Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Contrast masking goes phonecam

One of the things I happen to find useful in digital imaging is what variously goes under the names contrast masking or tonemapping.

Since HDRI developed a few years ago it has perhaps put a sour taste in many mouths by the "slap-dash" hyper attenuated HDRI images which people seem to be pumping out there. Stuff which is about as subtle as suddenly screaming in a restaurant "what do you mean you fucked my brother!" Personally I've done stuff like this with it ... when photographing an interior for a business.

Its Artificial?

Humans are dreadfully conservative in the main and Photographers are no different. If its a camera feature then its 'kewl' if you do it on your PC then its some sort of  'artificial processing' and like Dr Tyrells owl...

... somehow less because its ... artifical (and you know, proper digital photographs look just like the real thing).

So while "proper" fotographers (NB photographers who mainly participate in fora and don't take photographs) argue about if "tonemapped" images are proper the next stage of digital camera evolution is happening outside of the Kingdom of Wang, in the wild, out on the streets, right in the palm of the hand of ordinary folks. Phone cams and software like instagram!

A friend of mine visiting London the other day snapped this on her LG and shared it on FarceBook.

I immediately saw the hallmarks of HDRI and contrast masking and so asked her about it. She said that it was done with Instagram and no it wasn't HDR setting. So she sent me the original, which is below.


I think its pretty clear that the shadows are brought up (footpath beside bike) and there is  colour in the ferry over there just 'under' the bridge as well as the red 'fence' over on the left. Not to mention the difference in contrast in the water and even the clouds.

She didn't think they were much different, but I'm willing to bet that she thinks the top shot is the better of the two and that somehow Instagram has done a good job.


This will come as a shock to people but this is what has been happening in colour photography for decades before digital with the inbuilt contrast mask provided in colour negative. This is one of the reasons why people (like me) still find value in using Negative film, because it actually does a lot of contrast control straight out of the box for you.

Saves me having to fiddle around in Photomatix like this:


into this...

young Kookaburra

as outlined in this blog post.

Evolutionary paths

Of course no one (least of all a scrooge like me) wants to upgrade their camera bodies anywhere near as much as people upgrade their phones (and I'm not even using an Android or iPhone phone yet). Ask anyone who knows much about it, and they'll tell you that aside from one or two phone companies the majority are loosing money every quater. So this sort of evolution is savage - think creative destruction.

For some years I've advocated that people always use RAW and that all the in-camera effects are just there to satisfy the sufferers of the camera disease CFO or Camera Feature Obsession. A basic JPG could be recorded and embedded into the RAW (as it is already actually...) and then when you connect your camera to your PC to download your pictures and can then on the PC side and use (more powerful) processing implement any filter you like by just clicking on a thumbnail preview. This would then save image the to JPG for you. You could then go back and alter it at will to be anything.
  • "Natural"
  • High Contrast
  • Black and White (either panchromatic or monochromatic, or even colour filtered)
  • Sepia

Maybe I should just write this myself?

In the mean time, phone cams are killing compacts for all the right evolutionary reasons.


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