Since the digital photography revolution began near the turn of the millennium, a steady march of new cameras and lenses has been released filling various niches. On the pro side, faster processors combined with advancements in sensor technology have allowed cameras to see in the dark while capturing 14 frames per second. Fresnel lens design has made ultra telephoto lenses significantly smaller and lighter without sacrificing optical quality.
For consumers, smartphone cameras have displaced standalone point and shoots. The newest iPhone shoots 4K video, 240fps video, 12MP still, and features a new gimmick called LivePhoto. A little further up the food chain, articulating screens, better kit lenses, and built-in WiFi give the prosumer much to cheer about.
Yet with all the technological advancements in hardware, I believe the future of photography is computational, and that software will provide more exciting advancements over the next decade.
The camera is, after all, a digital collection device. The data happens to be primarily optical in nature, but it doesn’t have to be. A camera can embed EXIF, GPS, IPTC and other forms of meta data into an image. It can link audio files, capture video, simultaneously capture with multiple lenses, etc.
We’ve historically considered photography as a singular, discrete moment in time captured through a single lens onto a single substrate. Software and computational photography change all that. Consider:
- Sony DSC-T200 with “smile shutter” that automatically captured an image when its facial detection algorithm identified a smile
- Panorama mode built into many cameras and smartphones
- HDR mode in the iPhone and other smartphones
- Microsoft Photosynth
- Lytro Light Field camera which allowed for refocusing after capture
- The recently announced L16 camera from Light.co which captures image data from up to 10 sensors simultaneously and stitches the data into a 52MP image
- Instagram filters
- Adobe Monument Mode that erases tourists from an image in real-time
- Photoshop Fix – a retouching app that simplifies many basic retouching needs in a selfie-obsessed world
- Technologies like Facebook’s Facial Detection and Clarifai’s image recognition
- Snapchat Lenses: real-time special effects
The problem with digital photography is that we have too much data – we take a trillion photos a year with an ever increasing pixel count. The advanced pro will always crave the highest quality capture (via lenses and sensors) and manual control (via ISO/aperture/shutter speed) over this data, but the majority of consumers will continually seek simpler ways to extract the best possible image with a minimal amount of work that can be instantly shared to a few or many people.
Digital zoom may result in a poor quality image now, but what if technological advancements relieve the need to carry a 70-200mm lens? What if HDR can incorporate an illuminated (flash) image to create a “drag the shutter” look? What if we can easily shade, render and composite real and CGI within the camera? What if your Nikon/Canon/Sony could run a suite of apps like a smartphone to enhance the functionality?
Software could automatically straighten the horizon, fix keystoning, composite group photos so that everyone is smiling with their eyes open. Software will make taking better photos easier in the same way that hardware did a generation ago. We won’t stop buying cameras, but they’re going to be much more like smartphones than DSLRs.
The consumer doesn’t care about the ethics of manipulation. The consumer doesn’t view photography as a sacred cow. The consumer wants photography to be fun and convenient. Serious and sentimental when it needs to be, or disposable at other times.
The camera of the future isn’t from the past, it’s software and it’s gonna be awesome.