It’s the future Jim but not as we know it….

The future’s bright the future is a smartphone…   As a now defunct phone company almost once said.   In the grey nothing that is mid winter it does allow a certain amount of crystal ball gazing about the future of photography.

Photography as a whole has never been in a more robust shape.  Every one who wants to can and probably does create 100’s of images a month for many many different purposes.   However many people seem to assume that camera and lens production by established camera companies mean the same as photography – this clearly isn’t true.  Given the number of iPhones that Apple produces I guess they are the leading camera manufacturer which somehow does not feel quite right.   However the iPhone is the reason why there is so much turmoil within the traditional  camera/photographic world.  With total sales falling and everybody scrambling get a bigger slice of an shrinking pie.   Some of the more traditional photographic companies may not survive at all.

So what will photography beyond the smartphone look like in the next 5 to 10 years?   This is a truly impossible question to answer and if you doubt that just think back 10 years and who would have predicted that the iPhone would have destroyed so much of the camera industry.  This being said I think there are some indicators that may well point to the way things are going to develop:

  • Whether Canon ever launches a replacement to any of their DSLRsCanon are the largest Camera manufacturer in the world (If you discount Apple) and at the moment their camera line up is tilted heavily towards the DSLR  type of camera.   Within their range there are DSLR that met virtually every photographer’s need.   However, as they are a legacy design they tend to be heavier and perhaps not as feature rich as the mirrorless cameras.   Canon have now started to move towards filling the mirrorless gap in their range with the Canon EOS R and they have stated that the new lens mount is the future for Canon. (The Canon M range is already a very popular mirrorless camera.)    If they no longer update any of their DSLR range it is clear that the DSLR is dead.  It won’t die overnight but slowly it will fade away to become a nich camera no longer moving the company forward.   It will also mean that Canon can deploy their photographic experience  to make their cameras much more cutting edge.
  • How quickly full frame dies a death as a marketing tool – At the moment Full Frame is seen as the standard against which  a camera’s ability to create stunning images. (In a digital world it actually doesn’t mean anything as it takes it’s reference point the 35mm film – sort of.   This is equally the case with the APS-C size sensor but far fewer people remember the APS-C film.)   There are a number of larger megapixel count ‘full frame’ sensor rumoured to be shoehorned in to the next generation of mirrorless cameras as though this is really what the market wants.   I suspect that the market doesn’t want anything of the sort or at least not in anything like the numbers that the camera companies think.   After all the iPhone has a miniscule sensor compared to a full frame yet that manages to  produce stunning images in the right hands/conditions.   Full frame cameras do produce great images but in a world of Instagram is that what the market really wants?
  • How successful FUJI are at displacing Sony – At the moment Sony is the camera manufacturer to follow.  They have built the mirrorless camera into the DSLR destroyer it is today.  However, their cameras are seen as being soulless and perhaps too fiddly.  FUJI on the other hand are always spoken of as the cool company – the company that has some of the best cameras around at the moment with perhaps the best support for the APS-C sensor size in the shape of cameras and lenses.  In short they seem to have a clear vision of where they are going and it might not take too much for FUJI to displace SONY.
  • How successful the Zeiss ZX1 is as a concept – The Zeiss ZX1 hasn’t even gone on sale yet there is a certain buzz around the camera as it appears to be the first truly smartphone savvy camera.  Whether this is true only time will tell but the idea behind it is really different to anything that came before.  Here we have a camera that appears to embrace the core of where photography is today – the smartphone – and builds on that idea with better quality lenses and sensor – at the moment Full Frame but don’t be surprised if they bring out an APS-C version.
  • How far computational photography and AI is embraced by the camera companies other than Apple – Whether we photographers like it or not unless we shot exclusively on film with a fully manual camera we  depend on computational power.  We now expect perfect exposure and instant pin sharpe auto focus.   However, computational photography takes things a lot further whereby the computer creates an image beyond that which was directly in front of the camera (perhaps enabling hand held pin sharpe shots of 5 plus seconds?)  Already the latest Olympus E-M1X is starting to include such ideas (as are the just released Panasonic S series cameras).   If this is just the beginning then where will that leave any future camera that doesn’t embrace the new technology?   Suddenly terms like ‘full frame’ or ‘quality glass’ start to lose their importance beyond a smaller and smaller market share – they certainly have no meaning whatsoever in the smartphone photographic world.

So given all these things what will the camera look like in 10 years time? (Even though I said just a few paragraphs before this was impossible!)  I suspect something like the Zeiss ZX1 in form but with interchangeable lenses (I suspect that even the best computational computing may struggle to make one really good zoom cover every need – but we just don’t know.)  I doubt that it will use a full frame sensor as this would make the lenses too bulky and be rendered pointless by the advances in computational photography.  It will be a fully integrated part of the  photographer’s virtual ecosystem and so can talk to their other wearable technology such as phone/watch and controlled by such.  It will have a huge amount of flash memory built in (gone will be the debate about one SD card slots or two) as these cameras will be the ultimate hybrid camera with no card slots at all. There will be sufficient ports of whatever might be the flavour of the month to allow serious video rig building etc. (You will also be able to fit external storage if required just as you can with smartphones.) There may well be niche solutions of the ecosystem cameras aimed at specific needs such as sports photography.

Beyond this fully integrated ecosystem camera there will most likely be a legacy camera systems still available but their sales numbers will be rather small (Think of the Leica camera system – exclusive, expensive but loved by their devotees.)  Although even these will be integrated in some form or another with the computational ecosystem camera systems described above.   Beyond the computational world I also suspect that there will be a thriving retro DSLR market where reconditioned camera bodies will still be the choice of the most conservative photographers.   You might even find that the camera manufacturers might continue to produce lenses for this market but this is much less likely.  What is more likely is that the current crop of DSLR lenses will still be working just as good as they do today.  (I have started to use Canon FD lenses which are over 40 years old and so far they seem to be holding up quite well.)

In short just as our homes are slowly becoming integrated with ‘Alexa’ or ‘SIRI’ so will all our wearable technology become integrated with the camera system .   Whether the more conservative elements of the photographic community will embrace such a model is up for debate.  It will, however, appeal to the current smartphone centric photographer where any new sales are most likely to come from.   Where that leaves the likes of Canon and Nikon is another matter entirely.  Kodak anyone?  I hope not.

About Guthlac

An artist, historian and middle aged man who'se aim in life is to try and enjoy as much of it as he can
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