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."

Huntsville
Clear
60° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 60°
Florence
Clear
62° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 62°
Fayetteville
Clear
56° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 56°
Decatur
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 59°
Scottsboro
Scattered Clouds
55° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 55°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 128818

Reported Deaths: 2284
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson18911337
Mobile13039289
Montgomery8628173
Madison750775
Tuscaloosa7180114
Lee570559
Shelby564550
Baldwin504749
Marshall382143
Etowah333447
Calhoun332039
Morgan318126
Houston269922
Elmore251947
DeKalb234619
St. Clair221335
Walker220780
Talladega205026
Limestone197319
Cullman183017
Franklin174128
Dallas173626
Russell17112
Autauga167324
Lauderdale164133
Colbert159326
Escambia155725
Blount154214
Jackson149411
Chilton147127
Dale132743
Covington130227
Coffee12708
Pike11519
Tallapoosa113183
Chambers112342
Clarke104917
Marion93728
Butler90838
Barbour8307
Marengo69919
Winston69912
Lowndes64527
Pickens63114
Bibb62810
Hale61228
Randolph60712
Bullock58514
Lawrence58220
Monroe5758
Geneva5634
Cherokee55516
Washington54413
Perry5376
Clay5367
Wilcox53011
Conecuh52311
Crenshaw52231
Macon47620
Henry4674
Fayette4189
Sumter41819
Lamar3452
Choctaw34412
Cleburne3206
Greene30015
Coosa1613
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 181439

Reported Deaths: 2216
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby29800446
Davidson25840289
Hamilton903388
Rutherford890287
Knox880672
Williamson503036
Sumner462993
Wilson331841
Putnam301937
Montgomery292243
Bradley281816
Out of TN281123
Unassigned28036
Madison259656
Sevier250013
Blount242523
Maury218323
Robertson215133
Washington212332
Sullivan203831
Hamblen183125
Tipton171117
Trousdale16477
Hardeman151325
Gibson149219
Wayne14785
Bedford129516
Dyer125312
Dickson117612
Cumberland114317
Anderson111711
Fayette111118
Carter110827
Weakley110419
Henderson110119
Loudon10996
Greene107936
Coffee106912
Obion10669
Jefferson105114
McMinn104524
Macon100719
Warren9977
Monroe99416
Hardin95414
Lawrence93911
Lauderdale92815
Haywood90016
Franklin8757
Lake8712
Bledsoe8444
Roane8284
Carroll81617
Cheatham78410
McNairy78316
Rhea76611
White7639
Hawkins74716
Cocke7309
Marshall6985
Overton6734
Smith66910
Johnson6352
Henry5949
Chester5769
Lincoln5761
Giles54917
DeKalb54111
Hickman5154
Crockett49719
Marion4937
Decatur4556
Claiborne4234
Fentress4223
Campbell4153
Polk37511
Grainger3462
Benton3319
Union3311
Jackson3024
Morgan3023
Unicoi2741
Cannon2690
Grundy2305
Humphreys2243
Sequatchie2193
Meigs2163
Scott1972
Clay1825
Houston1780
Lewis1691
Stewart1672
Van Buren1490
Moore1451
Perry1400
Hancock1063
Pickett942

Community Events