This entry was inspired by the Zen coincidence of a comment made by a friend of a friend and another blog written by a fellow photographer regarding digital cameras and what may be coming. The comment was on the desire for smartphones’ cameras to be at right-angle to the screen so it wasn’t obvious when a picture is being taken (something self-conscious folk have to come to terms with). This would make the phone camera work like an old TLR for framing purposes, or an SLR with waste-level finder if you prefer. The inspiring blog was also about the future: The Future of Photography is not Mirrorless It caused me to think about all the changes I personally have seen in half a century of photography (and looking back on its history, even more).
In the good old days of film photography there were two categories of camera: amateur and professional. That is not the same as two categories of photographer, as a lot of amateurs had professional equipment – and still got amateur results. The inverse is also true, as I’ve known pros to get the results they wanted using a Diana F. It might not be the result you or I want, but it worked for them. Amateur cameras began with the Kodak Brownie for sure:
(Yes that is the very first model; one of seven left in the world.)
They progressed through basic folders, then plastic cheapies (the famous Brownie “Star” camera series for example), into Instamatics and on to the point-and-shoot digitals. Professional cameras started with the very first cameras, as you really had to know what you were doing before Mr. Eastman made it easy. Post World War II we’d think of pro cameras as Leica, Contax, and Exacta – before Nikon, Canon, and Pentax took over with their SLRs. If you were really serious about your photography, sooner or later you laid down the big money and bought one of the dauntingly complex cameras that could do so much more than point and click.
The early days of digital photography were much the same. I wonder how many remember that the first professional digital units were actually backs that fitted to your SLR (like Nikon F) to give you digital imaging? I remember because at the time a pro friend of mine was trying to get his work to pony up the money for it – something like $10,000 then. They didn’t go for it. But still we had honest amateur digital cameras:
Curiously if you wanted to go from digital amateur to digital pro the marketplace provided a new kind of camera for you: the “bridge” camera. This was no point-and-shoot, but also not a DSLR with interchangeable lenses. Just the right tool to metaphorically get your feet wet without shelling out next month’s mortgage payment (and car payment and probably the utility bill as well).
The amateur digitals got better and better and better … and then started to vanish. In fact you will find it difficult to locate a good quality, basic digital camera these days. Why? Because at the same time digital was developing (pun intended) someone thought of using the memory and processor in a cell phone for additional tasking. And cell phones became smartphones with so much more memory and processing power. How easy it became for everyone to carry around one unit that could do everything they wanted to do! Apparently the lessons of the past about putting all your technological eggs in one metaphorical basket were forgotten.
That’s when smartphones began to afflict professional photography too. Take weddings as an example. It used to be a pro would be hired to make some set shots and candid images and woe unto the amateur who dared bring along his Instamatic! But professionals are expensive and now everyone has a smartphone so … hey all you guests; shoot like crazy and share it all with everyone! Smartphones had brought the ancient despised practice of “film burning” (where if you shoot enough film one of the frames is bound to be good – a take off on the “infinite number of monkeys” principal) to the digital age.
Oh my. What of professional photography now? Well they’ve introduced the mirror-less cameras for pros. Will that save them? I rather doubt it. For one thing a mirror-less camera, and forgive me if I’ve got this wrong, costs more than a DSLR yet has few parts and is therefor cheaper to produce. Hmm. Sounds just like when they used to charge extra for “pro-black finish” on SLRs even though it cost less than satin chrome. If you weigh the advantages of mirror-less against the disadvantages and factor in the price, is there really any point? Perhaps for some, but it’s unlikely to be the major market share. A mirror-less camera is a point-and-shoot gone posh, as the lens-to-sensor-to-screen principal is the same as used in the now all-but-vanished low-end digital. They’ve just added a lot of features, especially the ability to change lenses.
Time to take a side trip. One of the mirror-less camera flaws is exposing the sensor when the lens is off. In the days of film photography there were a few editions which had interchangeable front elements to give you wide or telephoto views; the rear element remained safely locked behind the leaf shutter. Most of these cameras (such as the infamous Kowa SLR) were quality nightmares which ultimately failed, and the lens arrangement limited the focal lengths possible. Besides now the fragile shutter leafs were exposed when the lens was off. Yet could there not be potential here for making smartphones even more capable? Well some companies are already on that, and you can find clip-on and magnetic lens accessories for your phone already. After all, a digital filter isn’t as good as a real one.
So where do we go from here? Will smartphones continue to invade the photography world? Having already displaced amateur cameras, do they pose a real threat to professional grade equipment? Will they force pros out of the scene entirely, save a few diehard artistic types? Interesting questions. Let’s see what a smartphone might evolve into.
The original comment this piece started with about having right-angle camera phone ability is an intriguing one. We already have front and back lenses. How much tech can we fit in? Right now zooming is digital, but it was years ago that the concept of flexible lenses was brought up. And now they’re talking about whole phones that flex. Hmm. Is it possible to get a lens that will move to any angle while the screen stays in front of you? This would be the inverse of cameras with displays that fold out and pivot. Will there be mechanical zooming ability on this lens? The possibilities are there for certain. Perhaps they might even smarten up enough to give the lens some real protection from the brutal world, instead of leaving it to take everything life throws at it like the rest of us poor sods have to.
However this might be a good time to stop and ask ourselves collectively: just because we can do it, does that mean we should?
I’ve no doubt someone will.
But that someone will not be me.
P.S.: If they’re going to do anything good with cell phone cameras, give me a lens that mounts on my glasses and sees what I see so I can press a button or give a voice command and snap a good shot of what I spot while I’m driving along the road! I have missed too many things to the impossibility of getting a camera fired up and aimed while driving – especially at 110 KPH.