A Picture-Filled World
Photography has advanced a great deal in the last 100 years. While there was a time when you had to sit still for several minutes to have your picture taken, now you don’t even need to buy film. Instead of waiting for pictures to be developed, they can be watched and shared (or deleted) instantly. Each of us carries a camera around in the form of a smartphone, and we fill our free time with images on Instagram and Twitter, where memes and emojis have allowed us to communicate with visuals rather than words. But where will cameras go in the future? Can we build machines that will include the information that normal cameras leave out?
The Limitations of Traditional Photography
When you take a picture, your image only represents one point of view; it reduces life to a fixed plane, which is dependent on the angle at which the photo was taken. This isn’t how we experience the world - we see things in three dimensions, not on a flat plane, and we can alter our point of view by moving. That’s why optical illusions in photos happen: because your perspective is limited by the field of vision presented to you. The camera is only showing partial information based on its capability. Is it possible to take a picture where the perspective of the photo moves and changes to provide more information about its subject?
A more complex type of camera was proposed in 1908 by Nobel Laureate Gabriel Lippman, who suggested photographs that could integrate many small images taken with small lenses and combine them into one. As digital cameras have both increased in power and become less expensive, this sort of “super camera” composed of many smaller cameras became easier to construct, and the fledgling art form of computational photography became possible for an average person, though it requires precision and a great deal of math.
Design of Computational Cameras
The earliest versions of these machines were designed in labs at the university level, and by hobbyists willing to put the time and energy into building a large rig out of ordinary cameras. By taking multiple images of something at different angles, software could then be employed to combine the images into a single “photograph” that contained the necessary information. The right equipment was necessary, but computing ability was also required. The idea was to create cameras that could change position or alter the depth of field after the picture was taken. This could be useful in all sorts of ways; for example, anthropologists could take photos of an object from many angles and examine them in order to learn about artifacts without touching them.
Applications of Computational Photography
Over time, cameras were built specifically for computational photography, but they had to be constructed with a single use in mind. A dome-shaped structure could take photos of a single object from every angle, completely enclosing it. A row of cameras could catch movement to create animated photographs. And a ring design could give a 360-degree view, creating an image that reflected movement and could simulate “turning around” in a single moment.
Virtual Reality and 360-degree Photography
With the rise of virtual reality, the demand for immersive video increased as well. Now there are machines available at the consumer level that allow viewers to experience an event as if they were actually present. You can turn and move in space while a still image or video is projected in front of your eyes, so that your experience with a work of art is different from that of any other person who chooses to view it in a different manner. Some would argue that this is different from traditional photography and a completely separate art form, but it is an exciting space that has yet to be fully explored.
Where Is Photography Going From Here?
There are still many people who construct computational cameras. However, as more and more users shifted to using their smartphones to take pictures, a lot of the development has taken place there, with panoramic image settings and apps programmed to combine several images into a single file. With 3D printing and virtual reality growing in popularity, the future of photography likely will continue to move beyond simple still images and become a more immersive experience.