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A camera that takes line drawings

Time for some good news, in the form of a classic piece of techno-ingenuity that looks like turning a classic problem into a classic solution.

You know how, when you take photos with your cheap digital camera (everyone has cheap digital cameras nowadays), and when you use flash (everyone uses flash), you get that horrible dark shadow behind and to one side (depending on exactly where the flash thingy is situated next to the camera lens). A problem, right? I think so. When I take digital photos, I am prepared to endure agonies of bad lighting and blurriness rather than resort to flash and its pictorial indignities.

But this guy has turned this problem into a solution. Solid shapes give you annoying little black lines do they? So why not, he said to himself, have four flash guns, all around the lens, not just one, and that way, get yourself black lines everywhere, wherever anything sticks out?

The multi-flash camera captures real life images and renders them in a non-photorealistic line-form. …

So what use is that? A lot, it turns out.

The multi-flash camera’s non-photorealistic images look like line drawings, but have an advantage over hand made line drawings for they are able [to] depict real-world scenes with precision and, most importanly, speed impossible for the human eye/hand. …

Think of all those instructions manuals where, in order to explain things properly, they cannot use photos, because photos are not clear enough, and must instead resort to laboriously created line drawings. Well, this gadget creates line drawings like that automatically.

Multi-flash imaging promises to facilitate and pioneer complicated rendering of mechanical objects, plants, or internal anatomical parts. Because of its ability to detect depth discontinuities, it may render shapes that would otherwise be difficult to perceive. For instance, a car engine could easily be captured in a non-photorealistic image and then superimposed over an actual photograph of the engine resulting in a superior manual illustration (see example below). Alternatively, a skeleton with complex network of white bones could be efficiently reproduced for instructional medical visualization. Additionally, an endoscopic camera enhanced with the multi-flash technology promises to enhance internal anatomical visualization for researchers and medical doctors.

I wonder if the kind of cheap digital cameras you can now buy for $200 will soon have this kind of facility. Personally, I look forward to a time when cheap digital cameras have far more, and more flexible, flash devices on them than they have now. My first digital camera had only one flash device of course, but it was such that I could take pictures from one direction and point the flash at the object of my attentions from a quite different direction. Too bad it never worked properly. You can get flash devices for a digital camera like this now, but they cost far more than I care to pay. If this new device draws attention to the good things that digital flash can do, that might change.

Which is all rather incidental. My main point here is: what a brilliant idea.

UPDATE: By the way, as a commenter reminded me by asking about this, I should have said that this camera is a whole lot better than anything Photoshop can do along these … lines! (Ha!) Follow the second link above, scroll down a bit, and you come to a set of six pictures. These show this difference very clearly, and it is all the difference.

21 comments to A camera that takes line drawings

  • JB

    Sorry – what does this do that contour and edge filters in Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, and other such programs can’t already do with a minimum of hassle?

  • telcontar

    Actually, the article linked to addressed that issue.

    What a cool gadget. If only I had money to burn…

  • Euan Gray

    This is not new. It’s called a ring flash, and has been around for years.


  • JB

    Yes, that this thing is much cleverer than Photoshop for these particular purposes was dealt with in the article linked to, as JB said, but I probably should have had a line about that in the original posting, and will now add such a line, I think, for this is central to what a clever gadget this is.

    So thanks for asking that.

  • EG

    Does this “ring flash” achieve the same result in terms of “line drawings”?

  • I had never heard of “ring flash” before, so thanks for that EG, but I have now done a little googling, and the purpose of the ring flashes I saw (based on the pictures they helped to take) was simply to take better, but regular and “photographic” looking, pictures. They were not rigged up to get the line effect that this guy goes for. Maybe they could have been, but by not seeking this outcome, they did not achieve it.

    My first response to your challenge: that the thing I linked to is indeed a genuinely new idea, and quite distinct from ring flash as currently done.

    I must say, I would have been amazed if this guy had spent such a long time reinventing the wheel, on account of not realising that it had already been invented and was for sale on amazon. I’ll bet you anything that HE has heard of ring flash, and knows all about what it can and can’t, does and does not, do.

  • Euan Gray

    This is what I get for posting at midnight and not following the links 🙁

    Actually, looking into it, it is a rather neat device.


  • Brian,

    as previous commenters have alluded to but not really spelled out: if you just want photos that look (a bit) like charcoal sketches, rather than the sort of fancy 3d-esque effects this guy is after, then you can do quite well in Photoshop by:

    (a) converting your picture to black & white
    (b) increasing the contrast quite a lot
    (c) Filters->Stylize->Find Edges
    (d) Filters->Blur->Gaussian Blur to taste
    (e) up the contrast some more

    This is technique I use a lot to make “edge masks” to control sharpening for pictures scanned from grainy film, but I’ve quite often found myself thinking the edge mask itself is quite aesthetically pleasing.

  • Stunningly simple. I saw an infra red imaging system for the military that provided moving 3d line images , fine for single person but couldn’t cope with crowds. probably 13 years ago.

    This used multiple IR beams and a single camera which took images in roatation uisng each camera.

    Some outfit from Dublin I think but it was along time ago. Resolution was poor because of IR wavelength they said.

  • lucklucky

    Photoshop or better a medium artist behind it, can do that easily. Even 3D rendering engines do that like Finalrender
    and others, usually it’s embeded in the so called cartoon shaders.

  • Findlay Dunachie


    My wife has just posted a comment to your link “different direction” so please have a look at it. She can get spastic kids to use a digital camera if it has a tripod (or a bag of lentils – don’t laugh) under it

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Dear me – what happened?

  • Findlay

    What happened was that, understandably impatient at how long it takes for comments to appear here, you pressed the same button six times, and then did it again when apologising. But don’t worry, I’ve sorted it out.

    Given the enthusiasm-to-competence ratio of most of the more technological posts I sometimes stick up here, it is remarkable how much I am trusted to use such powers only for good.

    And yes, I have responded to your wife’s comment, with a comment of my own involving drunkenness, lampposts, illumination, support, etc., in connection with digital photography.

  • htom

    Setting off all four lamps at once would give you something like the ringflash effect, but with only four sources you ‘d have mulitple shadows instead of no shadows.

    For a stationary subject you could do something like this by rotating the camera and single flash around the optical axis of the lens. Do you need all four images? Mounting the camera and flash in a ring with the optical center of the lens in the center of the ring, and mounting the ring on a tripod, allowing it to be turned in steps of 90 degrees (is this optimal?) is the first thought.

    It does make fantastic technical illustrations.

  • Mary in LA

    Call me a Luddite, but all I can say is — aw, crap, there go a whole bunch of technical-illustrator jobs. 🙁

    This is technically very cool, but it depresses me nonetheless, as someone who in an earlier age might have made a living (though not a fortune) as a violinist but now can’t even get a look-in. Maybe someone here can point out the fallacy in my thinking and un-depress me? Thank you.

  • “fantastic technical illustrations”

    You people have to be kidding, right? Even with the steady decline in quality of technical illustration these days, the idea that the horrible crap produced “automatically” by this camera arrangement (or, for that matter, Photoshop) is “fantastic” or even “tolerable” is just unbelievable. I mean, I’m used to engineering types with their awful graphic notions, but this takes the cake.

    What really depressing is that y’all are Brits, and England once produced the finest black and white technical illustrations in the world. From automotive manuals to AIR ENTHUSIAST magazines, the best came from England. I used to pore enthralled over cutaway Spitfires or the inner workings of the SU carburator as delineated by masters of pen and ink who were both painstakingly accurate and aesthetically uncompromising.

    And this junk you link to is a great advance? I should just die now, that’s what I should do. The world is turning into crap.

  • lucklucky

    Yeah that puzzled me too John. Btw arent you forgetting the Japanese they have had always great illustrators.

  • Dr Eric

    Responding as a photgrapher, this is plain daft! The device is effectively a ring flash, as used for macro work. I have one almost exactly as described with 4 separately switchable lights. Far from producing multi-shadows it produces none at all: just nice, evenly lit pictures.

  • What all the ‘ring flash’ commenters are missing is that there appears to be software here that can differentiate between the shadows cast by flash #1 from the shadows cast by flash #2 etc.

    The lighting you get with a ring flash is not much different to the lighting you get with the technique under discussion here, but because the ring flash’s lighting is delivered all at once you (ideally) don’t get *any* shadows. With four flashes, you get four sets of shadows, all in different places.

    You then feed those four sets of shadows into the software, and you get an accurate if not beautiful line drawing, correctly showing the relative depth of objects in the scene. A ring flash can’t do that, and Photoshop’s Find Edges filter can’t really tell what’s in front of what.