You’ve seen it a thousand times. Quite possibly literally, if you’re a fan of television and film, which, you are, since we’re here together now. Without fail, in virtually every modern story involving the police or any sort of search for a suspect, we journey into the digital services lab. There a bespectacled man wearing a white coat settles in behind his flat screen monitor. The detectives hover behind them. They all study the screen intently. It’s black and white security footage. Grainy. But there. Just there in the background. A license plate. A face. If only…
“Can you zoom in on that?” Of course he can. “Enhance the image.” Not a problem, here just let me run this through a filter. “Can you sharpen that up?” What good would he be if he couldn’t? Again, let me just pass that through a sharpen filter. There we go. Image enhanced. De-pixelating now. Waa-laa. A perfect license plate. An easily identifiable face.
Only one question remains – does anyone in the writers room know how the fuck photo manipulation programs work? Doesn’t anyone there have Photoshop? You’re telling me none of these guys tried zooming in really close on some porn or a photo of Lady Gaga’s crotch and discovered “Shit, it’s all squares and stuff!” Those are called pixels, my friend, and you can’t get rid of them.
You know what you do get when zoom in a bunch and try to enhance a photo and then run some sharpening filters on it? You get that picture above. A grainy, gritty image, with shit for detail. Now that face there is almost recognizable, because the image I used was actually pretty clean. The guy was close enough to be identified, but for the purpose of illustration, I wanted to show just how much you fuck up an image by zooming in a few times and running those omnipresent “filters.” We took something recognizable and blew it out to the point it’s almost useless. Now imagine what it would look like if you were trying to zoom in on something unrecognizable to begin with.
Sure, computers can do wondrous things. If you have a satellite photo, you can get some amazing clarity. But there is the real deal. It’s all about starting resolution. A satellite is using a gigantic lens and taking a tremendously large picture with lots and lots of information in it. The more information in it, the closer you can get. Shitty security cameras shooting in the dark don’t get a lot of information. If the information was never collected in the first place, it can’t be cleaned up enhanced. It’s dead.
So come on, people. Can we get a clue? The odds of the ATM camera catching the license plate reflecting in a puddle on the ground providing the final clue to the mystery is bullshit. Unless some HD camera was installed and there was great lighting outside, you’re not going to be seeing much. The general rule is pretty much “if you can’t see it, you never will.” You can lighten up the image a bit, zoom in a bit, but the kind of magic you’re pulling is downright wizardly. You might as well have Elliot Stabler roll Triple 20s to solve the case and zoom in the image. It’s a crap shoot. Your computer can’t do that. Your photo software cant’ do that. You can’t do that.
So quit. Stop. Write something else. Find another way to solve the problem. You’re smart, presumably. Or maybe it’s not even your fault. Maybe someone in post thought it would be cool to add that scene. Or a producer. Whoever is making this mistake needs a slap across the face. On film. So I can zoom in, enhance, and sharpen your pain over and over again. When cops or whoever rely on this bullshit technology, the only thing that gets enhanced is my boiling point.
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