The Next Great Photographic Revolution

Photographers: we love technology. Some of us embrace the latest and greatest, while others hold on to the past because of a particular "look" or characteristic that older technology provides. Some photographers are overly obsessed with gear, and others (hopefully most of us) see it as a tool, albeit an important one. In any case, we must admit that technology plays an important role in photography. I don't mean to say that the latest technology is important, I merely mean that emerging technologies have an important impact on the field of photography. This impact is often seen years or decades after the initial invention, after the technology trickles down to consumers.

Since the invention of permanent photography in the 1820s, numerous photographic technologies have revolutionized the field. These technologies (negative film, color film, autofocus, etc.) have all eventually made it into the hands of consumers in these revolutionary products:

  • 1900: Eastman Kodak introduces the Brownie, which brings photography to the masses
  • 1924: Leitz introduces the Leica, the first 35mm-format camera
  • 1936: Eastman Kodak releases Kodachrome color film
  • 1949: Zeiss introduces the Contax S, the first pentaprism 35mm-format SLR camera
  • 1963: Polaroid releases the first instant film camera
  • 1985: Minolta releases the first autofocus camera

The last great revolution in photography was the move from film to digital. Digital photography got its start in 1975 when Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak led the development of the first digital camera prototype. It had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels, and took 23 seconds to capture a black and white image to magnetic tape. That started the ball rolling. In 1991, Kodak introduced the first digital SLR ever, the DCS-100. Less than 10 years later, in 1999, Nikon introduced the D1, which made DSLRs available to professionals for under $6000 (USD).

In the years following, digital camera use became widespread. From 2000 to now, we saw an explosion in digital camera sales. Right now, in 2012, it's difficult to find a household in a developed country that doesn't have some form of digital camera (cell phone, compact, or SLR). Some cell phones like the iPhone 5 and Nokia 808 PureView take better photos than point-and-shoot cameras did only a few years ago. The Nikon D600 and Canon 6D are both reasonably-priced, somewhat affordable "full-frame" cameras which bring incredible sensor technology to the masses. In between we have an incredible assortment of formats, camera sizes, technologies, and features: excellent compacts like the Sony RX100, bridge cameras, micro 4/3, and many different types of APS-C cameras. There's something for everyone, and it's all relatively affordable. Thus, the digital revolution is complete and has defined what photography is today.

But what will be the next great revolution? People discuss new sensor technologies, incredible ISO performance, and even cheaper large-format sensors. These are merely iterations on what we have now.

I believe that the next great photographic revolution will be driven by new lens technologies.

We're already seeing the start of this. Lytro has released a light field camera, which has infinite depth-of-field, and allows the user to selectively focus photos after they've been taken. In its current form this technology is mostly a novelty. The Lytro camera is an expensive toy, producing images with quality that is far below what consumers currently expect of even the worst camera phones. However, it's not difficult to imagine a DSLR-quality model making it to market 5 or 10 years from now.

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a flat lens prototype which focuses light by using a thin layer of gold that is tuned for specific wavelengths of light. Here's the article: Flat Lens Offers a Perfect Image. The lens is essentially perfect: distortion-free, aberration-free, and approaching the limits of physical diffraction (perfect resolution). This is the sort of research that has the potential to completely revolutionize photography: small, light, ideal lenses! That's the stuff that dreams are made of.

It's conceivable that 10 or 15 years from now we may see a gold lens camera being released to consumers. It'll probably have a large sensor, but it will be very small because of the lens technology. It could be the size of a current point-and-shoot, but without any lens bump on the front. Most importantly, the lens will be absolutely ideal.

In 20 years, instead of shooting with film, the new retro movement in photography will be shooting with old lenses instead of newer lens technology. The current glass that we shoot with will have a less-perfect, less-sanitized look to it, sort of like film does now (when compared to digital). 50 and 60-year-old dinosaurs will roam the earth carrying heavy gear and shooting with old gear and old glass that still has "character". Perhaps I will be amongst them? In any case, I certainly look forward to seeing what revolutionary technologies the future will bring.