Earlier I wrote about the particular shortcomings of my camera, the Canon 5D Mark II, mostly concerning issues of durability and usability.
Using a relative basis of comparison, it is an outstanding camera. Judging it in absolute terms though, it, like every other camera on Earth, falls far short. The ways in which it (and every other camera) is deficient extend beyond mere usability, they actually limit creativity. There are shots I can visualize that are either not possible at all or are only possible with an unacceptable level of quality.
There are also some shots today that while technically possible, are extremely tedious (involving exposure blends for dynamic range, selective focus and focus stacking, changing ISO levels for foreground vs. background, extensive noise reduction in post, and other convoluted machinations I would rather not have to worry about).
I’m not going to concern myself with the current limits of technology, affordability, or any other practical concern. Instead I will describe an ideal future state, one in which photographers are only limited by their brain and not the crude instrument they work with – a future with no trade-offs.
A single camera exposure should be able to capture the full range of human vision (this is usually quoted as between 10-14 stops, today most cameras capture less than 10 stops). How that exposure is processed for low dynamic range devices (prints, monitors, etc.) is a separate decision that can be deferred at processing time (as it is today, but using only a single exposure rather than multiple exposures).
Being able to capture the full dynamic range with a single exposure will:
- Eliminate completely the need to bracket exposures for dynamic range for high contrast scenes.
- Eliminate the need for metering. The camera would simply capture the full dynamic range and you can decide in post what parts to use.
- Enable high contrast images with subjects that are likely to move between successive exposures (such as wildflowers, waves, wildlife, humans, or automobiles).
- Eliminate completely the need for GND filters. I don’t use these anymore preferring exposure blends, but there are some cases where a GND is still necessary, such as a high contrast scene with a long (say greater than 30 second) exposure that has cloud movement and a reflection.
- Enable timelapses for high contrast scenes where the contrast ratio changes over time (for example, being able to transition from night, to dawn, to sunrise).
Depth of Field
Focusing and depth of field should be post-processing decisions. Something like this is already underway, so it might not be too long before this is common. The implications of this are far reaching:
- Auto-focus becomes unnecessary.
- Photographers will be able to concentrate on subject, composition, and light, and not worry about focus, even in low-light situations.
- Not only will you be able to easily achieve maximum depth-of-field (often desired in landscapes), but you would be able to, using software, to selectively decide which frames are in focus and which aren’t. You can approximate the same thing today using multiple exposures and exposure blends, or by using a tilt-shift lens, but only to a limited degree, and it’s tedious.
- You will be able to focus-stack using a single exposure, useful to achieve large depth-of-field on moving subjects, or subjects which currently have very limited depth of field (for example, macro subjects).
- Large aperture lenses which are used only for narrow depth-of-field (and not used to decrease exposure times) would no longer be necessary.
Aperture, ISO, and Exposure Times
Aperture and ISO will both be irrelevant in the future.
The primary use of aperture today is to control depth-of-field. That’s no longer necessary with the depth-of-field changes described above. That leaves four other uses for aperture that I can think of: sharpness (diffraction reduction), vignetting reduction (by using smaller apertures), diffraction stars (for the sun, city lights, etc.), and controlling exposure time.
- Sharpness. Usually a lens is at its sharpest stopped down one or two stops from its largest aperture, and diffraction begins to affect sharpness at smaller apertures. This is simple – make the lens equally sharp everywhere! Easier said than done, I know, but I don’t care about what’s easy.
- Vignetting reduction. This one is likewise simple, there should be no vignetting at any aperture.
- Diffraction stars. There could be metadata recorded in the image capture that would allow the diffraction stars to be controlled in post-processing.
This leaves exposure time. Exposure time is also tightly coupled with ISO. Large apertures for short exposure times, small apertures for long exposure times. High ISO for lower exposure times (with increased noise), low ISO for for longer exposure times (and less noise).
Since the only thing left for ISO and aperture is exposure time, we can get rid of both of them, and just set the exposure time.
If I want a five minute exposure of the sun, or a 1/8000th second exposure of the Milky Way, it should just work, and there should be no noise either (if you want noise, add it in post-production). The camera can internally darken bright scenes (think of it as using an internal virtual ND filter), or internally increase the rate at which it captures light (equivalent to the ISO of today, except with no added noise).
What this means:
- No aperture or ISO settings, ever. They’re completely unnecessary.
- Since aperture doesn’t exist, no need to have fast (large aperture) lenses.
- Noiseless night photography. You will be able to have a properly exposed (and non-moving) Milky Way photo with a real foreground with a single exposure.
- Tripods won’t be necessary except for long exposures (this would be possible today if high ISO shots weren’t filled with unacceptable noise).
- You will be able to take static star shots at any focal length (and not worry about star movement) as exposure times can be as small as you want them to be.
- No exposure math!
This one is obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: cameras should have a much much higher resolution. High enough that a wide angle shot of a cityscape should be equivalent to what you would need now by stitching 1,000 separate exposures together. This would allow for single exposure panoramic shots that are large enough to print huge, even after cropping, and also allow for subject movement without blending artifacts.
Some other things that cameras in the future should fix. These don’t affect what shots are possible, but they do affect what shots are easy, and also would allow you to maximize opportunities.
- Only one lens: You should never have to switch lenses, ever. One lens (or whatever this magical future thing will be called) should cover all necessary focal lengths, from super-wide and fisheye, to macro and super-telephoto. Having to switch lenses doesn’t affect creativity, but it does limit your opportunities (you are physically limited by how much weight you can carry, and also how quickly you can switch lenses if, say, a wildlife subject is nearby when you were shooting wide angle landscape photos). This would also solve the sensor dust problem.
- Size: Cameras should be small and light weight, even with the single lens and the higher resolution.
- Polarizer Filters: A polarizer filter should be built in to the camera, and you should be able to turn it on, off, and rotate it as necessary.
- Weather Sealing: The camera should be able to shoot in extreme weather conditions, including sand storms, low temperatures, pouring rain, waterfall spray, and be able to handle temperature variances without condensation destroying the camera. While we’re dreaming, let’s make it capable of taking photos underwater without needing any additional apparatus.
- Rain deflector: The camera should have a built in rain deflector so I can shoot waterfalls without having to wipe the lens all the time.
- No memory cards: The camera should be able to upload images it takes in real time to an off-site redundant storage on the internet, eliminating the need for memory cards altogether. Obviously this requires other infrastructure to be in place not related to cameras, but it will happen eventually.
There are currently three variables in play that affect exposure: exposure time, aperture, and ISO. Of these the only one that needs to be determined in the field should be exposure time. Depth of field should be a post processing decision (eliminating need for aperture). The camera should be able to automatically darken or brighten the subject as necessary, with no noise penalty (eliminating the need for ND filters and ISO). A single exposure should be able to capture all dynamic range, eliminating the need for metering and exposure bracketing.
All of this would open up a new range of creative possibilities. Long exposures with narrow depth of field, short exposures with high depth of field, selective focus for moving subjects, gigantic prints of dark subjects like the Milky Way with no noise, the list is endless.
I probably won’t be around to see all of this materialize, but I’ll definitely be around to complain about it until it does!