Digital photography - what happens next?
The digital camera continues to revolutionise our photographic lives. The complicated and expensive days of film are now long gone. But recent years have seen camera technology begin to stagnate. Have we hit a megapixel plateau? Is facial recognition as far as the point and shoot can go? Or is there an exciting future in store for the camera? Well, we wouldn't really be writing this if the answer was "no", now would we?
Everything in focus
Meet the Lytro light-field camera. While still in the early stages of development, hence the lack of images of the camera hardware itself, it is shaping up to change photography in a big way. The new technology allows you to create a one-stop shop photograph that can be selectively focused after the picture has been taken.
It works by capturing the entire colour and light spectrum as well as the vector direction of light, unlike conventional cameras which take a single plane of light. So, rather than exposing the shot on just a single cross-sectional slice of the space in front of you, it actually captures the whole lot at every depth. The result is an image that can be changed however you see fit with highly adjustable light levels and even the ability to tilt and shift in three dimensions for 3D displays.
It sounds like the amateur photographers dream, with the ability to correct just about any mistake made at the time of shooting. So far the high quality demo pics have looked good, as has the $50 million in funding that Lytro just received to develop the camera. No idea of pricing as of yet and as to whether the technology will be aimed at consumer or professional grade equipment but one thing is for sure, the days of the blurry photograph are numbered.
One thing the Lytro can't fix though is an unforgiving portrait or awkward family photo. There are however some compact cameras currently on the market that say otherwise. Enter the make-up applying point and shoot, which intelligently airbrushes shots to make the subject look better.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP7 can go as far as smoothing skin, whitening teeth and even penciling eyeliner and eyeshadow. The only problem is that current technology means make-up appears to have been applied by a 10-year-old, and the skin smoothing transforms most people into Skeletor. A bit of polish however and the technology could really take off, fixing any bad hair days in-camera and creating a much more forgiving Facebook album to share.
360 degree shooting
Digital cameras are also set to change the way we approach and view photos altogether. Traditionally in order to take a snap you need to have the lens pointed at the subject. Only the widest of wide-angles can pack in about 180 degrees of what you see in front of you. Imagine a camera that can snap absolutely everything around, creating a single snapshot of a scene in its entirety. Well imagine no more, this incredible interactive 360 degree video of the recent Vancouver riots was pieced together using multiple cameras and clever post production techniques.
Another development that we will see in camera technology is likely to be image resolution and dynamic range. That means much more data capture by a sensor with a far greater width of colour and light and shadow. Photographers are already creating Gigapixel sized images that can be zoomed in on to the nth degree, but we want to be a able to snap this in-camera. Imagine being able to take a compact up to the top of the Eiffel Tower and zoom in on a house or museum a few miles away, picking out individuals sitting in cafe windows or reading street signs.
Improved photo sharing has been the most recent change in camera technology but things are not quite there yet. We like the idea of Eye-Fi and uploading shots wirelessly to our computer but it just doesn't feel finished. The technology needs to be pushed further. Why, for example, do memory cards even exist anymore? Why can't we send pictures from our cameras back home over a 3G network, creating a virtually unlimited storage situation? These are all changes that will likely come once the age of cloud computing and network capacity and coverage set in, as well as some development in battery technology, of course.
Two cameras in one
Most of these ideas rely on the traditional concept of camera and lens operating as one. There is however one concept, the WVIL or wireless viewfinder interchangeable lens, that sees the camera and lens being approached as two seperate entities. The idea is that you can detach the lens and shoot remotely with the camera back. This means ultimate control over self portraits as well as plentiful spying opportunities. There are however a few problems with the WVIL. The first is that having a sensor built into a lens means you are going to need to buy virtually a new camera every time you pick up some new glass. The other problem is that there is little reason, in reality, to use lens and camera body separately.
So what direction should camera design be taking? The traditional viewfinder approach to things still seems to be the best way to take photographs. Ergonomics have barely changed since the advent of the SLR and rangefinder years ago. There is, however, one concept from Canon which could drastically change the way we approach a camera. The idea is the ultimate bridge camera with all encompassing wide angle to 500mm zoom. This means the end of heavy camera bags, switching lenses and expensive camera kits.
The really clever bit however is that the camera itself takes no stills. Instead everything is shot as a constant video feed at a high enough resolution that absolutely whatever you want can be drawn from the feed and turned into a snap. In the age of 1080p it seems the logical step forward is to just draw what you like from your home movies and print. What it would really need to make it work, though, is a quick and easy way of getting the bits you want from footage.
Where next? Well, all of the above would be nice. Whichever direction the cameras guys want to take us, let's just keep on going.
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