To peek into the future, sometimes you’ve just got to see what’s in front of your face. Four years ago, I did a story for PDN magazine on “five emerging technologies” that were changing the photo industry. Now with the start of 2014 upon us, I decided to survey what’s been happening in the photo industry during the past 12 months, and weigh in on photo tech trends I feel are shaping the future of the industry today. Here’s what’s looking especially interesting in my crystal ball right now.
1. To 4K or Not to 4K?
A few years ago, not many people had heard of 4K, aside from a couple of niche video products from small but important companies like Red. At the time, 3-D video was all the rage, and following the success of James Cameron’s 3-D sci-fi masterpiece Avatar, everyone wanted to get involved in this “cutting-edge” technology, which, truthfully, has been around, in some form, for nearly 100 years. But after a major push by manufacturers to sell 3-D cameras and TVs to the public, that wave appears to have crashed (again). Nowadays, 4K, which has nothing to do with 3-D, has replaced it as an industry buzzword.
So what is 4K video anyway? Well, it’s a digital cinematography standard offering approximately four times the resolution of HD video, with 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution. Television manufacturers have started branding the confusingly named 4K with the still more-confusing moniker Ultra HD, but the proof, as usual, is in the pudding. While 4K video may not look as drastically different as 1080p HD looked compared to standard definition, it is certainly gorgeous and gives image makers much more detail and resolution to exploit. Following on the heels of the pioneering 4K Red One camera from way back in 2007, Canon, Sony and even GoPro have launched several cameras that shoot 4K video. And what’s Red up to now? They’ve already moved on to cameras and imaging chips that can shoot at up to 6K!
2. Real-World Wireless Cameras
Let’s face it: Camera manufacturers have so far done a terrible job of bringing the glories of wireless technology to digital cameras. From confusing interfaces to weak Wi-Fi camera connections, it’s been damn near impossible to get an image from your digital SLR to your online photo-sharing or Web portfolio service without having to plug in a cable or a card reader. Meanwhile, one of the main reasons smartphones have nearly made the point-and-shoot camera market obsolete is not their image quality—it’s still mediocre, at best—it’s how easy it is to wirelessly share those images from a phone either via Wi-Fi or a cellular connection.
The good news, for photographers, is things are getting better. Canon’s EOS 6D full-frame DSLR is one of several recent cameras to offer built-in Wi-Fi features that work in the real world. During testing of the 6D, I was easily able to share images with my iPhone (at a reduced size), get a live view from the camera on the phone and control several functions on the camera via an app, including firing the shutter. In the consumer photography space, Samsung’s gone so far as to add cellular connectivity and the Android operating system to some of its cameras, while Sony has introduced new “lens-style cameras,” which are small imaging devices that attach to your smartphone to create a wireless hybrid, combining the quality of a real camera with the easy sharing of your phone. Are any of these solutions perfect? Not by a long shot, but they’re another step toward wireless camera liberation.
Products to watch: Canon EOS 6D; Samsung Galaxy Camera and Galaxy NX (right); Sony QX10 and QX100
3. Bigger Pixels, Better Pictures
An interesting thing happened during the introduction of the new Apple iPhone 5s in 2013. When it came time for Apple’s marketing executives to unveil the phone’s new camera features, they didn’t tout the number of megapixels (it had the same 8 megapixels of resolution as previously), they touted the fact that the sensor was 15 percent bigger than the one in the old phone, which allowed for bigger pixels that absorbed more light to produce better photos. Hallelujah! The movement towards larger rather than more pixels has been churning through the photography industry for a few years now, and it’s one I wholeheartedly endorse.
Whether it’s the giant, medium-format sensors you get in Phase One’s latest IQ2 series digital camera backs, or the 35mm-sized, full-frame sensor packed into Sony’s Cyber-shot RX1 compact camera, bigger pixels are a big trend. Take, for instance, a new high-sensitivity, full-frame CMOS image sensor that Canon is introducing for HD video: The chip has pixels that are 19 microns apiece, giving them 7.5 times more surface area than those in the Canon EOS-1D X. The result is an imaging sensor that was able to capture the tiny details of fireflies in near total darkness in test footage. Now that’s a bright idea.
Products to watch: Apple iPhone 5s; Canon high-sensitivity, full-frame CMOS sensor for full HD (prototype); Nikon D610; Phase One IQ2 series medium-format digital backs (right); Sony Cyber-shot RX1 and RX100 II
4. Camera Stabilizers (on the Ground and in the Air)
One of the most buzzed-about imaging products of the year has been, without a doubt, the virtually unshakeable, gyro-based MoVI camera stabilizer from FreeFly. But the MoVI, which allows you to record rock-steady video with a camera even when on the run, is more and less than it seems. The device is actually a modified stabilizer adapted from those used to shoot steady aerial footage from multi-rotor, remote-controlled, mini-helicopters. So yes, whether you’re shooting video footage from your flying eggbeater or racing through traffic while recording HD with your DSLR, gyro-based stabilizers will help steady the shot. For many years, the pioneering Steadicam was what filmmakers turned to for creating incredible guerilla tracking shots with film cameras—such as the famous Copacabana kitchen scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas—but now, MoVI and its imitators are doing the same thing for DSLRs and 4K cameras, both on the ground and in the air.
5. Portable Lighting Power
I never fully understood the power of portable strobist-style lighting until I had a chance to test out the broncolor Move Outdoor lighting kit, which is small enough to fit into a backpack but powerful enough to light up a city street. We did just that with this small, battery-powered kit, taking it to 11th Avenue in Manhattan, where my photographer friend Jordan Matter used it to photograph a dancer doing a back flip in the middle of the street at night. Matter was not only able to capture a sharp image of the dancer doing the flip, he was able to make it look like the dancer was only lit by a streetlight with the rest of the scene keeping its ambient city light and the evening sky maintaining a deep azure-blue. Or, in other words, it looked natural. We then brought the kit indoors to a dark bar and were able to use it to photograph dancers arching dramatically with drinks in their hands. Again, the scene in the photo looked naturally lit and was sharp as a tack.
The broncolor Move Outdoor Kit is just one of many recent portable products out there that make capturing a strobe-lit shot that doesn’t look artificial or blown out, simple, fast and fun. At the end of 2013, Profoto unveiled its impressive, battery-powered, portable B1 off-camera flash, which has TTL functionality and no cords. By combining the attributes of Speedlight and monolight technology, Profoto has created a lighting solution to meet the needs of an entirely new type of photographer.