Can technology eliminate an entire industry?

What’s the future of photography? What will be the next advances in digital image capture technology? How will those advances affect the professional photography industry? According to Ramesh Raskar, associate professor and leader of the Camera Culture group at the MIT Media Lab, advances in the field of computational photography could eliminate the entire professional photography industry.

The basic design and operation of cameras has not changed much since photography began in the late 1800s. Now that capturing light has become a practice in mathematics, the process of capturing and processing a digital image allows for many more options not available with film capture. Raskar and his colleagues are working diligently to make creating a digital photograph as easy as possible and “envision a day when anyone can use a camera with a small, cheap lens to take the type of stunning pictures that today are achievable only by professional photographers using high-end equipment and software such as Adobe Photoshop.”

Digital SLRs (DSLR), according to Raskar, are expensive and difficult for amateurs to use. A computational camera, whether it’s a typical box camera or a cell phone will automatically compensate for lighting, focus, motion blur, depth of field, and perspective. Because the captured data is mathematical, further post-processing could be done to refine, create, or eliminate depth of field blur, change lighting angles, correct or alter perspective, eliminate motion blur, and create deeper focus (or determine after the fact which elements you want in focus). Future digital capture devices (will we still call them cameras?) “could exceed today’s most sophisticated technologies, overcoming what have seemed like fundamental limits. Even cell-phone cameras, which have inexpensive fixed lenses, could give amateurs the same kind of control over focusing that professionals have with a high-end single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.”

To be honest, I think the technology is cool. I remember when I was in high school imagining cameras that hooked directly into the brain to record whatever a person looked at (this was before the Six Million Dollar Man). It’s heading that direction. The resulting images and possibilities cannot be fully imagined now, but I’m sure they will be amazing and could fundamentally change our visual culture. Back in March I gave a presentation titled “The Electronic Afterlife: Digital Immortality?” about how we might preserve our historic legacy in the digital age. What will be our digital leave-behind for future generations? Advances in digital image capture, data storage, presentation and processing will allow future generations to keep a more complete record of individual lives, events, and a more accurate representation of our history than ever before. In that way, this technology is interesting and exciting.

Professional photographers rely on their technical skill (how to use and compensate for lighting differences, use of focal length, aperture and depth of field, etc.), equipment, their ability to consistently create high quality images, and the gap that creates between them and amateur photographers. These developments are worrisome for those of us making a living in this ever more competitive industry. Remember that old saying, “If it was easy everyone would be doing it”? We’re heading in that direction now. We’re already in push-button automation mode for creating and post-processing digital images and the line (technology and price) between high-end professional equipment and amateur/consumer equipment is blurring every day. The gap is getting smaller. In 10 years, will there be a professional photography industry or will the barrier to entry into this market come completely down and it will be so easy everyone (even a caveman) could do it?

One Reply to “Can technology eliminate an entire industry?”

  1. Very intriguing well written article. Roam around on Flickr (or the likes) and you’ll find countless amateurs uploading top shelf imagery these days thanks in large part to the digital camera. Makes those on the professional side of the line work that much harder, or choose another career path. Time tells all.

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