The other day I read a piece on DigitalRev by a photographer called Ben Davis on what he saw as the future of photography: http://www.digitalrev.com/article/5-predictions-for-the-future-of-photography
Whilst some of his views I agree with, there are others where I don’t but that said the article did was to provoke quite a number of thoughts on the topic of photography, where it is today and where it may go into the future, it is almost a repeat of the early days of photography and fine art painting but artists still exist today though at the time it might have seemed extinction was a possibility.
Through a Crystal Ball ?
Future gazing is always fraught with the potential for errors as looking back at the predictions made in the 1940/50s about what we would be doing in the future attest, there are quite a number of these videos on YouTube to savour. Currently in terms of photography there are two clear ‘issues’, the so called battle between DSLRs and Mirrorless camera technologies and the rise of mobile phone photography which has certainly had a major impact on the reduction in sales of compact cameras. However and that said, these two things are perhaps not as closely related as first appears, sure ‘photography’ is the common thread but the markets are probably totally different.
Whilst logically I would certainly agree that the “DSLR vs Mirrorless” argument must surely end in the mirrorless design prevailing if only because it will be cheaper to manufacture once the ‘bugs’ in how mirrorless cameras function are solved economically, but having said that, it may not be so obvious a conclusion once the commercial and marketing parameters are factored in. It seems to me that it is too easy to project things from where we are today that just may not be true or at least, not so true in the way we imagine them to be.
I would suggest that there two totally different markets and therefore very divergent paths going into the future and to best understand them we need to look at not just the technology but also how that may be commercially exploited. The obvious place to start is with smartphone camera technology.
This section is not just about still images, I would also include the video clips that an individual might take with their phone. Taking pictures and recording your life’s personal moments has always been a big thing for most people for decades past when mass produced cameras had lenses like the bottom of a bottle and you had to take film to a chemist to have your pictures processed. Therefore today being able to take pictures combine it with video and all on a device you always have with you is brilliant for most people.
However the rise of the smartphone in photography is more than just ‘picture technology’, it is as importantly about people instantly having their images on their phone and being able to ‘share’ them instantly, it is as much about immediate connectivity as it is photography. The smartphone fits in with the whole concept of social media and is part of the “Look at me” society that most younger people currently inhabit. We will certainly see smartphone photography being considerably improved by both hardware and as importantly software in the coming years using a combination of AI and machine learning to not just produce almost perfect results every time but also to speed up and simplify storing and cataloguing images stored in the ‘Cloud’.
The key point being that these advances will wholly revolve around the smartphone user and will be there to enhance not just the images and video they take but also how they connect to it in a similar way as how they connect to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on, the content of their personal catalogues of past pictures and videos are just another cloud based resource to them. The smartphone is primarily a connected device and the commercial space thrives because of it, photography is just an ‘incidental’ in the grand scheme of things.
Not Connected But…
I think it is a mistake to confuse the collapse of compact cameras and the rise of smartphone photography as bearing directly on professional and amateur photography generally because they are in reality two separate and distinct markets and the numbers seem to give this idea some credence.
The best year for camera sales was 2010 when roughly 122 million cameras were shipped of which 109 million were fixed lens ‘compact cameras’ and the ILC, interchangeable lens cameras that the professional and amateur photographers favour, 13 million units. By 2016 the totals had fallen significantly with only 24 million total shipments of which 12.5 million were compact cameras and 11.5 million were ILC. The point being is that whilst ILC sales have also dropped, nowhere near as much as sales of compact cameras over the period so there is still a strong and viable market for ILCs.
However the ILC market made up of professional and largely keen amateur photographers will not be unaffected by the fall in sales of other cameras both in terms of technology expressed in R&D terms and also in the prices demanded for their photographic kit. For the professionals too, there are other threats in terms of the potential loss of earnings opportunities bought about by changes in technology and how things are marketed and packaged.
The Threats to ILC Users
Although the format between compact and ILC cameras is clearly totally different, because the underlying digital technology is the same if a manufacturer sold say 3 million ILC cameras per year but also 6 million compact cameras, the ability to spread the R&D costs of chips, circuits and all the other common technologies must lead to both lower unit costs and a more aggressive technical development program going forward. So a reduction in sales volumes will certainly lead to higher unit costs and a slower development cycle for new products.
However as the majority of ILC camera hardware is very well made and pretty durable plus, few photographers trade their kit that often, this will not be an immediate pressing issue unlike the other threat which is to working photographers. The combination of the hardware and software technology going into smartphone cameras could lead to major changes in the market driven by a battle for marketable content that can provide a platform for advertising revenue.
The Whole Package
The areas where smartphone technology will take off further involve two different but related technologies: Artificial Intelligence which are really programs that allow a computer to think for itself within defined parameters and Machine Learning which is a way of training a machine to recognise specific things and act/ react accordingly to given situations.
How these two things can interact in terms of photography is that one can recognize the subject and lighting conditions of what the phone is pointed at, the other can set the phones camera to take a picture or series of pictures to produce the optimal end result. Further than that, any images or video clips could be automatically ‘catalogued’ with little to no intervention by the user so that if at a future date a user asked the phone to find all pictures of say “Fred”, it could do so both on their device and also from their cloud storage. Particularly aimed at the compact camera ‘family user’, we have had for some time now cameras that could collect random video and stills images from a day out and put them together in a “story” that could be saved as a visual memory with little to no participation from the user.
Combine this with AI, Machine Learning and Cloud based storage and it would be possible to not just live stream ‘Events’ as is increasingly currently done such as sporting ones or concerts but also to compile programs from the input of prepositioned ‘cameras’ into highlights or complete events to be sold as streams to phones and tablets for a fee and all without even employing actual editors. This would have a major impact on the earnings opportunities for working photographers who normally cover these events.
The End of “Real”Photography ?
No I don’t think that it is the end of photography nor even ‘photography as we know it’ but it will bring commercial changes. “Perfection” and “Flawless Perfection” is fine and good but when everybody’s selfies and images end up looking pretty much the same, it gets boring so strangely it is likely two main things will happen, a growing desire for ‘original’ images plus a willingness to pay a premium price for them.
There will be the incentive for photographers to be more creative and combine both the art and the craft to produce unique images that they can sell. The photographers who succeed will be those who can combine genuine talent with the medium and the commercial nous to market themselves effectively to attract a whole new breed of client. The best will find themselves having an elevated status, some even treated as artists in their own right so the future for them is by no means all gloom and doom.