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Retinex: Correct your low-light images today!

I was processing some images for someone recently, and I ended up encountering issues with colour balance. The images looked okay on my monitor, but as soon as I printed them out, they took on a slight red-orange tint. Very interesting. I suspect that the root cause lies in some complex colourspace or device colour profile issue (which will take me ages to debug and track down), but I stumbled upon a filter in GIMP called Retinex, which provided a very useful workaround.

According to the GIMP documentation, retinex is an algorithm that improves the appearance of images that were taken in sub-optimal lighting conditions. It's probably best illustrated with an example:

An example of the retinex filter in action.

(Above: An example of the retinex filter in action. Image source: The official GIMP documentation.)

As you can see, the things on the desk are much easier to pick out in the right image as compared to the left one. Apparently, the algorithm was invented at NASA's Langley Research Centre in 2004 to automatically enhance astronomical photographs - and has a full name of Multi-Scale Retinex with Color Restoration (MSRCR) - which is a bit of mouthful!

During my own testing, I've found it be most effective on outdoor pictures, or pictures with poor lighting. I've also found it to be rather prone to introducing noise into the image - so if a simple automatic white balance correction will suffice, then that's probably a better filter to apply than this one.

It's one of those things that's really useful to know about - because it might just solve your problem one day! To that end, I wanted to blog about it so that I don't forget :P

Sources and Further Reading

Art by Mythdael