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Automatic Photo Retouching Before Clicking The Shutter On Your Smartphone

Courtesy of the MIT and Google researchers (edited by MIT News)
Courtesy of the MIT and Google researchers (edited by MIT News)
George Eastman sold the first KODAK camera in 1888 with the ingenious marketing slogan, “You press the button–we do the rest.” This was the birth of snapshot photography. Since then, cameras have gotten progressively more complicated, with the addition of light meters, metering options, variable apertures, shutter speeds, flash, white balance control, ISO, exposure compensation, Auto Exposure-Lock, intelligent scene modes, etc.–to the point that most people, beginners and otherwise, just prefer to reach for the AUTO setting (or Program AUTO) to “let the camera make all the decisions.” We press the shutter–and the result, more often than not, disappoint.

Why? Because the secret of pros and advanced amateurs is that you need to post-process an out-of-camera picture in an image editing software to bring out its best: you know, to get to the results you see and drool over on the Internet. Now, intelligent scene modes can make a guess at the scene the camera is pointing at and adjust settings appropriately, and sometimes they do a good enough job. But nothing will replace post processing in an image editing software on your computer. This is especially true when producing high-dynamic range (HDR) images, like the one pictured below where metering on a bright sky darkened the foreground. Or, if you metered on the foreground, you’d get a blown (over-exposed) sky.

Courtesy of MIT and Google researches

Courtesy of MIT and Google researches

Since heavy post processing on your cell phone requires a very powerful processor, lots of memory and hard drive space, you can only do minimal processing in your phone. For professional results, you need to download the pictures from your phone to a computer and do the heavy work there. Now, how many of us bother to do post-processing of our phone photos? Even if you are adept at post-processing, will you download your cell phone photos and apply post processing on a computer? Most of the time, we make whatever adjustment is available to us on screen, take the shot, apply a filter and upload to our social site. We can’t really be bothered to make any extra effort beyond these steps.

But, what if you could do image processing on your phone in a straightforward manner, and it’s fast, intelligent and gives professional results? And do it while you’re still framing the shot and haven’t even pressed the shutter yet?

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Google have developed a new system that can automatically retouch images in the style of a professional photographer. It’s apparently so energy-efficient that it can run on a cell phone, and it’s so fast that it can display retouched images in real-time, so that the photographer can see the final version of the image while still framing the shot.

If the pictures you took with KODAK film cameras rarely came out great without post-processing, how then did George Eastman fulfill his marketing promise? Simple. You had to send your finished roll of film for development and printing, and it was in the darkroom that post-processing was applied, and the post-processed prints then sent back for your enjoyment. If (when?) Google brings this new automatic photo retouching technology it is developing with MIT into its smart phone cameras, it would bring George Eastman’s famous promise closer to reality in the digital age.

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