Photography is an art that dates back nearly 180 years ago. From a simple frame and shutter, photography has gone through a series of revolutions since its birth. We have had daguerrotypes, Box Brownies, Polaroids, disposable cameras, digital cameras, smartphones, and the evolution does not stop there. In less than two centuries, from the invention of photography, it has evolved from a simple means of recording events to an art form. The future of photography has now grown to include computational photography.
The Shift Toward Computational Photography
A camera is made of nothing more than a shutter, a light-sensitive surface and constantly increasing set of algorithms. The growth of a camera’s physical components is continuous but slow. But giants like Google, Samsung and Apple are now openly investing in developments to their camera based solely on code.
Why is this? Smartphone cameras have hit a wall based on what they can do with their cameras physically because of many restrictions such as phones heating up, never having enough space, the cost of manufacturing, and so on. Instead of a professional camera that relies on its lenses to capture images, computation can recreate similar if not the same effects with technology that a DSLR could with a $2000 lens. This, at a fraction of the price.
What is Computational Photography?
Computational photography can be defined as a combination of digital sensors, modern optics, plenty of computing, smart lights and actuators. This helps in creating a boundless range with variable focus, depth of field, resolution, and many more attributes one cannot associate with a simple SLR or DSLR.
It includes many forms of interactive content that includes both pictures and videos to give a machine-created representation of the world around us. The future of digital photography includes mastering new techniques for lighting, lenses, and sensors.
Broadly speaking, all digital photography can be considered computational. The simplest of digital cameras require computation to convert the light that hits the sensor into a usable image. But with object identification, autofocus, face and eye tracking, it was easier to capture people in bad lighting or poses. This made it easier for sports and action photography where objects are always in motion.
The Limits of Traditional Photography
Until very recently, smartphones were not being used for more than point and shoots, like DSLRs. But now, they have become multi-purpose media tools that can capture live video and augmented reality, something which DSLRs cannot do.
There are a lot of limitations of photography in its traditional sense. One can only improve optical and electronic stabilization, megapixels, colors, and so on, so much. No one, not even Apple or Samsung can reinvent the camera for their smartphones. The foundation remains the same.
So what can be done? One can build on top of this foundation.
So What Can You Expect from the Future?
You can compare the evolution of photography to that of the growth of a child. One cannot think of photography the same way it was thought of before. It has crept up on us, and now it is so glaringly obvious, it cannot be ignored. The minute the shift to digital photography took place, everything changed. It became noticeable only after the introduction of the internet and smartphones.
The digital image can be manipulated entirely now, and we do not even need applications like Adobe’s Photoshop to do so. There are many apps on your phone that can edit, distort and recreate an image that looks entirely different from when it was captured. With the integration of multiple applications, the possibilities of what can be done with a photograph have merely been scratched on the surface.
According to veteran digital commentator Kevin Connor, “The definition of computational photography is still evolving, but I like to think of it as a shift from using a camera as a picture-making device to using it as a data-collecting device.”
Tyler Davidson compares the relationship of software with the camera to that of being eaten. It is changing the very form and substance of photography. Instead of a physical object, a camera is nothing more than an application. The possibilities of tweaking and manipulating an application are endless.
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What is the Prediction for the Future of Photography?
No More DSLRs
With a little over twenty-five years in age, the DSLR has grown rapidly. The progress with which the cameras have improved is what still makes them relevant. But this still does not guarantee their relevance in the next twenty-five years.
Their main threat is mirrorless cameras. The advantages that DSLRs provide will soon be of no value with the progress of CSCs. The edge that mirrorless cameras provided initially was that their light weight, small size, and portability. But DSLRs had better quality images. With the invention of Sony’s full-frame CSCs, mirrorless cameras reached an equal footing with DSLRs when it came to image quality, but DSLRs still had a better battery life.
Smartphones Take Over Digital Cameras
Compact camera sales have declined by 80% since 2010 because of smartphones. The improved camera quality and mobile photo editing applications are the biggest reasons. Only people who are serious about photography use cameras with interchangeable lens, because people still want the quality and control that a good camera can provide.
Compact cameras face the biggest hit because people do not want to carry another piece of equipment with them that does essentially the same job. For most intents and purposes, a smartphone does the same job as a compact camera. People are satisfied with the results produced by a smartphone and do not feel the need to buy a camera. Smartphones are also a lot easier to carry and serve more than just one purpose, making them the preferred choice. Soon, compact cameras will become as outdated as CD players.
The Influence of Artificial Intelligence on Photography
The future holds truly smart cameras. They will be able to recognize entire scenes and subjects, while at the same time automatically adjust variables required to shoot a picture or a video. It will be possible for everyone to capture a perfectly exposed and focused shot with nothing more than a push of a button.
With the development of machine learning, the library that stores images will get smarter as well. The improved software will be able to recognize every element of an image. There will be no need to assign any keywords or organize the images into folders. The library will be able to recognize the contents of an image based on any descriptive word for it. At the same time, facial recognition software is also improving. With this feature, one can search for a particular person and every shot of them would appear.
There are already AI-powered filters and effects that make photo editing a breeze. There is the portrait mode in phones which blurs out the background after recognizing the subject in the photo, and the bokeh effect as well. Most photographers spend their time in the post-processing stage, editing the images clicked. Soon enough, technology will reach a point where it will choose the best image out of the lot clicked and keep that, while discarding the rest. This will be done by using tried and tested algorithms. All balancing, whiteness, exposure, toning, and other editing processes will be automated and applied instantly to the RAW image. This will result in saving many hours of work and make it possible for any layperson to take professional looking shots.
Connectivity Options will Increase
You can already connect your phone and camera with Bluetooth, WiFi or NFC. Now, there are more and more connectivity options are included with every generation of camera. There are many ways to wirelessly upload and backup your images and post online. There are cloud services available and external applications as well.
There is not much time for cameras to automatically connect to the internet. This may even be possible with the 5G network that will launch in the next few years. This will rapidly expand the Internet of Things and the Internet of Everything as well.
Soon SD cards or other forms of physical storage will become redundant, providing there is a data connection available. Photographs will instead be uploaded to the cloud directly. This means that they can be accessed from any place or device. There will be no worry about running out of space, losing or damaging a memory card and corrupting the files.
Impact of Virtual Reality on Photography
Virtual Reality has already started to create an impact on the world. It is expected to have an explosive impact in the future of photography. Soon it may be possible to explore a scene with a VR headset, instead of looking at an image on a screen. Sights and sounds of an image could come to life with this and it will be possible to relive captured moments and feel like one is moving inside their memories.
Cameras will evolve alongside the evolution of photography. But the process of evolution compared to that of the software would seem tremendously slow. Physical evolution would require a big change in the development of the camera itself, and making new and innovative software is a much faster process.
Something along the lines of Google Glass may be a possibility in the near future, but much more advanced. It could be possible to wear a camera that could record all our interactions, and then allow us to revisit them whenever we please. It is currently no more than science fiction, but not far behind our current reality.
A Picture of Reality – Richer than a Visual Record
Computational photography uses the current resources available and creates a picture of reality through the visual image that is infinitely richer than just a simple visual record. This creates the opportunity to incorporate deeper levels of computational knowledge into photography.
There will come a time when photographers will make images of what they know, rather than capturing what they see. It will be their interpretation of reality, rather than an account of what has taken place.
Mark Levoy from Google says, “Except in photojournalism, there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’; everything will be an amalgam, an interpretation, an enhancement or a variation – either by the photographer as auteur or by the camera itself.”
Coding and Light: The Future of Photography
The future of digital photography is not in optics. It is computational. This means the new cameras that come out in smartphones will have similar features when it comes to the number of megapixels, ISO ranges, the f-numbers, etc. There is probably not a lot of room left for improvement left in this area of photography.
But the massive shift in paradigm comes with the adaptations of light that will be possible with computational photography. Traditional cameras like the SLRs and DSLRs will have repurcussions (as mentioned above) because they will rapidly give way to mirrorless cameras. The changes will implicate smartphones as well, embedded devices and everything that captures light and converts it to an image.
Computational photography will manipulate this light and change the future of photography. The change is already underway, and it is incredible. It may sound like science fiction at this point, but what we can do with a camera in the present time also sounded like fiction over two or three decades ago. The changes are progressing very rapidly.
So far, over the last century, we have managed to experiment with other parts of the camera. We have managed to bring them to different levels of perfection and quality over time. Now, it is time to move on to a new, non-physical “part” of the camera.
This will definitely have a very big impact on the quality of the images we take and might even change the concept of photography in the future.