Black and brown

Google’s move to correct racial bias in its camera algorithm is much needed and long overdue

In the ’60s and ’70s, Kodak, then the leading manufacturer of photographic equipment in the US, received numerous complaints from chocolate and furniture manufacturers that its pictures were not capturing the “right brown tones” of their products. Kodak fixed the issue to some extent, in the process benefiting those who wanted the rich, diverse tones of their black and/or brown skin to look beautiful as well as accurate in photographs. On Tuesday, at its I/O 2021 event, Google announced plans to make the cameras on its next batch of smartphones more sensitive to different skin tones. This is a welcome move.

For far too long, light skin has been the baseline for what looks good in a photograph. If photographers no longer use Kodak’s infamous Shirley Card from the ’50s — featuring an ivory-skinned model, the standard against which the quality of images was judged — now smartphone cameras automatically erase all “flaws”, including “brightening” skin tone. This racial bias is visible, and it has implications, almost everywhere that the camera plays a role — from the pages of international fashion magazines to the skincare market to studios that make a living off bridal photoshoots. It’s there before the movie camera. In a 2013 interview, filmmaker Ava DuVernay caused ripples when she pointed out that the default lighting used in movies is that which flatters light skin.

Photographers — and models — who would rather capture skin tones as they are instead of flattening them into a uniform paleness have had to do it by constantly adjusting white balance, exposure and lighting or colour correcting in the post-production stage. Capturing what is natural and beautiful should not be this hard. Google’s decision to correct its computational photography algorithm is an overdue step in the right direction.

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