Tuesday, September 24, 2019

ToP: Topaz AI Sharpen Thing Whatever

Ctein appears to have returned to The Online Photographer, which is basically a good thing, I think. He's written a review of a piece of software, a machine-learning powered thing that sharpens photos for you.

The thing is clearly borderline magical in its results.

What it is doing, obviously, is re-painting a new, sharper, picture based on your picture. Whether it knows what a "stick" is or not is probably not even a meaningful question, but it can certainly replace a fuzzy stick with a sharp stick, and the sharp stick is credibly the same stick as if it had been photographed more sharply. It's not the same stick, but it's credible. It does this for every little detail of the frame.

You could do it too, if you were a competent painter, and had an incredible amount of time and patience.

Now, I could rattle on about "the index!" and how it's not a photograph any more, but a digitally rendered drawing based on a photograph and the potential cultural implications of that. Long time readers could probably write it for me at this point, so I shan't.

Instead I am going to talk about the vague sense of unease the whole thing gives me.

Ctein's photo is a good example. Why on earth is this thing something that needs to be saved? This is not a picture of a Yeti or an Alien. It's a vaguely dynamic but ultimately not very interesting picture of an eagle coming in for a landing (I think). These pictures exist already as technical exercises. The entire point of this exercise is that you nailed focus, because that's the hard part. Nobody gives a shit about the picture. Ctein fucked it up, and he lost the game. It's a stupid game, so who cares?

But going in afterwards to fix it, as if you had won the game, seems like a cheat. I know that he would argue that it's not about that at all, that this picture is Art and whatever means are necessary to restore the technical details that allow Ctein to oh god I can't go on, but it dribbles on for a few more lines without ever making the picture actually particularly good or noteworthy.

Even if it was a great picture, so what? Go shoot another one, and try not to screw the pooch this time. There are lots of great pictures out there. The problem is not that we don't have enough great pictures.

More generally, it is not at all clear to me that a software device which allows us to "salvage" more pictures is doing anything that needs to be done. We already have too damned many pictures. I consider a missed shot to be something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, maybe it would have been great. On the other hand, it's a hell of a lot easier to edit out, now.


  1. I agree that photographing hard-to-photograph things just to demonstrate to other photographers that you possess the requisite technical virtuosity is super masturbatory, but...

    Sometimes we take pictures of things, and they'd look better if they were sharp, but they're not, and we can't easily go take another picture of the thing. I'm not sure what's so hard to understand about that.

    Maybe you get a kick out of missing focus because then you don't have to edit the picture (???), but if that's how you feel, why not just wipe the whole memory card after each shoot? No editing then!

    H. C.-B. did this take better in 5 words.

  2. I read the article and looked at the images when the article was first posted.

    I dunno.

    Yeah, the software can take a picture that's blurry and do stuff to it that gives it the appearance of being pretty passable. It's the same sort of things that you can do with other digital tools but it does it "auto-magically" and maybe better than other tools do.


    Why waste time fixing garbage when you can go out and take different, better, pictures? Where's the pleasure? What's the point? Why am I taking pictures anyway? Do I want to spend my limited and precious time sitting in front of the computer polishing yesterdays turds or out in the world making new turds and, hopefully, the occasional golden egg?

    Learning how to take good pictures is hard. Learning how to use a software tool is comparatively easy. And the rewards come so quickly! It's a sweet, sweet, hit of dopamine every time the magical thing does its magic!

    Tools can be dangerous if you are trying to make art. You can easily find yourself lost in a forest of them wondering how you ended up the sorcerers apprentice.

    But, if you just want some kitsch to share with your friends, well. Dopamine hits all around!

  3. amolitor asked, "Why on earth is this thing something that needs to be saved?"

    Ctein wrote (in part), "This is a photograph I'd normally throw away … I figured it would be a good test case."

  4. The birds in question were ospreys (aka sea eagles).

    Rescuing a failed photo doesn't make it Art, of course, nor does it even make it an interesting picture for that matter. But I'm sure the software has its uses. Not all photos are made with Art in mind.

    1. Now that is a legit complaint, at last. Worth considering, though, is how many of THOSE photos it is acceptable to have some AI making stuff up. For scientific, medical, and criminal evidence, for instance, Topaz AI opens up great vistas of "oh shit. I dunno."

  5. So, I take it you haven't pre-ordered Luminar 4 just yet?

  6. You know, that would make a pretty good sci-fi plot. Some "AI" software decides that some guy should be arrested to a confidence level of 99%. But the guy falls into the 1% and he has to prove it in court. Expert testimony by mathematicians discussing probabilities and big data, it's a block buster, no doubt about it.

  7. I wonder how this so-called AI sharpening software will handle the photos of, say, Susan Burnstine?

    She makes her own cameras and lenses from bits and pieces and they perform just about as poorly as one can imagine.

    Yet, despite this, she somehow manages to capture some truly remarkable and compelling photos regardless.

  8. It's a tool. Useful for when you fuck up at events or something that can't just be retaken.