In a quarter century, we've gone from lugging film canisters and developer trays to digital manipulation and cloud computing. What’s next on the photo technology horizon?
In 1987, photography was still a mystery to most people. The camera was a magical black box. The photographer was a magician who pushed the shutter button, which allowed light into the magic box and began the mysterious process of creating a permanent picture.
The magic of photography took time. Photographers had more heavy equipment to lug around. We had to process the negatives, which could take hours, days or, for the procrastinator, weeks. We had to wait for the "instant" Polaroids to develop.
Twenty-five years ago we didn't have a screen on the back of the camera for instant feedback on our images. At the time, the biggest innovation in photography was autofocus. The big debate of the time was not if digital is really photography, but whether professionals need or should use autofocus.
In the 1980s, your old equipment held its value. Some cameras, such as a high-end Hasselblad or Leica, would be worth more (if well cared for) years after their purchase. Kodak was king of the hill for film and processing of photographs. Its stock price continued to rise to an all-time high by the mid-1990s.
Digital change coming
By 1997 the digital revolution was well under way, but many of us didn't realize its full impact or how much the industry would be radically transformed.
Digital cameras weren't that impressive at the time. Most cameras that were available to the public produced images from 0.7- to 1.3-megapixel sensors. They were fine for the relatively new World Wide Web, but not practical for professional prints. If a photographer made an error or adjustments were needed, an expensive scan would have to be created from the film at the local service bureau. Other available technologies included Adobe Photoshop 4 to make adjustments, and the 100MB zip drive to save compressed files and send them to clients.
Photographers in the late ‘90s knew digital was coming, but many declared it wasn't quite there yet — and this continued even into the early 2000s.
Some newspapers were experimenting with digital using Nikons fitted with Kodak backs sporting 1.8-megapixel sensors. These cameras had a price tag of $15,000. Just a few years later, they were nothing more than expensive doorstops.
I remember using my bulky newspaper-issue digital camera until 2000. It didn't have a screen on the back, so I was still shooting blind. Further complicating things, they were twice the size of a standard SLR camera and as awkward as the brick-sized cell phones of the 1980s.
Around the same time, cell phone technology was taking off, too. Mobile phones were standard issue for the photographer on location. Although most photographers didn't realize it at the time, companies such as Sharp and Kyocera were developing new cameras that would fit inside a phone. E-mail became the standard for instant communication, and internet-savvy photographers began to launch early websites.
Though it's been only 15 years since those days, the photography industry is almost completely different today. In 1997, for instance, film rated at 1600 ISO was pushing the limits of film speed and quality. Today most major camera manufacturers are releasing cameras with ISO sensitivities of more than 100,000.
Cameras have become smaller and less expensive, and the number of megapixels on a camera computer chip has continued to increase. Not only are megapixels now found in large numbers, but the pixel quality has also increased.
Many clients now think "waiting" means the photographer would like an hour to touch up the photo before e-mailing it to them. Photographers have many more image delivery choices today than they did 15 years ago, and clients have grown to expect easier and faster service.
The photographer of 2012 uses traditional photographic labs not for general processing but for specialized services. Advances in Photoshop, processing and photographic styles mean photographers are expected to deliver extraordinary images. Some of today's photography processes and styles take great skill and time to create. Photographers and their teams are now required to spend hours in front of a computer rather than dropping film at the lab for an afternoon pickup.
Today a website is no longer an indulgence of a few geeky photographers; it's mandatory if you want to be in business. Communication has moved beyond the telephone, fax and occasional e-mail.
CDs, DVDs and thumb drives are now available as an inexpensive form of storage and delivery. They are especially useful for jobs that require a large number of photographs to be delivered to the client. Cloud services give photographers a way to back up important images. Some of the more sophisticated online companies offer e-commerce, galleries, web portfolios and online delivery of images.
All this technology has simplified the photographer's workflow for many and made it more complex for others. We now have the ability to photograph and deliver an image to the other side of the world easily, cheaply and within minutes.
Few would have guessed in 1987 that this technology would lead to mighty Kodak eventually going bankrupt.
Besides being decent cameras themselves, smartphones have become an important information tool in the photographer's life. Phones have applications that can do basic photographic processing, provide weather reports, calculate depth of field, connect with your e-mail and search for information — they can even make old-fashioned phone calls, if needed. Now we've started talking to our phones.
How far we'll go
Fifteen years from now, we will talk to our cameras, too. The future photographer will be more of a producer and director than a person behind a viewfinder.
We will be able to ask our camera for a certain type of lighting, and the camera will respond by remotely adjusting the light level. With a simple series of calibration tests, our cameras will remember how we like to compose our images. When the assignment is over, the camera will ask the photographer what type of processing is desired and where to deliver the image.
The photographer may be more of an assistant to the camera than its master. If the lights are not connected to automated stands, your camera might ask you to move Light A one foot to the left.
Obviously, old-school photographers will want to compose their own images and work in the digital darkroom. If the camera didn't focus the image correctly, it will be able to be refocused later. (See page 36 for information on lytro.com.)
For photographers on location, the camera will take care of the logistics, processing and image delivery while the photographer is creating more images.
In the future, everyday photographers may use a camera that's part of their sunglasses or contact lenses. Or maybe a "perfect shot," high-def, no-light-or-focusing-needed, all-in-one camera hanging from a keychain will do the trick.
Technological advances — with automated workflow from the planning stage, through setup, archiving, retrieval and invoicing — will make daily assignments easier for most pro shooters.
Camera companies today seem to double the megapixels in their cameras every two years. If this pace continues, we could be producing 150,000-megapixel images over the next 25 years.
The future photograph will have multidimensional options. It will be interactive and responsive to the viewer. Images like today's cinemagraphs will be commonplace and more dynamic. (Visit cinemagraphs.com for more information.) Holograms will come into their own, requiring the trained eye of the photographer to create beautiful imagery for individuals, advertising, and other media.
These images will be shared as stills, videos or holographs from the same digital file. The interactive elements will be placed in the photographs during image creation or in postproduction.
Professional photographers will have multiple camera options, from larger high-production, multi-feature cameras to professional equipment connected to their personal assistant (think smartphone).
But there's one thing that photographers must keep in mind, no matter how much technology advances in the next 25 years: The best photographic equipment that can be found is right between your ears. Microprocessors, digital assistants and 3-D video are wonderful signs of progress, but they cannot replace an artist's imagination and vision.