If you took a Nikon D800, Samsung Galaxy Camera, or Lytro Light Field Camera back in time and showed it to someone living in the dawn of the digital age—a whopping 10 years ago—it would seem like science fiction. The first generation of consumer digital cameras were slow, bulky, and extremely limited in their photographic capabilities. Today's top models are lightning fast, feature-packed, and can produce shots that meet or exceed the best of what film can do.
But that doesn't mean manufacturers are going to stop innovating. Beyond higher megapixel counts and better low-light sensitivity, there are plenty of features that will be making their way into future cameras, making our current shooters look as archaic as a Casio QV-10 looks today. Join us as we gaze into our crystal pentaprism and prognosticate the future of digital photography.
WiFi: Making Your Phone the Middleman
Wireless connectivity is already fairly widespread in today's camera market, but with enthusiast and high-end models like the Sony NEX-5R, Panasonic GH3, and Canon 6D jumping onboard, it seems to have finally made the jump out of the point-and-shoot ghetto. Some will ask why; the functionality you get usually isn't really all that impressive, and it's another thing draining the battery. But there are some cool implementations that allow for smartphone control, remote live view, and instant sync with your phone's gallery. Once on your phone, the shots can be uploaded to social media sites, which is really where most photos end up these days anyway.
4G LTE: Data (Almost) Anywhere
Though not currently available on any model other than the Samsung Galaxy Camera, we are convinced that 4G LTE radios will saturate the consumer camera market over the next two to five years. Instant cloud backup of photos is a very attractive concept, and with cameras moving toward more app-friendly operating systems we may not be too far away from Instagrammed full-frame DSLR photos. (Heaven help us.)
App Stores: Paying for Features You Used to Get for Free
We really hope this one doesn't come to pass, but the cynical curmudgeons in us are all but certain it will. Sony's NEX-5R recently broke ground on this concept, removing features from its predecessor only to let you "unlock" them by buying software packages from the in-camera Sony PlayMemories app store. What's next, paying for faster shutter speeds or wider apertures? We shudder to think. Running Android 4.1, the Samsung Galaxy Camera offers a different take on this phenomenon, with a more traditional smartphone app store. Instagram and Facebook integration right on your point and shoot? How can camera manufacturers possibly resist?
GPS: Um, Where Did I Take That Photo?
Like WiFi, GPS is already present on many cameras, either built-in or via an adapter. Over the next few years, we fully expect it to become a standard feature. Geotagged shots could be useful for all kinds of reasons, and not just to back-country hikers and surveyors. And in the future, GPS modules in cameras could be used for other purposes, including navigation and alerting you to interesting nearby attractions—something Google Now has recently pioneered.
4K Video: Because More Pixels are Mo' Better
HD video recording is cool, right? All those pixels! Know what would be cooler? Yep, that's right—even more pixels. The next standard in high-def video is called 4K (or Ultra High Definition), and it's on a mission to make all of your media obsolete within the next few years. TV sets and purpose-built video cameras are already adapting the technology, and digital still cameras won't be too far behind the curve. Get ready to see all of your relatives' pores in gory detail.
Global Shutter: No More Jell-O
You know how the video you get out of your digital camera sometimes looks like it's being projected through Jell-O? That's a side effect of rolling shutter, a sensor technology that captures images by scanning incrementally (though very quickly) across the frame. The result is that not all parts of the image are exposed at the same time. This isn't a problem when shooting stills (and in fact can be beneficial in some ways), but it causes all kinds of problems for video. Global shutters are the solution, exposing the entire frame in one go and eliminating the wobblycam behavior. Though this tech has thus far been limited to expensive industrial applications, we expect to see it trickle down to the consumer level over the next few years.
Light Field Photography: Frustration-Free Focusing
What is light field photography? Non-technical answer: a new technology that uses special microlenses to capture the entire light field in a scene—that is, the direction of light, not just the color and intensity. This allows you to change the point of focus via software after the fact. Obviously, this could be a real paradigm shift—or a total flash in the pan. The Lytro Light Field Camera (the only commercial application thus far) is an exciting product, but its images can't be shared outside of the proprietary Lytro Web platform unless they're exported to JPEG format (where they lose the ability to change focus points). There are significant technological hurdles to creating higher resolution shots and integrating the technology into interchangeable lens cameras, but we hope that they'll be solved sooner rather than later.
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