Course outline

CS 178 - Digital Photography
Spring Quarter, 2009
Marc Levoy
Handout #1

Table of contents:


Marc Levoy
Gates Computer Science Building, Gates 366
Office hours: Tue/Thu, 4:15pm - 5:30pm and by appointment

Teaching assistants

Andrew Adams
Gates Computer Science Building, Gates 376
Office hours: Thu, 10:00am - 12:00

Jennifer Dolson
Gates Computer Science Building, Gates 360
Office hours: Mon, 1:30pm - 3:00

Jesse Levinson
Gates Computer Science Building, Gates 363 (graphics lab)
Office hours: Tue, 6:00pm - 8:00

Eddy Talvala
Gates Computer Science Building, Room 376
Office hours: Mon, 3:00pm - 5:00

Joint email address:

TA office hours may be canceled on days the TAs are grading exams or performing other time-critical course-related administrative work. We'll send out email to the class emailing list whenever this happens, so check your email before visiting office hours.

Administrative assistant

Melissa Rivera
Gates Computer Science Building, Room 368

Enrolling in this course

This course is oversubscribed. As of Monday morning, 323 students have filled out the online survey (a.k.a. survey #1), and 203 students have signed up via Axess. Based on the capacity of our lecture hall and the number of qualified TAs we have been able to find, we can accommodate only 160 students. Unfortunately, some culling will therefore be necessary.

If you plan to enroll in this course, then before Wednesday, April 1, at 11:59pm, you must (1) sign up for the course via Axess, and (2) fill out CS 178 survey #2 at This is different from the survey you filled out before you signed up for the course (survey #1). Don't fill out survey #2 until you've decided to enroll in the course, and you've signed up for the course via Axess. The order in which you filled out survey #1 relative to your fellow students may matter, but the order in which you fill out survey #2 and sign up on Axess doesn't matter. Filling out survey #2 will also allow you to sign up for a section meeting, to request a loaner camera, and to request a temporary license for Photoshop (see below). On Thursday morning, April 2, we will cull enrollment to 160 students. As promised, priority will be given to students who filled out survey #1 before today (March 31), but enrollment will not depend on the answers given to the questions in that survey. We hope we don't need to cut out too many people.

Lectures and sections

There will be twenty lectures. The topics to be covered, with dates, are given in the course schedule. These lectures will be delivered live in Hewlett (TCSEQ) 201. They will not be broadcast through SCPD, nor encoded for Stanford Online. However, we will be photographing the whiteboards every few minutes (with a digital SLR, of course!). The resulting stream of images, as well as any photographs, videos, or Keynote slides shown in class, will be interleaved, converted to a PDF file, and placed online soon after each lecture and linked into the class schedule. Attendance at lectures is expected but not enforced.

Enrolled students are also required to join one of eight weekly 90-minute section meetings, the same one each week. Attendance at section meetings is mandatory; see below for our attendance policy. These meetings will be devoted to tutorials related to that week's assignment, field trips around campus to conduct photography (bring your camera!), critiquing the photographs you submitted to previous assignments, or reviewing lecture material for the exams. The meetings will be held either in Gates B02 or in the field, depending on the topic, and they will commence with the second week of classes, i.e. on Monday, April 6. The meetings for that week will be in B02. Bring your camera to the meetings that week! The available meeting times are:

  1. Mon., 10:15am-11:45, led by Andrew
  2. Mon., 1:15pm-2:45, led by Jesse
  3. Tue., 10:15am-11:45, led by Jen
  4. Tue., 4:15pm-5:45, led by Jesse
  5. Wed., 10:15am-11:45, led by Eddy
  6. Wed., 1:15pm-2:45, led by Jen
  7. Thu., 10:15am-11:45, led by Eddy
  8. Thu., 4:15pm-5:45, led by Andrew
To sign up for a section, when you fill out survey #2 as previously described, you'll find a question related to your preferred section meeting time. As noted, the deadline for filling out this survey is Wednesday, April 1, at 11:59pm, and you must also have signed up for the course via Axess. On Thursday morning, we will run an algorithm that assigns students to sections.


  1. London, Stone, and Upton, Photography (ninth edition), Pearson / Prentice Hall, 2008.
  2. Course reader, assembled by us for this course.
  1. Bryan Peterson, Learning to See Creatively, Watson-Guptill, 1988.

London's book is an excellent introduction to photography. Concepts are clearly explained and well illustrated, often with the work of famous photographers. We'll read about one chapter of this book per week. That said, it is a goal of this course to go into more technical depth than is covered in a basic text like London. For this reason, we've assembled a course reader, containing excerpts from classic books on optics, sensors, camera technology, and photography. We'll assign one or two of these more advanced readings each week. Some of these readings are available online. To save wood (and your money), we haven't included these in the reader; we'll give you a URL instead. As you look through the course reader, don't freak out if some of the readings look complicated. On exams, you are responsible only for the material in the lecture notes and in the main textbook (London). The advanced readings are provided to give you a second explanation (a "different voice"), and to provide more detail about each topic in case you are interested. Finally, no budding photographer's shelf is complete without a Bryan Peterson book. He's written several of these slim, inspiring volumes about "composing strong photographs". Copies of both textbooks and the course reader are available in the textbook section of the campus bookstore.

Course prerequisites

CS 178 assumes no prior knowledge of photography. We also assume no programming experience. Future versions of the course might include optional programming assignments, but not on the first go-around. The only knowledge we assume is enough facility and comfort with mathematics that you're not afraid to see the depth-of-field formula in all its glory, and an integral sign here or there won't send you running for the hills. Some topics will require concepts from elementary probability and statistics (like mean, variance, and the Poisson distribution), but we'll define these concepts in class. We'll also make use of matrix algebra, but only at the level of matrix multiplication and matrix-vector products. Finally, an exposure to digital signal processing or Fourier analysis will give you a better intuition for some of the topics, but it is not required.


Taking photographs, and improving your picture-taking skills, are an integral part of this course. This means you'll need a camera. Since it's a course on digital photography, you'll need a digital camera. In particular, we require you to have a camera with manual control over shutter speed and aperture. Such a camera will typically also give you manual control over ISO. It's also helpful if your camera has a variable zoom lens, but surprisingly, manual control over focus isn't as critical; we'll show you how to "fool" your camera into focusing at whatever distance you want. Your camera should also have a flash, as most do. You don't, however, need an SLR (single lens reflex camera) to take this course. Many DSCs (digital still cameras, also known as point-and-shoots) offer the minimum flexibility we require. Of course, if you do have an SLR, you'll be able to take better pictures, because SLRs have larger sensors than point-and-shoots, hence higher resolution and lower noise, and they typically have larger apertures, hence more control over depth of field.

If you don't have an adequate camera, don't panic. Through the generosity of the Stanford CS Department, the School of Engineering, and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, we've purchased 40 cameras to loan out to students who are enrolled in CS 178. These cameras are a mix of SLRs (Nikon D40) and advanced point-and-shoots (Canon A590). That's not enough cameras for everybody, so we'll need to allocate them carefully. In particular, as promised in the course announcement, priority will be given to people who are enrolled in the course (through Axess), and who filled out the online survey before the quarter started, and who indicated in question 3 of that survey that they didn't have an adequate camera. If you get one of our loaner cameras, there will also be an opportunity to switch from one type to the other (Nikon to Canon or vice versa) at least once during the quarter.

If we loan you a camera, you are financially responsible for it until you return it to us at the end of the quarter. If you lose or damage the camera, you'll need to pay us to fix or replace it. If you don't, then you won't receive a grade in the course, and you may be subject to a university judicial proceedings. So take care of your camera! This includes keeping the lenscap on when not in use (for the SLRs), keeping the camera dry and away from extreme heat, cold, and dust, and keeping the camera in its case when transporting it. I can tell you from sad experience that most cameras will not survive an uncontrolled trip from your hands to the ground. Most SLRs can't even survive a fall from a bed to a carpeted floor.

If you need a camera, then when you fill out survey #2 as previously described, you'll find a question related to cameras. We'll tabulate the answers to this question on Thursday morning, then we'll hand out cameras, maybe as early as class on Thursday.

Computers and software

In addition to a camera, you'll also need a computer to take this course. It should be a laptop, so you can bring it to section meetings. and it should have several gigabytes of free disk space, to store the great photographs you'll be taking. As mentioned in the course announcement, every enrolled student will be given a free license to Photoshop CS 4 Extended for the duration of the quarter, courtesy of Adobe. Thus, your laptop should have enough additional disk space (about 1GB) to install Photoshop, and enough RAM (at least 512MB) to run it comfortably. We have versions for Mac and Windows; we assume your laptop runs one of those two operating systems.

To get your free license for Photoshop, then when you fill out survey #2 as previously described, you'll find a question related to Photoshop. Based on your answer to this question, we'll send you a product key by email on Friday, April 3. You can download the software as a free trial from Click on Photoshop CS4 Extended ("Try"), and install it on your computer using the product key we email you. Once it's installed, you should also install the update to 11.0.1 (CS4 is 11.0) at for Mac and for Windows.

By the way (we shouldn't need to tell you this), we assume you are backing up your laptop regularly. Even if you never lose or drop your laptop, hard drives fail. In fact, they are guaranteed to fail; it's only a matter of when. After losing three days of continuous typing during my college days because lightning struck the building I was working in, I swore never to lose another hour of computer work in my life. I have three Macs. Each of them is attached to a 1 terabyte external hard drive, including my laptop when it's not on the road. You can buy such a hard drive from Amazon for $120. Each Mac runs Time Machine (requires Mac OS 10.5), which performs an incremental backup of the internal hard drive every hour. There are equivalent solutions for PCs. By keeping myself backed up, I have survived two hard drive failures over the 15 years I have been using laptops. To emphasize the importance of backing up, losing data because your hard drive fails will not be accepted as an excuse for late assignments in this course. And of course, great photographs are irreplaceable.

Online Services

World Wide Web: All class handouts, project assignments, software support packages, reading lists, and lecture notes will be available via the Web at In addition to this directory, hardcopy of some handouts (like this one) will be made available in class. Extra copies of these handouts will be available after class in a cabinet in 377 Gates Hall.

Newsgroup and TA emailing list: A newsgroup has been set up for this course. It is called su.class.cs178. It is intended mainly for posting questions to your fellow students. To reduce the volume of email traffic to the TAs, we also ask you to post technical questions about assignments to this newsgroup. The TAs will watch the group and post their answers there. This allows everybody to benefit from the answers given to any one student. For questions about grading, or questions that would require posting an image you don't wish to share with everyone, you should instead send email to the TAs jointly at To send email to the instructor or a particular TA, use the individual email addresses listed earlier in this handout. Do not send email to multiple primary recipients, except via cs178-spr0809-staff; choose one recipient as your "To:" and make the others "CC:". Otherwise, you might get no response, or you might get multiple responses, and we'll get annoyed.

Class emailing list: For items of urgent and universal importance such as clarifications in the project assignments or Photoshop tips and tricks relevant to an assignment, your instructors will use an emailing list generated automatically from the Axess class enrollment list to contact you, so make sure you register for the course via Axess.

Assignments and exams

In addition to regularly scheduled readings, the workload for this course consists of shortly weekly photography (or Photoshop) assignments, an evening midterm examination, and a final examination. The midterm will be on Monday, May 4 at 7-9pm in Hewlett TCSEQ (200). The final exam will be on Tuesday, June 9 at 7-10pm, at a place to be determined. Makeup exams will be offered only in extreme circumstances, and must be approved in advance. A makeup final exam will not be offered to students because they are taking conflicting classes, since doing so is prohibited by the registrar.

The weekly rhythm: Assignments will be posted on the course web page at the beginning of each week (including this week!). Assignments will not be handed out in class; you need to look online for them. We hope to get them posted by dinnertime each Sunday night, so you can look at them before the first section meeting on Monday morning of the week you'll be working on them. The topic of each assignment is listed in the course schedule. These weekly assignments will be due the following Sunday night at 11:59pm. Sometime after the due date, we will look at your images, add comments to them, and give your assignment a grade. It's hard to judge artistic quality, so rather than grading individual photos, we will assign grades based on whether you met the requirements of the assignment, and how cleverly or creatively you did so. Each requirement will be graded check, check-minus, or check-plus, with check being the usual grade.

Regrading: In addition to the policy on late assignments (see below), during the quarter you can add up to five photos to already completed assignments and request that they be re-graded. Photography includes a fair element of luck. This provision means that if you take a shot later on in the course that would have been perfect for an earlier assignment, you can still turn it in! It also means that if you didn't quite understand a requirement and did the wrong thing, you can submit a new photograph later.

Picasa Web Album: Submissions will be in the form of a collection of images with text comments, uploaded before each week's deadline to a Picasa Web Album you create for each assignment in this course. These albums will be used by the TAs to grade your assignments, and they will be accessible to other students in CS 178. Thus, replacing a photograph with one you took later is as easy as re-uploading it to the appropriate album and sending email to the TA for your section. Instructions for creating your per-assignment Picasa Web Albums will be included in the first assignment.

Grading Policies

Evaluation criteria: Each of the 9 photography assignments will count as 5% of your grade, for a total of 45%. The midterm and final exams will each cover half of the material in the course, and will each count as 20%. The remaining 15% is for attendance and participation in section meetings. One unexcused absence will be allowed. Beyond this, each unexecused absence will subtract 2% from your grade for the course.

Late assignments: Since the assignments come in rapid succession, it is important that each be completed on time. Replacing photos after the deadline is not allowed, and will be treated as a violation of the honor code. To allow for unforeseeable circumstances, you will be allowed up to two weekdays of grace for up to two of your assignments. Beyond this, late assignments will be penalized by 10% of the grade for that assignment per weekday that they are late. Exceptions to this late policy will be made only in the case of a necessary (non-pleasure) trip approved in advance by the TA for your section, or severe illness. If you do not submit one of the assignments at all, you will fail the course, even if you are taking it pass/fail. In this case, or if you believe you are in danger of failing, it is your responsibility to come talk to us before the end of the course. Incompletes are given only in exceptional circumstances.

Originality, collaboration, and borrowing: Many of you have taken extraordinary photographs in your careers. Some of these photographs may perfectly and beautifully satisfy the requirements of a CS 178 assignment. Nevertheless, in the interests of fairness and continued learning, we expect your submissions for each assignment to be photographs taken by you specifically for this course. You are encouraged to discuss assignments with friends, but you are expected to take your own photographs. For one or two of the assignments we may permit borrowing of imagery from the Internet; we'll let you know about these specifically.

The honor code: Every year, a few students in CS classes are caught sharing assignments or submitting assignments that have been downloaded from the Internet. Aside from being unfair to your fellow students, these are violations of Stanford's Honor Code. In keeping with the Honor Code, we don't go looking for these violations, but image-based image search tools are getting better every year, and the Internet is deeply and ubiquitously cached. Thus, copied images are relatively easy to detect. If we find a violation, we will prosecute it, and the penalties are real and severe. If you have any doubt about whether a form of collaboration or borrowing is permitted, just ask us; we would be happy to ease your mind. Let's spend our time learning photography, not policing each other.

© 2009 Marc Levoy
Last update: April 2, 2009 08:49:17 PM