FEATURE: THE FUTURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Chris van Ryn examines the latest technological trends, and how they will shape the photographic arts and industry into the future
You don’t have to examine the tea leaves too closely to get the feeling photography is on the precipice of unique change — Chris van Ryan examines the most recent upheavals in the industry, and projects the ramifications into the future
The pace of development in cameras over the last decade has been so relentless that every few months they undergo an upgrade, and every few years an inspiring new piece of equipment appears, such as full-frame sensors and mirrorless cameras. The point-and-shoot compact camera market has floundered in the wake of mobile phone cameras despite the fact that their performance is superior. The phone’s flat lens is prone to flare, and its fingernail-sized sensor has clear disadvantages. Despite such deficiencies, the mobile phone has one overwhelming advantage: it is always close at hand. And the best camera, as we know, is the one in your hand. Hold that thought.
Outside the professional studio, mobile phones more than any other device have popularized photography. They’ve created a whole new camera culture and even ushered in a new photographic term, the selfie. We may look back 50 years from now and see a pictorial autobiographical culture where ordinary individuals, facilitated by social media, assumed pseudo-celebrity status and have added a new dimension to the term narcissism.
And because the mobile camera is always in your pocket, everyone has the potential to be a street photographer, capturing Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment. Artists such as Ai Weiwei in China have taken many thousands of photographs of life in their country, and revealed them to the world. Where once we relied on photographers like Walker Evans to provide us with images of life in America in his time, now we can all contribute to such historical galleries.
Today many photojournalists reach for a mobile phone in preference to a point-and-shoot, or even a DSLR. And don’t underestimate the quality of the images from a phone camera — some have even featured on the cover of Time magazine, such as Ben Lowy’s image here shown here.
There is a frenetic rush to enhance the capabilities of the mobile phone camera (no longer seen as merely a bonus feature of a device that makes phone calls), from clip-on lenses to lenses with their own sensors that can be activated remotely. In lens development there are small pieces of glass that purportedly come close to a Canon L-series lens (look up Moment lenses for good examples). Mobile sensor size is increasing too: the iPhone 5’s sensor, for example, is 15 per cent larger than its predecessor.
Digital cameras with auto-everything have enabled those with little knowledge of camera science to take ‘good quality’ images: in focus and ‘correctly’ exposed. Should amateur photographers wish to advance their knowledge, there is a plethora of free teaching videos available on YouTube. This can close the gap between the amateur and the professional. Photography is no longer exclusively in the hands of an expert. It is within reach of everyone.
A roll of celluloid used to amount to 24 shots. Every image was the cost of the roll divided by 24. Digital has freed us from this constraint. We can now take hundreds, even thousands of photos without any effect on the wallet. There are likely millions of forgotten images freefalling through cyberspace. The ease of taking an image has encouraged photo experimentation, and enhanced our creative potential. Hold that thought too.
Camera makers have pushed the boundaries of pixels and resolution. File sizes have become so large that photographers have developed whole workflow methodologies and fee structures around the management and storage of whopping JPEG and RAW images. The ability to take more is tempered by the need to process. This is why file processing will play an important role in determining the way photography unfolds in the future.
Storage cards have also undergone evolution — smaller, faster, and with greater capacity. A microSD card the size of my little fingernail can store 64GB of data. Industry experts confirm that storage devices can and will become much, much smaller in the near future.
This reduction in storage size hints at the direction of new cameras. In response to the camera phone’s portability, cameras will move towards an overall reduction in bulk, a trend already apparent with mirrorless cameras, and one which threatens to unhinge the DSLR dominance.
Our love affair with through-the-lens (TTL) viewfinding will be replaced with Electronic Viewfinders (EVFs), which are quickly growing in sophistication. Outside the realm of the professional studio, portability will dominate design criteria. But even in the studio, providing that image quality is not reduced, small will entice.
Camera software is moving towards a closer alliance with mobile operating systems such as Android in order to benefit more directly from cross-pollinating software. Internet- or Wi-Fi–capable cameras will come to full maturity when bandwidth improves, alongside new compression algorithms for JPEG and RAW files. Then: enter cloud storage.
Future photographers will become post-production experts. An image that has captured all the detail between 000 000 000 and 255 255 255 can today be post-edited to achieve almost any desired image, when we once had to adjust settings for the ‘decisive moment’. Want bokeh? No problem, use after-focus editing software.
Post-production has already begun to usher in exciting new beginnings and redefine the concept of a ‘photograph’, and this will only accelerate. Take an image and, using Adobe After Effects editing software,
separate image components into layers, then add motion. Voila: a hybrid moving/still image, set to take advantage of magazines’ inexorable move to a digital platform.
The mobile platform (phones and tablets) has also seen an increase in post-production software. Its rise has been generated by global developers rushing for commercial gain on the app market. We have moved from desktops to laptops for editing. Now tablets will challenge the domain of laptops. Facilitated by a host of integrated software, the mobile platform, through simple convenience, will become the platform where perhaps 70 per cent of our post production takes place.
Online is the dominant format for viewing images. The repercussions for photographers are becoming apparent. Online viewing has meant a photographer has limited control over how their image will be viewed by others. Contrast, saturation, and exposure, for example, are at the mercy of screen manufacturers. And a universal screen calibration seems unlikely.
Add to this the mockery the internet and digital technology have made of intellectual property (IP). Once an image enters the cloud, IP has for most practical purposes been relinquished. This has been encouraged by many providers of social-viewing platforms. Because of this, enterprising photographers will embark on new income-earning models such as ‘pay per click’.
Furthermore, the digital darkroom has obliterated the notion of a one-off print and the concept of a limitededition run. This, however, has not inhibited the growth of the fine-art photography market. In-vogue images amass considerable sums of money at art auctions. A Cindy Sherman photograph sold for US$2.7 million in 2010. A 1999 image by Andreas Gursky with post-production editing to remove extraneous details, such as people walking, sold for US$4.3 million. David Hockney, after all, creates iPad ‘paintings’ and sells the image complete with the device.
Today we have an obsession with image sharpness. Camera manufacturers attempt to trump each other on focus technology. The Olympus OMD has a fivepoint focus system. Canon has applied for patents over technology which allows you to focus your image after it has been taken. Adobe Photoshop has recently released camera-shake-reduction software.
Is the future definition of a ‘good’ image one that is razor sharp? Going back 50 years, our tolerance for sharpness was certainly much more relaxed. Focus accuracy was determined by the dexterity of our fingers to manually focus. Richard Avedon’s legendary photo book Nothing Personal, for example, features several out-of-focus images.
So, what is the future of photography? It’s the same as it always has been and likely always will be. No matter the advances in technology, how you see will always matter more than the equipment you use to capture an image. For over 50 years Daido Moriyama used the same Ricoh compact cameras — today he is widely considered a legend in street photography.
The future of photography will place ever more emphasis on developing your own voice. More than any other time in the history of photography, the digital arena gives us accessible, powerful and creative tools for self discovery and expression. A photographer’s intent is more important than the medium. Developing how we see must transcend the device we see it with and the software we produce it with, lest we become slaves to equipment and processes.