Whenever anyone asks about the future of digital imaging, they usually want the answer to a different question: what’s the next big, disruptive product or service? Who will be the next GoPro? What drone is going to conquer the world? But with so much innovation going on in the field, that’s difficult to predict.

A much more interesting line of speculation lies in what kind of larger changes we’ll see with the image capture capabilities we have today. To understand why, we have to recognize that we stand at a very unique moment in the history of image capture—an inflection point to a 150 year trend. Essentially, access to photography has slowly and steadily increased over time. The more we’ve moved forward, the more people have been able to participate in it, the better the quality they have been able to achieve, and the faster they can distribute their photos.

For example, in the Matthew Brady/wet plate days, image capture was laborious and costly. Fifty years later, the Kodak Brownie brought reasonably good photography to the middle class. Around fifty years after that, Edwin Land made it more immediate with the Polaroid.

This trend has continued through today, when we can all now carry around a “good enough” capture device in our phones and instantly share images. The close-up selfies you take now have a sharpness, quality, and depth of field that would have required expensive equipment and years of training just a few decades ago. And having so many cameras in so many hands will doubtless have a far reaching impact on our world. The following is by no means an exhaustive list of developments we could see, but it’s a good start (and it would be fun to continue the discussion in the comments):

  1. Images are becoming a major form of communication. For years, we simply spoke or wrote. But now we can compose a photo, send it to a friend, and it can have as much meaning as an email. A picture was always worth a thousand words, but now those words are far more accessible. Image-as-communication-tool will be a fascinating trend to watch, especially as people become more accustomed to it—and skilled at it.
  2. Your camera is a computer. For years, the geekier side of the image capture world has talked about computational photography. The idea is that rather than using optical processes to capture photos, we use digital ones that create shots that we’d never been able to take before. A simple example is the panoramic photos that smartphones now take. At the higher end of today’s technology, we now have things like 3D cameras and Light’s intriguing new L16 camera. It contains sixteen lenses and can refocus and alter the aperture of an image after you take it. Among many other things, that means you can take a picture where everything is in focus, and then blur the background to make nearer things pop. Access to these new forms of expression will only increase and feed into the other trends we’ll see.
  3. Form factors will continue to drive exploration. GoPros, drones, and other new form factors have certainly taken us places we’d never imagined. We’ve now seen hours of nighttime video of lions on the Serengeti, shot through Class V rapids, and flown around ancient pyramids. Specialized abilities like these will continue to increase our understanding and perspective of the world around us.

    Aerial Photo by Russell Brown

    Aerial Photo by Russell Brown

  4. We may see a new explosion in creativity. Years ago, the road to creative photography had two phases. The first was highly technical. You had to master the complex optics and chemistry needed to produce great images. Only then could you start to think artistically. Today, the technical barriers are largely removed. You still need to learn how to compose a shot and have some understanding of light and exposure, but the feedback loop has been shortened dramatically. As a result, we could see a revolution in creativity in the field, with many more practitioners pushing the boundaries.
  5. Images may make the world a better place. We’re just getting used to a world where capture devices are ubiquitous. Already today, images and video are recording proof of good deeds and wrongdoing—which then spread like wildfire through social media. We all have to get used to a world where anything we do could be recorded. As a result, people might start thinking twice before behaving badly—or doing that awesome something that can buy them 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, we have learned from Google Glass that there are limits to what people willing to tolerate with image capture devices. But overall, this is an exciting time. We’re just learning how to live, communicate, and create in a world where everyone can produce great images. And the impact of that could be much more far reaching than we imagine.