A digital camera with dark skin: what took so long?

“This work comes from personal experience,” said Florian Koenigsberger, who leads Google’s Image Equity team. Koenigsberger’s mother is Jamaican and black, his father German and white. Her complexion is relatively pale, but her brother is a bit darker. So those Thanksgiving family photos have always been a problem.

Taking good images of black or brown faces is a known challenge, especially when they share the frame with white faces or when the background is brightly lit. If you expose the rest of the image correctly, a black face may become an indistinct blur. But if you increase the exposure to bring out the features of a black person, other things become overexposed. Plus, the extra light can overwhelm the natural warmth of black skin and produce an ashy effect.

You can blame the technical limitations of the cameras, and you’d be right in part. But Lorna Roth, professor emeritus in communication studies at Concordia University in Canada, said the problem dates back to the era of cameras.

For many years, the chemical formulas of film emulsions have been designed specifically to make white skin look beautiful. Industry leader Eastman Kodak has even created a skin color reference card to help professional photographers calibrate their equipment. It was called a “Shirley Card”, in honor of the first model who posed for her, a white woman.

Kodak could have improved the rendering of the dark skin in his film. As a former lighting engineer at Black Entertainment Television told Roth, “If black people had made movies, we wouldn’t have this problem. But for decades, the company didn’t bother. In 1978, French director Jean-Luc Godard, hired to shoot a film in Mozambique, refused to use the film Kodak because it made black people look bad on screen. Godard denounced the company as racist for not doing better.

But it was not malicious racism, according to Roth. Instead, it was sheer ignorance. Kodak was almost entirely run by white people who never really thought about the needs of their non-white customers. And even as the civil rights movement rocked the nation through the 1950s and 1960s, black citizens focused on voting rights and the desegregation of schools. Asking for better camera film was not a very high priority.

Kodak made efforts to improve from the 1960s onwards, but at first it wasn’t because of breed. Instead, the advertising agencies that represented chocolate makers and lumber companies complained that their customers’ dark-colored products looked awful when shot with Kodak film. . So Kodak started making films that looked better with darker undertones. In the 1990s, he launched a new Shirley card for camera calibration, featuring three women – Asian, black, and white.

But by this time, film was being supplanted by digital cameras plagued with the same dark color problem. Again, the technology is partly to blame. Ramesh Raskar, who heads the Camera culture Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab group said that until recently, smartphone cameras weren’t able to do justice to all skin tones.

“It’s only been three or four years, maybe three years, that photo sensors have been good enough to capture a wide enough dynamic range,” Raskar said.

But today’s digital camera makers have no more excuses. Not only the cameras have improved a lot, but also the computer chips inside the phones. Every time you take a smartphone image, the phone’s processor instantly changes it to produce the best possible image. It’s called computer photography, and it makes possible the extraordinarily rich and crisp images of today’s best phones.

The Pixel 6 uses a number of smart gadgets. For example, most high-end phone cameras don’t take a single shot when you press the shutter button. Instead, they shoot five or six or more, each with different light and color balance settings. Then, the phone’s computer assembles these images, using pieces of each image to create the final photo.

Pixel 6 software has been optimized to select the most beautiful facial images from these multiple shots. If a photo gets the right face while putting too much light on the background, it will combine the beautiful face photo with a better background image. At the same time, it uses artificial intelligence algorithms to adjust the color balance and lighting of each face, to ensure that it is well lit, while displaying accurate skin tones.

The overall effect is subtle, but quite noticeable. For example, even in low light conditions, the camera provides clear images of brown faces, with great detail and rich colors.

To teach the camera, Google analyzed huge databases of images showing human skin in all shades. And the company brought in a team of black, Hispanic, and Asian photographers and videographers to help train their AI software.

“The tool that we say is designed to work for you was also designed with people like you,” Koenigsberger said.

That’s all camera makers could have done a few years ago, but recent talk about racial fairness may have pushed tech companies to act. And not just Google. Social network Snapchat announced that it will introduce software that will alter the performance of existing smartphone cameras, so that they produce better photos of dark-skinned people. Apple says it has upgraded the AI ​​of its latest iPhones to improve the rendering of dark skin tones, and a spokesperson for smartphone giant Samsung said the company’s latest model, the Galaxy S21, was also designed for work best with brown skin.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Koenigsberger said. “We should get to a place where it doesn’t have to be a competitive thing, right?” Where everyone knows that whatever tool they use, it will be seen, fairly, as it is.

Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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