Light

The smartphone is the dominant camera in the world now, combining best in class portability with good enough quality. I still own an SLR, though, because for some special situations, the superior lens selection and larger sensor is worth its larger form factor (among other qualities).

Light is a company with a novel approach to bringing smartphone cameras up to SLR quality.

Rather than hewing to this one-to-one ratio, Light aims to put a bunch of small lenses, each paired with its own image sensor, into smartphones and other gadgets. They’ll fire simultaneously when you take a photo, and software will automatically combine the images. This way, Light believes, it can fit the quality and zoom of a bulky, expensive DSLR camera into much smaller, cheaper packages—even phones.
 
Light is still in the early stages, as it doesn’t yet have a prototype of a full product completed. For now it just has camera modules whose pictures can be combined with its software. But the startup says it expects the first Light cameras, with 52-megapixel resolution, to appear in smartphones in 2016.
 

Artist's rendering of what a Light camera array on a smartphone might look like.

I've been curious to see how smartphones continue to improve camera quality. This seems like one credible vector.

The GoPro life, broadened

First watch the GoPro Hero3 promo video, released in October 2012:

Then watch the GoPro Hero4 Black promo video, released in September 2014:

Do you notice a difference?

I do, and it's not about video quality. It's subtle, but the earlier GoPro promo is made up almost entirely of footage of people participating in extreme sport or recreational activities. While the whole promo is a hell of an adrenaline rush, it clearly positions GoPro as being a camera for the adrenaline junkies who are wired differently than most.

The latter video maintains GoPro's brand leadership as the camera of choice for people in the most exciting moments of their lives, but it is more inclusive. There is footage of kids dancing at EDM festivals, a cowboy riding a horse, stars blinking to life in a time lapse of a night sky, and people whale watching. Granted, there's still a dose of the more extreme stuff—some Japanese driving Lamborghinis through a city at night, two guys climbing an iceberg that threatens to crumble and dump them in the middle of the ocean—but that material makes up just a portion of the footage.

This is a brand trying to appeal to a broader base of consumers. It makes sense. The size of the market for people who ski off of cliffs and do somersaults in the air is limited. It's still a $400 or more camera, so it's not as if GoPro is including video of people lying on a sofa binge-watching Scandal, but I'd expect the shift to continue the next time they update their product line and release a promo video. I wouldn't be surprised if that promo includes footage of a young child cannonballing into a pool while filming himself with a GoPro attached to a selfie stick, or footage from the family dog's point of view as she chases down a frisbee on a sandy beach, or even drone footage of an outdoor wedding.

Perhaps we may even start to see a celebrity or two make a cameo appearance, to give the GoPro a wider type of lifestyle appeal, not just one centered around activities for people not afraid to die. I also suspect they've pushed up against a ceiling on price (the Hero4 Silver runs $400, the Hero4 Black $500, and that's just the starting point before piling on costs of accessories like mounts and additional batteries). GoPro will likely want to start pressing down what is for now a generous price umbrella for competitors must salivate when they see GoPro's $7B+ market cap.

Deliberate underexposure with Nikon DSLRs

Nikon has been killing it with its DSLR sensors in recent years in terms of how much detail can be pulled out of the shadows, and Deci Gallen has a great piece on a creative way of shooting that exploits that capability.

As photographers, we strive for correct exposure but the ability of modern Nikon cameras to find details in shadows opens up a debate as to what correct exposure actually is. More and more, I find myself technically exposing wrong with post-processing in mind.

As a wedding photographer, my wife and I often find ourselves shooting portraits when the sun is highest in the sky: conditions generally considered to be unfavorable in portraiture. In the past these situations were addressed with fill flash, reflectors or frantically searching for open shade. The current range of Nikons gives us another option – creative underexposure.

...

Having the ability to draw details from shadows so cleanly has changed not only how we shoot and post-process, but also the equipment we need to take certain kinds of shots.

Our flash triggers have been mostly redundant for 2 years now and our flashguns only really come out on the dance floor. We don’t use reflectors at all. The extra couple of minutes spent in post is negated by the time saved setting up equipment while shooting — allowing us to spot and shoot scenes quickly, taking advantage of beautiful but often fleeting lighting conditions.

Check out the piece to see some examples of what's possible.

I had skipped some generations of Nikon DSLRs and found myself picking mine up less and less given the weight of a fully loaded body, but I just picked up a D750 recently and it has won back my mindshare from other cameras like my iPhone.

The D750 isn't in their pro line of DSLRs, with their built in vertical grips and magnesium body construction, but that means it's much lighter. I love that it has integrated WiFi so I can quickly get pictures from my DSLR to my iPhone. It's something Nikon should've added years ago and that all modern DSLRs should have as a default feature, and I doubt I'll ever buy another camera that doesn't mark that checkbox.

And yes, the shadow recovery is fantastic. I've pushed shadows in RAW photos out of the D750 up to 4 stops, and I've heard that 5 stops is possible. Even before reading Gallen's article I'd been shooting as he recommends, usually with exposure compensation of -0.3 to -0.7 turned on by default. To me, it's far more convenient to shoot this way and bring shadows up in Lightroom than to shoot two or three photos at different exposures and blend them using Photoshop or something like HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro. Call it the lazy man's HDR.

Einstein's Camera

This is an old one, but it's still wonderful.

He remained fascinated, however, by the notion of capturing different parts of a person or of people at different times, constructing a still image out of “little pieces,” he says. This matched his growing interest in what he calls “the ever-changing nature of the present,” the constant flow of life that defied easy visual representation.

In 2006, during a months-long stay in Shanghai, he had an epiphany. “I had this feeling that I would, like, scan the flow of people. I began looking for the right kind of spaces where I could find a monotonous flow.” Magyar first studied escalators in Shanghai shopping malls. Then his gaze shifted to city streets—particularly major intersections or bus stops with a continuous procession of humanity. Once he had the concept in his head, he set about to develop the technology to realize it. “It was continuous research,” he says. “It took me a few weeks to figure it out.”

The answer, Magyar realized, was a modified version of the “slit scan” camera, the type used to determine photo finishes at racetracks and at Olympic sporting events by capturing a time sequence in one image. Such cameras were rare and cost many thousands of dollars, so Magyar set out to build one himself. He joined a medium-format camera lens to another sensor and wrote his own software for the new device. Total cost: $50. He inverted the traditional scanning method, where the sensor moves across a stationary object. This time, the sensor would remain still while the scanned objects were in motion, being photographed one consecutive pixel-wide strip at a time. (This is the basic principle of the photo-finish camera.) Magyar mounted the device on a tripod in a busy Shanghai neighborhood and scanned pedestrians as they passed in front of the sensor. He then digitally combined over 100,000 sequential strips into high-resolution photographs.
 

To more easily comprehend what Adam Magyar's modified camera enabled, watch one of the gorgeous videos he shot.

Some more of his videos here and also at his website. Stunning.

Miscellaneous

  • This is an old one. I don't think Apple should be able to patent much of what they do patent, but that doesn't mean this isn't a nifty touch: the pulsing LED light on Apple laptop covers is designed to fade in and out at the rate of human breathing, a rate "which is psychologically appealing."
  • Camera heavyweights Leica and Red have both announced digital cameras that will only shoot black and white. Why build digital sensors that only shoot black and white when color frames can be transformed into black and white? A typical CMOS sensor has a pattern of red, green, and blue filters that sit on top of the sensor, and each pixel is assigned one of those filters. Thus each pixel only records one color, and an algorithm (debayer) must be applied after the fact to interpolate the full color for that pixel. If you remove the Bayer filter, each pixel sees more light, and without having to debayer, the image is sharper and the tonal curve more smoothly rendered.
  • Are there cracks in China's march economic growth march? George Magnus of UBS thinks so, and a recent note he published drew lots of attention across the web. As this article summarizes, Magnus believes that "China’s innovation and technology shortcomings are rooted in a socio-cultural system and an incentive system that emphasizes incremental over radical change, and quantity over quality and uniqueness." This may leave China ever lagging other global leaders in innovation.
  • After reading The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Dping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, Tyler Hamilton's confession of the doping he did as Lance Armstrong's teammate and then competitor, I wasn't surprised at the revelations of the extent of the doping in professional cycling. Oddly enough, having visited the Tour de France in person several times, you'd hear ex-professionals, whether riders or soigneurs or mechanics, drop not-so-subtle hints that doping was common and expected. However, I was curious how Sally Jenkins would cover it. She wrote Lance Armstrong's two biographies (It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts), both great reads but, given Armstrong's participation, largely hagiographic, so I was curious if she'd have it in her to join those who've condemned him given his recent decision to give up the fight against the USADA. It appears that nothing short of a confession from Lance Armstrong will sway her. Her last column on Armstrong starts: "First of all, Lance Armstrong is a good man. There’s nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that. Second, I don’t know if he’s telling the truth when he insists he didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs in the Tour de France — never have known." She goes on to condemn the USADA's methods, and she raises good questions about whether athletes can get a fair shake from them. Also, given our economy, the amount of money the USADA spends is of questionable value. Still, I was hoping Jenkins would address the Lance issue head on. It seems she'll simply pass.
  • I concur with Andy Greenwald about Boardwalk Empire: the lead role is miscast, and the dozens of storylines sprawl like so many strands of spaghetti. I've never warmed to the show. Has a show ever broken out in its third season the way wide receivers are rumored to in the NFL?