The impact of technology on photography

Top view of photo and video equipment on wooden table, action cam and accessories prepared for shooting.

From the first Kodak camera with its preloaded film to today’s innovative digital cameras in smartphones, photography has undergone technological sea changes since its emergence 195 years ago. From more powerful lenses to more mobile and sturdy camera bodies, today’s photography technology has democratized the taking and sharing of high-quality photos.

Read on to discover more about the innovations powering today’s photography pioneers.


Once the purview of the world’s most powerful militaries, drone photography has evolved into an affordable and highly adaptable medium embraced by professionals and hobbyists alike.

Mat Rick is a photographer and videographer based out of San Francisco and New York and someone who keeps a close eye on the constantly evolving field of camera technology. Not only has drone photography become more readily available, he says, it’s also grown more powerful. “It's great to see drone cameras catch up to the sensor sizes and sensitivities of other pro cameras, making the usage of drones something that extends beyond just capturing video clips, but also legit aerial photos,” Rick explains.

Add shrinking drone sizes and the addition of flight sensors, which makes flying them easier, and, Rick says, “We're seeing shots that were previously impossible or at least extremely expensive.”

Smart cameras

Like camera-equipped drones, smart cameras developed first as costly and highly technical surveillance devices before making their way to the general public in a cheaper and easy-to-use format. Today, these largely plug-and-play cameras come equipped with powerful image sensors that allow them to track movement and capture photos all on their own — then upload them straight to your phone. For busy parents, this can mean sitting down at the end of each day and scrolling through family photos that actually include them for once.

360 cameras

The first 360 camera arrived on the scene in 1904. The unwieldy device sat on a tripod and could produce a single negative measuring upwards of 24 square feet. Known as the Cirkut, its 360 degrees capabilities remained largely theoretical as most users opted for straightforward panoramas instead. Fast forward to today, and pocket-sized cameras with powerful sensors mean photographers are suddenly able to transport viewers to the peak of Mt. Everest to underwater caves — all in 360.

Higher resolution

The first digital camera, developed by Kodak in 1975, had a resolution of just 0.01 megapixel. Compare that to the 24 mpx standard in many of today’s digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Besides creating better and more detailed images than their predecessors, these high pixel cameras also spur competition and innovation —even mid-tier DSLRs and smartphone cameras are packing a stronger digital punch. Take Apple’s iPhone 13: released in 2021, the phone comes with a 12 mpx camera. That’s a full 10 million pixels more than the very first iPhone, released in 2007.

Pei Ketron is a photographer and product marketing manager for Adobe. The way she sees it, there’s a diminishing point of returns when it comes to resolution. “There are DSLRs these days that have a ton of megapixels almost to the point where you don't really need that much information,” she says. Maybe if you’re looking to print an image on a billboard or sell “ultra-fine” art prints, those extra pixels might come handy. “But for most people out there,” she says, “the megapixels available in a smartphone are entirely adequate.”

Better sensors, bigger phone memories, and the advent of computational photography have all contributed to this proliferation of pixels — and in turn the ability for millions of us to capture high-quality photos of everyday moments.

Increases in camera sensitivity

Together with the rise in resolution has been an increase in the range of camera sensitivity to light, with the settings on today’s digital cameras that brighten or darken a photo, generally running from about 200 ISO to 1600 ISO. For those with the extra cash, those spans can start as low as 50 (which supposedly means less “noise” in the photograph) and reach as high as 4 million (which is for extreme low light shooting).

This kind of expansion in sensitivity has thrown the doors wide open on low-light photography as a genre, Rick says. “The previous requirements for carrying lighting gear, or at least powerful lighting gear, has decreased,” he says. “This has allowed professional photographers to be more nimble, travel lighter, and get more creative while also opening up the field to amateur photographers to get shots and do jobs that previously required a larger investment in gear.”

Not to be outdone, smartphones increasingly come equipped with manual ISO adjustments, with phones like the Huawei P40 Pro, which advertises an ISO of 409,600.

Boosting a camera’s sensitivity can come with drawbacks, however — namely fewer details and increased grain. According to Ketron, smartphone makers are aware of the issue, and are making strides to address it. “What we've seen is that over time the smartphones have improved the quality of their low light performance,” she says.

Case in point: Up until recently, Ketron relied on a third-party app to capture clean night shots. Not anymore: “Now all I need to do is switch into night mode.”

This combination of increased resolution and sensitivity has transformed the way Rick, too, uses his smartphone’s camera. “Whereas a few years ago, I often carried a smaller, portable camera as a way to get photos on the go,” he says, “I now have no problem relying completely on my phone's camera.”

The reason for this goes back to what he’s now able to do with photos he’s captured on his phone. “One of the biggest factors was editing smartphone images,” he explains. “But now with the better sensors leading to better dynamic range, as well as the ability to capture raw data for both stills and — more recently — motion, it's become much easier to edit those files in a way I’m happy with.”

WiFi connected cameras

WiFi-enabled cameras dropped on the photography scene in 2005 in the form of user-friendly point-and-shoots. Since then, it’s become a basic feature designed to eliminate the need for photographers to first transfer their memory card into a computer before accessing them outside of their camera.

Storage and sharing capabilities

For Rick, this addition of WiFi has been “huge” for simplifying his workflow as a professional photographer. “I used to export a few images on the fly to my phone to edit and post or send to clients,” he says. “Now you can even tether most cameras to WiFi for remote client monitoring or transfer.” If there’s any downfall to this, it’s that these kinds of transfers can shorten his camera’s battery life. “But that’s a pretty small price to pay for the benefits.”

WiFi-enabled cameras are equally handy for those looking to post quickly and directly to social media. “You can send photos over to your phone, edit them on your phone, and post them on social media,” Ketron says. The self-contained process is fast, easy, and “important for a lot of people” for whom social media is the top destination for their work.

Finally, by allowing users to share their work instantaneously with themselves, WiFi connectivity can help simplify the process of storing photos in the cloud.

The future of photography tech

Advancements in photography technology continue to open new frontiers of visual storytelling to people of all backgrounds. Ketron sees this especially when it comes to smartphone photography. “It’s democratized photography, making it available to the masses, who don’t need any sort of deep technical knowledge about cameras,” she says. “They just need to know how to point and push a button.”

Virtual reality

Virtual reality photography, which can include augmented reality, is a quickly evolving field with a growing list of applications. Interactive floor plans allow homebuyers to pace the hallways of listed properties from their computer or mobile device. With a few clicks, tourists can explore Yosemite. Future pilots, meanwhile, can explore the inside of a Boeing 747’s cockpit. All of these merely scratch the surface of a technology still very much in its infancy and promises to unlock experiences that would otherwise remain inaccessible to many.

Specialized phone camera lenses

Advancements to phone camera technology show no signs of slowing down. In particular, expect to see developments around the front-facing camera. To date, phone makers have yet to fully solve the puzzle of how to build in a more robust lens without it taking up display space. The answer may already be here, however, with companies like Oppo experimenting with implanting the camera under the phone’s screen.

Artificial intelligence and photography

From facial recognition to the automatic blurring of backgrounds, AI is increasingly making its way into photographers’ workflows — helping to create better photos and eliminate repetitive tasks in the process. And as lens sensitivity and sensor power start to bump up more and more against physics’ limits, the role of AI in improving image quality is going to grow. As time goes on, photographers are likely to see AI step in more and more to automatically adjust white balance, color, blur, and other features, and in doing so improve the overall quality of each image taken.