Is Technology in Photography Lowering the Bar or Increasing Freedom?

Is Technology in Photography Lowering the Bar or Increasing Freedom?

The craft of photography has arguably changed more in the last 20 years than in the century before it. With each improvement to the equipment comes the inevitable groans of many photographers who believe the technology takes away from the craft. Is that well-founded or mistaken?

I own a Fujifilm GFX 50R, a digital medium format body. On that body is a very fast manual focus lens that gives an ethereal, razor-thin depth of field on images taken with it, if you manage to nail the focus. Since getting this combination, I have become a little obsessed with shooting medium format images wide open. This isn't a unique enjoyment, and I'm sure many would criticize how much I choose to shoot wide open, although it's always just for fun, not for clients. There are a few reasons I like shooting this way. The first is obvious: I love the aesthetic created by a medium format sensor and f/1.4 on said sensor. Then, I also like the manual focus element when paired with the narrow depth of field. To get the style of image I want, I have to work rather hard; it's far too easy to miss focus entirely.

A friend of mine, an enthusiastic but rank-amateur photographer, has commented how much they like these shots on a number of occasions. We've discussed how I create the look and what goes into the shot. Then something happened that threw me through a loop. I took a snap on my iPhone of my girlfriend and son, and when my friend saw it, they commented how great the medium format look makes the shot. Now, this is an amateur (self-described), so no value in putting too much weight in the mistake, but I had edited the shot to look a bit like a medium format image, and it did look similar.

To create the same shot on my medium format body and manual focus lens would have been significantly more finicky and, in all likelihood, wouldn't have looked much different. It isn't news that phone cameras are tremendously powerful now and perpetually encroaching on dedicated camera territory. With a blend of AI and clever design, they can recreate many effects that used to be a bonafide skill in photography. The most recent example that has now reached a level where it is almost indistinguishable is long exposures.

Yes, there are still differences in the final result, particularly to the trained eye. Also, the file size and how malleable it is in post-processing are usually some way apart from dedicated cameras. But, on all of those charges, it almost never matters. Most people can't tell the difference, and most applications of an image will not show the image anywhere near its true dimensions. The more interesting question here is how all this technology impacts the photographer.

The dedicated camera versus a phone is a tired discussion. What is a more interesting discussion, to me at least, is how all of this technology changes the craft. After all, while phone cameras have been improving at a rate of knots, dedicated cameras have too. Modern bodies now have some superb, quality-of-life-improving features, from Eye AF to real-time generating long exposures and compositing. These all make capturing the desired shot easier in a way that wasn't possible some years back, and typically, they replace a skill within photography.

When digital photography more or less superseded film photography, there was the inevitable backlash of photographers who felt as if the skills necessary to be a good photographer were lessened. They were undoubtedly right in that there was no need to be hanging film in your bath anymore, but were they right with regards to the use of the camera too? If you can check your images as you go, you can adjust exposure and composition until it's perfect, something that wasn't possible with know-how and experience beforehand.

Now, digital photography hasn't quite had a pivotal moment of change like the transition from analog to digital, but it has had myriad smaller events. The most obvious and impactful for me is the aforementioned Eye AF. I assigned it to a back-button on my Sony and never missed nailing a portrait's focus on the subject's eye ever again. They even added it to work on animals! I used to have to work hard to nail focus, even with autofocus (in which there is another, similar discussion), but now, it's more or less free. You can get even more obscure with this line of questioning too: I used to have to exercise a marksman-taught breathing technique to take handheld shots in low light, but now, in-body image stabilization (IBIS) is so good I can get the shot while dancing if I fancied.

Taken handheld with the Fujifilm GFX 100 a long time after sunset. The scene was far darker than it appears in the final image and the shutter speed was 1/10 — a value that would have required a tripod or an incredibly steady hand some years back.

What does this mean for the photographer? Is photography easier? Well, yes, unambiguously in some regards. As a father and uncle of small children, I can confirm that Eye AF increased the number of keepers by a decent margin, though the shots, if taken without Eye AF and if successful, would have been identical. There are many examples of this, and so, there's no denying that capturing certain shots is objectively easier to do and requires less skill on the photographer's part. The argument that results is that photography is easier to do, and the bar has been lowered. This is where I disagree.

With the fundamentals easier in photography, the bar hasn't been lowered at all. The learning curve has been smoothed out, and beginners can get shots properly exposed and in-focus almost immediately, but that, in fact, raises the bar. The average becomes so much higher than it was just a few decades ago, as what was a skill and a hallmark of a good photographer is now simply the bare minimum. As a result, we expect more, particularly when not only are we taking more photographs than ever before by an enormous factor, but also viewing more photographs at the same increased rate. To have your photographs enjoyed by a good number of people has always been tricky, but now, it's tricky in a way that can feel insurmountable; you are a grain of sand in the Sahara.

Nevertheless, there are upsides to the many quality-of-life improvements for photographers. Whether you're shooting in auto mode on the highest-spec camera or in manual on an aging medium format body, the crutches (for want of a better word) allow you to concentrate on what really matters: capturing a memorable image. For the majority of photographers, the love of the craft isn't the mastery of the settings, but the results of them. There's satisfaction in becoming proficient at any skill, certainly, but knowing what settings to use is a vehicle to the destination. By having your mind untethered from desperately trying to focus on a moving eye, control the awkwardly wide dynamic range of a scene, or keep the camera still enough to shoot in low but beautifully ambient light, you can concentrate on everything else that goes into a great image: the composition, the light, the feel of the final photograph.

To me, the technology — while admittedly making the creation of images properly exposed and in focus easier — is liberating as a creative. I thoroughly enjoy the process of shooting on film and using manual focus and manual settings on digital bodies, but the modern conveniences of contemporary photography allow for that to be a choice. You can concentrate on getting the shot and being creative whenever you choose, and it's hard to imagine that could be a negative for the craft.

What do you think? Is the lowering of the barrier of entry to photography eroding the skill of our discipline or raising the standard? Is it doing both simultaneously? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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15 Comments
Ed C's picture

I take no joy or sense of mastering the craft in focusing. If something helps me do that and helps everyone else do that it is fantastic. I'm not a fan of computed bokeh. I am not a fan of simulated motion blur.

Framing a shot in the moment is an art. Determining what blur, lack of it or bokeh in the moemnt are art. I have no desire to have AI or fake AI doing any of that. If someone feels like an artist by having an AI crop for them or select blur or whatever then they are still just essentially performing the paint by numbers version of photography and are not artists in any way IMO.

J Barber's picture

A number of comments on this.
The current sea change is less like the move to digital, and more akin to George Eastman's Kodak. What had been an arcane art, with large awkward cameras, darkrooms and dangerous chemicals--suddenly became democratized. Just about anyone could take a reasonably decent picture. The phone has basically reiterated that process.

In once sense it has raised the bar, in one sense lowered it. It no longer requires complex skills to take pictures in low light, or videos with clear images AND sound (I grew up in the 8mm film era). Cameras and phones are portable and trouble free.

In another sense, it raised the bar. As some things became easier, even more challenging things became possible to the person willing to learn them. Ability to experiment with different encoding and tone curves (impossible in the film era), synchronized cameras and sound, complex special effects are the NEW bar. There is much deeper mathematics required to manage these effects. There are new limits to be pushed in areas that were all but untouchable before. There are new ways to excel.

We've spent years learning to do things, but now those things are easy. That's not a threat to the craft, it's a stepping stone to new levels

Roger Cozine's picture

I would say both. It's always great to see new innovations to further the art of photography. Especially to surpass limitations caused by camera and lens designs. However, this also decreases the value of photography since everyone has access to a somewhat reasonable camera. With the uprise of new features, AI, better automated editing software and better equipment... actual skill is no longer a requirement. You no longer have to know what your doing to get a great picture. In some areas, photographers are being completely replaced by AI. It's actually pretty saddening.

Nicholas Warde's picture

Technology changes, but at the end of the day, an eye for composition, whether genetic or learned is the primary skill. Either planned or in the moment. That is the raw material of a great shot. Regarding the technology it is all an aid and needs knowledge but is not the skill and can become a distraction (pixel peeping etc). And this is true in many areas of life. An auto gearbox on a car vs a manual doesn't make somebody a better driver. An eye for the road conditions ahead does. These are soft skills often learned by experience.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Exposing definitely has become easier along with better dynamic range
Autofocus is definitely becoming more spot on however I still like using a mechanical focus rather focus by wire. If anything what's become easier allows for me to concentrate more on composition and so far the tech is still in the baby stages in discerning that

Willy Williams's picture

There is little that I miss about film photography, aside from Kodachrome 25 and the ever-so-luxurious deep blacks achievable with Cibachrome. I certainly don't miss the limitations of 36-shot rolls of film and the bulk of carrying many of them around. Nor do I miss the inability to see the recorded results of a shot and inability to make appropriate adjustments on the fly. Some moan about the use of program mode and the impact on thoughtful shooting, but I see the ability to respond instantly to changing conditions. Others moan about how long it took to set up for a shot on film, but that's balanced by the complexity of digital cameras' bizarre menu structures and lack of a common vocabulary. All told, I love the ability to pre-can setups for various genres and back them up to media for almost-instant restoration, should the camera experience a malfunction. I'd like to see more responsiveness by manufacturers to requests for firmware modifications (Panasonic specifically). I look at technology as a means to improve the art, to make teaching the art easier for those entering the field, and to get a better end result for customers. Now it would be nice to find a replacement for Cibachrome for digital photography...

Tom Reichner's picture

Because technology does the technical things for us, it frees our hands and our eyes and our minds up to focus on the more creative aspects of photography.

If I don't have to take the time to focus or double-check the exposure, then I can use those few seconds saved to get my camera into a different position so that I can capture an image from a more dramatic or appealing point of view. I can use my brain and my eyes to figure out exactly what part of the background to line my subject up with instead of using my eyes and brain to make sure the focus and the exposure is correct.

Remember, in many types of photography, we only have a couple of seconds to get the shot off before the opportunity is gone forever. It's not like we're shooting human models who stand there and pose for us and wait until we are ready to take the shot.

Studio 403's picture

What I see the craft has become more democratized. I am one of those "rank-amateur's" Webster says this about me " A person who is completely inexperienced or inept at a particular activity." Technology like AI, object removal, and color grading will be more refined, that what took me several years to learn, now is being done in minutes, and will improve. Technology has a core value of "easy, quick, automating and color science. Photographer sell color presets, LUTS, it goes on and on. What will disguised the craft will be marketing and reputation. I have an expensive gear, but does make a more creative photographer. At my age of 76, capturing memories, places and things is important. After 12 yrs shooting, My skills are more mature and nice. But the field of the Professional Photographer will sad to say grow dim or as the pro's say, market share. I do not hold a candle to the true pros in this industry and rightly so. They should be. For younger aspiring photographers, gonna be a increasing tight market.

Joie Smith's picture

I find no matter how many gadgets you have, if you do not have”an eye” as they say, no gadget is going to give you that. I know lots of folks with fancy phones with a horrible photo reel, maybe a good pic here and there, a lucky shot, but talent in composition, lighting etc is I feel inherent. It can be learned to a degree, but you have to really work on it. So yes taking the fuss out of the technical stuff is good, and frees up time to be creative, as others have said! Thanks for your article.

J Barber's picture

Yes things are changing, but they've been changing for a long while. The travelling photographer, with his horse drawn wagon full of equipment and chemicals faced a major challenge with the advent of the first Kodak. Street press photography in the style of the iconic Weegee, which was an entire genre in the newsprint era, is pretty much gone. (there are pool photographers for sports, entertainment and political events...but they exist mainly because of the need to limit access)

But there are challenges from other directions too. Product imagery in increasingly using CGI, for some years now there have been car commercials shot without the car even there, the manufacturer sent computer files. But when a skilled tech makes that data into an appealing image or video, does that not require some of the same skills that photographers use?

Even here on fstoppers, there are many images that have been so heavily post processed to the extent unrecognizably like the original photograph.... definitely art, but can you still call it photography?

There is a tendency on the part of some to hunker down and go with the 'guild' mentality... but that won't work... things are changing and will continue to change.

There is no going back, but there are new paths going forward

Tom Reichner's picture

Very well written insights! Thanks for that - much appreciated.

Damne Treba's picture

Exposing definitely has become easier along with better dynamic range
Autofocus is definitely becoming more spot on however I still like using a mechanical focus rather focus by wire. If anything what's become easier like https://technifiser.com/adobe-lightroom/ allows for me to concentrate more on composition and so far the tech is still in the baby stages in discerning that...

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

I am all for the advances in camera technology. After all, you still have to frame and time a shot. But the Lightroom/photoshop modifications with fake sky and fake clouds, etc. I draw a line. However, to each his/her own.

Mike Ditz's picture

People have been putting fake skies in photos for a very long time. I used to do it with BW prints in a darkroom so don't blame PS for making it easy...

Omar Spence's picture

No matter how much computing power is behind the camera, photography still boils down to timing, composition and lighting. Faking it never looks as good as getting these right for real. Technology makes it easier to concentrate on these things and improves overall consistency, but it can not replace your ability to master them.