Something I noticed recently made me stop and think for a moment, since, if true, it means that the modern era of photography is an especially noteworthy time: With very few exceptions, there are no scenes or subjects that are impossible to capture with today’s technology. Nearly everything you come across, from nighttime landscapes to microscopic insects, can be photographed with high levels of precision and image quality, so long as you know what you’re doing (and you pack along the right equipment). That’s a powerful fact — so, how can you make the most of it?
1) The right knowledge base
The first step is to learn about photography. Learn everything you possibly can, to the point that you’re familiar with the steps to take in any circumstance you’re likely to come across — because there’s no excuse not to know things anymore.
There is enough written about photography, even just online, to make anyone an expert. Every technique you could possibly need to learn is right at your fingertips, no matter how difficult it may be. In a way, the only problem is that there’s too much knowledge available. If you aren’t careful, it can turn into information overload, where it’s hard to separate the good tips from the bad.
Still, I think it’s better to have access to “too much” information rather than to very little. As things are now, anyone can learn exactly how to capture any subject, and that’s fantastic for photographers. If a particular type of scene consistently stumps you in the field, figure it out, and fix it.
Of course, knowing about photography isn’t all it takes to capture certain photos. You’ll always need the right camera equipment for the job, whether that’s a faster lens for low-light situations, or a fully automatic panoramic rig to capture extreme resolution. And this is another area of photography that has transformed over the past few decades, making certain types of images far easier to capture than they were before.
2) The right camera equipment
To put your new knowledge into practice, you need to have the right gear for the job. It’s easyto say that the camera doesn’t matter, because, in general, the quality of a photo is due to creative rather than technical factors. But some subjects can’t even be captured in the first place without the right equipment, so, in that sense, it still matters quite a bit — and, today, the equipment on the market is more flexible than ever before. If you can think of something, you can capture it.
One such example is the use of a specialty lens, such as a tilt-shift or a macro lens, to capture subjects that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Although both of these examples have been around for a long time, each still opens new doors in photography, letting you capture scenes that would be difficult or impossible otherwise.
Crazy stuff exists on the market today. You can buy an intervalometer to help you take better timelapses, or a drone to fly a high-quality camera into the sky and capture images remotely. You can photograph a bullet slicing through an apple, or an underwater housing rated as deep as a skyscraper.
If you want to photograph something, there are tools out there to make it happen. It’s true that they may be difficult to learn, or potentially expensive, but we’re talking about capabilities that weren’t even within the realm of possibility until recently. Photographic technology has shot ahead by leaps and bounds in the past few decades, and we’re now at the point where nearly every conceivable subject can be captured in some way or another. That’s a big deal, no matter what genre of photography you prefer.
3) Where we’re still improving
New cameras are coming out constantly, and many of them are pushing the boundaries of photography even further. The high ISO performance of new cameras is off the charts; there are crazy, extreme lenses available today that make even the most niche genres of photography fully accessible. And, perhaps more importantly than anything else, the ability to merge photos together in post-processing software makes it possible to capture images with a huge range of qualities that would be quite challenging otherwise: extreme dynamic range, infinite depth of field, and gigapixel-magnitude resolution.
But we’re still improving. There are some areas left where technology has plenty of room to grow, such as technical specifications and software features. In other cases, we’ve already improved so far that we’re pushing up against the boundaries of physics, and it seems — at least in the near future — that we’re running out of space to improve.
For example, consider photos where you need to use a higher ISO, since your shutter speed and aperture don’t let in enough light. Although high ISO performance has increased vastly over time, it’s also true that it can only go so far (speaking from the perspective of physics). We’re at a point now where a majority of the noise in most images isn’t from the camera sensor at all, even in darker and darker environments — it’s from the scene itself, which emits photons in an inherently random way. Even with the world’s greatest camera sensor, noise will always be an issue that photographers have to work around.
There is also room to grow in other avenues of photography, where it isn’t yet possible to capture certain subjects, but significant progress is being made. Most of this isn’t at the consumer level of photography; it’s things like deep-sky astrophotography, with multi-billion dollar telescopes and sensors. For example, we don’t yet have a clear photo of a black hole’s event horizon, although we’re certainly trying. (Fun fact! Earlier this year, eight observatories across the globe combined resources to try to capture one, and they may or may not have succeeded. The station in Antarctica is going to fly their data North in October — sending the hard drives on a plane, because there’s too much information to send wirelessly — and the whole photo will be put together in the months after that.)
The point is that there’s still room to improve certain areas of photography, but progress is always being made. Some photos might never be fully possible, especially not for the average consumer, but the fact remains that today’s equipment is good enough to open nearly any door you want. Sure, this era of photography comes with its own set of issues (over-competition, the cheapening of an image), but I still believe that it is the best moment in history to be a photographer.
Never before has there been a time when photography has so few limits. It’s easier to learn new information than it ever was before, thanks to the wealth of knowledge online. It’s also easier to put that knowledge into practice, since camera technologies have developed with remarkable speed in recent years. Photography is open to billions of people today, far more than ever before, and it’s possible to take it in nearly any direction you want.
Of course, not everything is perfect. It’s true that you can capture nearly any subject you want these days, but that also comes at a price. You might want to become a storm-chasing photographer, for example, but you’ll lose a lot of convenience if you don’t pay for a good lightning trigger. The same is true for underwater housings, or fast lenses for sports photography. None of these innovations are free.
In that sense, the next revolution in photography will be the one that can deliver all of these new capabilities to more and more people, with progressively lower prices. To a degree, that’s already happening; just look at the used market. You can get a Nikon D600 for $750 USD, or a Canon 6D for $900, and a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 prime for $250. None of that equipment is flawless, but when before could you capture truly world-class photos of the night sky for such a price? Even fifteen years ago, no matter how much you paid, nothing on the market had anywhere close to the quality of that setup for Milky Way photography.
So, it’s true that there are still some subjects in photography that are difficult to capture, and areas that tomorrow’s technology will always be able to grow. But when it comes down to it, we’re already beyond the point we need to be — the point at which you can capture nearly every photo you can imagine. Don’t let that fact go to waste.
The quality and range of available kit is fantastic. Information and advice is readily available 24/7.
There has probably never been a time when making a serious effort to understand ones own photographic goals and motivations has been so worthwhile.
Without that, just where does one start?
That is a good point, thank you David. Even with all that information, it can be hard to know where to start! You are very right about the extraordinary amount of information today, and I think that development is perhaps more significant than any other.
Great article, thanks
Digital was a huge revolution to the photographic industry, it has allowed the average consumer to do things that were just not easy or sometimes even possible with film: HDR, focus stacking, digital stitching, gigapans, 360 / VR, holy grail timelapses, 3D lightfields, you name it. I think the next revolution will be in the display or interaction with all this new content, particularly for 360 / VR and 3D lightfields for truly immersive viewing. Whether that will be in the form of holigraphic projection or new technologies yet to be invented, I can’t even begin to imagine. It’s good time to be a content creator! Great article!
I certainly agree. The sheer number of new fields that are only possible (or far, far easier) with digital is spectacular. As for things like VR or augmented reality, 3D, 360 degree photos, and so on — they are remarkable possibilities, and I have no doubt that artists will make use of them in ways we can’t imagine today. But the single, “normal” photo isn’t going away any time soon, and I’m also looking forward to the developments in technology that expand our possibilities for that as well. Thanks for adding this.
An excellent reminder of the fundamental limitation we face – our own minds. Often, learning new things means letting go of incorrect, inaccurate, or confining prejudices and misconceptions. As we get older, it is tempting to think we know the subject well, and perhaps we do, but there is always something new to learn, or something old that deserves to be discarded.
That is also quite true. It’s remarkably hard to adjust misconceptions we’ve had or update our perspective on things, especially in a field that we’ve been practicing for a while. I’m glad you added this.
The greatest weakness in the tech will always be in the limited understanding and effort within the gray matter of the photog. For at least a decade or two, we have had the best lenses to date and with RAW data acquisition and informed production of an image, cameras capable of greater DR than film. The limiting factor is almost always the photog – whether lack of understanding the tools, or just plain laziness that stems from a “good enough” mindset. In my world, the gray matter/work ethic of the photog will always be the “tech” limiting great story telling images.
Very true. Although even from that perspective, it’s a good time to be a photographer, since there are more resources available now than any time before (if you’re willing to utilize them, that is).
The final frontier of photography will be a sand-proof tripod :)
That’s the greatest technical challenge I have to contend with ..
Yes, that would be nice! You might search for one that can be cleaned easily. I use a RRS tripod that can be taken apart and put back together without a problem, and the only parts that have too much sand are the top joints connecting the legs to the base. All the twist locks are perfectly clean and grit-free, since I make sure to clean it a couple times a year. But RRS isn’t cheap, and neither are most other tripods that can be disassembled (i.e., Gitzo). Maybe the real revolution would be to make this tech available in the less expensive tripods that most people end up purchasing.
Clement Greenberg wrote something about this, but I can’t find it right now. The idea is that when the technicalities of a medium are easy to master by anyone, the result is low aesthetic quality, if not kitsch. I need to reread Homemade Esthetics by Greenberg to find the exact paragraph, I just remember it. Practical example: I love medium format sport photographs from the 50s and 60s or earlier, and I can’t watch todays sport pictures, they’re very low in taste.
I don’t disagree that, on average, the quality of photography is lower today than it was 40 or 50 years ago. But that includes vastly more amateurs or iPhone photographers, and it has less relevance for the quality of high-end photography, which I believe is greater than it has ever been. Though this is the sort of thing that only time will tell — even Ansel Adam’s best photos generally weren’t recognized as such until much later in his life, after people had time to reflect. As for tyour sports example, that is fair; the typical sports photographer has shifted towards quick sharing rather than slow and thoughtful art, which does decrease the total quality you may see. But I also recommend checking out the photos in certain sports showcases, like the Red Bull Illume competition. At least for me, those photos have as much artistry in them as ever. It’s just harder to find these examples due to the volume of more throwaway images everywhere else — but I still think there are as many of these examples as ever, if not more.
Noel Gallagher (ex Oasis) about early electronic music: “It went from nobody knowing what hey were doing with these machines, to somebody mastering it, and the machine makers making it easier for people to use them. Dance music sounds like a walk in the park now, any fucker can do it. And quite frankly, every fucker is doing it.”
It can be extrapolated to photography.
Was there an ND filter used for your solar image with Venus? I would imagine you are geared up for the upcoming eclipse.
It was a solar filter rather than just a typical ND filter, but yes. And I am indeed gearing up for the eclipse, although I don’t have a long enough telephoto to capture a great view. We’ll see how it goes!
Interesting read to go with the well done photos that show your skill and your continuing development.
With regards to technology and photography, I think there remains a lot of room for improvement even within the current physical body of a camera and its lens. In my earlier technical days I watched analytical instrumentation evolve faster than the core technology and physics might suggest was possible. This was because of improvements in the surrounding electronics including management of electronic noise, sensor heat generation and management, more sophisticated processing algorithms, improvements in the construction materials that are still ongoing.
We will see advances due to AI incorporation, cameras that learn as we use them, better management and processing of the input received by the sensor which will lower or better manage the signal to noise ratios or improve handling of camera blur (shake). We may see new sensor types, materials and construction that enhance the quality of the recorded information. Yes, physics does present some limitations at the core of the process, but there is a lot we can gain from better signal management and processing like we see in the ever smaller and more sophisticated sensors of all types showing up in our everyday devices.
While the physics of light may put some constraints on lens advancements, we may see advances in the technology of the “glass” itself as new materials are developed. Someday there may be cameras that use other approaches to bending the light and getting it to the sensor.
What I can say is that current technology allows me to do much more, easier and better than I could ever have generated back in the day (first 35mm camera was a Minolta rangefinder in the late 1960’s) as compared to my current Nikon D750 whose potential I have only partially tapped.
In the mean time, the current gear we have is better than most of us can take advantage of so let’s just go out and take more shots, learn to take better shots and save our money for the inevitable new technologies when they arrive. Well done article and photos Spencer.
That perspective makes a lot of sense to me — never bet against the progress of technology. It is very true that today’s equipment offers a wealth of opportunities that were never available before, and it hasn’t stopped progressing yet. Thanks for adding your perspective, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
I only have this to offer. If your ever in doubt about photography Google / YouTube.
Paul Simon words “Kodachrome” written in 1973.
Yes, photography has been an important part of our culture since shortly after its inception, and, by the looks of things, it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.