What is the future of photography?
13 Sep, 2017

What is the future of photography?

As a gadget loving photographer I have always been following the technology available to us for making great photo's. Don't get me wrong - a very large part of a great image made today, is the vision and experience of the person behind the camera. But let's also agree, that the technology does have a role to play in the massive increase in availability of great images.

In the last 20 years, digital cameras has completely overthrown the analogue camera as our primary tool of the trade. In the beginning this happened because it was just so mush easier and faster, but now the image quality, resolution and versatility is FAR FAR beyond anything that was ever possible with the analogue camera.

"a very large part of a great image made today, is the vision and experience of the person behind the camera"

Early on, this was great for the all of us. Later on, the combination of the Internet, where you could find millions of images for inspiration, and the availability of very good cameras to everyone, started to disrupt the photography world. All of a sudden your average inexperienced user had the technical capabilities and quick access to all the learning needed, to create images approaching the quality that would previously require a fairly seasoned photographer - a person that perhaps even made a living from photography. During the early 2000's it became increasingly difficult to make money from photography if you were not a pro. The sheer amount of "good enough" photographers publishing and competing on the internet, and willing to do most of their work for free, created this situation. With the capabilities of today's cell phones, easy editing apps and the widespread use of social media, even specialties like photojournalism are getting close to extinction.

Disruption or not, the technology certainly changed everything for photographers, and while you could choose to deplore the loss of these trades in the process, I find it's great we have access to this technology and all these great albeit free images.

But.... I believe it has only just begun....

I believe a new era in photography is once again about hit us - this time with such a game changing punch, that everything we know and all the gear we have, are at risk of becoming completely obsolete within a few years. This era is probably best described by the words Computational Photography even though it relies on several different technologies. But what is Computational Photography?

"everything we know and all the gear we have, are at risk of becoming completely obsolete within a few years"

First we have to take a brief look at how we used computers so far to manipulate our images. Probably the most well known tool for this is Adobe Photoshop. This tool practically invented photo manipulation and in time it became a word on it's own to describe the process of enhancing an image. Photoshop is a great toolbox to adjust, improve and even augment your images, but it is a tool for the few. The reason is the immense amount of skills required if you want to do more than basic enhancement. Even if you are really skillful there are still lots and lots of things photoshop cannot do for you because it works on the image after it is taken. This means motive, lighting, sourrounding settings, focal length, aperture and exposure has all been finalized in the pixels saved in your imagefile. There's a limit to what Photoshop can do with that :-)

Computational photography is all about software that runs on your camera during the capture of your image. The user experience of doing a GREAT image with computational photography will actually be very much like taking a quick - maybe even uninspired - point'n'shoot with your cellphone today. You will however see something very different on your screen in the pointing part of taking the image. Your camera will realtime analyze the scene and realtime re-render what's seen on your screen with new lighting, depth of field, colours, shadow/highlight details and perhaps even background objects - it will display the approximate look of the final image if the shutter release is pressed. All this re-rendering is done based on settings you select in your camera combined with machine learning results from analysis of millions and millions of similar scene photographs. This experience is delivered by augmented reality (AR) - a technology that is really taking the world by storm right now. 

"Computational photography is all about software that runs on your camera during the capture of your image"

At the point of capture, your image is taken with multiple sensors and lenses simultaneously. Some will be tele, some will be wideangle, some with different exposures, some will point in slightly different directions, and perhaps some will see ultra violet or infra red. After capture of the raw data in all the sensors, it is treated to the compute power of your camera. The camera will scale the image up with perfectly sharp, clean pixels and it will calculate all the missing details and color transitions the single sensor/lens/exposure combo could not catch. This is done with algorithms analyzing the combined sensor input to effectively predict and put the optimal pixels into the image. Then your augmented reality settings are applied and the final image is saved. That means we do not finalize the image before manipulation is completed, and this will increase the basic image quality tremendously. Things like experience with lighting and it's direction, knowledge of optimal depth of field aperture selection and selected shutter speed will no longer be strictly necessary. But this goes even further, because the camera could also guide or even choose things like focal length, composition, portrait setup (Smile, clothes and so forth) to make the perfect image. There will also be a RAW capture image file available for amateur photographers, so you can select and apply many of the capture settings afterwards if you which to change your image.
And it will all be automatically available in your smartphone or purpose purchased pocket camera.

This technology will see the entire camera industry completely disrupted, and in the longer term, output quality straight from a smartphone camera will probably be better than even photoshop'ed images from medium format camera's of today.

This sounds both fantastic for your everyday camera user, and rather gloomy for your bread and butter photographer. Earlier on I deliberately used the wording "a pro", for referring to photographers who successfully makes a living from their trade. In my opinion there will always be a place for a select group of people, who has that extra vision in their work - that extra something - that you cannot just replicate or think up. They are the ones that bring new idea's to the table, and has the tenacity to see an idea through no matter how much work it requires. Something an algorithm will never do for you - it takes human inspiration and ingenuity to get there.

"This technology will see the entire camera industry completely disrupted"

Computational Photography will once again change the photography world as we know it, and it will probably make it even harder to make a living from photography. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the new augmented reality and portrait photography features on the new dual camera iphones. Combine this with the pioneer work happening in products like the Light L16 camera, and you know we have only just embarked on a photo revolution - once again :-)