Someday Photos Won’t Get Any Better

When I was 17, a friend of mine got a new professional camera and lens setup, and he took a picture of an office cubicle to demonstrate the clarity of the image and the shallowness of the depth of field. It amazed me so much that I still remember the moment and have a vague memory of the photo on the back display of his camera. It was a picture of nothing, taken only to show the capabilities of the camera, and I found it amazing. It had visual impact.

Fast forward 13 years and the world is a different place. Instagram didn’t exist when my friend got his camera. If I wanted to see inspiring photos with visual impact back then, I had to flip through magazines at the local bookstore, which I often did. Not only is that bookstore closed now, but I am flooded with a stream of the greatest photos on earth through my daily Instagram feed—far more and far better photos than the magazines ever had.

The more I see perfect photos of everything from red foxes to Grecian hotels, from the Swiss Alps to the Half Dome in Yosemite, from handmade pottery to European storefronts, the less I feel any visual impact at all. I don’t remember the last time I saw and image and felt moved by how beautiful it was. It still happens, but it’s nowhere close to as vivid as it used to be.

I may be especially sensitive to this since I make a living by creating images, and I’ve assessed images constantly for years. Yet I think it holds true for most modern people. Our eyes are exposed to images constantly, and as the technology increases and the images continually improve, the more it takes for our eyes to be impressed.

This has led me to another thought. Someday, the technology for improving images will plateau.

Even if we are capable of creating images of ever higher resolution and color representation, we will reach the peak of what the human eye can perceive. This is already happening with resolution. There comes a point when our eyes can’t perceive more clarity, which is why in a store the difference between a 4K TV and an 8K is negligible.

So what happens when, 50 years from now, imaging technology has reached its equilibrium and it becomes impossible to improve upon it? And what happens when this ultimate visual technology is mass produced and made available to everyone, even used in the cameras on the back of our phones?

Here’s the interesting part: 200 years beyond that point of visual equilibrium, how will people date photos? 

After capturing images with perfect technology for over 2 centuries it will be impossible to tell from the photo’s inherent aesthetic quality when the photo was taken. As it is now, we can sometimes even discern between decades, such as a photo from the 40s and one from the 50s, by merely looking at the color of the film. But what would it be like if the photos we were looking at from 1820 were identical in quality and resolution as the photos we’re taking today? 

How would we know when the photos were taken? Sitting with a 90-year-old man and looking at his baby pictures, school age pictures, and young adult pictures would be almost confusing. The only thing dating them would be the style of the buildings and clothing and the physical appearance of the person.

I think this is inevitable. We will maximize photographic technology, and we will continue to capture photos of everything. What will it be like to be able to look back at history and see everything vividly?

What if we move towards cameras we all wear at all times and that record everything on a sort of buffer where the past 15 seconds can be brought back and captured just so we don’t miss a moment? Imagine the implications of this for historical record. What if we could go back and see George Washington in perfect detail? 

Photography has advanced quickly since the time it was invented. Every decade of the 20th century showed marked improvement. How far are we from equilibrium? We can only wonder.

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