Future Tech; Shutterbug Contributors Get Out The Crystal Ball

If you camp by the riverbed during a monsoon you'll soon have a wet bedroll. Moving to higher ground helps, but sometimes you have to get atop the valley wall to keep dry. That's pretty much what's happened in the last year to those making bets on where digital photography might settle. Just as we think we've reached the high watermark another drenching rain comes in that threatens to wash all before it.

Indeed, part of this is caused by the megapixel derby, with even humble digicams coming in at the 12-megapixel count. Then there's bit depth, which now in the latest pro D-SLRs is commonly at 16-bit raw, akin to scanning backs of yore. And there are always changes in software, which somehow always comes up with some advance that makes version whatever even more appealing than in the recent past. And the catch-up games extend up and down the line, with the necessity to upgrade to be able to read and develop images made with each new camera; with faster memory cards only usable by new cameras; and even in the latest software, which might only work in the latest manifestation of an operating system. The "new normal" always shifts and changes.

Whether this is good or bad for photographers seems beside the point for manufacturers. For them, innovation is one of the remaining competitive advantages. And it's not that we see change as bad. It's what has brought us to where we are today, with newfound freedom of creativity, better image quality, and even lower prices for better gear as manufacturing efficiencies finally come into play. A case in point is the art and craft of developing and printing images. We now have more paper choices, with longer lasting inks, finer printers, and programs that allow us to optimize image quality as we create ever more expressive prints. And we now have lenses that are truly attuned to the greater resolution demands of digital that allow us to shoot in lower light levels than ever before. And with new image processors battling noise at even higher ISO levels, we have newfound freedom to shoot in low light without flash with ISOs that years ago would have resulted in nothing but figments of subjects awash in a grain storm.

Recounting the benefits of recent changes is one thing--being able to fairly predict what might come in the future is something else. Looking over the past articles of this annual survey we'd have to say that our contributors were on the mark numerous times, and wildly off-base in others. This year we again asked our contributors to cast an eye into the future and come up with some predictions. Some used the occasion to make social commentary based on the implications of what they see ahead, while others used insider information to hint at some real live products that are right around the bend. We hope you enjoy their prognostications as much as we will enjoy looking back one and three years down the road and telling our writers "You had to have been kidding" or "How did you know that?"

Enhanced Gear, Smoother Workflow
The year 2008 in photography will be a year of consolidation and rethinking of the digital industry. Many of the tools we have learned to use and rely upon will fall by the wayside, clearing the way to a more meaningful and practical approach to the photographic image. After all, for most people photography is not about Layers and Masking, it is about recording the life they are living, and sharing it with others.

The year 2008 will mark the end of the megapixel wars. There is an ideal ratio between sensor size and the number of pixels that it can hold without reducing quality in the other direction--too much of a good thing is too much, and I believe the major camera manufacturers have reached that ratio. Instead, in 2008 emphasis will be placed on improving the software that drives the cameras in an attempt to create the best quality image with low noise, anti-aliasing, and the elimination of moiré patterns, all at the time of exposure.

In 2008 you will see a move away from lenses optimized for film. You can already get any film lens you want on eBay and there is no profit in making more that can't be sold. Lenses from here on in will be increasingly optimized for digital and will only get better.

Digital back manufacturers will begin to look toward creating their own front end--camera, lenses, etc.--either in partnership with OEMs such as Hasselblad, or on their own. We may well see an integrated medium format D-SLR, in which the digital back is part of the camera, not an add-on--something like the Pentax 67 film camera. The original design for the Mamiya ZD promised this and I believe someone will make it happen, possibly in 2008.

I believe that the need for photographers to color manage their monitors and output devices will begin to decline in importance. What you will see instead are the introduction of closed-loop systems by companies such as Epson, HP, and Canon, among others, which will include computers, printers, scanners, and software that are integrated to automatically color manage images.

Wireless radio remote devices, such as the PocketWizard, will continue to grow and improve. Now that the technology is available there will be an increasing demand for wireless triggers that can remotely operate equipment and control exposure Through The Lens (TTL). While there are already several devices that can turn lights on and off or trigger them wirelessly, we're going to see more devices with increased functionality, such as the ability to increase or decrease light output on multiple strobes.

The biggest change in the way we practice digital imaging in 2008 will be in the area of software and image management. My prediction is that workflow and image-management software will supersede pixel-based editing programs such as Photoshop. While Photoshop is perhaps the most powerful imaging tool ever invented, and will hopefully continue to grow and improve, most photographers only need Lightroom for everything they do--everything. I base this on my experience teaching digital photography. Students arrive eager to learn Photoshop. But first I introduce them to workflow using Lightroom. By the end of the week they ask, why do I need Photoshop? What they are recognizing is what a lot of professional photographers have come to realize--most of us simply want to record an image and get it on paper or to a client. I believe that Photoshop is going to increasingly become a tool for the collage artist and illustrator and less for the photographer.
--Steve Anchell

Pro Prospects
In an attempt to once again see into the future, I've gathered my crystal ball, Magic 8-Ball, and Ouija board to help me ascertain what lies ahead for the portrait and wedding photographer. And though Nostradamus I'm not, after about 30 years of making my living taking people pictures, I've been keeping a close watch on developments that affect our industry and our ability to survive and hopefully flourish. With that in mind, I'll give you my opinion. It's based upon my observations and conversations with many others in the field. My past predictions have been reasonably accurate, at least in the short term, and I feel I must keep "ahead of the game" to continue to do well in this challenging market.

The changes to our industry have been dramatic and swift in the past few years. Digital imaging is mainstream, film is niche. The ease of creating images, the ability to see them immediately, and the low cost of taking photos (close to zero) has taken much of the "magic" out of photography. Anyone with a 5+ megapixel camera with a zoom lens is a photographer. It has led to a whole new class of photographers--MWACs (Moms With A Camera). Substitute sister, teacher, uncle, friend, it's all the same. Take a quick look at any high school yearbook that has no submission standards and you'll see 40-80 percent of the senior "portraits" are taken by amateurs with no regard to lighting, posing, clothing, background control, and all the other things that distinguish a professional portrait. I've seen photos of kids sticking tongues out. Wonder what the relatives will get for photos? The same is happening in other areas of the portrait market where any picture is "good enough" for some.

The wedding market is feeling the same pressure. You are either really cheap or really expensive. There is no middle market anymore, something I predicted several years ago. I know photographers who used to do 40 weddings a year now doing five. I know an excellent wedding photographer in an affluent area who has lowered his prices, as many others have. And there are many $10,000+ photographers doing very well. (For the record, I stopped doing weddings three years ago.)

So, I'm going to sing the same song I've been singing for the last few years. The future looks great for the "high-end" portrait photographer in a major city and the "destination" wedding photographer who commands high prices. There even may be a market there for the low-priced volume wedding photographer. The gap between the low- and high-priced photographer will expand.

The photographer in the middle faces severe challenges. To compete he must do work that cannot be duplicated by the amateur, like studio portraits. His skills in both photography and marketing must be of the highest order.

If you think I'm exaggerating, consider the following story. I was recently asked to be a print judge for a nearby state convention. The president called to ask me because the print chairman was no longer in business. There are more photographers than ever before, but fewer who can truly call themselves "professional." Stay on your toes, my fellow professionals!
--Steve Bedell

Two Ends Against The Middle
It seems from the latest industry news that the digital photography market focus is shifting a bit. Not long ago the news from chip manufacturing was about development of sensor materials that had expanded light sensitivity, which would result in less noise at higher ISO speed settings, a decided shift toward image quality. And although the megapixel race is not over, the likely news in that department may be in higher-end D-SLRs. This may reflect less of a camera manufacturer initiative and more of a beginning reaction to a US and world economy with a clear case of the jitters, and definite indications that the low end of the consumer market is spending less freely.

Parallel to this is a greater generational distinction between the casual, socially-inspired photography of younger people taking pictures with a cell phone for MySpace and YouTube and the more serious, older generations who have a more deliberate interest in photography as a means of self-expression. Up until now, the middle ground, the point-and-shoot digital camera, held a very large segment of the market. That may be waning. More people will find what they need for personal image recording supplied by multimedia devices like the iPhone. Those with a more specific interest in photography, a folk art in the past century, will be served by better performing and more affordable D-SLR cameras.

So far, even the new Apple iPhone is not comparable in photo quality to a digital point-and-shoot camera. But if companies like LG and Samsung see a competitive advantage in making multifunctional Internet devices and cell phones with better photo quality the lower end of the consumer market will continue to soften. This will cause the recently hot digital point-and-shoot market to stagnate, and those cameras will be replaced by the new photo capable, multimedia devices. Higher performance D-SLRs will still be sold to the more affluent, older generations. So the two "ends" rather than the middle of the photo market will become the areas for growth in the immediate future.
--David B. Brooks