one down in front of your feet in your graduation photo, like so:

At this point, you may have questions. Why do these trees exist in Photoshop? Out of the world’s 60,000-plus species, why choose Fraxinus griffithii and Ficus microcarpa? And why do all the options look like they came from the PlayStation 2 era?

The trees, it turns out, came in response to architectural artists who wanted to be able to drop trees into their work but struggled to smoothly integrate them into the image. Before the tree filter was introduced in 2014, designers would have to cut out a preexisting image of a tree taken at the right angle and then paste it in.

“We thought it would be convenient if you could generate customizable trees that fit illustrations,” says Daichi Ito, the technical research artist who developed the tree filter for Adobe. “By ‘fit,’ I mean it doesn’t have a strong style; it’s somewhat realistic, but not photorealistic.”

All art by Jack Koloskus

Ito created the project as part of the development of an engine, codenamed Deco, that would help Photoshop create generative patterns. “Daichi came to us and said, ‘I can actually write a bunch of interesting scripts that leverage that Deco engine and allow us to generate all kinds of things,’” recalls Stephen Nielson, director of product management for Photoshop at Adobe. Ito spent a month writing the algorithm that created the generative images. “Generating tree data took me some more time,” he adds.

Ito chose 22 tree types initially. “I tried to cover the wide range of shapes of the trees that are often used in illustrations,” he explains. But are the now 34 options an accurate sampling of the array of trees in nature?

“No,” laughs Laura Alcock-Ferguson of the Ancient Tree Forum, a lobby group focused on maintaining ancient and veteran (i.e., really old, but not quite ancient) trees. “But I think it’s great there are a range of trees there.” She’d like more options, including native U.S. and U.K. variants, and would recommend another slider be added to the filter: age. “An oak tree, for instance, can look very different at 100 years compared to how it would look at 800 years,” she says.

“It’s making me nostalgic for when Photoshop was this fun thing to make stuff with.”

Among graphic designers, the trees remind some of their first forays into the field. “It’s making me nostalgic for when Photoshop was this fun thing to make stuff with, rather than a compulsory ‘professional’ tool that I have to pay rent on every month,” says Cally Gatehouse, a communications designer at the U.K.’s Northumbria University.

Michelle Pegg, founder of U.K. design house Curate Creative, says she hasn’t used the tree filter yet, but sees its value. “Anything with tricky edges, such as flames, trees, and hair, always was a bit tricky, especially when you’re not a Photoshop wizard but need to produce artwork quickly that looks good,” she says. “[The tree filter is] perfect for producing scale visuals that also look pretty good for clients in a time-effective way.”

Ito says he regularly hears from designers who utilize the filter. “It feels great,” he says. But he won’t be spending much more time developing trees for Photoshop. Ito has enough work to do on Adobe’s other products, including Fresco, a drawing and painting app for the iPad and Windows devices; Dimension, which is used for 3D product designs; and Aero, an augmented reality app.

Could you soon be able to walk through a forest full of AR-generated Zelkova serrata? Perhaps, if Ito has his way.