Being seen in all the ways that matter.
For the players in the 2022 NBA HBCU matchup, Google Pixel’s Real Tone capabilities gave them one important way to be seen.

Keith McGee, Morgan State University

His whole family was very involved in the game, so Steve Settle III always expected he would play basketball.

His father had played in high school and college and was a coach. His parents had made him try a range of sports, but, he says, “with football, I didn’t like getting hit all the time, and with baseball, I was really tall and felt out of place.” Of basketball, he says, “I could play all year round and that’s all I wanted to do.”

In 2020, Settle, who is 6'10", enrolled in Howard University, a historically Black university, and joined its basketball team as center and power forward. “Hearing [Howard] Coach Kenny [Blakeney] and what he had planned, I just felt he believed in me more than I believed in myself at that time,” says Settle. “He had a vision and a plan.” 

Being seen is a basic human desire that, for Settle, was fed by a coach who saw his potential.

More recently, Settle felt he was seen in a new way for the first time – by a camera. Typically, Settle, who is Black, felt his skin tone was unnaturally darkened in digital pictures. But after participating in  a photo session of college athletes to demonstrate Google Pixel’s Real Tone capabilities, he saw his skin in a new, more authentic light, for the first time. “Now, when I see other camera phones, I’m thinking, ‘Why is it jerking my skin tone around?’” he says.

Historically, racial bias in camera technology has overlooked and excluded Black and brown people. That same bias can carry through in our modern imaging tools – like smartphones – if they aren’t tested with a diverse group of people and inputs, delivering unfair experiences for people of color, like over-brightening or unnaturally desaturating skin. Real Tone on Pixel’s camera uses tuning models and algorithms to accurately highlight the nuances of diverse skin tones in all types of lighting environments.

Photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis says she was skeptical about the technology at first. Having worked in film photography for decades, Jarvis knew the extra lighting and processing work required of professionals who want to photograph Black and brown faces accurately. She now says the pictures taken with Google Pixel’s Real Tone capabilities changed her views on what was possible with digital photography for darker skin tones.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work,’” Jarvis says. “But then when I started using it, I realized it was allowing everyone to be balanced within the metering of how the camera sees each individual person, from the darkest shade to the lightest shade.

Jarvis was impressed with the wide range of tones visible in the pictures. “I was really shocked.”

The photo session proved to be a memorable experience for many of the players, as Jarvis worked her skills to draw out their personalities. “She kind of got me out of my comfort zone,” says Trevor Moore, Morgan State University’s shooting guard. A commercial showing the shoot ran during the first ever NBA HBCU Classic, a matchup of Morgan State and rival Howard. Out and about after the spot had aired, Moore says, a stranger asked him if he was the same guy in the ad. “It was crazy.”

The experience also had a more consequential impact on many of the players. Howard forward Randall Brumant, for example, says that being photographed by Google Pixel gave him a new view on himself. “When I started using a camera phone, I thought that’s just how it was,” he says. “I thought just because we had darker skin tones and there was darker lighting, it just turned out” that pictures would be darker than actual skin tones. When he saw how accurate the Pixel pictures were, he says, “It was like, wow – I never thought that was possible.” Brumant says he felt he was accurately seen in photos for the first time with Real Tone.

Pixel 7 Pro
The all-pro Google phone.

At the NBA HBCU Classic, starter Settle led his teammates in minutes on the court and doubled his personal record in rebounds. Howard eked out a win 68-66. He’d like to play for the Washington Wizards someday. “It’s the home team where I grew up,” says Settle, who is from the Washington D.C. area. 

For graduation, Settle brought along a professional camera, but ended up relying mostly on his Pixel 6. “It’s sharper, more detailed, no edits,” he says. With a professional camera, he adds, “you have to go back in and fix the lighting. Pixel does it for you.” 

As for Jarvis, whether she’s working in film, or now digital, she says she always aims to photograph people “as they are.” 

“The way you see yourself when you take a photo of yourself, if the exposure isn’t correct, it doesn’t make you feel good, it doesn’t give you a sense of beauty,” Jarvis says. “When you’re able to see yourself and your true tone, it allows you to see yourself in a way that’s really beautiful and truthful.”

Takeaways
Google Pixel was used in a photo session with basketball players from two historically Black universities to showcase Real Tone’s ability to accurately reflect darker skin tonesReal Tone on Pixel’s camera uses tuning models and algorithms to accurately highlight the nuances of diverse skin tones in all types of lighting environmentsThe pictures from the session helped some of the players feel accurately seen in photos for the first time
Pixel 7 Pro
The all-pro Google phone.
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