Photography’s software-driven future

photographer videographer on set

Not so long ago, photography was all about the camera.

The rule was simple: If you wanted to be a better photographer, you probably needed a better camera. More money bought cleaner glass, more precise meters, tougher construction, and bragging rights when you showed up to an event with your new rig hanging from your neck.

Sure, you still needed to know what you were doing, and a skilled photographer with a Kodak Brownie could easily out-shoot a mediocre photographer using a Leica. But with everything else – lighting, conditions, and photographer’s skill level – being equal, better equipment generally netted better results.

Author’s own Nikon lens. Photo by Dahlia Levy

The bad ol’ days of photography held fast to another rule: Once you purchased a new piece of equipment, it remained frozen in time. That wonder-camera you drooled over for ages and could finally afford may have produced pristine results on day 1, but the images didn’t magically get better with time. Of course, you could always buy a new lens or accessory to widen your photographic horizons, but the camera itself didn’t grow new capabilities after you brought it home. Old film cameras and the first few generations of digital – but still disconnected – cameras all shared this limitation.

The evolution of smartphone cameras

Just over a decade into the smartphone revolution, however, those two truths aren’t just being tested. They’re being shattered. To a certain extent, the photographic landscape looks familiar, except it’s now dominated by cameras on smartphones that are often better than that standalone Canon or Nikon you’ve been dragging around since high school. And each new year brings the expected bunch of new phones, all with faster processors, more memory, bigger and brighter screens and, yes, better cameras than the devices they replace.

But those better cameras mask a growing trend: The new hardware no longer makes the biggest difference when it comes to photo quality. Year-to-year improvements in sensors and optics barely move the image quality bar – especially when most photos are shared in tiny, phone-based apps. Increasingly, it’s the software that advances the photographic state-of-the-art.

Each new year brings the expected bunch of new phones, all with faster processors, more memory, bigger and brighter screens and, yes, better cameras than the devices they replace.

We’ve had a few tantalizing glimpses of this in recent years. Apple has baked facial recognition into its iOS-based photo tools, while Google Photos has used increasingly capable algorithms to drive deep visual search of virtually every digital photo you’ve ever taken. Apple’s Smart HDR and Google’s HDR+ bring intelligent, full-dynamic-range photography to any smartphone.

There’s even cooler stuff being cooked up in labs: Google and MIT in 2017 announced an algorithm that uses machine learning to automatically retouch images in real-time. Even better, the software is lean enough to run on most mainstream hardware.

Google has applied the concept to its Pixel series, and not only on the latest Pixel 3-series phones but on older models, as well. Which means even if your phone is a couple of years old, you no longer have to buy a new one to get a better camera. Rather, just wait for the inevitable software update and install it on your banged-up old phone. Congratulations! You’re now a better photographer.

Updates, not upgrades

This computational approach to innovation doesn’t merely benefit photographers. It reinforces the power of standards-compliant platforms in any sector. For example, Tesla’s Model S, X, and 3 vehicles gain new functionality with every over-the-air update. You’re not buying a car with frozen-in features. You’re buying a platform with an open-ended future.

The old retail best practice of locking customers into endless hardware-upgrade cycles is slowly fading. Apple’s recent warning it would miss iPhone sales targets – and the ensuing stock market freak-out it caused – confirms we’re at the beginning of the end of the era where buying a new gadget every couple of years underpins growth and profitability.

This hardware-centric model is being replaced by deeper software ecosystems, driven by AI and machine learning-based algorithms that add value to legacy hardware long after yesterday’s consumers would have been replacing them. Consumers will come back not because the hardware has lovely chamfered edges and ever-thinner bezels, but because they can’t live without a regular diet of addictive software-powered upgrades.

Legacy photo vendors like Canon and Nikon, whose value proposition was – and still is – largely based on hardware replacement cycles have the most to lose. Kids today aren’t saving for full-frame DSLRs, anyway. They want smartphones that get smarter with every software update. It’s a revolution that’s just getting started.

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