I started writing this post a few days ago but it took me longer than expected to finish it.
So today I was watching the iPhone 12 event and it brought to me some reflexion on the future of our beloved hobby that I want to share with you. If you take a look to the photos bellow, which I have selected from the Apple site, one can’t help to feel amazed of how far the mobile/phone photography has come and how quick it progresses to levels that where still unthinkable a few years ago.
All images bellow belong to Apple and are extracted from their new iPhone 12 eventThese are basic screenshots and don’t have the final resolution
The edge is getting narrower
We, photography lovers, and by this I mean the kind of people attached to photography as a skill, a crafted sort of thing, we are sometimes quick to dismiss phone photography as not a “serious” one. But look at the images above again (and bear in mind these are only screenshots that don’t have the true resolution that the real ones). I don’t know about you but I personally think that they are truly astonishing. Look at the black and white level of details, at the richness of the micro contrast of he grey tones, and the smoothness and depth of he bokeh, at the delicacy of the light and tones, at the low grain night colours !
We can argue you and me if this is “serious” photography, if this is anything close to the true thing. We could debate about if these images are good enough to be printed (they are), if the sensor has enough megapixels, the tiny lenses receive enough amount of light and so on. But the hard truth is that nowadays we all see these images, at best, on our computer screens, most of the time on our phones. Look at the second picture above: put it side to side to one from, let’s say, a Leica typ 240. You’ll be hard pressed to distinguish them. Look at the first one: couldn’t have it been taken with any current Fuji camera for example ? . I know you might not agree with me, fine, but you get my point.
The ongoing trend
For quite many years now young and not so young people don’t care about having a camera, they just use the one they already have in their pockets and this is a trend that will only get stronger and stronger as new consumer generations arrive on the market. Big traditional camera companies are having hard times sustaining their activity, and the ones that, for now, succeed are the ones that have other business lines beside their camera line. Even a company like Nikon is now said to be in economic danger of disappearance.
The computational photography
Images like those above are only possible because of the power of modern chips. What mechanics don’t allow (bigger lens, bigger sensor) computing provides. The new Apple A14 chip is a beast capable of a whooping 11 trillion operations every second !. New technologies like lidar or other allow for complex and technical better images. Computational tricks like dynamic real time HDR make for images that actually resemble more and more what our eyes see in real life. Have a look at these stunning shots that travel photographer Austin Mann did with the new-released iPhone 12 Pro, and also at the ones by Toby Harriman from his aerial view of S.F. and Big Sur.
Maybe we will be able to still push further physical limits on our cameras (specially on the lens side, to make them more optically perfect for example) but we won’t dramatically push these boundaries much further. The only way for future cameras to offer some radically different improvement over what we already have nowadays is by applying AI by the means of powerful computing, and that’s what’s precisely being done by the state of the art smartphone companies.
Do we need more intelligent cameras ?
Ok, so having arrived to this point I’m sure many of you reading this will argue that technical improvement doesn’t necessarily mean better photographs. I am with you. There’s a big chance that many of the classical photographs that you have in mind and love where made with simple cameras and a technology far less complicated than the one we enjoy today. Many people love, and actually look after a classic old look, because they think technically perfect images lack something, some emotion to it. You may or may not agree, it’s a matter of preference. But what is undeniable I think is that we can’t go against the tide. We, as consumers are way to used to having the always better and greater. We want to be sure that when we spend our money it will always be for a better or quicker « something ». In that sense, the future, I think, is quite grim for cameras companies. Mastering the technology of developing powerful chips, and the computational know-how that goes with it requires many years of development and heavy investment. I’m afraid the edge is quite wide already for our beloved camera companies to catch-up, and it will widen even more quickly because of the fast pace at which everything moves nowadays.
Of course there will always be some market for « traditional » photo cameras, no doubt about it, but I think that a few companies that we know today won’t make it unless they take the right decisions and wise strategic moves. I personally hope Fujifilm will be one of those, because they already give you something more than a technically good camera, they give you a whole experience and the tools to enjoy the act of photographing itself, and that’s why I like it.