Practical Futurist: What's Next For Digital Photography

This is an historic year in the history of photography: the first time that North American sales of digital cameras will exceed those of film models (not counting single-use cameras). Much of the reason is that digital cameras are beginning to act more like film cameras--but when it comes to the future of imaging we haven't, to coin a phrase, seen nothing yet.

A new book called "Shooting Digital" is perhaps the most detailed popular guide to using digital cameras yet assembled, written by long-time digital photography guru Mikkel Aaland (who has also worked as a consultant for Aaland's book is particularly strong because it is highly visual--he uses images from many experienced digital photographers, along with copious graphics, to make it easy for readers to see the points he's making. Aaland's focus is practical advice for real-life shooting situations, yet close readers will also see plenty of hints about where the field is headed next.

The real tipping point for digital photography probably occurred late last year, when companies like Canon and Nikon began to introduce relatively low-cost single lens reflex models that could use those manufacturers' existing line of lenses. Such cameras have been around for years but were generally priced only for serious professionals; now, however, such models are dropping closer to the "prosumer" range of $1000-plus. The second push is that even lower-priced consumer cameras are approaching the 5 to 6 megapixel range that is probably about as much resolution as most casual photographers will ever need.

For the future, Aaland says there are a few new abbreviations that will change photography forever. One is EXIF, which stands for "Exchangeable Image File." EXIF is more generally known as "metadata", and it is the standard by which additional information can be encoded into the photo at the moment it's taken. Date and time stamping, of course, is old stand-by from chemical film, but EXIF allows a far broader range: type of camera, F-stop, shutter speed, ISO (the digital equivalent of film speed), whether a flash was used. And it can go much further: one professional camera already lets you use GPS data from the global positioning system to record exactly where on earth each photo was taken.

What this means is that when you or your photo processor prints a picture with EXIF data, there's that much more information to make the picture look great. If you're using software to composite two images together, EXIF will let you choose two shots that were taken under the most similar lighting conditions. And EXIF is expandable, so that additional identifying information can be added as well. Aaland says that someday it might even be possible to have a simple voice recognition system built into the camera so that you could identify each image ("Chuck's Birthday") as you take it. That would make the process of filing and cataloging digital images far easier than it is today.

Another new term we'll learn is RAW, which means exactly like it sounds: raw data straight from the camera's image sensors. Currently, digital cameras usually provide images in either JPEG or TIFF formats, which means that the final image you save has already been processed by the electronics within the camera. RAW, on the other hand, is all of the data that the camera has collected, with no processing at all--in a sense, it is the electronic equivalent of a photographic negative. By saving images as RAW data, one will be able to take advantage, years from now, of whatever improvements may have been made in image processing software. RAW files are larger than the usual JPEG images, but often smaller than the higher quality TIFF files that some professionals rely on. Now that memory storage has grown significantly cheaper, more amateurs may begin saving RAW data as well.

Ironically, much of digital photography's current success is because the cameras have become such good imitations of traditional film cameras. But as Aaland points out, the next step will be going beyond what's possible with film. Examples include the ability to change "film speed" from one shot to the next, or the entirely new creative opportunities that will arise from the "mini-movie" capabilities built into digital still cameras. ( started publishing some of these mini-movies during the Iraq war, shot by intrepid correspondent Rod Nordland on a tiny Casio still camera--including a memorable sequence of an Iraqi soldier actually surrendering to Nordland; examples of Nordland's video are in our Multimedia Showcase.)

In the end, however, digital technology will transform photography in even deeper ways. Indeed, Aaland was first drawn to the field when, in 1980, he interviewed the American photography icon Ansel Adams. When he asked what the master would do if just starting out in photography today, Adams said he'd explore electronic photography.

Now, nearly a quarter century later, the tools are ready. "Someday I can even see a convergence between still and moving images," says Aaland. "As short clips from still cameras become more common, people will see you don't have to choose between 1/1000th of a second and fifteen minutes. They will ask, is this a single moment, or is it a longer experience--does it need one image, or five seconds, or fifteen seconds? In the end, photography is about capturing emotion, and whatever is the best way to accomplish that, you will be able to do."