Are the Latest Camera Technologies Bad for Photography?

Are the Latest Camera Technologies Bad for Photography?

There have been some magnificent improvements in the abilities of cameras over the last few years, not least in lenses and camera focusing systems. The technical advancements have almost taken camera skills out of our hands. But is this good or bad for photography?

Looking Back to the Photographic Past

Going back in time, the camera obscura used a tiny aperture but no lens to create an image that would project onto a wall or screen. It’s theorized that early cave dwellers noticed this effect from tiny holes in the animal skin curtains hanging across the cave mouth. The projected scene on the wall inspired their wall paintings.

You can replicate this effect with your camera. Drill a hole in a body cap, tape some aluminum foil over the hole inside the cap, and prick a tiny hole in the center of the foil. Fit it to your camera's lens mount and a do-it-yourself pinhole camera. Everything is in focus. Well, nearly in focus.

Shot several years ago, the result of my very first attemps at making a pinhole camera.

Early film cameras had a single element, a piece of convex glass. Rays of light would hit that lens, which would make the light converge to create a sharp image on the film. There’s a great interactive demonstration of how that works on the Physics Classroom website.

Similarly, the earliest film processing required precise chemistry techniques, not least because the chemicals could poison you.

Things progressed and lenses with multiple elements evolved with ever-increasingly flawlessness and definition. Modern camera lenses are complex devices with an array of elements. The highest-quality lenses need precision to make and that takes time, which is why they are very expensive.

Advancements in Autofocus

With the improvements in lens quality, the accuracy and versatility of autofocus leaped forward, too.

Back in 1978, Polaroid released the SX-70 SONAR OneStep camera. It used ultrasound to detect the subject distance and focused using that. Three years later, Pentax released the first autofocus SLR with the ME F. Other manufacturers soon followed suit.

When you looked through the viewfinder of many film SLR cameras, you would see a horizontal split in the middle of the screen. At first, what you saw above and below the split would be misaligned. To focus on the subject, you would turn the lens’ focussing ring until what you saw on either side of the split was in phase. When digital photography became mainstream, DSLRs had two focusing systems, one of which used a similar method. The sensor’s focus points would detect if the subject were out of phase, hence phase detection.

They look similar, but in nearly forty years, the changes in technology between these cameras is profound.

However, when you used your live view screen on the back of the camera, the focusing system was different. It employed contrast detection. Pick up your camera and put it out of focus. You will see that the scene loses contrast; shadows and highlights become a muddy midtone. As you focus the lens, the scene gains contrast and the different tones become more defined. The disadvantage of contrast detect is that it struggles in low-contrast situations. It is also slower to find focus than phase-detect because it doesn’t know whether you are focusing too close or too far away. Consequently, it must hunt to find the correct focus. However, like everything in photography, there are advantages too. Contrast detection's advantage is that it is more accurate.

Older cameras would have had difficulty focusing on this nighttime seascape, especially with using contrast detect.

The Problem That Autofocus Brought Us

At that time, DSLR manufacturers decided for us that the viewfinder became less important because the autofocus was so good. Those eyepieces became small, making it difficult to discern detail; only top-of-the-range models had large, bright viewfinders. I am sure you can see the flaw in their decision here. It was a real disappointment as it was harder to compose the image correctly, plus the viewfinders rarely covered 100% of the image that you wanted to shoot.

Canon introduced their dual pixel focusing system for live-view phase-detect autofocus back in 2013 on the EOS 70D, where phase detection was possible on around 70% of the shooting area. They claimed it made their focusing system faster than any other full frame camera.

Canon has a dual pixel focusing system.
Meanwhile, other brands such as Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm, and OM use a hybrid system that makes the best of both phase and contrast detection. Lumix’s latest camera, the DC-S5M2, employs the same system, although most of their previous mirrorless cameras only used contrast detection. Focusing is faster and more accurate with mirrorless cameras than it was with DSLRs, now achieved in a few hundredths of a second.

These days, good cameras can focus across the entire scene. Furthermore, that split screen analogy is no longer entirely true as there is now a horizontal line sensor and a vertical line sensor at the same AF point, in other words, cross-type focus points. This means that the focus point can detect lines in both orientations. Previously, a horizontal sensor would have struggled to know if a horizontal line was out of phase. This is, of course, a hugely simplified explanation of how focusing works, and this video gives a superb explanation.

As autofocus progressed, and lens technology got faster to lock onto the subject, so too did the ability of the camera to detect eyes and faces. Tracking subjects across the frame also became more accurate too, especially with the introduction of AI technology. Now, even the previously appallingly bad hybrid mode (AI Focus/ AF-A) that switches between single and continuous autofocus, is starting to work reasonably well in some cameras. Canon has a system on their EOS R3 where the photographer's eye movement focuses the camera according to where the photographer's eye is looking.

The Canon R3 retails for $5,999, but it will focus on what you are looking at.

The Return of Manual Focus

At first, I was a bit of a Luddite back then. I was used to shooting with manual-focus cameras that autofocus seemed to be cheating; I wanted to have full control over my photography. Additionally, with early digital cameras, the autofocus was sluggish.

A 42-second exposure seascape shot entirely with manual settings and using the focus assistance that outlined the navigation post, so I knew I had the lens set correctly, a boon now I am older and my eyes are not as sharp as they once were.

Similarly, although my SLR and later DSLR cameras had an aperture priority exposure mode, I stayed with manual exposure. That was until I learned the advantage of letting the camera do the heavy lifting. Running indoors and out when shooting events, required little messing around with settings, so I was less likely to miss the action. Also, those silly tiny viewfinders of DSLRs pushed me towards using autofocus, unless using the live view screen when my camera was on a tripod.

A fully articulated screen is a must for me, especially when manually focusing with the camera mounted on a tripod.
Things are swinging back the other way to make manual focusing easier than it was. DSLR users who attend my workshops are often taken aback by the size, quality, and brightness of my mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder. Furthermore, lenses are produced that have focus clutch rings, making it easier to switch between manual and autofocus than fiddling through menus or fumbling for switches on the side of the lens with a gloved hand.

For example, the following images show the  OM SYSTEM M.Zuiko Digital ED 90mm f/3.5 Macro IS PRO Lens with the focus clutch in its two positions.

Also, the focus assist function in the camera outlines the in-focus edges with colored lines. Therefore, I no longer need to calculate the hyperfocal distance or depth of field for certain lens settings. I just rotate the focus ring until the yellow outline covers the areas that I want to be sharp. Manual focus is once again encouraged.

Using Other Technologies That Make Photography Easier

I was showing a veteran friend the AI-based features of my camera and how it can focus on birds and track them. He called it military precision. The camera can also pre-empt action and record frames before I fully depress the shutter button. A photographer no longer needs to anticipate when a bird is going to take to the wing before fully pressing the shutter button. The camera is buffering images and will save multiple frames as soon as the shutter is released. Consequently, the hit-and-miss technique resulting from the photographer’s reaction time is redundant.

A combination of Pro Capture and the AI-based bird tracking enabled me to get several shots of sandwich terns as they dived into the water. The bird was quite distant, so this is heavily cropped.

At night or when using ND filters, I can sit and watch long exposures develop on the live view screen in real-time, and I can see the histogram move to the right; I don’t have to calculate the exposure.

Shot looking out to sea one freezing night four years ago using an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, I was able to watch this 12-minute exposure gradually develop on the Live View screen.

Similarly, there is the ability to light paint and see the new light appear on the Live View screen while the unlit areas remain the same brightness.

Most of the time I don’t even have to carry an ND filter as, up to ND64 is available within the camera.

Shot in bright daylight, the Live ND feature of my OM-1 allowed me to shoot this long exposure abstract image. It was handheld, but I used a fence to help steady the four-second exposure.

These kinds of features are brilliant. I am all in favor of things that make it easier for me to get photos. Advanced but easy-to-use camera facilities allow photographers to capture images that would have previously taken considerable learning and practice.

Exposure is correctly achieved by a host of facilities that help override the shortcomings of TTL metering. Front-to-back sharpness no longer requires mathematics. In fact, with software now available, it doesn’t even matter if your picture isn’t entirely sharp.

What’s More Important, the Photograph or the Photography?

I have heard it questioned whether the photograph is more or less important than the act of shooting it. This has usually been expressed by middle-aged men acting as gatekeepers who want to keep photography for those who take the time to learn the technicalities of it. Their predecessors probably decried the invention of the pocket calculator and insisted on carrying a slide rule instead.

Although being a late middle-aged man myself, I haven’t got a problem with this new technology. In fact, I celebrate it. Why should creating good photographs be limited to those with the mathematical skills and technical understanding to do all the things the camera can work out automatically? Is that not a kind of snobbery? This democratization of photography is great. Anyone can achieve more interesting and compelling results much more easily than ever before using these facilities. Moreover, these advanced features can be seen as a gateway to learning other techniques, just as scene modes are in cameras.

Many photographers started their photographic journey with entirely automated settings: auto exposure, auto ISO, autofocus and tracking, scene modes, and more recently AI assistance. These features helped them discover the joy of achieving an image they could hang on the wall. They were used as a stepping stone to learning how to take those photos. They would lead to them wanting to learn more and discover the joy of creating photos themselves, without relying on those tools that made photography easy.

Automation Doesn't Stop You from Doing it Manually

Despite these advancements being available, those of us who enjoy doing everything manually can still do so and get the satisfaction of applying our learning and expertise. Moreover, if we want to, we can also choose to hand over the heavy lifting to these automated functions and get the shots we want to achieve, freeing up our minds to concentrate on the photograph's story and composition and not the technical process.

What unique features does your camera have? Do you use them? Or do you like to shun automation in favor of doing everything manually? It will be great to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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For me the problem is higher resolving sensors mean we need hyper-designed, bulky and expensive lenses, which are big ticket items, so manufacturers focus resources there and leave scraps for the rest of us. Pancake lenses are rare. Everything is starting to feel like $1k+/1kg+ is the future.

As someone who has discovered the delights of a smaller system, rejects high-definition images, and uses the excellent M.Zuiko lenses that weigh a fraction of 1KG, I hope that is not true, but I suspect you might be right in a lot of cases.
Thanks for taking the time to comment.

"The technical advancements have almost taken cameras skills out of our hands."

That's exactly right Ivor and now is a great time to discuss it with the recent advancements in user accessible Ai image generation. Marshall Mcluhan is a media theorist that died over 40 years ago and I think his predictions are coming true. He said that mechanical technology and electrical technology evolve and operate according to different sets of predictable rules. If we substitute what he said about electrical mediums for digital today, then his ideas become very contemporary.

Mechanical mediums are very linear and orderly as each part has a specific role to play in a sequence. We could think of mechanical cameras as operating in this manner because the lens, shutter, mirror, camera release, film back and polaroid back (etc) have a specific function. Because of this we can learn how each part works together to produce a result and have mastery over those parts of the process. Mechanical mediums are often considered elitist as only some people ever becomes masters.

Electrical mediums, or digital, work in a non-linear fashion that is simultaneous and lacks a particular sequence. The role of the technology is therefore not very specific and it starts to merge with other mediums. In digital photography, people often call this merging a "convergence" and it's the reason that many digital cameras shoot both stills and video. Digital is constantly collapsing the boundaries between mediums and it is also changing the order that processes can be carried out. For example, we all know the power of post processing to "fix" what wasn't right at capture. But this also changes the sequence because lighting effects can be emulated in a non-linear fashion like merging multiple exposures. Also, different moments of focus can be merged with focus stacking after the original capture. There are too many examples to mention but the main point is that digital processes are non-linear and cannot be mastered individually. Therefore, digital becomes a medium with no real rules and is often equated with democracy (aka mob rule).

In the end, we get a situation where mechanical mediums can have specific rules of operation while digital cannot. Also, mechanical mediums can have specific roles to play while digital mediums cannot. Time is also affected because mechanical mediums adhere to strict chronologies that can't be altered while digital mediums can change at any time with new software processes. Some people say that darkroom work is like digital and that's true because prints are often made with electrical light, so both are electrical mediums.

The problem with automation is that it is often a blend of digital with mechanical and this causes a confusion as the technology evolves, but eventually the mediums sort themselves out and become purified. Ai generated images are part of the purification of digital and they are what digital was always evolving to become. AI imaging is the total convergence of photography with other mediums like painting, anime, graphic design, video (etc). It is also the destruction of the process of photography itself because lenses, light, shutters and tripods etc aren't necessary anymore. In fact, Ai won't even need photographers at all because it is eventually going to elimate the photographer from the sequence to become fully autonomous.

Sorry for the long post, but the final point I'm getting to is that automation in photography eventually leads to the destruction of the photographer himself. Automation is the replacement of the human with the non-human. Is that bad for photography? Well, Ai might actually now be in a better position to answer that question than me :-)

I didn't an existential crisis at this time if night man.

Thanks for taking the write that, Michael. It's an interesting read, so don't apologize.
I think for creative photographers, as opposed to commercial ones, the joy is in the making and I have an article discussing that very point in the queue to be published soon.

Thanks Ivor and I agree with you that we should be focused on the joy of making it. Sometimes I think it's the focus on making money or fear of missing out to new technology that causes us to worry.

I love the FV mode as it is so versatile and allows excellent control when in auto compared to other auto modes. A major advancement in control and speed.
AF has been a lifesaver for older tired eyes and focus confirmation for old manual lenses.
Yes the new capabilities allow for more creativity over messing with dials and knobs .

Thanks, Lawrence. Not being a Canon user, I had to look up Fv mode. I learn something new every day.

You are welcome.

I'm going to take the contrarian position because I don't have any shots in my camera roll where AF/MF changed the way I looked at the scene.

Which is fair enough, Arthur. We all have our unique ways of working.

I love technology and Iove using it. It is useful to know the theory behind photography if you want to create the images you have in your mind. Like understanding how flash works with aperture and shutter speed, TTL is great and a great help with most flash photography, but if you want to creatively mix flash and available light a little knowledge is helpful.
On the subject of autofocus and fumbling with switches, I use back button focus so never have to use the af/mf switch , when I want to manual focus, I don’t use the BBF button and just turn the focus ring. The switch on the lens is located where the thumb rests ( at least on my Canon l lenses) so even if I wanted to use the switch there’s no fumbling, but that can be different with other brands.

Thanks for the article, another nice read.

Thanks Ruud. I actually use BBF most of the time too.

I want essentially a full frame, interchangable lens, cell phone like camera, with advanced AI raw image processing that I can tweak to my liking with a cell phone like GUI.

If my cell phone had the lens options, and light gathering potential of my cameras, I'd immediately ditch all my cameras and happily use my cell phone for all my photo/video needs.

I exclusively use modern manual focus lenses and try to avoid as many modern automated features as possible as I like to feel like I'm doing most of the work myself and not relying on the technology. When I first bought a dslr, having used a manual film camera before, I enjoyed the convenience of digital files but having to deal with a lot of menus and new features was an annoyance. Whilst I got used to it, I never really liked dslr's. It was when I started using a smaller mirrorless camera and manual lenses (often with zone focusing) and making good use of the manual focusing aids that I found a happy medium.

That's cool. That's pretty much what I do when shooting landscapes. With wildlife and events, I prefer the speed of AF. Thanks for the comment.

Fortunately I mainly shoot street photography and that doesn't need AF. I never could get on with street photography and AF and simply prefer to do it with manual lenses.

Whether mechanical or digital, photography was executed using light as the main tool to record the image that was real and natural. Photography recorded reality. Technology is used to enhance or alter that reality where as enhancing didn’t meddle with reality, altering did.
As long as AI didn’t use Light as the main tool to record images, it can not give us the reality humanity needs and it can not be called as “photography”. AI will be only a technique for illustration. Few talented Artists tried to equal the reality of Photography but their products are known only as ART..! Like wise there may be a few skilled AI artists but their products will not be called as ‘Photography’- they will be known only as ‘AI Art’..
The future of Photography lies in two things: the use of light and depicting reality which other techniques or technology couldn’t achieve so far.

The problem is that the effects of light can be faked by electrical means and once that starts to happen photography eventually morphs into generative art. Slide film and polaroid film are some of the only ways that photography can prove it was done using only light. B&W prints are made with electrical enlargers and the effects of light can be imitated with burning and dodging so Ansel Adams was just as guilty of faking it as anyone else. All lighting effects in images captured with digital sensors can be emulated too, so there is only partial truth value to digital cameras. That is why, in both the film and digital camera eras, automation was always evolving to eliminate light from the process.

If we were really honest and used light as the standard, we might have to claim that only unmanipulated film photographs were capable of being called real photography. Otherwise, the road to Ai becomes certain and all integrity of the lighting process is lost. There is a saying that if a beverage is 99% coffee and 1% arsenic then it is really poison and no longer a drink. It's possible that the moment a photographer fakes the effects of light in some way then the image is not really a photograph at all anymore but the imitation or generation of something that looks like a photograph.

The way I see it, digital photography was always partially fake so Ai should win in the end because it's an even bigger fake.

Thanks both, that's an interesting discussion. At the heart of it lies the entire philosophical question of what reality is. Our retinas, or the analog film, or the digital sensors are only a tiny part of the full electromagnetic spectrum. Then what we see is only an interpretation of the electrical impulses that reach our brain. What we think we see then has our subjectivity applied to it, based on our life experiences and prejudices. Furthermore, photographs are limited interpretations of reality with the subjects always being taken out of context with the viewer interpreting what it means. I guess that's part of what makes art and, especially photography so exciting.

Yes! It's a philosophical problem. Sometimes maybe we need to just slow down and think about what it really is that we're actually doing :-)

I’ve often thought about the whole dodge and burn aspect as well from my early teen years in the darkroom, and how Lightroom is just an extension of what we’ve always done. Ansel Adams was constantly tweaking his images, which is why so many of his classic shots vary from one print to next.

For thirty years, I used a completely manual Nikon FM film. I love autofocus. My photography skill improved by a lot because I could get instant feedback on what I took. Plus I can crop and edit photos the way I want without waiting for someone else to do it. Love the state of technology right now.

The advancements in technology are amazing. What we carry about with us today would have been considered science fiction when I was young. I love camera tech too, but I also enjoy shooting everything manually. The middle road.


Features don't mean a lick if you can't take a decent picture.

So..easiest answer ever? This is also a very weird question to ask (yes, editorially backwards as far as timing goes) after AI is literally threatening the entire photography segment.

AI's impact is far more an important conversation than camera features.

I love to go out into nature, search for animals, find them, and spend lots of time photographing them as they conduct their daily behaviors. Then I love to come back and enjoy the photos I took. That is what photography is to me.

How in the world is AI threatening that? I couldn't care less what people are doing with AI, as it has no effect whatsoever on the way I do photography. So why do you say that AI is "literally threatening the entire photography segment?"

And what do you mean by "segment". Photography is not a segment, it is an activity, a pastime, and an obsession, not a segment.

I am rejecting articles about AI as these articles do not interest me. So please don't read a good article and then say that the author should have written about AI instead.

AI will have an impact on product photography, but it will bring with it new skill requirements, as demonstrated in Michelle Van Time's excellent interview with Tim Tadder. As Tom rightly suggests, the human desire to create will continue. So to will the appreciation of art created by humans, including photography.

Do you disagree with that, Edo? It will be interesting to hear why.

Thanks for the discussion.

Like all activities that combine art with technology, I think it is good to have a good basic understanding of what is happening behind the algorithms. I am glad I learnt on a manual everything camera with a separate light meter. I was forced to study the effects of apertura and shutter speed. I am better able to bend the automation to my needs.

Recently I have started to explore the world of architectural photography. I use manual focus shift lenses, that fool automatic light metering. I find this "slow" photogrphy very enjoyable. I am in command of all the parameters. Photography in this manual everything mode, does indeed feel that it is still a craft.

I also can appreciate the benefits of intelligent autofocus and things like pre capture, a wonderful thing that takes the guesswork out of shutter lag for action. How I would have loved such a thing when I photographed dance.

I still believe that a photographer who understands the theory behind the automation will take better pictures from a technical standpoint.

Thank you, Nigel. I agree with that. When I am standing on a beach watching the sun rise, my camera is set entirely, or as far as possible, to manual. But I love the abilities it gives me to grab the shots that my slow reaction times would otherwise prevent.

Why bother learning photography. Just shoot " oictures". Anyone can do it.
Robots make cars, run factories, are replacing human workers.
One day there will be no need to even carry a camera.
Man will simply have a chip embedded in his head rhat will capture what he wants thriugh his eyes and transmit it to a hard drive somewhere.
Photography doesnt take skill and education anymore.
The final image is all that matters.
Now if one is running a business thats a whole other ballgame.

I disagree with what you have claimed.

Good photography still requires a LOT of artistic vision and talent and hard work. No matter what the cameras can do for us in terms of focusing and exposure, it still requires a creative human brain to determine where the photo will be taken from, how the different things in the scene will line up with one another, what distance to shoot from, what focal length to use to get near things and far things to be a certain size ratio, relative to one another, what poses are most flattering to our subjects, precisely what angle to shoot each particular pose from, what the most flattering light is for each pose and each subject, how to most effectively use the interplay of light and shadow, etc., etc., etc.

To me, getting correct exposure and focusing on the right thing are kind of brainless tasks that I am more than happy to let the camera do for me. They are not creative things, but rather technical things. I want a camera to do all of the technical things for me, so that I have 100% of my. brain available for the creative compositional aspects of photography.

Thank you for confirming what I said.

I didn't confirm what you said. I showed beyond any doubt that the opposite of what you said is true.

Thanks for confirming again what I said. Your move.

Technological advances in camera gear can be said to be largely irrelevant as the most important component in the photographic mix is the photographer. Great photographs have always been taken right from the word go back in the early 1800s. Camera gear has always just been a means to an end. While certain features available today allow for shots to be taken that would have been verging on impossible several years ago, such as shots using auto tracking combined with a high shots per sec etc. Macro photography in particular has been totally revolutionised with both in camera capabilities and specialised software. What has not changed or been upgraded is the intentions of the photographer. Creating a stunning macro or wildlife shot is still all about the skills of the photographer irrespective of gear.
Taking a great shot is not about camera gear. Never has been and never will be. It’s all about the intentions and creativity of the photographer. In a recent documentary on Cindy Sherman no time was spent on the ‘kit’ she used as it was irrelevant compared to her inner creative process. I know lots of photographers love banging their gums about gear why? Because it’s so much easier to get to grips with that the nebulous nature of photographic creativity.
This ‘boys and their toys’ approach to photography while it fills a space it does little for photography rather than provide fodder for those who love to extol the virtues of one camera system over another. It reminds me of a situation way back in the late1980s. I was an early adopter of Mac computers as they allowed me to do stuff. A Mac loaded with Aldus Freehand and Pagemaker was a very powerful creative tool. A colleague was very disparaging saying that Mac’s were hopeless because you couldn’t get your hands into their insides and fiddle around with the hardware! You did not want to touch the capacitors inside a Mac. Who the hell wanted to do that! Not me. He was unable to see what I was producing because he was so intent on the pointless ‘who makes the best hardware’ debate that he totally missed the point that it’s the output and what you can create thats the real issue and not being able to fiddle around with the innards of your computer. Who cares what mode you decide to shoot in. I know the mode I choose is dictated by the circumstances and the one that offers me the best of achieving the shot I have in mind. Today using a modern camera only a fool would choose to shoot in manual regardless of the situation just so they feel they have control!