Ambush photography is always on mind when I’m in a place with lots of tourists. I define that as taking photographs of people posing for photos, of paparazzi taking photos of celebrities, of photographers taking photos, or of people taking selfies. Except in the case of paparazzi, when my subjects notice my ambush it leads to a breaking of ice, and some conversation. But I digress. This series of posts is not about the art of photography, but about its craft. And the start of craft is to examine the behaviour of the tool that you use.
So I looked at this cell phone photo in my favourite editor and called up its colour histogram. The result was surprising. In every primary colour, a majority of the pixels were all white (fully exposed, blown out) or all black (dark, unexposed). The exposure of all other pixels has an equal chance of being anything in between. Contrast this to what happens in images from two regular cameras: in each colour the histogram peaks somewhere in between. This means that a majority of pixels see a general level of illumination in each colour, with lesser number of pixels straying far from the average. I checked that the odd histogram was not special to the photo by checking a few other of my cell phone photos. The two examples in the gallery above show that this general behaviour belongs to the cell phone, not the photo.
So what’s happening? Flattening the histogram is what multi-exposure HDR photos aim for: bringing out details in the shadows and controlling over-exposure. This is HDR in colour, and on steroids. The camera AI has been trained in what the average human eye sees, and edits each photo in-the-box to maximize the effect for the human eye. It has automated a lot of the detailed editing that we used to do. That’s why I find it hard to improve most phone photos with my editor. The AI has already done what I would usually do, and done it better.
That’s what automation is for. It can still miss in a few cases, and I would like the ability to start again from scratch on those. Sometimes I would also like to make things deliberately different, that’s what the art of photography is. But perhaps most people don’t care for either nicety, and a lot of the time neither do I. This automation is certainly a tool that I would like in my kit. I have several different cameras for different things anyway. A cell phone is just a versatile power tool to add. I would welcome anything that takes away a bit of the burden of the craft, and lets me concentrate on the art.
Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.