Flash Photography

Flash photography is never simple. But a new imaging chip being developed at MIT might soon make flash images look more natural (Image source: Shutterstock).

As much as smartphone users hate the unbalanced look of images taken with flash, it’s an unfortunate fact that nighttime images taken without flash usually look worse, unless you’re in a studio lighting environment. A new chip being developed at MIT might help fix flash lighting issues, and promises to output natural-looking images even when flash is used.

The low-power image processing chip, being developed at MIT Microsystems Technology Laboratory, applies high dynamic range (HDR) to photos and videos using near-immediate exposure bracketing. This means that the image processor will combine the flash-lit photo with the image immediately preceding that photo to come up with an output that approximates the natural colors in the scene. The aim is for the photo to be as realistic as possible, and without destroying the scene’s ambiance.

The exposure bracketing is done within a fraction of a second, says the developers. There are existing technologies that apply HDR to smartphone photos. However, these are mostly software-based, which consume a lot of power and resources. “We wanted to build a single chip that could perform multiple operations, consume significantly less power compared to doing the same job in software, and do it all in real time,” said Raul Rithe, a graduate student at the MIT’s¬†Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who is the lead author of the study.

The imaging chip basically takes three low-dynamic range images: a normally exposed image, an under-exposed image capturing bright areas, and an over-exposed image taking details from the darker areas. These are then combined to capture the entire range of brightness in the scene.

See also: Best HDR camera apps for Android

The chip can then do this for two operations: one with flash and another without flash. The resulting images are then combined to produce a natural-looking image, which preserves the natural ambience from the base no-flash image, while highlighting details from the image taken with flash.

Software could theoretically do this, but will take several seconds to process. The new chip being developed will only take a few hundred milliseconds with a 10-megapixel camera. This means lower power usage, and this also means the technology can be used for video applications.

The work was funded by Taiwanese company Foxconn, which produces smartphones and other components for other firms, such as Apple, Nintendo, Amazon and Sony. Do check the source link for a more technical explanation of the chip in development. Suffice to say that we can probably expect better flash photography in the near future, and we won’t have to deal with washed-out images or unevenly-lit night-time photos.

J. Angelo Racoma

J. Angelo Racoma has written extensively about mobile, social media, enterprise apps and startups. Angelo develops business case studies for Microsoft enterprise platforms, and is also co-founder at WorkSmartr, a small outsourcing team that offers digital content and marketing services.