Looking forward to the Pre camera
Tucked away in the announcements for Palm's Pre, a remark about the new device's camera caught my eye: "Camera: 3.2 megapixel, DxO Image Processing and extended depth of field, LED flash." The geeks among us don't need any explanation, but for everyone else, here's a translation: A fixed-focus camera with sophisticated image processing to make the pictures look better than you'd otherwise expect. Indeed, a recent post on Palm's WebOS blog goes into great technical detail - and speculation - about the technology that's being incorporated.
Palm Pre uses the latest imaging correction software from DxO Labs. DxO is a leading player in the field of image analysis and correction. It is used and incorporated by all major photo brands like Canon, Nikon, Sigma, etc., in their digital SLR cameras to do image processing and correction. DxO offers a number of different products including software post-processing packages, image quality analyzer and, most important of all, embedded imaging solution which rests inside the device and does live processing of your beautiful shots.
What's possible with such embedded processing could amaze, for sure, but we'll have to wait and see how much and which of DxO's technology lands inside. The French company DxO blazes trails in software that fixes digital cameras’ inherent (and otherwise) troubles. Their software goes “on-chip” so the camera does the work before the picture lands on the screen.
For its part, the Pre camera's basic specification, 3.2 megapixels with an LED "flash" to help out in low light, is no slouch. I have many digital images of 3.3 megapixels. The prints are 11x14 and glorious. However, they had the advantage of quality lenses - Carl Zeiss, in fact - and non-fixed-focus. They did not have any DxO processing, but could probably have been even better for it.
There has been some grousing about "only" 3 megapixels. Some "other" phone cameras tick up more than twice that. Besides megapixels, however, many other factors contribute to the quality of a digital camera's pictures. These include the physical size of the imaging "chip" - rarely stated in anybody's specifications sheets, the software that runs the imager, and the quality (or not) of the lens. With phone cameras, there's not much room for a great lens, so something else has to take up the slack. In the Pre, it appears, embedded software will do exactly that.
According to the blog post, the Pre will probably use DxO's IPE - Image Processing Engine - to assist low light photos and improve depth of field. The company offers other options, but this one specifically addresses depth of field. That's how much of a scene, front to back, is in focus and where and how the unsharpness, also called bokeh, occurs. Fixed-aperture lenses and any lens that operates in low light suffer from poor depth of field - not much of what's in a scene is sharp. In real cameras, the solution is to "stop down" the lens aperture. Camera phones "stop down" by electronically adjusting their sensitivity to light, so there's no benefit to depth of field, which is a mathematical function dependent on distance, focal length, and aperture.
The other DxO capabilities are even more tantalizing. The most interesting is "Global Adaptive Lighting." This digitally looks around in an image and improves shadow and highlight detail by equalizing the exposures. I have filters for Adobe Photoshop that do this, and a very fast computer to run them on. They take a LONG time to do their thing, but the result is often stunning. So, if Palm's sticking this in the Pre hardware, let me at it!
This whole digital processing thing has been around for a long time, but it got lots of attention back when the Hubble Telescope had an optical problem that NASA temporarily solved with digital manipulation till a physical fix could be made. Celebrated history notwithstanding, digital image processing isn't a substitute for optical excellence, and as with everything else, there's no free lunch. I’m not throwing out my digital SLR’s, but I do look forward to shooting with the Pre.
About the picture. The accompanying illustration is from DxO’s website, which includes excellent, however highly technical, discussions of the whole process. This image might not apply to the Pre, exactly. But then again, it might.