Can Google replace photographers with an algorithm?

Like all mediocre photographers, Google's Clips camera occasionally lucks into some good pictures.The new $249...

Posted: Mar 31, 2018 11:30 PM
Updated: Mar 31, 2018 11:30 PM

Like all mediocre photographers, Google's Clips camera occasionally lucks into some good pictures.

The new $249 gadget, released in February, automates much of the job of a certain kind of photographer. You place the 2-inch high white square on a surface, preferably someplace frequented by children or pets. It automatically captures any "candid" scenes it determines are worthwhile with its wide-angle lens.

I spent a week with the camera, planting it on countertops, floors and shelves. Unfortunately my cat and bunny both passed away last year, so Clips only had children to work with. Luckily, my children are extremely good looking.

Even so, the resulting photos and videos had a common, soulless look to them. The wide-angle meant they were busy, with too much in focus and no appealing composition.

Essentially, Clips combines the hands-off approach of a surveillance camera with the visual style of a surveillance camera.

And yet, for a camera that silently watches you, Clips doesn't feel creepy. Google has been careful to avoid raising any privacy red flags. It stores all images and videos on the device. You preview photos using the Clips Android or iOS app over a one-to-one WiFI connection, and manually choose which ones to save to your smartphone.

While it might not succeed as a camera, it does raise interesting questions about what makes a photograph "good," and if you can ever program an algorithm to make art.

"The act of photography is the act of expression," said photographer Ben Long, author of "The Complete Digital Photography." "The [Clips] algorithm would just be the expression of the photographic ideas of whoever wrote that algorithm, minus the knowledge of what makes the scene around them interesting."

To come up with its special sauce, the Clips team asked professional photographers working at the company what they believe makes a good photo.

The software looks for children, animals, and faces, preferably within three-to-eight feet of the lens. Clips likes movement, but tries to avoid blurry photos and can tell when something is blocking the lens, like the hand of a curious child. It learns the faces of the people you save the most and takes more pictures of them. It is programmed to have a preference for happy, smiling faces.

Related: Google unveils new Pixel phones, speakers, futuristic headphones

Even when Clips follows the rules, the resulting photographs are mostly un-Instagrammable. Current trends favor highly stylized, painstakingly staged shots for social media. While cameras have gotten better at capturing reality, people have grown sophisticated enough to appreciate more abstraction in photography.

But the problem with Clips isn't just the execution or quality of photos. It's the underlying assumption that you can program a device to replicate the decisions that go into making a good picture.

"You can try to come up with all the rules you want for photography, and you can try to follow them perfectly and still come up with some very crappy photos," said Long after reviewing my test shots.

Rules can't predict the many small decisions a photographer makes in the moment, like where to stand, what moment to press the shutter button, or what part of an image to expose or keep in shadows. The mere presence of a photographer also has an influence on the picture. Taking pictures is an inherently social experience, says Long. The subject is always reacting to the photographer in some way.

Clips might not take off, but it is a sign of what could be next for photography. Companies are forging ahead with technologies that will automate and change the field. They're driven in part by the desire to improve smartphone photography without having to make giant phones. For example, cameras like the newer Pixel and iPhones use software to convincingly fake a shallow depth-of-field effects. The Light L16 camera uses 16 separate cameras to create one detailed image file that can be edited after the fact.

Related: Google wants you to experiment with its new photo apps

Clips builds on years of Google's own work by automating parts of photography. Google Photos has an "Assistant" option that handles some of the duller parts of managing a massive amount of photos, like choosing and editing the best shots, and making movies from videos.

Google doesn't see Clips as a replacement for photographers, but as another tool they can use.

"We see the importance of a human being in this," said Google's Juston Payne, the Clips product lead. "It can't move itself or compose a shot or get a good angle. The person is still exerting creative control, AI is just pressing the shutter button ... We think of it as a collaboration between people and AI and they are both completely necessary."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 512632

Reported Deaths: 10262
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34853555
DeSoto33162432
Hinds32556641
Jackson24830389
Rankin22442402
Lee16238242
Madison14874283
Jones14086247
Forrest13741259
Lauderdale12249324
Lowndes11286193
Lamar10644140
Pearl River9707244
Lafayette8827143
Hancock7835132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7204138
Monroe6989179
Pontotoc6970109
Warren6849178
Panola6746134
Neshoba6726210
Marshall6653141
Bolivar6440151
Union633897
Pike5924156
Alcorn5862107
Lincoln5525136
George510180
Prentiss500884
Tippah490282
Itawamba4829107
Scott477499
Adams4766125
Tate4748116
Leflore4723144
Copiah455895
Yazoo455591
Simpson4543117
Wayne442772
Covington432895
Sunflower4299106
Marion4265112
Coahoma4227109
Leake413790
Newton395581
Tishomingo381793
Grenada3775109
Stone365666
Jasper340166
Attala337790
Winston317792
Chickasaw313367
Clay311878
Clarke301195
Calhoun284449
Holmes271289
Smith268952
Yalobusha243747
Tallahatchie231453
Greene224749
Walthall221366
Lawrence217840
Perry213356
Amite209557
Webster205148
Noxubee188642
Montgomery181557
Carroll174441
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152639
Kemper144941
Choctaw136527
Claiborne134238
Humphreys131139
Franklin124929
Quitman107528
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96834
Sharkey65121
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 844594

Reported Deaths: 16115
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1160612006
Mobile741651379
Madison53255732
Shelby38313368
Baldwin38061589
Tuscaloosa35996641
Montgomery34473781
Lee25541263
Calhoun22582518
Morgan22441406
Etowah20009517
Marshall18771316
Houston17723425
St. Clair16863358
Limestone16123218
Cullman16032303
Elmore15902294
Lauderdale14945306
Talladega14186299
DeKalb12957269
Walker12011380
Blount10700192
Autauga10512157
Jackson10151194
Coffee9412192
Colbert9325208
Dale9013191
Tallapoosa7248201
Russell707465
Chilton7015170
Escambia6951143
Covington6926195
Franklin6337108
Chambers5778142
Marion5400130
Dallas5283209
Pike5114109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4777110
Geneva4640136
Bibb434094
Barbour369180
Butler3433100
Marengo342393
Monroe336666
Randolph334067
Pickens333188
Fayette329885
Henry320566
Hale317989
Cherokee316963
Crenshaw260477
Washington256952
Cleburne254360
Lamar251253
Clay250869
Macon244764
Conecuh192762
Coosa184647
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152545
Perry141840
Sumter139041
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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