Precise box with a hole in it
Another term for, but not limited to, SLR cameras. Used to describe compact cameras, a whole range of mirrorless cameras and ones built into smartphones. In fact, they are lightproof boxes, the design of which allows for the collection and registration of electromagnetic radiation in a precise and controlled manner. All the rest are additives of variable usefulness. While some additional features, such as the ability to control flashlight, focus rings, fast and cyclic image capture, or simply the use of memory cards instead of a photosensitive film, may be necessary to take photos under certain conditions with the desired effect. However, it is worth noting that we do not always need a full frame sensor with a resolution of forty million pixels and a set of lenses with a weight of more than one and a half kilos, and that their “professionalism” and price do not translate into the achievement of the set goal. What is the purpose? One for which we reach for a camera in the first place. We do not always do this because of the need to obtain a print, the technical quality of which is of paramount importance and priority. Sometimes it is simply the process of cutting out a part of the reality and stopping it in time that is most important. For yourself or to later share with others.
Look at your photo collection and try to answer the question – how many photos have you printed in sizes larger than A4 and how many photos have you left on your computer’s hard drive at all?
Phone gadgets and photo fairy tales
From a cultural point of view, having an expensive phone is not much different from an exclusive car parked in a garage. Interestingly, the same can also be said about high-end cameras designed for professional use. In some environments, it’s simply “not right” to drive a Ford (well, unless it’s Mustang) and shoot with a compact camera. Only after exceeding the threshold of several tens of thousands of dollars can you buy something satisfying – something that will allow you to “show off” in a group without committing a faux-pass. Contrary to appearances, there is nothing more expensive about it, if it is purposeful, although it does not necessarily result from the love of photography.
What if shooting is the goal and not the mere fact of owning expensive equipment? A common opinion (although it seems that it is becoming more and more variable) among people connected with photography for a long time, seems unambiguous – in photography big means better. A larger sensor will produce a better quality image and a larger lens will transmit more light with fewer unwanted drawbacks. While marketing professionals are shouting at selling more and more densely packed sensors, a conscious customer is aware that this leads to a deterioration in image quality as a result of a reduction in the photosensitive elements on the surface of the sensor.
They are reducing something again! They blur and make things worse! Physical limitations, circle of confusion and loss of dynamic range!
Google Pixel XL + Snapseed. Download original for free from Unsplash.
Is it still about the joy of taking pictures? Are we not instead focusing too much, by chance, on technology and its nuances? Is it absolutely essential to have crystal clear A3+ prints for your photography to be valuable? Will a useful ISO of half a million bring me to the new level of possibilities? Will it actually cause me to press the shutter button and take a picture? I doubt it.
The right tools for the job
I can’t really imagine an attractive studio photo shoot with a camera built into my smartphone. Controlling the flash would be problematic, the shallow depth of field would not be possible, and RAW file formats would not allow advanced post-production. In such a situation, it is good to have a comfortable device in your hands, well lying in your hand, without Facebook, Instagram, touch functions, with a clear and transparent viewfinder.
Similarly in the case of event photography: Hugging up to the stage in a tight and dark environment, I can’t afford to pour my eyes into the phone screen, change parameters slowly and get lost in the darkness of the wandering autofocus. I need something that my brain will treat as an extension of my hand. Something instinctive in action that does not get in my way, that becomes invisible in the process of creating a picture.
Cozy concert of Percival group in BASEN Beach Bar in Wroclaw on the occasion of Kupala Night. Canon EOS 7D + Sigma 50 mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM + Lightroom. See the gallery.
Do I need all these things in every photographic situation? Is it helpful to pull the camera out of the bag, measure the exposure, focus precisely, change lenses, adjust all the equipment, or maybe, on the contrary, build a technological barrier that deconcentrates and unnecessarily complicates something that should be instantaneous and simple? If only I had something at hand that would allow me to quickly save a frame that I imagine and that in a moment would diffuse from my imagination. Of course, I would like this something to be able to save the image in a ductile and qualitative form that allows further processing. So that it can be recorded with all the details necessary to tell a story – so that the sense of this photographic story does not fade under the noise reduction algorithms or somewhere along the way – when it encounters the plastic lens of a miniature lens.
It sounds like something small and handy. Something that I always have with me, something like… A phone?
But the limitations of physics, the circle of confusion, green spots instead of grass and burned out sky!
Google Pixel XL + Snapseed. Download original for free from Unsplash.
Digitally means practically
It is said that vinyl records are unrivalled in terms of sound quality. Subtleties played from black discs are to be unreachable with the Audio CD format, although we all know that the CD standard dominated the market. Also analogue photography, at the peak of its technological development, offered parameters unrivalled for digital imaging. However, the lack of some details in the music or in selected parts of the photographic image did not prevent the “digitizers” from dominating the market.
So it seems that more often we understand “better” as “easier”. This ability allows us to improve objects in different categories and directions. It is important to be targeted, to solve problems and to face challenges without attaching oneself to the same reasoning. We process the world digitally because information is universal and consists of one simple building block – a bit. There are no chemicals, no production processes, no industry. Only data is available.
Data is practical. It can be processed repeatedly at different levels of abstraction. It can be reprocessed for better results by improving the process without having to re-program the source. It does not require recycling, can be sent by radio and is instantaneous.
Canon EOS 7D + Sigma 50 mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM + Lightroom. The original is a 134 megapixel panorama. Download original for free from Unsplash.
Finally, the right amount of data, combined with ingenious processing methods, allows us to deliver a result that would be difficult to achieve conventionally. For example, instead of using high quality, expensive in the production of lenses and light-sensitive sensors to obtain a good quality image, you can achieve a similar effect by appropriately processing a dozen or so photographs to obtain only one, but valuable frame.
Computational photography in your smartphone
In its most obvious form, computational photography in action can be found when generating a panorama when moving the phone horizontally or vertically. The result is a single image with a stream of data that can be used to create multiple images from narrower frames. Such panning usually generates an image with a distorted perspective. However, this does not always have to be the case. For example, Google, in its mobile camera application, offers the ability to assemble a panorama of 9 frames arranged in 3 rows and 3 columns, processing the image with a rectilinear mapping. This means that after the source files have been processed we will get an image in which the straight lines are still straight (they were not curved during the panorama folding) and its resolution exceeds twenty million pixels (although the sensor has e.g. just eight) and it is a sharp photograph. In order to obtain such a picture conventionally, we would need a much larger sensor with a wide-angle lens. Of course, Google technology is not perfect and the repetitiveness of the panorama is random, but it is not due to the limitations of the method itself, but rather to a lack of development – the same problems are visible both on the latest generation of devices and on the phones of five years ago.
Apparently, Google engineers have focused their efforts on the development of the flagship HDR+ algorithm, the improvements of which are visible along with new versions of the software. The Pixel series has been put into ZSL HDR+ mode, which allows you to take a picture processed by HDR+ without additional delay. I have already written about HDR+ before – it should be recalled, however, that it is a collection of techniques that generate one picture from even a dozen or so very similar frames taken in a fast series. The essence of HDR+ algorithms is their invisibility to the end user – all the computing magic takes place in the background and the photographer receives one high quality JPEG file, which looks natural, but its technical quality exceeds the standards known from other mobile phones.
Another curiosity is the introduction of various background blur techniques. Some manufacturers use two independent lenses for this purpose, while others use artificial intelligence to understand the depths of the scene and to cut off sharp objects from those outside the depths of field as precisely as possible. In this context, the story of Lytro, a company that produced an unconventional camera that captured the image on many levels of focusing at the same time, looks a bit funny, allowing to change the point of focusing after taking the picture. This story is funny when we look at it from the point of view of a collision between a “physically correct” solution and a “scam” obtained with the help of computational photography. Lytro was not a spectacular success, although it offered something unique, achieved through “physically correct” methods. Apparently, the convenience of use and the wide range of application possibilities of the product are more important to us than the fact that what we see is only a mathematical trick. If this trick is good enough, we will not give it up.
Computational photography for professional use
It would seem that the use of computational photography in mobile and amateur solutions makes economic sense, but it will not necessarily make sense in professional products. After all, there is no room for compromise there. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Famous for producing medium-format digital cameras for the price of which a good car can be bought, Hasselblad has used a moving sensor mechanism in one of its flagship products to generate sharp images at resolutions up to four times that of direct sensor readings. The basis of this technique is relatively simple – it is based on collecting data from the matrix six times, each time the sensor is gently shifted. This shift is exactly half a pixel accurate. Once you’ve collected so much data, you can fill the blank spaces between the pixels and stretch the photo without sacrificing quality. The users of this camera, after applying such technology, will receive a photograph in a very modest resolution of 400 million pixels. One such file takes up 2.3 GB and is not particularly suitable for fast publication on the Instagram.
A similar technology is used by Olympus in some of its mirrorless cameras (although it is not so spectacular due to the much lower nominal resolution of the sensor).
The movement of the sensor has a number of disadvantages (e.g. it is impossible to photograph moving objects or to expose them with time longer than one or two seconds), but when used in appropriate conditions, it allows to “cheat” technological limitations and allow to perform a task that is potentially impossible.
A fantastic feature of computational photography is the ability to introduce new quality into existing, sometimes even outdated products. The owners of Canon SLR cameras have found out this with the independent Magic Lantern software. By studying the signal processing process, it was possible to establish (this is not the knowledge that Canon’s engineers applaud) that some of its sensors have separate analogue-to-digital converters for even and odd lines and can be operated independently. This has led to a program that uses a DSLR processor to take photos with the spectacular tonal range that can be achieved through the interlacing of low and high sensitivity. All of these features have limitations. At the same time, they allow to exploit areas unavailable by default at low cost. To reach out to similar solutions by other means would be economically unjustified or would introduce an unnecessarily high level of complexity which would have a negative impact on the overall product.
What have I gained from computational photography?
The best camera is the one you always have with you. Every year, thanks to the development of mobile photography, this saying gains more and more sense. A few months of adventure with Google Pixel made me reach for DSLR camera less and less often. I know that when the opportunity arises, I will be able to quickly take a picture whose basic quality will allow for satisfactory processing, publication on the web and printing in a reasonable format. Thanks to HDR+, Pixel is not afraid of high contrast, twilight or vignetting at the edges of the lens.
I don’t waste time measuring and setting all the parameters of my camera manually when I simply need universal exposure and a wide tonal range. I don’t have to start the Lightroom and develop the RAW with every technical detail in mind. I can focus on content, frame and storytelling. No, I don’t mind that “a Japanese man is sitting in a camera and setting something for me”. For weeks, a group of experts took measurements, calibrated the equipment and software so that their product would not get in my way, or make it difficult or disturbing. Why improve their work?
At the same time, aware of the limitations of taking pictures on the phone, I did not monetise my DSLR camera, lenses and flashlight. I think that a photo session with Lazy Daisies using Pixel would not be a satisfactory and would not give optimal quality of photos (although it would be an interesting task and with the right approach equally attractive). Such sessions are always intentional – we agree, reserve time, take the equipment, visit the location, spend a lot of time on processing – this process is OK, it works, it is purposeful. Wearing a “brick” on your shoulder during the journey around Ślęża, which lasted several hours, is, however, no longer necessary.
“Unholy Adventure”. Canon EOS 7D + EF-S f/3.5-5.6 15-85mm. See the gallery.
I think it is crucial that you act intentionally in the context of your choice of equipment. Asking myself a number of questions in order to get answers – why do I actually take photographs? Is process or effect important? Do I want to print photos on the wall at 400 DPI and read details with a magnifying glass, or do I want to share them on my blog or Instagram? What happens if I invest fifteen thousand dollars in photographic equipment, which I use several times a year? What will I do if I leave the hostel at 4.30 am and am greeted by a wonderful, colorful dawn, and only a smartphone is at hand? It is very easy for us to follow rigid patterns of thinking just because we know them and we are afraid to explore unknown areas. If we were not open to alternatives, digital photography would never have emerged and would not have developed towards computational photography.
In 1975, a 25-year-old engineer, Steven Sasson, worked for Kodak and developed the device as the first digital camera. The device weighed almost 4 kilos and recorded 0.01 megapixel images on a magnetic tape. Trying to make the company’s management interested in his invention, he heard that nobody would ever want to watch the photos on TV, since the printouts have been in culture for a hundred years and nobody questions their presence. Kodak decided to enter the digital market in 1993, but it was too late. In 2012, the company declared bankruptcy.
It is worth acting intentionally using well-designed tools that help you achieve your goal. It is worth knowing why we do what we do and why we do it. What do you photograph and why? Let us know in the comment below.