Computational photography as artistic approach

Markku Nousiainen

Markku Nousiainen
Aalto University Media Factory

Computational photography is a new concept in digital photography, referring to the use of algorithms to retrieve, modify and select data from an imaging device in order to expand the possibilities of visual expression. It is still possible to just ‘take pictures’ but the means of visual expression go beyond what is commonly understood as photography.

The digital camera has become increasingly a tool for programming instead of merely recording images. In the very nature of algorithms is their ability to be easily modified, a characteristic that with some do-it-yourself spirit opens up the concepts of image, camera, and picture-taking to redefinitions.

With the creative misuse and hacking of algorithms and camera hardware, it is possible to question not only our visual conventions but also the increasing manipulation of our visual environment that already takes place either with in-camera filtering, or the digital retouching taking place in image editing softwares. Even more obvious manipulation of reality can be seen in features such as Sony’s ‘smile shutter’ function originally introduced in 2007 – the camera detects when people smile in the picture and releases the shutter at that moment.

Cameras are also equipped with sensors that retrieve location and position data thus giving rise to expanding the visual realm to location-aware, multisensory and embodied expression.

With an artistic mindset, camera and picture-taking are perceived as concepts that can be modified in do-it-yourself spirit and are therefore open to discussion, redefinition, and hacking. This approach to the field of computational photography differs from how the term is understood in the camera industry where the focus is on features that serve typical photographic purposes in consumer or professional cameras.

Unlike in mainstream digital photography the results of algorithmic manipulation of camera data are often to some extent unpredictable. Computational photography is in this way reminiscent of the time of early photography and an invitation to artistic experimentation. The partly artificial or manipulated nature of the resulting images is in many cases visible – a seemingly faithful representation of reality is abandoned and our aesthetic preconceptions are challenged. For this kind of work, the Internet can be seen both as a giant repository of source images, and a platform for shared projects and shared code.

The work of an artist takes place in close connection to the digital medium and algorithms that are usually not as well-controlled as conventional photographer’s tools, leaving plenty of room for playfulness. What results is an interplay between artist and the medium, and oftentimes with an interactive format of presentation, that between audience and the artwork.

An experimental course with artistic focus on computational photography was organised in Aalto University this winter (see This was also one of the themes in Pixelache Helsinki 2011 festival, organised in collaboration with Aalto Media Factory (see

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