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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."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 485655

Reported Deaths: 6558
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1007641586
Ramsey43106801
Dakota36297390
Anoka33293385
Washington22078256
Stearns18734201
St. Louis14805262
Scott13290107
Wright12526115
Olmsted1178988
Sherburne872872
Carver772640
Clay691587
Rice670491
Blue Earth594735
Kandiyohi579574
Crow Wing520681
Chisago499045
Otter Tail482170
Benton446490
Winona418349
Mower404731
Douglas392668
Nobles387047
Goodhue385768
Polk343162
McLeod339349
Beltrami337951
Morrison324547
Itasca313046
Lyon313044
Becker311342
Isanti306154
Steele300411
Carlton300149
Pine282016
Freeborn280723
Nicollet258641
Todd248030
Brown245037
Le Sueur235320
Mille Lacs227447
Cass220024
Waseca208717
Meeker207434
Martin189528
Wabasha18653
Roseau180217
Hubbard160640
Houston157314
Dodge15224
Renville149640
Redwood147027
Fillmore13728
Chippewa136335
Cottonwood134820
Pennington134416
Wadena130920
Faribault123017
Aitkin118833
Sibley117310
Watonwan11738
Rock115714
Kanabec107519
Pipestone101424
Yellow Medicine97617
Murray9448
Jackson93510
Swift87918
Pope8045
Marshall77815
Stevens7418
Lake74018
Clearwater71914
Lac qui Parle68416
Wilkin67110
Koochiching61811
Big Stone5163
Lincoln5062
Grant4918
Norman4788
Unassigned46768
Mahnomen4417
Kittson40921
Red Lake3625
Traverse3055
Lake of the Woods2191
Cook1180

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 362827

Reported Deaths: 5440
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk58260551
Linn20670313
Scott18318210
Black Hawk16258292
Woodbury14979211
Johnson1384874
Dubuque13562194
Dallas1138690
Pottawattamie10791143
Story1024945
Warren556674
Clinton543784
Cerro Gordo533782
Webster519587
Marshall497272
Sioux494869
Buena Vista474537
Des Moines458861
Muscatine452291
Wapello4345108
Jasper417766
Plymouth395378
Lee375452
Marion359169
Jones294154
Henry293337
Carroll286249
Bremer280854
Crawford275135
Boone259730
Washington254347
Benton253854
Mahaska224746
Jackson221638
Dickinson217840
Tama213765
Kossuth208555
Clay193625
Hamilton192142
Delaware189140
Winneshiek189127
Buchanan185729
Fayette185235
Page183319
Hardin181439
Wright179931
Harrison179469
Cedar178523
Clayton168154
Butler167231
Mills163020
Floyd162741
Cherokee154836
Madison154718
Poweshiek154330
Hancock147130
Allamakee146747
Lyon145941
Iowa145023
Appanoose139247
Grundy139230
Jefferson138734
Winnebago138631
Cass134751
Calhoun133811
Mitchell130940
Louisa128241
Union126631
Chickasaw125215
Sac124618
Emmet121740
Shelby121733
Franklin118319
Humboldt117925
Guthrie116628
Palo Alto105221
Montgomery104136
Howard102921
Clarke100420
Unassigned9900
Keokuk98229
Monroe93328
Adair92128
Ida91432
Pocahontas85419
Davis83123
Monona81627
Greene77510
Lucas74021
Osceola70615
Worth6997
Taylor66612
Fremont5909
Decatur5829
Van Buren56118
Ringgold52320
Wayne48921
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Adams3274
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