Image Trends, Technology, Bokeh, and the Future

While I'm not as up on the history of photography as I'd like to be, it is quite interesting to me the way that photography (like any aesthetic pursuit) seems to follow trends, and those trends are influenced as much by technology as by taste.

For instance, in the early days, the quality and sensitivity of film was so low (i.e. less than ISO 25) and lens technology so relatively primitive that the only way to get enough light was through the use of large format film view cameras. Getting sufficient depth of field to take a photograph that accurately depicted a scene with sufficient detail was a real challenge, because even a lens that we would consider very slow today (say, f/8) would have just a sliver of DOF at portrait distance on an 8x10" sheet film. So when you consider the technology of that era, you can end up with something like the Ansel Adams and the Group f/64 who tried to realistically present the world in an objective fashion (partly through using very small apertures to achieve large depth of field!). Even with 35mm film cameras, the tendency among most photographers was to use the smallest aperture they could manage in order to accurately document the scene, unless they were after a very specific portrait effect. Small DOF was never really something you needed to try hard to get.

Fast forward into the future where you have an explosive growth in small-format photography, both in film (i.e. 8mm video cameras in the 80s) and later in digital, where early CCD and CMOS sensors were so prohibitively expensive that most people could only afford tiny-chip point & shoots. This effect has been redoubled as camera phones and smartphones with 1/3" sensors (or smaller) are now so abundant and take surprisingly good photos (in terms of accuracy and detail). When surrounded by the ubiquity of very good small-format images that can't really achieve small DOF, the reaction then is to pursue something different and novel. This is where the democratization in pricing surrounding DSLRs (and mirrorless cameras) starts to come into play. Now, you could get large sensors for not much more money than a decent point-and-shoot, and with it the new creative possibilities for controlling depth of field. The term bokeh had been used with some regularity since the late 1990s, but now it was the catch-phase of the day! Now people wanted creamy blur, and become obsessed with the character of the out-of-focus areas, sometimes even more than the subject itself! Bokehlicious images were hip - even if the subject wasn't particularly interesting - because they were something that required different (better?) gear to capture, and could differentiate the image maker.

You can see similar trends (and reactionary counter-trends) with lomography and the lo-fi aesthetic. Film nostalgia combined very well with the the noisy, low dynamic-range images that came out of small-sensor smartphone cameras, and you end up with the birth of the effect filter and the rise of Instagram and Hipstamatic. And predictably, there's already a backlash against filters, even among smartphone users. With an increasing pace of technology comes an increasing pace to visual trends...

So what's next? Well, it looks like mainstream technology may be coming again to ruin everyone's trendy party. With the advent of light-field photography (like Lytro) and cheap, multi-sensor smartphone cameras like the Toshiba dual-cam unit, or the predicted Pelican Imaging array sensor, now even the tiny-sensor crowd can enjoy creamy out-of-focus selection. Even if it's partly digitally simulated, the effect will be instantly recognizable, and will usher in a new democracy of bokehtography.

So where does that lead the visual trends of the future? Well, the ISO wars are alive and kicking, and with the new A7s garnering the attention that it has, perhaps ultra-low-light will be the catchword of the future. Candle-lit portrait photography, anyone? (Un)available light shooting? Besides a renewed focus on the fundamentals of good composition and image-making (heaven forbid), how will the internet photographers differentiate themselves with just a million good pixels to play with?

(This rambling post should be taken with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek tone, and I don't really mean to make fun of anyone. I just think that the relationship between technology and aesthetics is a really fascinating one, and this is just my interpretation. I'd love to hear what other people think about the subject, and I hope it's the start of an interesting discussion!)