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.