The Death of the Camera

Haig Hovaness considers Smartphones and the Future of Photography

The picture below is my Leica IIIC, a camera that was manufactured in 1950, the year I was born. At the time it was first sold, it cost the equivalent of $3,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. It is an entirely mechanical camera – no auto anything. With fine-grained film, it will produce a 35mm film image that can match the output of a 20-megapixel digital camera sensor. It is difficult to load, slow to rewind, and has a squinty little viewfinder, but it is a glorious artifact. The elegant contours, the satin chrome finish, and the silky-smooth film winding action and shutter release all whisper timeless quality.

And this is my Motorola Droid Razr M smartphone.

There is nothing of the cherished artifact in the appearance of the Razr M. It is a smooth, slim, rectangular object that will soon be replaced by a superior successor, long before it has stopped functioning. But the Razr M has an eight megapixel digital sensor (it was used to photograph the Leica) and for most images displayed at a size of up to 8 x 10 inches, the results produced by the two cameras are indistinguishable. The Razr's camera lens is so tiny as to be barely visible, and the adjacent flash lamp is similarly small. The Razr M costs about $100, plus the expense of a data phone cell plan contract, but since the camera is embedded in what is effectively a multifunction hand-held computer, the camera is practically free.  And, of course, the Razr M can record high-def video. The Apple iPhone 5 camera has similar specifications, but delivers even better image quality.

My point is - the camera is heading toward extinction as a discrete consumer device. Most Leicas and other film cameras are now collecting dust as cell phone cameras become the photographic tool of choice, but the same fate lies in store for single-purpose digital cameras. This is a quiet revolution but the implications for photography and popular culture are dramatic...

The Leica “miniature camera” was itself revolutionary in 1925. It was invented by an asthmatic German optical engineer, Oskar Barnack, who was tired of hauling his bulky large format camera up mountain trails. The Leica achieved its remarkably compact dimensions by combining a small spool of 35mm motion picture film and a high-quality lens. This invention changed photography forever. Henri Cartier Bresson (HCB), perhaps the most famous photographer of the last century, described his discovery of the possibilities of the new compact 35mm cameras thus:

In 1932, I saw a photograph by Martin Munkácsi of three black children running into the sea and I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks. I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment …. I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street. 

And so began what we now take for granted as modern photography, image capture unconstrained by tripods and studios and free of ceremonially posed people. In HCB’s photographs we sense the very breath of life. 

                      Boys and Dogs   Japan   1965  --   Henri Cartier-Bresson

Yet the camera remained a barrier. The precious seconds required to focus and set exposure often caused the loss of what HCB called the “decisive moment.’ This struggle was documented by W. Eugene Smith in his account of how he took one of his most famous photographs, “A Walk To Paradise Garden.” Smith was recovering from war injuries when he encountered a glorious moment following two children through the woods:

Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. I dropped a little farther behind the engrossed children, then stopped. Painfully I struggled — almost into panic — with the mechanical iniquities of the camera…

                                                          A Walk To Paradise Garden - W. Eugene Smith

Today, we have left the “mechanical iniquities” far behind. Our smartphone cameras focus, set exposure, balance color, expand dynamic range, and even recognize faces automatically. Yet we have still not reached the extinction point of the camera. The next wave of personal imaging technology, exemplified by the experimental Google Glass device, will take us to that point.

The camera function of Google Glass (a wearable device resembling eyeglasses) is continuously available and responds to voice commands. On command, it will record still images or video of whatever the wearer sees. Presumably, HCB would be pleased. Apple and other large companies are rumored to be working on their own versions of Google Glass, and thus the arrival of this type of wearable computer, incorporating a continuously available camera function, is a certainty. Another manifestation of omnipresent imaging capability will be wearable lifelogging cameras that automatically record whatever is before the wearer.

Imaging technology magic will not end with the initial capture, but will extend to improvement of the image through intelligent software assistants which can be directed, again by voice, to enhance the image in countless ways. Enhanced images will be shared automatically over the Internet with appropriate recipients, weaving a digital fabric of shared visual experience that covers the world. The boundaries between art photography and found art will blur as new masterworks emerge from a growing universe of shared images.


Google Glass Prototype

We have lived happily with cameras for so long that we have made them ends in themselves, objects of desire. But the proper goal of photography has always been the creation of satisfying images, not the physical possession of imaging tools. Love of the camera as a device is just a kind of technological fetishism. The decline of the camera as a prized artifact and status symbol has progressed steadily since the glory days of the Leica. Mass production and electronics displaced hand-assembly and precision tolerances. Plastics replaced machined metal, and disposables replaced reloadables, yet the magic of the camera as cherished device is slow to dissipate. Today, high-end digital cameras still command prices similar (inflation-adjusted) to those of the old Leicas, but the steady erosion of the difference between the imaging performance of high-priced dedicated digital cameras and their mass-market smartphone cousins spells doom for the discrete digital camera as a mass market consumer product.

One of the lessons of technology history is that nothing ever disappears completely. There are still a few intrepid photographic artists making Daguerrotypes (and wearing respirators to guard against the toxic Mercury vapors of the developing process). Collectors and gadget fanciers will acquire and preserve rare and fine cameras for many years, but I believe that the future of photography is one that seeks the effortless production and sharing of desired images, with minimal interference from the imaging device. The camera is dead, long live imaging!




 Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.