Course outline

CS 178 - Digital Photography
Spring Quarter, 2014
Marc Levoy
Handout #1

Table of contents:


Marc Levoy
Gates Computer Science Building, Room 366
Office hours: Tue/Thu 11:00 - 12:15pm or by appointment

Teaching assistants

Jesse Levinson
Office hours: Tues. 4:30pm - 5:30pm, Gates 363 (Graphics Lab)

Kseniya Charova
Office hours: Wed. 12:30pm - 2:30pm, Meyer 2nd floor

Kevin Wong
Office hours: Wed, 2:00pm - 4:00pm, Gates B24A

Ritobrata Sur
Office hours: Thu, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm, Old Union 2nd floor

Victoria Savikhin
Office hours: Wed, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Coupa Y2E2

Yunfan Yu
Office hours: Tue, 7:00pm - 9:00pm, Meyer 2nd floor

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

Monica Niemiec
Gates Computer Science Building, Room 368
(650) 725-3724

Enrolling in this course

If you plan to enroll in the course, then before Wednesday, April 2 at 10:00pm, you must (1) sign up for the course via Axess, and (2) fill out the CS 178 online survey at this link. Don't fill out the survey until you've decided to enroll in the course, and you've signed up for the course via Axess. Auditors should not fill out this survey. Filling out the survey will 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 3, we will assign students to sections and decide who gets loaner cameras. The order in which you fill out the survey or sign up on Axess relative to your fellow students won't matter for the allocation of loaner cameras (or section assignments), so take your time and decide thoughtfully on whether you want to take the class, and whether you need a loaner camera.

Lectures and sections

There will be 19 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, 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 (bring your laptop!), or reviewing lecture material for the exams (bring your brain!). 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 7. The meetings for that week will be in B02. Bring your camera to the meetings that week! The available meeting times are:

  1. Mon., 2:15pm-3:45, led by Victoria
  2. Mon., 4:15pm-5:45, led by Victoria
  3. Wed., 10:45am-12:15, led by Jesse
  4. Wed., 12:15pm-1:45, led by Kevin
  5. Wed., 2:15pm-3:45, led by Yunfan
  6. Wed., 4:15pm-5:45, led by Yunfan
  7. Thu., 12:15pm-1:45, led by Kevin
  8. Thu., 4:15pm-5:45, led by Rito
  9. Fri., 12:30pm-2:00, led by Rito
  10. Fri., 2:15pm-3:45, led by Kseniya
  11. Fri., 4:15pm-5:45, led by Kseniya
To sign up for a section, when you fill out the online survey 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 2, at 10:00pm, 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 (10th or 11th edition), Pearson / Prentice Hall, 2011. 9th edition is ok.
  1. Course reader, assembled by us for this course.
  2. Bryan Peterson, Learning to See Creatively, Watson-Guptill, 1988 (or any later edition).

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. 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, and will be placed on reserve in the Engineering Library.

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 this year. 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. There are also new classes of cameras appearing every year. Some of these fall into the space between DSCs and SLRs, in particular the so-called mirrorless interchangeable lens (MIL) cameras. All models of these cameras that we've seen are adequate for this course.

If you don't have an adequate camera, don't panic. Through the generosity of the Stanford CS and EE departments, the School of Engineering, and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, we've purchased 45 cameras to loan out to students who are enrolled in CS 178. These cameras are a mix of SLRs (Nikon D40, D3000, and D3100) and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (Olympus PEN E-P3). That's not enough cameras for everybody, so we'll need to allocate them carefully. We don't know what algorithm we'll use yet for this allocation - possibly by seniority.

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 and MIL cameras), 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 and MIL cameras can't even survive a fall from a bed to a carpeted floor.

If you need a camera, then when you fill out the online survey 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 temporary subscription to Photoshop CC 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, please fill out the online survey, you'll find a question related to Photoshop. Based on your answer to this question, we'll send you a shared Adobe ID by email on Friday, April 4. Then go to and sign in using the shared AdobeID. Please do not share this login information. After you sign in, click the download link on the top of the page, this will first download the Adobe Creative Cloud application, which will manage the rest of the installation. You may need to provide the Adobe Creative Cloud application with the shared AdobeID again after installation. The Adobe Creative Cloud application will then download and install Photoshop CC to your computer. You may also need to enter the shared AdobeID information when Photoshop CC is first run, but this would depend if you have other Adobe products associated with another AdobeID on your computer.

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 $100. Each Mac runs Time Machine, 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 four hard drive failures over the 20 years I have been using Macs. 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.

Piazza Forum: We encourage you to use the class Piazza forum for general questions regarding assignments and course material. Also, feel free to use the forum to organize photography trips, outings, etc. with your classmates. For personal questions or if you need to contact the TAs directly, please use the TA mailing list.
To sign up, go to .

TA emailing list: For questions about course logistics, grading, or technical material, you can 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-spr1314-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 5, 7:00-9:00pm, location TBA. The final exam will be on Monday, June 9, 7:00pm - 10:00pm, location TBA. Makeup exams will be offered only in extreme circumstances, and must be approved in advance. If you miss an exam due to unforeseen circumstances, talk to us immediately afterwards. 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. Some assignments will also contain short technical questions. These will not be graded, and their purpose is mainly to help you gauge the kinds of questions we might ask on the exams.

Assignment Submission: There are two parts to submitting each week’s assignment. First, photos need to be uploaded to Google+ Web Album. You should either use an existing Google Account or create one for the course; you will need to use the same account for the entire quarter. A minimum of five and a maximum of ten photos can be submitted for each assignment, and all of your photos should be uploaded to a single album before proceeding. Second, you will need to submit your assignment on You should log into the site using the same Google account. You will need to select a technical requirement that each photo meets, and add some text comments. You should submit assignments early to avoid last-minute submission problems. If you do run into technical problems, please post to Piazza or email the course staff. We have put together detailed instructions for uploading your assignment to Google+ and submitting it on Vela. You should read these instructions carefully. In particular, you may need to create a new Google account for this course in order to disable certain Google+ settings.

Peer-to-peer grading: We will be using a peer-to-peer grading system for the weekly photographic assignments. On the Tuesday night following each assignment due date, you will be assigned to review the assignments of three classmates. Along with the TAs, you will assign a technical score and a style score to each photo, as well as write some comments or a critique. These scores and reviews will be due on the next Sunday night at 11:59pm. More details on this grading system will be included in the first assignment.

Regrading: If you feel that your assignment has been unfairly graded, you should email your section TA and ask that your assignment be regraded.

Grading policies

Evaluation criteria: Each of the 8 photography assignments will count as 5% of your grade, for a total of 40%. The midterm and final exams will each cover half of the material in the course, and will each count as 20%. The remaining 20% is for attendance and participation in section meetings, and the completion and quality of your peer reviews.

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 four weekdays (24 hour periods) of grace across all your assignments, and you may use at most two late days per assignment to allow sufficient time for peer reviews. Beyond this, late assignments will be penalized by 20% of the grade for that assignment per weekday that they are late, i.e. 1% of your overall course grade. Any assignment that is more than 5 days late (assuming you have used up your grace allowance) will receive a zero; however, you must still submit it to pass the course.

Missed peer reviews: To ensure timely grading of assignments, peer reviews cannot be late. You will be allowed one missed peer review without penalty. Beyond this, each missing peer review will be penalized by 5% of your participation grade, i.e. 1% of your overall course grade.

Missed section meetings: Attendance will be taken in each section meeting. One unexcused absence will be allowed. Beyond this, each unexecused absence will be penalized by 10% of your participation grade, i.e. 2% of your overall course grade.

Exceptions and passing the course: Exceptions to these late policies 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, miss more than two peer reviews, or do not take both exams, 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.

© 2014 Marc Levoy
Last update: April 2, 2014 10:27:54 AM