Wanted: The Average Joe Smartphone Mode in a DSLR

Basically, with a digital pro camera, you’re getting the approach to film in a digital package. Meaning: you want an as neutral as possible file, an as accurate as possible rendition of what you’re capturing. Problem is, digital imaging technology has advanced so much that it’s kind of obsolete to process files in-camera with algorithms that treat each and every pixel with the same courtesy. What if… what if imaging technology today is so advanced that it’s able to selectively handle areas that are of concern, such as highlights and shadows, for better overall detail, color and overall rendition. Thing is, the technology is here and widely used, but “limited” to smartphones and cheaper cameras and therefore not really pushed by the industry leaders. Why’s that so? Because photographers with more serious gear don’t need such an average-Joe mode (AJM). Oh really?

Seriously, how much time could you save with a DSLR or mirrorless “smart” processing mode. A mode not like the built-in filters no one uses anyway, but a mode that mimics the best of imaging technology found in portable devices, developed for users who don’t care about post-processing or don’t have a clue about it.

Smartphone can do
Smartphone can do | Nokia Lumia 830 / Daniel Kestenholz

The common approach is: post-processing is a very common must. Editing is a part of digital photography. You must edit photos if you want the best look. A photo is not finished until it is edited. Let’s think a bit out of the box, though, by keeping editing to an absolute minimum, to reflect the scene accurately and not turn every shot into an artistic interpretation. Compulsory editing as an overkill. Shouldn’t images be able to stand on their own? Or at least: keep the digital darkroom to an absolute minimum thanks to ever progressing in-camera processing prowess.

Not an easy light for any camera, but a piece of cake for a smartphone's average-Joe mode (AJM): no buttons, no settings to worry, SOOC shadows with detail.
Not an easy light for any camera to handle, but a piece of cake for a smartphone’s average-Joe mode (AJM): no buttons, no settings to worry, SOOC shadows with detail. | Nokia Lumia 830 / Daniel Kestenholz

Take the iPhone 6‘s tone mapping, a process to rein in overexposure that put the camera in a class of its own. Add the much better qualities more serious gear delivers, such as more accurate white balance, better contrast and spot-on skin tones. Nothing comes even close on things like dynamic range. But more can be done.

Not saying an AJM would be the ultimate perfect approach, but in-camera auto enhance, a kind of invisible magic wand, should lie within the realms of today’s image processing possibilities. It’s just, why would the camera companies bother if they can already sell cameras with less effort.

They’re profiting from the stigmatization of lower-end gear, as if it’s proof of quality to put as much effort as possible into post-processing. As someone say, most images today are not taken, they’re computed. If that’s done by optional, all-in-one in-camera algorithms, sign me up!

Had a short conversation about this with Ming Thein, he thinks it’s because there isn’t anywhere near enough processing power in a DSLR. He says that isn’t something camera companies are investing in. Question is, and do you really want to buy a DSLR that has a cooked RAW file where information has been lossy compressed/preprocessed in a way that you can’t undo later. No one wants that. But I want the AJM limited to JPEG option.

I could live with less resolution, less perfect detail, less fps and constricted continuous shooting for the sake of a mode that reads and interprets files in a way that is on par with what average Joe is allowed to enjoy. Luminance and color noise are not that much of an issue anymore with today’s sensor sensitivities. Selective in-camera highlights, shadows and light accuracy handling though, and not another filter, not another gimmicky HDR or whatever mode, but absolute straightforwardness and ease of use in higher-end gear, that’s a market.

All depends on more powerful and efficient image processing. Remapping shades and tones might result in certain flatness. But Canon, Nikon et al would certainly be ill advised to not take a page from Apple and especially Lumia. To my own surprise, AJM in most cases delivers evenly lit, nicely balanced results that don’t need a bit of post-processing. Open pixel-peeping close inspection sure, mushy detail and artifacts. In not too few cases, however, AJM salvages the scene altogether. Frustrating really if the original looks nicer on a small screen in your hand than what you see right in front of you with your own eyes. Brave new intelligent image processing, in the hands of everyone, just not DSLR owners.

Could stop the industry’s bleeding a bit, offering the smartphone approach in ultimate gear. Doesn’t disenfranchise the photographer necessarily. Sure, the purists will scorn the thought of it. Whoever sounds off such nonsense isn’t capable of handling the camera in the first place. Is that so. There’s a reason why Apple reinvents photography.

AJM it is, the best of two worlds. For marketing reasons, let’s give it a name that sounds less plebeian. How about: auto mapping. Especially when pressed for quick and reliable results with little time to fiddle with aperture, shutter speed and ISO, I might even be tempted to leave the smartass phone at home.

And folks, stay open-minded!

  • Omer

    Nikon and other brands have implemented versions of your idea for a while now. Nikon calls their implementation “Active D-Ligthing.” Of course it works with jpgs but can also be used with .NEF files in tandem with Nikon’s desktop software. It will not work with Lightroom, et al.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I’m sorry Dan,
    but I couldn’t disagree more. The stuff you are talking about, I’ll let you put it into entry level DSLRs, but leave the pro models alone. As a matter of fact, when you update the Nikon D810 feel free to take out the video as well.

  • Active D-Lighting is certainly a step in the right direction!

  • TBH Bengt, I expected harsher reactions to this article. Fact is, it will come, disguised as some fancy “auto mapping” or whatever mode, but in fact it’ll be an AJM.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The need to sometimes widen the dynamic range of a digital capture by lighting the shadows and darken the highlights is certainly legitimate and best done in post processing.

    Lightroom is one of many tools that does this quite well. However, for this to work the capture and the in-camera processing must preserve the qualities required to facilitate this. Nikon’s D800 and D810 are some of the best at allowing you to stretch the dynamic range from one and the same capture.

    Nikon’s in-camera Active D-Lighting does this to a very mild degree. Why has Nikon chosen to implement ADL to such a mild degree?

    Probably for the same reason that other presets in Lightroom and PS only work well for a narrow and specific group of captures without loosing too much contrast or other important qualities.

    There are also already algorithms in many DSLRs that allow you to make an automated HDR. They are about as popular and effective as ADL and for the same reason.

    If you don’t want to take the time to learn to optimize your images in post processing, by all means, buy a quick and dirty camera with quick and dirty special effects, but don’t expect to gain much attention for your images, other than in your own eyes.

  • My point exactly, spending as little time as possible with computing and tweaking a.k.a. post-processing by moving that process in-camera. No filters, no special effects, but accurate rendition. It will happen once cameras have the processing power. Just a matter of time, that’s why imaging softwares are big business.

  • Bengt Nyman

    No it’s not “your point exactly”.
    You are overlooking that visual feedback, human judgement, preference, creativity and taste are keys to good post processing. You are talking about replacing your wife with a robot. Good luck !

  • We could continue this dialog ad absurdum. Different schools, not different truths. The images posted on this site are mostly SOOC, if not specified otherwise, to show what a camera is capable of, and not what a post-processor is capable of. To me, the less time I have to spend on the computer the better. Or did the old photographers spend most time in the darkroom? If a photo is “right,” it doesn’t need much post-processing. The latter is mostly an attempt in salvaging of what could be done much better in the first place. To get it captured better in the first place, that’s what AJM is all about.

  • Bengt Nyman

    You might get one image in a hundred that simply can not be improved in post. However, whatever makes you happy …

  • Omer

    I think for certain kinds of photography, such as photojournalism this in-camera processing is acceptable. Current sensor tech is fairly accommodating of pushing the image quality envelope without much penalty.