Even Leica loves “computational photography”

What I hate about news is that there is too much of it, and most of it doesn’t matter. So instead of writing about the regulation of Google’s monopoly or moral ambiguities of Facebook, I decided to focus on a topic that makes me excited about the future — computational photography, which is simply capturing and processing digital images using computation instead of more traditional optical processes.

I had a somewhat slow weekend — spent poring over research I have accumulated for my book on photography and camera culture titled The Third Eye. It has been slow going, mostly because understanding the social, cultural and ethical impact of cameras everywhere. It started out as a straightforward exercise, but I have found myself tangled in the thick weeds of morality and humanness. And yet, there is a sense of delight that modern camera — a visual sensor, really brings to mind.

Whenever I find myself slowed down by this internal debate between the beauty and possibilities of new technology and the possible ugliness of its impact on our society, I usually pick up my Leica film camera, a roll or two of film and head towards some location in San Francisco. This weekend was no different, for I didn’t want to think about the idea of dystopian always watching the third eye — the camera. I didn’t want to think about how Facebook and others will turn our faces into “lead-gen.” I needed an escape from the loop of endlessly scrolling through the feed of images.

So, I ended up in Mount Tam and Sutro Baths. There is something extraordinary about the setting sun in these two locations. I usually load up a b&w film roll in my mechanical camera and use the iPhone X as my always-on digital camera. The iPhone X is a perfect example of a visual sensor that has revolutionized how and what we think of cameras. From the iPhone 4 to the X, the camera is the iPhone’s killer feature, a primary reason for an upgrade with each generation. Visual sensor married to chips and software is computational photography, and it is getting better by the day. 

I do not doubt that in the next five years, our smartphones — instead, it will be the high-end smartphones — will outpace the low-end DSLRs. Software will tame noise and grain. Software will become intelligent to help prevent blown highlights and muddy shadows. The data gathered by this sensor will be so rich, that mining it will be the future of photography.

Why because the phone companies sell millions of units, make a lot of money in the process, and spend a lot more on their research and development efforts. Every year, they come up with better ways to take photos. This technology percolates into other areas of modern life — from security cameras to cars to cameras inside connected kitchen devices. The camera companies, under economic pressure, find it hard to match the pace of smartphone makers. Moore’s Law (or some version of it) says computational photography is the future.

Last week, Light.co, which is making a computational photography-based camera and a cellphone raised $121 million new dollars from SoftBank and Leica. Yes the same Leica whose past I carry every time I walk out to take photos, has realized that no matter how good the innards of the cameras are, no matter how Bauhaus they make their camera bodies and no matter how elegant and pristine their lenses are — in the end, it all boils down to software and the magic it brings to the visual sensor.

Light.co is an exciting company — it has an audacious goal. Its first camera was innovative — 16 lenses on a single body — but was not enough for me to switch from my iPhoneX. I am pretty sure it’s future smartphone which will be more usable. I am not sure what the future holds for its hardware. But it’s software stack, it’s algorithms, and its ability to capture and analyze visual sensor data will prove to a precious and expensive commodity.

By sheer coincidence, the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards were announced last week as well. The artistic quality of photography was stunning, and if it wasn’t on the IPPAWARDS page, you can’t tell that they are made with the iPhone. Of course, some will point out that these can’t be blown up and you can’t make big prints with these. All I can say, who cares.

In ten years, even the art prints will be digital, locked down by blockchain, and displayed on screens of different sizes. I have two Aura frames at home, and they show all sort of photos of family, friends and of moments that matter. Look around, and even in the real world, the screens are getting digital. The advertisements are digital and are on displays. That’s the new photo workflow and ecosystem. Peer into the future, it wouldn’t be long we are co-existing with augmented reality and world where screens and images have an entirely new meaning.

By now, you might be wondering — what a hypocrite? He makes photos with film cameras and is talking about digital workflows. I think it is called suffering from the Don Quixote syndrome. The romance of film, the idea of slow living and slow photography and need to tame this desire for instant gratification — these are my windmills. Just an effort to fight the reality of post-digital life.

July 23, 2018, San Francisco.

PS: If you are interested in checking out my iPhoneX photos from this weekend, visit my photoblog here.

Letter from Om

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