Technologists often refer to a scientific observation famously known as Moore’s Law, which originally referred to the rate of increase in the number of transistors in an integrated circuit. Specifically, the observation was that the number of transistors doubles every two years. Over time, this observation has been extrapolated to include many other technical components, such as CPU power, memory capacity, and yes, megapixels. There’s an interesting 2009 article on Luminous Landscape where the writer posited that the digital camera megapixel war was effectively over, citing 22 megapixels as being pretty close to the high water mark at the time. He went on to caution that part of the reason megapixels couldn’t continue to increase is that lenses couldn’t handle the resolution, based on “the limitations on the wavelengths of light.” 8 years on from that prediction, multiple 50+ Megapixel cameras on the market are more than double the 22MP red zone the writer described. That said, I won’t argue the writers’ knowledge of physics, but I would suggest that the impact of Moore’s Law on photography is proving to be more relevant to a different component of the camera: the processor.
Megapixels aside, CPU advancements are enabling cameras to shoot multiple still images in bursts that were unheard of in 2009. Take the Sony RX100 V, for example; a camera roughly the length and height of a credit card. Of course, the camera features a 20MP 1″ sensor, but the truly impressive spec is the number of frames per second (24!) that can be shot at continuous auto-focus and auto-exposure. Ok, “so what”?, you might say. That’s a 1″ sensor. What about full frame? At the time of that 2009 Luminous Landscape article, the 22 MP Canon 5D Mark II boasted a continuous AF speed of 3.9 frames per second. 8 years later, the 24MP Sony a9 features a continuous AF speed of 20 frames per second (for up to 150 frames), more than 5 times the 2009 predecessor. Stay with me here, I’m rounding third base to get to my point. Cinema films typically use a frame rate of 24fps. Think about that for a second: conceivably, within the next few years, consumer grade digital cameras will be able to shoot full resolution stills at the speed of video. So, just imagine being able to make a film that you can watch on your 8k television screen – or individual frames from that film that you can pluck out and hang on a gallery wall.
The crunching of bits needed to achieve this performance primarily comes down to the image CPU on the camera. Combine that with the effect of Moore’s Law on the price of computer memory and instead of waiting for that one, spellbinding moment while photographing on the streets, in a wedding, or at a sporting event, photographers will be able to simply record full resolution video and select the best frame (albeit from culling thousands of frames) for a still image, taking the whole notion of “spray and pray” to a new level. Is this a recipe for laziness, or a new model for efficiency? It probably depends on who you ask. For a wedding photographer, tasked with both delivering a production quality video as well as perfectly timed still images, the next quantum leap in technology could be a boon for business and likely makes logical sense. The same could be true for conflict photographers as well as sports and event shooters. For the casual street photographer, however, standing on a corner for prolonged periods focused in on random strangers could well take perceptions of creepiness and intrusion to new heights, not to mention completely taking the joy out of making images, if you are anything like me.
Personally, most of my photography is slow and deliberate. For example, my cityscape images frequently involve painstakingly wrapping my tripod mounted DSLR and lens in a black canvas cloth, mounting a heavy neutral density filter on the lens, checking and rechecking focus 5 or 6 times, and tweaking exposure settings constantly before pressing the shutter. A day shooting street photography, by contrast, does not require much other than my manual focus rangefinder, which likely never reaches a top speed of more than 1 frame every few minutes. The process for both approaches is very different, but I actually crave the slowness of each. That’s because, while the final images are what others will judge my photography by (and, of course, I do sell and exhibit my work) it’s the therapeutic nature of the complete process – the personal sense of craftsmanship – that I judge my desire to create photography by. I have neither need nor desire to shoot fast, and moving slowly is part of the reason I love what I do. So as the rate of change in technology continues to add horsepower to our tools, I’m aware of the risk that I could lose the thing that most makes me want to pick up a camera in the first place. In my case, the journey – for the most part – is the destination. And I think I’m just fine with that.