What will the Photography industry look like 10, 20, or 50 years from now? The future of photography is brighter than you think.

As a photographer in the modern age, you’re probably used to wearing many different hats. From digital marketing, website design, social media, or incorporating new technology, there’s always something new to learn!

Photography seems quite different now compared to its humble beginnings nearly 200 years ago. But photography as we know it is going to change even more in the coming years.

Changes Are Already Here

A drone flies overhead

A drone flies overhead

The relationship between camera and photographer has remained relatively unchanged until now. You would still open a shutter and capture an image – manipulation comes from either chemicals, lenses, exposures, or post-processing software – but what the lens “saw” was what you had to work with.

The first changes to this dynamic came with the smartphone revolution. In a recent article in Fast Company, Adele Peters writes about ‘computational photography’ becoming the new norm as photography continues to evolve: 

“Image data can be assembled across time and space, producing super-real high-dynamic range (HDR) photos–or just ones that capture both light and dark areas well. Multiple cameras’ inputs can be fused into a single image, as on some Android phones and the iPhone 7 Plus, allowing for crisper or richer images in a single shot and a synthetic zoom that looks nearly as good as one produced via optical means.”

Today, the sheer number of people armed with cameras has never been greater.

Photography was reasonably difficult to create during the 50 or so years after the first camera was conceived by Nicéphore Niépce (simply a piece of paper coated with silver chloride, which darkened where it was exposed to light) in 1816. Photographers had to have technical as well as artistic knowledge of the process from beginning to end.

But as the turn of the century rolled around, film rolls and Kodak cameras arrived – suddenly everyone could afford to own a camera and take pictures. Consumer photography became ubiquitous. Photos became “snapshots.”

There are over 300 million cell phones in America alone, all of them equipped with increasingly sophisticated cameras. Pixels these days have gotten so small that 50MP point-and-shoots are common, and there are cameras for professionals in the gigapixel range.

It has also become progressively easier to take, store, and share photographs. Cloud storage and social media have changed the ways in which we view and share photography.

But what does all this mean for the photo industry?

Old Systems Make Way for New Ones

Some of these changes to the industry are already visible.

Google recently made it’s 149 dollar photo editing suite, Nik, completely free. Previously, this top-of-the-line editing software was considered an essential editing program, and photographers had no problem paying good money to use it. Google has essentially dropped the program; by making Nik free the company can move on to projects it deems more relevant.

Blacks Photography, a large Canadian retail photofinishing and camera store, has since 2015 closed down retail stores across Canada and moved the business completely online.

Sports Illustrated (owned by Time company) recently announced the layoffs of their entire photography staff (already down to only 6 people full-time).

Taken at a glance, these changes may spell doom-and-gloom for photography, much like the internet revolution impacted the print industry. But do these events signal the end of professional photographers everywhere?  Doubtfully.

Even though there are more professional photographers than ever before, new opportunities await those who can adapt to new technology, or who will market themselves as specialists in older forms of the art (just like film photographers in the digital world of today). 

In an article for the New Yorker, Peter Neubauer (co-founder of the Swedish database company Neo Technology) states that, in the future, the “real value creation will come from stitching together photos as a fabric, extracting information and then providing that cumulative information as a totally different package.”

Photography as we know it may look entirely different in 10, 20, or 30 years.

In the past, photographs were previously one of the only ways in which a scholar could study things (such as wildlife, tools, or architecture) not local to them. Scholars considered photographs to be faithful reproductions of the original objects, and they served as a tool for learning just as they also served as a tool for recording.

Now our 2D representations we have today will probably be replaced by the 3D imagery of tomorrow, as photography comes closer and closer to “the real thing.”

We are all taking many, many more photographs than ever before, and often discarding them soon after in our ever-growing online storage bins. Not only is the technology changing, but the way we view photography and how we respond to it has been changing too.

So the question is, how do photographers grow and evolve with these changes? How do we thrive?

In this article, we’ll attempt to answer these questions, give a rundown of what we already know is happening, and what may likely emerge in the photography industry in 10, 20, or even 50 years from now.

New & Emerging Technology

Up until recent years, post-processing techniques such as applying HDR (High Dynamic Range) have only been possible after the photo was taken. In recent years, the first major innovation involved having HDR built directly into smartphone operating systems, allowing consumers to take high-definition captures and adjustments that are analyzed and fused in software to produce the HDR result instantly.

Despite tons of new research in academia into imaging technology, we’re mostly stalled in this current form of technology on a large-scale level.

But things begin to get interesting as we look at emerging prototypes and Cloud services – a notable one being Google Photos.

The service organizes and automatically backs up any photos that you take on your smartphone. It can sort through everything, remove duplicates, pick out the best ones, tag them,  build albums around your outings and vacations, and even create animated GIFs for you to share. The ‘Assistant’ feature can even edit your photos – all you have to do is basically dump all your photos into the service, and Google Photos takes care of the rest.

There are some broad implications here. The more data Google has, the easier and better it’s algorithms can learn and become better at helping to organize and make sense of the data. But as you’re probably aware, this idea gets a little worrisome as more and more of our lives gets handed over to algorithms, computers, and AI.

On a much more positive note, programs like this will yield some amazing results –learning from massive amounts of photographs, for instance, or organizing them along the axis of relationships and time. Digitization offers us the potential to conduct research that could never have been done before.

For instance, image recognition/matching software is being developed that would allow users to identify particular visual characteristics in a work of art, then all you would need to do is search for and retrieve photographs of other artworks that share those characteristics.

These incredible feats of automation are now possible because of the more affordable and large-scale computation, availability of bigger data sets, and ever-advancing deep-learning algorithms.

But where photography and image sharing goes from here depends not just on what industry professionals want – but also on what over a billion smartphone users will get excited about.

Based on new research, there are several directions photography can go.

More Light

One possible direction involves increasing the amount of light information a camera can detect.

“It’s all about getting more information from the image sensor,” explains Abbas El Gamal, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University. His research group has been developing ways to make CMOS sensors both smaller and more sensitive, to be capable of providing depth maps for super-3D image capture.

Though photographs in the near future will still be comprised of people holding cameras, it will gradually become more accurate to say pictures were “computed” – rather than “taken” or “captured.”

But this requires broadening the range of light and motion detectable by the sensor chip inside the camera. “Without information,” says El Gamal, “there is no hope.”


High-definition video is quickly evolving into 3D video. When we think of the past, black and white images may come to mind – when we think of the past in 30 or so years, 2D imagery may be what we see.

Autostereo 3D (which doesn’t require special glasses to combine two images) is being funded by the European Union and focuses on head-tracking technology. Photographic prints are following the trend with head-tracking built into the picture frame.

A few methods already exist for producing stereoscopic 3D images. Several photographers captured 3D images by showing two images in quick succession for Gizmodo’s ‘Wiggle Challenge’:

Payphone, by Dan Marker-Moore

Payphone, by Dan Marker-Moore

I thought this challenge would be a great reason to dust off my Panasonic m4/3 3D lens and shoot some stereo. My latest obsession is payphones and thought that would be an excellent subject. This shot submitted was one 3D photo taken handheld and converted into two alternating frames. This is my first entry into a gizmodo challenge.

– Dan Marker-Moore

Dew, by Bret Bushong

Dew, by Bret Bushong

When I first saw the challenge I knew I wanted to shoot a macro (or as close as I can to macro without a proper macro lens) rather than a landscape. It took me 3 days spending a couple of hours a day to take this. I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be. I had to spray water on the leaves, wait for the perfect drop to form, wait for the wind to stop blowing (I curse you wind), take a few shots, move the camera over and take a few more before the drop of water fell or the wind blew again. I had shots ruined time and time again because I would get the first shot and then have even the slightest breeze blow shaking the water drop from the leaf before I could move the tripod over and line up for the second shot. D90, 18-200 VR, Shot at 105mm, 1/30 sec at f/16, ISO 200.

– Bret Bushong

‘Organic’ Cameras

Some experts predict the use of cameras declining as multiple wireless tasks (including taking photos) shifts to an all-inclusive iPhone-like device. Just like the idea of a single, multifunctional omni-lens for professional photographers.

In a piece for Popular Photography, Ramesh Raskar, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab says “At first, there will be one device for everything. Later it will fragment all over the body, the camera to the eye, the phone and audio to the ear. Some people will have them implanted, some not.”

Organic (carbon-based) compounds may be used to create image sensors and nano-sized photo diodes. Lenses and sensors like these can more easily be formed into spherical shapes, which closely match (or exceed) the functions of a human retina.

Wireless infrastructure could allow us to take physical cameras and phones entirely out of the equation, to be replaced with minuscule implants in our eyes and ears.

You could theoretically compose a photograph by holding out your fingers and thumbs in front of you like you, like you would to check the composition for a photograph or a painting. Activating the shutter might be a simple as saying “Click.”

VR and Beyond

One of the newest frontiers of photography, virtual reality (VR), is starting to have a big impact on how pictures are composed and viewed.

Current technology uses complex multi-imaging sensors and multi-camera arrays to capture images. Paired with sophisticated software that combines video streams and images together, you get an immersive 360 degree virtual experience.

Only recently has VR burst into the photography scene, but expect it to become mainstream in a few short years – especially once consumer products hit the mass market.

Right now, you’ll find several VR cameras on the market that can produce some incredible imagery. The Kodak PixPro SP360 is a great example of an action camera that features a 360 degree hemispherical lens (horizontally).

Kodak PixPro SP360 4K

Kodak PixPro SP360 4K

LG’s 360 Cam is one of the most affordable VR cameras out there, at 200 USD. This dual-lens camera captures VR images that can be transferred through WiFi, Bluetooth, or onto a microSD card.

LG 360 Cam

LG 360 Cam

Another case for VR photography involves photojournalism. In collaboration with Jaunt VR, ABC News recently launched it’s own version of a VR news experience called ABC News VR. The agency created a 360 degree VR report on Syria using multiple cameras to create a panoramic view of Damascus. News stories made in this way will serve to educate and inform viewers in ways like never before.

We might view photography mostly through VR technology in future decades.

Flipping through individual still photos or even scrolling through 2D photo albums online may seem outdated or remarkably quaint in the future. Photos will come to life and become things you don’t just look at – you immerse yourself in an image.

A Shift in the Business of Photography

Global Collaboration Will Become the Norm

Global Collaboration Will Become the Norm

Knowledge Seekers

You may have read about “the collapse of the photography industry” before – digital cameras, the internet, inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras, cell phones …all these things have caused a stir in the world of photography, and caused some professionals to proclaim it’s demise.

Nowadays, we hear the phrase “everyone is a photographer.” In a way, it’s absolutely true!

We will have millions and potentially billions more photographers in the world – everyone with a smartphone camera will compose photos and want to share them.

For some photographers, this signals panic. The market will become over-saturated, professionals will lose their edge, opportunities will become scarcer and more competitive.

But to other photographers, this new change is a huge opportunity.

In a world where nearly everyone owns a camera, nearly everyone will want to learn how to take better photos (or video, or 3D images). This means that the demand for specialized knowledge will skyrocket and things like photography workshops and products that teach people how to use a camera will be in huge demand.

Wealthier amateur photographers will pay top dollar to be taught how to use these devices and create memorable experiences with them. They will want to learn from photographers that inspire them.

The lesson here? There’s always an opportunity with big changes, it just takes some creativity to spot what and where the opportunity is!

Professional Work

As long as the demand is there for images and photographic art produced to specification, there will continue to be a demand for professional photographers.

The tools and technology may change, but demand for technical, journalist, commercial, and studio photography will remain – because these will still require a certain level of expertise.

As of today, no formal training is needed to become a professional photographer – though you inarguably need to hustle and gain a deep understanding of your market and the technology you use. It has also never been easier to share your work and create a business that can reach all corners of the globe and earn you a nice income.

According to Job Outlook, an Australian government website, the prospect of ‘Employment Growth’ for professional photographers remains positive through 2020:

Employment for this occupation rose strongly (in percentage terms) in the past five years and rose strongly in the long-term (ten years). Looking forward, employment for Photographers to November 2020 is expected to grow strongly.”

We’ve been through multiple revolutions in photography already; there is and will be a future for both professional photographers, and for those wanting to make money with just about any sort of photography.

Instant Feedback

Already, we’re seeing photographers who shoot and share their work without the hassle of wires and time-consuming image-to-computer transfers. Soon, nearly every professional photographer on assignment will be able to shoot, edit, backup, and send photos almost instantly.

Wireless tethering allows for freedom of movement without tripping over cables: a huge benefit to sports photographers and professionals shooting on location who want instant uploading capabilities and unrestricted movement.

Imagine you return home after a long day spent shooting a wedding, and your images are already uploaded and organized on your computer. Perhaps you even did some editing adjustments to them on the fly. Sounds great!

Nostalgic Photography

Most cameras will soon look like relics from the past

Most cameras will soon look like relics from the past

With our technological pace moving more rapidly, we’ve begun to see a rise in imbuing styles from the past into photography.

Newer photographic equipment produces sharp images with ever more lifelike realistic detail – yet many photographers alter them with vintage filters and old film presets, creating a mashup of the old and new.

According to digital camera manufacturers, sales have been on the decline for several years as newer, multi-purpose, and more sophisticated products like smartphones and 360 degree cameras enter the market.  According to IDC Research Director Chris Chute, camera makers shipped around 39 million units in 2015. Compare this to 100 million units shipped in the digital camera’s heyday a few short years ago, and you can clearly see the trend.

Digital cameras will soon be thought of as the “film cameras” of the 21st century, and as they fade out of the spotlight and new gadgets take their place, we’ll see the juxtaposition of old and new more sharply.

Our tastes are subjective and vintage-inspired photos have their purpose, but it’s an interesting phenomenon when you look at engineers designing technology for the future only to have photographers use them to create work reminding them of the past.

Collaboration is the New Paradigm

At the American Society of Picture Professionals conference in Boston, Brian Storm talks about the future being full of collaborative efforts.

Brain’s company, MediaStorm, is leading the way for photographers partnering with other professionals to create powerful multimedia stories. These partnerships result in visual storytelling that goes beyond a single image – often with an image or video series that more and more publications are requesting.

Solo photographers and photojournalists may become part of a bygone era as partnerships with NGO’s, businesses, foundations, and the like becomes more of a collaborative effort.

Start Growing Your Fanbase Today

Social Media Marketing

Print publications have undoubtedly faded away in favor of online media. The same can likely be said for online advertising and marketing efforts within the coming years.

Kevin Kelly’s popular blog post titled: You only need 1000 true fans perfectly illustrates the point. You don’t need millions of people to see your work, or a never ending stream of clients to make it as a professional: you need a dedicated group of fans.

If you lived in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you. As far as I can tell there is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base on the internet. Every thing made, or thought of, can interest at least one person in a million — it’s a low bar. Yet if even only one out of million people were interested, that’s potentially 7,000 people on the planet. That means that any 1-in-a-million appeal can find 1,000 true fans. The trick is to practically find those fans, or more accurately, to have them find you.” – Kevin Kelly

Moving forward, this will become more of a necessity for photographers bootstrapping their way into the industry. If you’ve built a relatively small, but dedicated, following for your work, you can reasonably expect some of those people to buy what you’re selling, no matter the price.

This will continue to be a solid way to make a living for visual artists of all kinds and in the long run could likely be the preferred method larger advertisers use to reach a targeted audience. Brands are already using social media influencers to cross-promote products and services between smaller audiences – in the future we may see all the photography-related tech companies paying to access fan networks to market their new products.

Time Marches On

Photographers capture John D. Rockefeller as he arrives in London, 1929

Photographers capture John D. Rockefeller as he arrives in London, 1929

According to Columbia University’s Shree K. Nayar in an interview with Forbes, the future of photography will ultimately be decided by 3 factors:

  • The Market
  • Applications of imaging
  • The Industry that builds the cameras

Companies on the cusp of this industry hope that the growing community of photo enthusiasts will become early adopters of technology such as the 360 degree panoramic photo cameras. We’ve already seen the mass-market adoption of drone technology and drone photography is quickly becoming just as popular.

Perhaps photography will become something akin to the “killer app for VR,” transforming the technology into a mainstream experience that goes far beyond other applications such as gaming and convinces people that VR has very practical uses.

“Ultimately, this is a freight train that’s running, and the question is: when is this train going to stop and take a turn.” Shree K. Nayar

Even if the photography of the future may seem unrecognizable to us, we owe it to the art to support it. We’ll still have the 2D image just like we still cook from scratch in a world full of fast food. All these forms of photography will continue to co-exist, even if new technology adds new players to the game. A new generation of artists and creators will emerge, but the “old arts” will remain in use.

Fred van Leeuwen, a photographer and retoucher based in Cape Town, writes about past revolutions in photography:

“And with all the digital advancements in our modern age. All the people swearing the death of photography is upon us, we still manage to carry on and produce amazing results. Not only did we adapt. We grew in our art form while not forgetting where it all started from.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the lab to go develop some film.”

Our ability to modify and capture visual data may become easier, but this has always been the case with photography as the art has evolved. As more people have access to these new tools, there will be more new and innovative ways to make a living as a photographer. Just like with the film camera revolution, digital cameras, and now widespread smartphone technology, photographers will find new ways to express their art.

“Photography will still be a voice of truth, even as it is easier to manipulate.”  Michael Rubin