Can better tech really fix darker-skin bias in smartphone cameras? Google thinks so

The tech giant Google used the biggest platform it could find to make a statement during Black History Month. 

In a one-minute ad that cost millions, Google told Super Bowl fans about something Black people have known for a long time: most cameras aren’t great at capturing darker skin.

Against a montage of poorly-lit photographs in which subjects’ cheekbones and eyes are lost in shadows, voices complained about terrible yearbook photos and showing up too dark or shiny.

Google was promoting its latest smart phone, the Pixel 6, the first with its Real Tone feature, which the company says uses artificial intelligence to take better pictures of people with darker skin tones.

The phone debuted in October, and its new ad, which featured a new track by Lizzo, cost $14 million US for the air time alone based on reported rates.

“It was super interesting to me,” said Toronto based photographer O’shane Howard, who is Black. “That’s never been an angle that I’ve seen, like an iPhone or like a Samsung come up with.” 

While there’s still a lot of work to be done for cameras to accurately represent people of colour, Howard and others hope Google’s efforts and high profile “real tone” campaign signal the industry is waking up.

“It’ll be pretty dope to see that, said Howard.”We want to ensure that every, every single person is going to be represented in the best light.”  

Google’s Super Bowl ad showed this yearbook photo as an example of how camera technology has failed people with darker skin tones. (Google)

Real Tone and phone camera claims

It might be tempting to think that skin colour has nothing to do with how a camera captures a face, but that’s not true historically — or with the modern crop of face-detecting and auto-enhancing smart phones.

Howard, an accomplished photographer who’s worked with clients like Nike and Roots and published work in Vogue, has seen this from both sides of the lens.

He was a model for seven years, and is still very conscious of the way that many camera phones show his skin.

“I just seem a lot more pale than I actually am,” said Howard.

Howard says images of people with dark skin often look like the subject is in shadows or “super de-saturated,” which he calls frustrating. 

“When we wake up every single day, we see ourselves while we’re brushing our teeth,” he says, “so we know what we look like.”

WATCH | Why it matters for a camera to show darker skin authentically:

What an inclusive camera means to this photographer

O’shane Howard, a Toronto-based photographer, shares his feelings about why cameras need to do a better job capturing darker skin. 0:27

Howard bought a Pixel 6 and says he’s impressed by how its camera captures darker skin tones. 

Google says it worked with a team of darker-skinned image experts, who helped the company “acknowledge our own gaps,” improving exposure of faces with dark skin and expanding the colour range captured by the Pixel camera.

In smartphones, it’s not the most prominent player; Google’s devices account for less than three per cent of the Canadian market.

The top two devices — Apple’s iPhone (56 per cent) and Samsung’s Galaxy line (28 per cent) — haven’t made specific marketing claims about how their phones represent darker skin tones. 

Apple says it’s continuously improving the range of skin tones iPhones can capture by showing it hundreds of thousands of diverse faces.

Samsung did not respond to CBC’s request for comment about how its phones portray skin tones.  

Photography’s built-in bias against dark skin 

Long before phone cameras, colour film photography came with a built-in bias, according to Lorna Roth, a distinguished professor emerita in communications at Montreal’s Concordia University.

From the 1940s on, stock colour film was designed to capture light skin best, said Roth, who has been researching this issue for nearly three decades.

WATCH | Photography has never been neutral, says researcher:

This professor says the history of cameras is not neutral

Lorna Roth, from Montreal’s Concordia University, on why cameras are not a neutral technology and were designed to capture lighter skin. 0:23

A “norm of whiteness” existed among those who created the film, says Roth, which meant the range of darker brown skin tones were literally left out of the picture.  

In her research, Roth quotes a former Kodak executive saying the company was pressured to change that in the mid-1960s and 70s, not to improve representation of Black skin, but to satisfy two of Kodak’s biggest corporate accounts — furniture and chocolate makers — who wanted better product shots. 

She rejects the notion that photography and the physics of light are neutral, because “the designer always is evident in the design.”  

Reference photos used by Kodak to standardize colour film printing, known as ‘Shirley’ cards, were originally designed with lighter skin in mind, as seen on left, says researcher Lorna Roth. Kodak introduced a multiracial card, on right, in 1995. (Submitted by Lorna Roth with permission of Kodak)


Roth adds while film gradually improved, a limited colour range was carried over into the digital image technology.  

She points to an example that embarrassed computer maker HP in 2009, when its web cam could not register the face of a Black person.    

Another camera technology debacle was detected in a 2019 U.S. government study. 

It found several facial recognition systems, including one made by Microsoft, would misidentify Black and Asian faces more often than the faces of white people.    

Google’s image problems, past and present

Google is among the tech giants of Silicon Valley that have faced criticism of racial bias in their algorithms and products for years. 

In 2015, the company apologised after it was revealed that Google photos had labelled a picture of two people who are Black as gorillas.

WATCH | Montreal ad exec weighs in on new Pixel camera:

What does this Montreal ad exec think of Google’s inclusive camera?

Ash Phillips, CEO of Montreal ad agency Six Cinquième, on how celebrating diversity and inclusion ‘will improve Google’s overall image.’ 0:28

More criticism came when a teenager’s Twitter post about a Google image search went viral. He showed that typing in the phrase “three Black teenagers” produced a series of police mug shots of young people with dark skin.         

Recently the company’s own Diversity Annual Report, which it publishes to disclose progress on representation and diversity goals, drew attention because it showed Google was struggling to get women of colour to stay with the business

Ash Phillips, CEO of Montreal ad agency Six Cinquième, says celebrating diversity and inclusion “will improve Google’s overall image.” 

Beyond the ad featuring Lizzo, Google also has NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo  and two Canadians, tennis sensation Leylah Fernandez and Shang-Chi actor Simu Liu, pushing the Pixel. 

“For sure they are trying to sell their phones,” said Phillips. But Pixel’s marketing shows “a certain level of self awareness from Google’s part, especially being aware of situations in the past where there were issues with like search engine results.”

Looking to the future

So far, there are positive online reviews of Real Tone by consumers and tech journalists.

How well it works is subjective. The Wall Street Journal tested the Pixel 6, Samsung Galaxy S21 and Apple iPhone 13 Mini against each other, taking shots of people with dark skin. It reported that most subjects preferred pictures taken with the Galaxy, though found the Pixel most accurate.

Singer Lizzo was part of an ad Google made for the Super Bowl to help it promote its latest smart phone during Black History Month. (Google)

With Google putting an explicit focus on inclusion with the Pixel camera,  Phillips predicts the other phone makers may promote diversity claims of their own.

“I mean, we see it time and time again, brands copy each other,” she said.

The messaging and photo app Snapchat announced it’s working to make its camera function more inclusive, and Roth wants more companies to commit to change.    

For photographer Howard, he says more darker-skinned people need to be involved in the technology to take the bias out of cameras.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see a version of them that is not authentic.”  

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.