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November 10, 2015

Painting with pixels: The camera technology of the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book

Let’s take a closer look at the imaging capabilities of the new Surface devices.

Red and white flower_Surface Camera

We recently caught up with Microsoft’s Luke Cui, a color-imaging scientist who leads the Surface image-quality team, to learn more about the care and expertise packed into the imaging software and cameras of the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.

First, you should know that each new Surface devices sports three cameras:

  • 8-megapixel rear-facing 1080p HD auto-focus camera
  • 5-megapixel front-facing 1080p HD camera
  • Windows Hello face-authentication front-facing camera

All three cameras are designed by the Surface imaging team to integrate with the industrial and mechanical designs of the Surface devices and offer the best possible image quality by way of the sensors selected, custom lenses and close collaboration with the Intel imaging team.


The rear-facing camera on both new Surface devices is a step up from that of older Surface devices. The camera now features 8 megapixels compared with 5 megapixels of the Surface Pro 3’s camera. The rear-facing camera also features auto-focus; you’ll get a crystal-clear view of subjects in the distance as well as when using the camera for macro photography.

“Now, you can better focus on something with lots of detail up close, like a receipt or business card,” he said, adding that the built-in Camera app also features a 16X digital zoom.

Receipt on Surface keyboard

The technology behind the Windows Hello security feature–including a Microsoft-designed infrared camera with designated infrared light source—ensures that your device will correctly identify you. In addition, the front-facing camera has a 15-percent wider field of view—80 degrees—compared with the Surface Pro 3’s 70-degree field of view.

That means you can pack more people into a selfie shot, for example, or better show your surroundings to family or friends in a Skype video call.

Image-processing as science and art

But apart from capable camera system design, what really ramps up the imaging capabilities of the Surface devices are their image-processing technologies, the image-signal processor integrated on the Intel Skylake chip, and the tuning of the image-signal processor to produce the most pleasing images from raw images.

Microsoft’s Surface camera tuning team made thousands of adjustments–think of them turning thousands of knobs–to make images taken with a new Surface device look as if they were taken with an SLR camera.

Row of concrete barriers on grass

The technology by itself isn’t enough to create visually appealing images. That’s because image processing and rendering is “part science and part art,” Luke said.

Pink flowers in garden

The science deals with factors such as sensor, lens, and camera module evaluation, selection, design and manufacturing. That lays the foundation to create high-fidelity images.

The art builds upon the foundation by tuning the image-signal processor and automatic-camera controls such as white balance, exposure, and focus, among other tools, to help create fantastic images. Basically, all this fine-tuning takes a less than optimal raw image and improves it so colors are rich and true and images are razor-sharp.

“We call some parts of our process as painting with pixels to emphasize the artistic aspect of the engineering work,” Luke said.

Green bamboo
The image-processing technology helps show the varying shades of green.

Pair this imaging hardware and software with the large PixelSense™ displays of the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, and you have a camera that’s as adept at capturing notes scribbled on a conference-room whiteboard as capturing close-ups of flowers in bloom or impromptu family shots. Tip: Remember to wipe the camera cover clean of fingerprints to get great images!

Doug Beck, director of audio and video development for Surface explained it this way: “With a gigantic viewfinder, one advantage of taking photos and videos with a Surface is that what you see is what you get.”

“You can incorporate your captures into documents, reports, art work or even video production in real time, all on the same device with your favorite editing or work flow tools,” he added.

“It adds another dimension to productivity.”

If you have the Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book, we’d love to see how you’re using the cameras. Share some of your photos with us on Twitter via @Surface.