Photoshop Blog

The Future of Photography

After reading Stephen Mayes’ essay on the end of photography (Time, 8/25/15) I couldn’t help but respond. To begin with, his main proposition is that “in the future there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’” to which I’d add that I’m not sure there ever really has been much of a ‘straight photograph’ although in recent decades the public has become increasingly aware of this. Ed Weston, photographic pioneer of American Modernism referred to the photograph (in 1932) as a “willful distortion of fact,” and this was long before Photoshop… and the debate as to whether photography was a mechanical reproduction of the real world or whether it was a medium for artists is as old as the technology itself.


Photography has always been enmeshed with technology, but it has never been about it. The changes that Mayes is noticing are nothing new, even if they are dramatic and represent some amazing shifts in what photography can be and who can use it. Photography has also always been a very democratic medium, particularly after 1900. It’s one of the beautiful things about it.

True, however, is that the number of people armed with cameras today has never been greater – in the past 10 years the act has become utterly ubiquitous. But it isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. It’s the second. For the first 50 years of photography (from around the 1850s to 1900s) photographs were reasonably rare and difficult to create. There were photographers, of course, and they were both technical and artistic. But at the turn of the century rolls of film were invented, Kodak arrived, and much to the dismay of photographers everywhere, suddenly EVERYONE could have a camera and take a picture. The term “snapshooter” came into existence, a word borrowed from hunting, meaning shooting without aiming; and the pictures “snap shots”.


Photography has always had many uses, even back then: to document things; to remember something you had seen. It had applications in architecture, in politics, in science and sociology. But as film got faster, and small cameras proliferated, it began to capture things you hadn’t seen—you could freeze time, you could see closely. So as the 19th century wound down, the photographer-artists were interested in proving that photographs could still be art. “Pictorialism” was their response, to make photos very “painterly” and not look like snapshots. (Not entirely unlike digital photo manipulations today, nostalgically creating weathered photos with chemical-like hues.)

But soon there was another response – as Pictorialism combined with a generation of photographers raised on new technologies and a modern post-war mentality: small cameras, fast film, kids raised looking at images. This became “Modernism” – to see things as they really were, but often in unusual ways. They used terms like “pure seeing.” They wanted pictures to look like what they were. The argument of the Modernists was that even a straight photo, something they embraced, was no mechanical reproduction, but rather the conscious construction of the photographer. A photo, by definition, isn’t objective reality. Even an unretouched image. Even if it could often be treated as such.

Photography has always had many practical uses—none of this changes with shift from silver to silicon, or the addition of depth information, LIDAR, biometrics, geotags, and so forth, even as our tools for manipulation of images intensify. If anything it’s just another less gentle reminder that photography has always had the potential for utility, always been malleable in the hands of the photographer. Photography, in addition to all its pragmatic uses, has always been an artform of manipulating and painting with light, where artists show us something true, even if it isn’t always real.

Mayes describes the sanctity of the silver-based photo being corrupted by various forms of digital formats, in particular, the lossy compression formats (like JPEG) as being “reality, but not as we know it,” but it’s worth noting that the human visual system itself is lossy, taking incomplete data and filling in holes. Less than half of what we think of as “seeing” is from light hitting our retinas and the balance is constructed by our brains applying knowledge models to the visual information. We’re on a slippery slope when we denigrate analog media (pictures or sound) as more real than digital ones.

Photographs are poetry; not just in the nature of idiosyncratic creation, but also in the sense that there are different rules, some tacit and some explicit, whereby a photo is created and consumed. The rules of journalism, for instance, include that pixel colors can change a little, to improve visibility, but objects cannot be moved or removed without discrediting the integrity. You can fix the contrast, but you can’t add a tank or move a pyramid, without voiding the warranty so to speak. Advertisement photography, at least historically, could modify images with impunity in the effort to sell the product for which it was designed. Scientists will continue to use imaging for documenting and for exploration: wide spectrum bandwidths provide all sorts of actionable data; hyperfast shutters capture the utterly unseeable. That this is becoming more democratized is wonderful, but is no more a deathblow (or even a shift “from adolescence to adulthood”) for photography than the Leica with a fast shutter was a century ago. Photography is in a perpetual state of shift, now as before.


And artists? They have rules too. I consider myself a Modernist of sorts: I like to create images that are black-and-white, uncropped, unposed, and unlit. My little “Dogme95.” It’s like the 5-7-5 of a haiku—artificial constraints that I enjoy seeing what I can do within. But different poetic constraints, like haiku and limericks and free verse, don’t kill other poetic forms but rather make it more accessible, more fun, more expressive. All the remarkable technology now brought to bear on photography—both to make it more malleable and to put it in more people’s hands, will no doubt have a creative response from the artistic community; and true that more and more people will have the opportunity to explore this medium. “Modernism” was the art community’s response to the new democracy of photography, and even with all the cameras, we got Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind …

The ability to modify images may be easier today (and I work every day to make better photos easier to capture using every bit of data at our disposal), but this has always been a component of photography; I suggest these aren’t new big problems so much as the old small issue has necessarily come to light as more people have access to these tools (both in cameras and the software). The author says that the response from the world is less like Modernism and more like Cubism, but I disagree: I think Modernism is precisely what is occurring—a response to the proliferation of photographic tools to do whatever it is photography can do. Photography will still be a voice of truth, even as it is easier to manipulate.

He says we owe it to photography to support it even as it might seem unrecognizable. I don’t disagree, but I’d be less dramatic about it—there’s no need to put away the 2D framed image any more than we put away the long-form movie in a world of Vines—all of these forms will politely co-exist, even as the family grows. We need to welcome in a new community of creators, and enjoy a new set of uses for imaging. Artist and consumer alike. I, for one, can’t wait to see what will happen.

Michael Rubin

Senior Innovator, Adobe; Photographer; and collector of 20th century Modernist photography.

Inspiration, Lightroom, Photoshop

Join the discussion

  • By Randy Fox - 8:01 PM on August 26, 2015  

    This was a very nicely written piece but I have to admit, it is miss-titled. I read it (twice) because it was very informative but more of a history lesson than a peek into the future. I actually stopped to read this *because* of the title but was a little disappointed when, after reading it, I discovered there were no sneak peeks into the future of photography.
    Again, no intention here of degrading the article or author, however I think anyone who stops to read this based on the title will be dismayed to discover that are no visions on our photography’s future.

  • By George Parker - 9:08 PM on August 26, 2015  

    Excellent article and I believe it does describe the future of photography. A reader needs to read between the lines – that’s where the future is uncovered. We will continue to photograph what interests us and in one respect, it will be business as usual. All that will change is what piques our interests and who knows what the future holds for us there.

  • By Rubin - 9:39 PM on August 26, 2015  

    If you want me to hypothesize about the future, how’s this: the development of the alpha channel (early 70s) changed EVERYTHING about what a digital image could be — RGB without alpha was insufficient. Similarly, pixel information is going to be something like RGB+d (with each pixel owning depth information), such that the rendering can be 2D or 3D and manipulations of every sort, such as computational relighting, will be commonplace. Tools will get easier too, although at first it will still be techie-artisans who master all the new software (much of it through VR/AR). Still, with all of the tech, there will still be art, and photographers choosing constraints they wish to self apply, in order to say something about what they’re seeing.

  • By Mike Nelson Pedde - 11:24 PM on August 26, 2015  

    Well said. It’s also worth noting that as with with most things the future is additive. Yes, we know have Lytro and CSCs or mirrorless cameras stacked up beside cell phones and DSLRs. We also have LF film cameras, a resurgence of instant film cameras and people developing more environmentally-friendly alternatives to tintypes and palladium prints. Most of this is not ‘mainstream’ and nobody’s shooting Kodachrome anymore, but there are more options now for photographers to express themselves creatively than ever before.


  • By Stephen Mayes - 6:49 AM on August 28, 2015  

    Thank you Michael for your thoughtful and rich response. I couldn’t ask for anything more rewarding than such an informed commentary on where we’re at. I wholeheartedly agree that there’s never been a such a thing as a “straight” photo. The common belief in “the pencil of nature” and the delusion that “the camera cannot lie” has given inordinate power to those who controlled the medium for 160 years. During my periods of work in photojournalism I have seen people panic about PhotoShop, to which I say “Good, because now we have a skeptical audience making critical analysis of every image.” It’s late but very welcome.

    I think the key area of difference in our perspectives lies in the application of visual data. If I read your response correctly I think you’re talking about the 2D rectangle of visual data within which context I totally agree with your comments. My observations of current tech developments show me that this is only a thin slice of the data package now integrated into a proliferation of popular apps and specialized technologies. The “image” is only one aspect of much enriched data bundles. This is very different and highly significant in its own right, but as with PhotoShop previously, so these augmented representations will lead to radically different expectations in popular culture. I really don’t think this is about what we in the profession consider important, it’s all about how imagery is received and it won’t be long before the 2D image is perceived as valuable but nonetheless quaint. This is both an opportunity for everyone to engage with imagery in hitherto unimagined ways, and also a threat to those who fail to at least consider the imminent changes in visual culture.

    Here’s to poetry in all its forms. Exciting times!

    • By Rubin - 8:29 AM on September 3, 2015  

      Hi Stephen, and thank you for a really good article and thoughtful note. I pretty much agree with all of this — and yes, i believe even 2D prints (and worse – b&w 2D prints) will be quaint– i’m sure there will be decades (or longer) of nostalgic attraction for that form (not unlike projection of celluloid, opera, 33rpm record players, et al). Some of our work at Adobe involves building technologies for this very “photographically dystopic” realm — imagine taking a hypothetical snapshot which is effectively a 3D video model grab of a scene, and then in “Future Lightroom” you can grab a 2d slice-view to share– where you can adjust your vantage point, the room’s lighting, remove elements, adjust focus, and even shift time to the “right instant”. I’m sure that will feel like photography — it’s still work and creativity to do all of that, and most people won’t do that kind of work. But it definitely will be different!

      Anyway, i appreciate your notes — and enjoy the conversation!

  • By Ellen Boughn - 2:17 PM on August 28, 2015  

    You might be interested to know that ADOBE Stock Photo Head of Content, Scott Braut, will be the keynoter at the DMLA (Digital Media Licensing Association) annual conference in the morning of October 26th in Jersey City, NJ. Stephen Mayes will lead a discussion, titled “Real Photography” at the end of that day with three other photo/technology visionaries .

    • By Rubin - 1:36 AM on September 2, 2015  

      I would love to have gone, but i’m actually speaking that week in Turin Italy about photography and modernism. I’m sure Scott will be great at the conference.

  • By Lawrence Hudetz - 12:39 PM on August 31, 2015  

    I came here from a link in AI-AP ProPhoto Today, to which I have been subscribed for a couple of years or so. I was not impressed with it’s presentation and once I got here, felt immensely relieved.

    I’ve been doing photography steadily since 1959, and occasionally before that, as a teenager. There is some interesting comments by the composer Gustav Mahler about where he stood as a bridge between the 19th and 20th Century. He took it seriously, and if you are acquainted with his music, and that of Stravinsky and Shostakovitch, it makes perfect sense. How even more striking to consider those of us who stand between not only a change in centuries, but millennium.

    It’s fitting to see the awesome changes that have taken place at an accelerating rate, changes that even to an older photographer (I was 63 then) could incorporate and grow, even a sense of release from the constrictions imposed by analog. Today, I push on and get restless waiting for the major update, because I know that a tool or tools will show up that changes everything. (In CC2015, it’s Dehaze. I haven’t even looked at 3D yet!)

    The core issue for me is the fact that photography is not reality. It points to it, becoming it’s own reality, extracting a moment and a view from the undivided whole only to now become a part of the undivided whole.

    I am now re-assessing many of my earlier images, some digital, many analog with the enhanced tools available. Negs particularly that have tantalized me with what is there but not visible show up now. And all along, I envied Adams and Weston in their ability to do so in the darkroom. Of course, I have my own successes in the darkroom, but in many cases, once a paper emulsion disappeared, there went part of my vision.

    I’ve operated for years using a concept I call “The undivided whole”, the reality that unfolds and does not return for a second chance. The photographer breaks into this whole and excerpts a portion; a frame and a time. The completed image become a part of the undivided whole. This process of the undivided whole continues. What we can do with it digitally magnifies and transforms the results of pointing a little box with a bit of glass and a sensitized surface inside at that undivided whole which could only be hinted at during the long analog run since the 1800’s. The result? No less magnificent, and at times, no less banal.

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  • By Web Development - 5:45 AM on September 16, 2015  

    Great Article. Though there is a lot transformationin the photography but still the 2d has its own place.

  • By lukasz - 10:07 AM on September 21, 2015  

    Photography will evolve rapidly in the next decade. While skill is being diluted, technology will increase the possibilities.

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  • By John Austin - 9:48 PM on October 23, 2015  

    Hi Michael and readers,

    For a great discussion on the *REAL* context behind Weston’s remark about straight photography, read Mary Alindar’s book “f64”. She is a photo historian and Ansel Adams’ assistant for the last years of his life. You can also try Weston’s own “Daybooks”. If that doesn’t satisfy, try “Through another lens” – written by Weston’s wife Charis Wilson.
    Read any of those books and you will understand how badly out of context Michael Rubin took Weston’s quote. Edward Weston in fact, believed strongly in “straight photography”. That is, a sharply and accurately rendered print from the original negative with manipulation in the darkroom for the purposes of correcting contrast and exposure only.
    While it is true that the negative can be exposed in such a way as to distort the range of light in the scene being photographed (See “The Monolith” – Ansel Adams’ famous photograph of Half dome), the straight print (or electronic scan)is only manipulated to restore as much as the dynamic range from the negative as possible.
    You won’t find any pictorialist garbage in Weston’s body of work. His stuff was breathtakingly straight.

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