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Of course any bitmap image can be vectorized, but might we ever reach a point where a camera can make an outline image that looks exactly like a photograph? Could the resulting image even be considered a photograph, and if not, what defines a photograph?

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While an interesting question, I hope you have read the FAQ for the type of questions that should be and should not be asked in this forum. –  Regmi May 22 '13 at 5:21
You say " ... a camera can make ..." - if a CAMERA can make it but it was not a photograph, you may have to redefine either or both terms compared to current usage. | I'd hazard that if you poitnted a DOOFER at a scene and it produced a vector image that represented the scene as well as a typical photo does now then the DOOFER IS a camera and it makes photos. Processing power has no obvious sensible upper limit any time soon, so the answer to your question seems to be "Yes". –  Russell McMahon May 22 '13 at 6:30
As you say, any bitmap image can be vectorized. Why should a bitmap vs vector representation matter for the definition of a photo any more than the 'silver nitrate on paper' vs 'RGB pixels' representation? If you mean that the image is generated from a 3D model rather than from the real world, we can already do that pretty well; we call them renderings. If cameras could construct and manipulate 3D models, so we get pictures that are part real-world, part rendering, I expect the discussion will be similar to today's discussions about Photoshop. –  j-g-faustus May 22 '13 at 7:15

2 Answers 2

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I think the problem here is one of level of detail. While vectorization works great for making an image that can scale infinitely, it relies on firm patterns that can be mathematically described.

Unfortunately, real life is full of imperfections and variations that make it impossible to describe in a pure vector format, at-least with any meaningful gain. We could theoretically make a vector format that maps every single pixel, but then we'd have a raster image that couldn't scale any better than a normal raster image.

Image and video compression are already the applications of the kind of thinking you are talking about. They look for the patterns that can be identified to reduce the storage required and when using lossy compression, they bend the rules further to get a match so that they can reduce the amount of information necessary to represent the image.

Vectorizing the image is another level of extreme for this, but you will notice that the image quality always drops significantly when such vectorization is applied (due to the loss of the random information that makes a photo look like real life.)

As for whether a vector image of a scene is a photo or not. I think that's a really hard question to answer. Personally, I'd say yes, if it is a rendering of real life based on sampling the light (regardless of how lifelike it may be), I think that it probably could be considered a photograph, but I could also see how someone might see it as more akin to a painting at that point as well. I don't think there is a strong line answer there.

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It just occurred to me a few days ago: vector photography is impossible. For an image to be truly a vector image, it would have to be infinitely scalable. But real life is not infinitely scalable. There is no way a camera could capture every atom in a scene to the point that you could zoom to the atomic level and beyond (beyond?). Such an image could be terabytes in size. –  Lee Sleek Jun 20 '13 at 16:30
@LeeSleek - such an image wouldn't necessarily be terabytes in size if it could fit to a mathematical model, but real life doesn't typically fit that well to a mathematical model due to imperfections. An atomic level accurate raster image would be FAR larger than terabytes. –  AJ Henderson Jun 20 '13 at 17:03
I was taking into account that vector images are generally smaller than raster images. Anyways, even if we could create a vector camera, what would be the difference between it and a camera that vectorized the bitmaps it saw? –  Lee Sleek Jun 20 '13 at 21:00
@LeeSleek - well that's just it, a true vector representation of real life is pretty much impossible. Best you can hope for is an approximation. I don't think it is conceivable that a camera could do native vector capture, so it would have to be a vectorization of a bitmap image. That's the only way a camera producing vector graphics would be possible. –  AJ Henderson Jun 20 '13 at 21:40

Such cameras exist today such as those used to survey road accident sites.

Those cameras create a 'point cloud' of vector distance measurements based on reflected laser light and there is no need to be evenly spaced or co-located pixels although they normally are (as it's easier to do it that way). There are ways which that captured image can then be displayed using interpolated projections (including on vector displays as used to be used by CAD operators in days gone by) or by printing using either material removal (like CNC) or an additive process (such as Selective Laser Sintering.) There's no reason why such a camera couldn't record colour information and they may even do that anyway.

The word Photograph is a compound of Photo (light) and Graph (record) as such, yes it would be photography as it would be recorded light.

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A point cloud is still a raster image though, it just has depth data. That isn't a vector based image. A vector image uses a mathematical model to describe where lines should appear and how the shapes they form should be filled, thus allowing perfect scaling, thus the same image can be used to fill a billboard or print a business card. –  AJ Henderson May 22 '13 at 13:58
@AJHenderson - A raster is a set of horizontal scanning lines of values which is not a point cloud as points don't have to have a relation to one another only to the point the image is being captured from. That said, I'll grant that current implementations use raster scanning for simplicity. Relationships between vertices can be mapped out mathematically which will scale smoothly and limitations on resolution would be down to limitations of the mathematical model (how many vertices, accuracy of curvature recordings etc.) –  James Snell May 23 '13 at 12:18
A raster image has no relationship between the points, it is simply that the input is taken for each individual point without any regard for the points around it. A laser scanner does the same thing, but stores depth information for how far each point was from the sensor. Sure you can make an imperfect vectorization of the scene, but any detail that was smaller than the model that approximates the point cloud can represent will be lost, the exact same way information is lost in the vectorization of a flat image. –  AJ Henderson May 23 '13 at 16:49
@JamesSnell: The mathematical models have never been the limitation. You're never going to be a able to build a camera that could take a picture of the whole earth with down to the atom resolution, but there is nothing mathematically preventing you from representing such an image. This whole question suffers from a misunderstanding of the purposes of raster vs vector graphics. –  whatsisname May 23 '13 at 18:20
@AJHenderson - the definition of raster is a set of horizontal scanned lines. –  James Snell May 23 '13 at 19:42

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