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How Will 5G Change Photography?

How Will 5G Change Photography?

5G, the fifth generation of cellular wireless technology, is currently in the process of being rolled out, and it promises blazing fast speeds that rival some of the fastest hard-wired connections. And that has me excited, as it could significantly change the way photographers work.

5G Speeds

5G speeds depend on the type (millimeter wave, mid-band, or low-band), and of course, anyone with a cell phone knows that theoretical and/or advertised speeds rarely match what one sees in the actual world. At the moment, the technology is still very new and just beginning to appear in the wild, but speeds are already promising in a lot of scenarios and are expected to get better over time as more equipment is deployed. For example, 5G millimeter wave could hit 1-2 Gbps (125-250 MBps) in practice, but this type also has the shortest reach and does not penetrate into the interior of structures well. Currently, 5G mid-band, which represents the middle of the pack, tends to show speeds somewhere around 100-600 Mbps. Most real-world tests have shown download speeds somewhere between 100 and 400 Mbps, often jumping to 600, and upload speeds around 50-100 Mbps. Speeds should improve as more equipment is deployed and coverage becomes more reliable.

While the speeds are certainly exciting and rival those of a decently fast home or business internet connection, another great aspect of 5G is the capacity. Whereas 4G can support 100,000 devices per square kilometers, 5G can support up to 1,000,000, reducing crowding issues. 5G also offers lower latency, with a theoretical floor of 1 ms, though current real-world results are around 25-35 ms. The technology is so fast that Verizon is currently offering it as a home internet service and advertising it as rivaling hard-wired connections.

Why This Is Exciting for Photographers

Ok, so that is great and all: our cellphones are going to become a lot faster in the years to come. Why am I so excited for this when it comes to the work we do? Well, when 5G becomes a bit more widespread and stable, we will have untethered access to the sort of speeds that enable real-time transfer and manipulation of the massive files we are used to dealing with in our work. This enables a vast array of creative opportunities and technological conveniences.

Real-Time Backup and Tethering

Backing up files is always on the mind of the photographer. Multiple local copies and a copy in the cloud is the standard method of working, but of course, moving all that data to the cloud takes a lot of bandwidth and often, patience. For example, let's say a wedding photographer comes home with 4,000 images, a pretty standard number. Normal compressed raw files on the Sony a7 III are about 24 MB a piece. So, for 4,000 images, that comes out to 96 GB.

A fairly standard broadband connection in the US is 100/10 Mbps, equating to an upload speed of 1.25 MBps. At that speed, is would take 76,800 seconds (21.3 hours) to back up those 4,000 images. That's not especially fast, but it's not horrible for backing up a wedding's worth of images: turn on the backup when you get home after the wedding, and it will be done by the next evening. That about matches my experience in Cleveland.

On the other hand, let's look at 5G, even in its early iteration. As mentioned before, current upload speeds are around 50-100 Mbps, though you can expect those to improve by quite a bit in coming years. Still, let's take the worst of that: 50 Mbps, or 6.25 MBps. At that speed, the aforementioned backup would take 15,360 seconds (about 4.25 hours). That's about a raw file every 4 seconds, or about 900 raw files an hour. A reasonable wedding day might entail 10-12 hours of work for the photographer.

This means it is entirely possible that the photographer could keep their phone in their pocket with their camera wirelessly connected to it and back up images as they are being shot. Within seconds of pressing the shutter, the raw file could be in the cloud. Gone would be the logistics of juggling hard drives between the ceremony and reception to ingest files and create a local backup. Files would simply be backed up as they were created. It would also eliminate the nasty stories we hear about in which a photographer loses the files one way or another before getting home to back them up. 

Imagine coming home to your thousands of images already ingested and backed up, with previews generated and presets applied.

What is more is that this could enable a sort of remote tethering. Have you ever waited for Lightroom to render 1:1 previews for 4,000 images? It isn't a quick process. But with this sort of real-time uploading, you could easily send the images to a Dropbox folder, for example, from which Lightroom would automatically import them and generate previews while you were still at the event. By the time you got home, the images would be ready to be culled and edited.

This could be a great boon for news corporations and photojournalists as well, who often need to get images out as soon as possible, with every second being akin to an eternity. Everything an on-location photojournalist shoots could be immediately beamed back to an editor for review and dissemination, without the need for specialist niche equipment. A fashion magazine doing a shoot in the desert could save the expense of flying a lot of the creative team to the location, instead reviewing images in real-time as the photographer remotely tethers to Capture One.

Potential Issues

Of course, while all these scenarios sound fantastic, they are a bit far-fetched at the moment, as there are lots of issues and potential roadblocks to consider first.


I don't expect to have 5G coverage in the middle of the woods anytime soon.

Next-generation cellular technology always rolls out in urban areas first, trickling into rural areas sometimes years later. That desert fashion shoot scenario I mentioned sounds neat, but the wedding photographer in Chicago will likely be backing up their images in real-time long before the fashion photographer is tethering from Arizona to New York. I still drop all the way down to 2G when I go home to rural Ohio sometimes, so I can attest to how long it takes this sort of technology to reach some people. 


Currently, most companies charge around $100 a month for 5G service. Verizon, for example, charges an addition $10 on top of whatever 4G plan you select to add 5G. It remains to be seen how cost will evolve with wider rollout. 

Data Caps

This is probably the most worrisome potential issue. Cellular companies generally don't like users pushing around a lot of data, particularly since limited bandwidth can cause the network to slow down for all users if too many data hogs are on it simultaneously, and photographers backing up thousands of raw files while tethered to their cell phones every weekend would certainly raise an eyebrow or two at the switchboard. The increased capacity of 5G might ease this a bit, though. For example, Verizon claims that while their 4G service is subject to throttling, "5G data usage... is unlimited with no data de-prioritization." Of course, these are cell phone companies we are talking about, so who knows if that would last. Phone companies aren't exactly known for being charitable toward customers. 


We're probably a few years out from having the infrastructure to make these scenarios possible for a wide range of photographers, and there are other issues that would need to be tackled as well. But the potential for 5G to make photographers more efficient, simplify their on-the-go workflows, and better protect their data is there, and I find that exciting. Can you envision any scenarios that a hyper-fast mobile connection would enable for your work? Does 5G excite you?

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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It won't because manufacturers won't do anything with it just like they do nothing with Wi-Fi. 5G also happens to be in a terrible area of the spectrum as far as penetration goes so it's going to take a LOOONG time for reliable infrastructure to go up.

Probably the same way that 4G changed photography.

Unfortunately, the traditional camera manufacturers are not up to the task of adding 5G directly to their cameras. However, Samsung just introduced a 108mp sensor on the 5G smart phones. Along with in-camera processing, the smart phone companies are moving into camera company territory much faster than I expected.

Right now the manufacturers have teams of developers creating the next generation of camera operating systems that will be fully connected, providing real-time cloud backups, live streaming, and instant sharing. /s

Biggest issues for 5G signal propagation and signal attenuation, the latter is especially pertinent in built up areas that have high concentrations of metal/concrete. So realistically 5G is great for mobile traffic, but beyond that? You're probably screwed unless you have a massive saturation of signal stations/boosters and/or beam formers. The other major headache for networks is the distribution of edge computing, caches and towers. Even then, as with Microwave P2P towers show you'll get signal fade if you get any kind of mist or rain. Most of the problems will be solved in time, but not at least for the next 5 years as core infrastructure is built up. That's ignoring the delays with the Huwei politics and their gear being blacklisted from core networks. The final issue, it offers no real advantages at this time over LTE in many cases, and in fact LTE/4G can be better for data.

5G is far more suited to IoT, VR and similarly 'local' technologies but to be honest you'd be better of using the AX WiFi standard which is designed to be used in a 'local' internal mesh network. Also WiFi 6 (AX) will be a lot easier to certify than 5G which will face tighter telecoms laws worldwide as was shown with previous roll outs and the fact that the US cellular network is realistically years behind the rest of the world. In addition WiFi 6 is available now, and is being deployed with routers/AP points being available on the market that you can buy.

All this said, the focus for each standard is different: 5G is predominantly for mobile networks, and WiFi 6/AX is predominantly for static/internal LANs. If anything you should be looking at WiFi 6/AX certification on your camera and not 5G not unless you're carrying a mobile or want a digital SIM in your camera. The problem isn't the standard though, as WiFi in cameras in my experience has been damned awful. Even on clean WiFi I've seen them drop data, speeds or just flake out. Hence why I rely on 1Gb or USB 3 ports when shooting tethered.

Is 5G important - not to me. I don''t want to be full-time connected. There's one currency that's extremely expensive: Privacy. When you think like a criminal you'd learn that they know/learn from your data inside your streams/photo's where you are, when you're away. Do you want to be tracked by your own tools - do you mind paying to undermine your own privacy/security?
Press photographers they will gain a lot from it - but won't it hurt them on a longer term?

There's some health concerns with 5G as well. Most of us would be better served if the cable companies would continue to build out optical cabling to our houses, offices and apartments. From there we can choose to wire our property or deploy advanced wifi.

24/7 full time radiation from 5G in every city is a curious health experiment. The EU bureaucrats in Brussels mandated 5G rollout throughout the EU but with an exception for the city of Brussels. Curious that. Experiment on someone else and someone else's children.

How many pixels will it have? :-)

5G is a combination of technologies, some offering very high speed and others high carrying capacity. The really high speeds will be for the forseeable future in densely populated cites, but will be quite inconsistent because the signals can be blocked by trees , buildings etc. You can move 50 feet and see your speed drop dramatically.

Rural areas will be better served by the high carrying capacity (many users at one time) but those speeds are not nearly as high.

Certainly it will improve things, but the degree is not clear yet.

Besides the camera making all the decisions but having to handle composition you'll just put it on an automated turret and someone overseas will do that little bit of effort for you. Automagical is in these days

Even if you are able to access a wireless carrier under good signal conditions, and have access to the high-end of 5G transmission speeds, MANY impediments stand in the way of actually utilizing the connection successfully. Notably:

o End-to-end network path must be able to sustain the high speed the whole way through (ie the old Net Neutrality issue, where competing networks fail to upgrade the interconnections between themselves, in order to strangle throughput as it crosses-over to a competitor network; the aim being to force customers to buy direct connections. NONE of the carriers are beyond this level of behavior!)

o The systems at each end MUST be able to support high speed. That means the camera itself must be able to process the TCP/IP stack at very high rates, and read from the internal storage media at similar high rates; and the server system (and its back-end storage sub-system) where the pictures are being sent must also be able to sustain the high rates. The latter being a challenge in some cloud environments, believe it or not.

o Obtaining a direct end-to-end connection (without intermediate processing by the wireless carrier) may become increasingly difficult. There will be pressure to build walled-garden operations, with carrier-owned processing in the middle. (We already see this in the downstream direction with forced re-compression of video streams.) They may try to encourage you to use the carrier's cloud system, or pay extra fees to get straight through to a 3rd party service of your choosing.

o Most mobile systems use IPv6 under the hood. Ensuring that the camera can run v6 will be important. But many commercial services have yet to enable IPv6 access. If you try to upload to a site that is still running IPv4, you will be put through a carrier-grade NAT unit. This too can become a throughput bottleneck (intentional or unintended).

o Geolocation and automatic-server-selection will be important to achieve high throughput. Even if all the above constraints are met, if the upload-storage company you are using is not careful to assign your connection to a nearby server you could see reduced throughput. Assuming the server company you are using has equipment deployed in multiple locations, they have to assign your connection to a comparatively close server for you to obtain the highest upload speeds. Imagine if you are in San Francisco, and they errantly assign your connection to their server complex in Amsterdam. (Some CDN companies even serve you from remote locations intentionally, because they get cheaper pricing on their ISP network connection at the further-away location. I used to live in the DC area and Akamai would serve some downloads from PARIS, because those servers were presently under their 95th-percentile high-water mark. Needless to say, download speed was not optimal...)

It's nice to have rah-rah about new technology. BUT actually delivering on the promise will require a lot of work. (And the wireless carrier vampire-executives will be looking for every possible opportunity to suck the blood from your wallet. And our current FCC and FTC do not seem inclined to keep them from putting the bite on your wallet.)