Why image processing is an art.

There are lots of blogs that extol some piece of code that does some type of “image processing”. Classically this is some type of image enhancement – an attempt to improve the aesthetics of an image. But the problem with image processing is that there are aspects of if that are not really a science. Image processing is an art fundamentally because the quality of the outcome is often intrinsically linked to an individuals visual preferences. Some will say the operations used in image processing are inherently scientific because they are derived using mathematical formula. But so are paint colours. Paint is made from chemical substances, and deriving a particular colour is nothing more than a mathematical formula for combining different paint colours. We’re really talking about processing here, and not analysis (operations like segmentation). So what forms of processing are artistic?

  1. Anything that is termed a “filter”. The Instagram-type filters that make an ordinary photo look like a Polaroid.
  2. Anything with the word enhancement in it. This is an extremely loose term – for it literally means “an increase in quality” – what does this mean to different people? This could involve improving the contrast in an image, removing blur through sharpening, or maybe suppressing noise artifacts.

These processes are partially artistic because there is no tried-and-true method of determining whether the processing has resulted in an improvement in the quality of the image. Take an image, improve its contrast. Does it have a greater aesthetic appeal? Are the colours more vibrant? Do vibrant colours contribute to aesthetic appeal? Are the blues really blue?

Consider the photograph below. To some, the image on the left suffers from being somewhat underexposed, i.e. dark. The image in the middle is the same image processed using a filter called Retinex. Retinex helps remove unfavourable illumination conditions – the result is not perfect, however the filter can help recover detail from an image in which it is enveloped in darkness. Whilst a good portion of the image has been “lightened”, the overcast sky has darkened through the process. There is no exact science for “automagically” making an image have greater aesthetic appeal. The art of image processing often requires tweaking settings, and adjusting the image until it appears to have improved visually. In the final image of the sequence below, the original and Retinex processed images are used to create a composite by retaining only the maximum value at each pixel location. The result is a brighter, more visually appealing image.

Contrast enhancement using the Retinex filter: before (left), after (right)

Contrast enhancement: (a) original, (b) Retinex-processed, (c) MAXimum of (a) and (b)

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