A Tough Nut to Crack
A Tough Nut to Crack
by Huntington Witherill
You cannot endow even the best machine with initiative; the jolliest steamroller will not plant flowers.
– Walter Lippmann
While perusing the internet awhile back, I ran across an article describing a developing technology purportedly able to effectively resolve the issue of unwanted “noise” in digital photographs. Through the use of artificial intelligence described as "Iray AI," it appears that image noise (a troublesome side effect of capturing digital images at higher ISO sensitivity) may soon be on its way to becoming a thing of the past. The original article can be found, here, and the company developing the algorithm is NVIDIA.
Now, before your eyes begin to glaze over, rest assured that this essay is not going to be a technical treatise about the inner workings of digital technology. A discussion of that sort would be well beyond my grasp. It is, instead, a discussion about the relative impact that technology has had on the overall practice of photography. And, it is in that regard that a more detailed practical explanation in relation to a couple of contrasting technologies will be required in order to make the specific points I'm hoping to make. So… please bear with me. I’ll try not to be too geeky.
Presupposing the above mentioned noise abatement strategy might eventually be perfected and become widely available, it does appear to be the kind of development that could represent a major breakthrough in terms of hand-held photography. If nothing else, the overall spontaneity associated with the act of working with a camera would stand to increase, dramatically.
Think about it. What if you could produce a sharp, noiseless (grainless) photographic image in the dimmest of lighting conditions using ISO 12,800 and beyond, without the necessity to employ a tripod – and without the need to worry about image noise? All of a sudden you’d be able to hand hold your camera using a shutter speed sufficient to insure both a tack-sharp and noise-free picture... in virtually any lighting condition. Essentially, if you could see it with the naked eye (or perhaps even if you couldn’t) you'd be able to more spontaneously capture the scene without the cumbersome need of a tripod. By the way, for anyone potentially unfamiliar with the fundamentals of ISO and the myriad ways in which a camera can be used, having the ability to more effectively and expeditiously work in minimal lighting situations would be a significant technical achievement.
Yet (and here’s the overall premise of this essay) you might ask… At what point will the ongoing development of all these time saving camera technologies ultimately remove all traces of human intervention (and inventiveness) associated with the act of taking a picture? It’s a fair question. And of course, there are many who feel that technology has already removed the human element by insuring that a technically acceptable picture can be produced with little or no prior training, skill, or finesse. (see here).
While it's true that modern digital cameras do possess the limited ability to assure precise focus (assuming the intended target has been chosen) – and that they are also capable of automated (though not necessarily correct) exposure – camera technologies are only part of the story. It's important to remember that the resulting exposures produced with any camera (regardless of how automated that camera might be) still represent only the basic building blocks associated with the ultimate creation of any photograph that ventures beyond the rudiments of a "snapshot."
It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that not all camera technologies are created equal. Some technologies (like the noise reduction algorithm being currently developed by NVIDIA) promise practical applications that could, indeed, enhance our ability to capture fleeting moments in marginal lighting situations. On the other hand, some technologies appear to be of such little practical value that they also appear to be nothing more than frivolous marketing gimmicks designed to bolster camera sales.
To illustrate the foregoing point, what follows is the text of an email recently sent to a group of colleagues with whom I share an interest (and an ongoing exchange) in relation to camera technologies and their impact on the overall practice of photography:
Email – (July 28, 2018)
Dear Friends and Photographers:
In relation to our ongoing discussion about developing camera technologies, the following news item came to my attention (yesterday) and upon reading it, I was so completely dumbfounded, I felt certain you'd all want to be privy to the revelation.
I've attached a few selected quotes taken directly from the article (followed by my initial reactions) to give you an idea about the nature of the proposed technology in the event you might want to save yourself the time spent reading the entire article (which can be found, here).
Subject: New Technology Being Developed by Nikon – Emotional Cameras (No, I'm not kidding!)
How do you feel when you take a picture? Your camera may soon be able to let you and everyone else know.
"The sensors would detect heart rate, blood flow, blood pressure, perspiration, body temperature, and the pressure with which you grip your gear." My initial reaction: All the biofeedback in the world could do nothing to identify the emotions of the photographer. You see, I just hiked up a very steep hill to take this picture. My emotional state was one of calmness, resolve, utter joy, and tranquility. Yet, I was perspiring (profusely!) and my heart rate and blood pressure were… through the roof due to nothing more than having just completed a rather strenuous hike!
“Nikon says that often times photographers feel strong emotions when capturing photos, but these feelings are sometimes unable to be conveyed through the photos themselves." Well, Duh! I'd venture to say that this happens most all of the time, rather than just "sometimes". Seems to me, if you are a working photographer who is unable to communicate your own emotions through your own photographs, maybe you might want to consider a different line of work.
"Perhaps one day cameras with artificial intelligence will be able to feel emotions when they take pictures for us." Yeah, right. And, maybe when my camera's battery runs dry and I curse at it – at that decisive moment when I've lost the picture of a lifetime due to an exhausted battery and the camera's inability to fire the shutter – my camera will begin to cry, mercilessly, while the battery, itself, will feel a hopeless sense of shame and rejection! (Hmmm… maybe I need to dust off my mood ring and start wearing it, again.)
Here's my question: How does a well-respected company like Nikon come up with this kind of nonsense? I’ve read, elsewhere, that they've actually applied for a patent on this technology, so you've got to know they're spending more than a trivial amount of time and money on its development. Is it possible that Nikon’s Marketing Department hosted a brainstorming lunch at which tee many martoonies were served?
Setting aside the relative value and practical use of emotion sensing cameras, I remain fairly confident that, despite any existing (or forthcoming) camera technologies, it will always require a considerable amount of dedication, skill, imagination, and finesse in order to develop and refine the unique human abilities to #1 – know precisely where to point your camera (so as to insure a meaningful and well composed image) and #2 – at what point in time (and most critically, under what specific lighting condition) to actually press the shutter release. Those two seemingly innocuous skills do not come without a great amount of dedication and prior practice. And, they entail an act of human creativity and imagination that simply cannot be reduced to an array of ones and zeros. At the risk of bursting anyone’s bubble, here, I’m reasonably certain those two fundamental impediments will forever remain a tough nut for technology to crack.
I am also sadly reminded, within this context, of a highly cynical (and seemingly vacuous) quote attributed to American politician, Mark Kennedy, to wit: "All of the biggest technological inventions created by man - the airplane, the automobile, the computer - says little about his intelligence, but speaks volumes about his laziness.” (Ouch!)
Have we become such lazy creatures that we’ve lost the ability to embrace an ongoing and dedicated challenge? Of course not! Yet there are some detractors out there who continue to levy the charge that digital camera technology has removed the human element from photography to the point of rendering the entire practice as being an effortless, and therefore trivial, pursuit. I wonder... Is it possible that our critics fail to recognize and appreciate the stark differences between the enduring value of a dedicated and purposefully sustained challenge, and the more ephemeral pay-off that is so often associated with instant gratification?
In the overall scheme of things, I can’t claim to have achieved a great amount during my lifetime. After all, photography is barely a blip on the radar when it comes to the vast expanse of human endeavor. Yet, what remains most valuable to me, and what gives me the greatest sense of pride and accomplishment, is the fact that whatever achievements I may have attained – those accomplishments have not come as a result of the speed and convenience with which technology may have helped me in my overall quest. Those accomplishments have come through the realization that anything in life worth achieving is worth spending the requisite amount of time and effort to affirmatively learn, diligently pursue, incessantly practice, and creatively accomplish. It really doesn’t matter how idiot-proof a camera might eventually become. The camera, itself, will always be (and will always remain) nothing more than an inanimate and mechanical tool designed to assist in the pursuit of a higher calling.
I’ve got a circular saw blade that, through the miracle of technology, is touted never to require sharpening. Yet for some reason, that blade’s ability to make me a better carpenter (as the advertisement most assuredly proclaimed) has never really panned out. It’s not about technology or the tools, themselves. It’s about the joy and satisfaction of having dedicated oneself to the act of using those tools in a sustained effort to achieve a far greater and more meaningful human purpose.