The Decade in Review: Top 10 Photo Innovations of the 2010s

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Now that it’s 2020, we finally have perfect vision for our look back at everything that occurred in the 2010s. It was an important and fast-moving decade for the photography technology industry, with innovations in digital imaging moving just as quickly as in the computing industry. Even though the decade feels like a blur now, let’s take a look back at the top 10 photo-related technologies that happened over the past 10 years.

1. Mirrorless Cameras

What we know as a mirrorless camera first came to fruition in 2008 with the Panasonic G1, but mirrorless truly hit its stride in the 2010s. Usurping SLRs as the most popular form of interchangeable-lens cameras on the market, mirrorless cameras are obviously here to stay and are the style of camera where most manufacturers are investing their attention and resources. Like any other new, groundbreaking technology, mirrorless cameras were initially polarizing as their performance took a few years to catch up to the mighty DSLR, but it’s hard to argue anymore that they are not just as competent in a majority of applications, even bettering DSLRs’ capabilities in many ways. It will be interesting to see how mirrorless matures in the 2020s.

2. Video

Just like mirrorless, video became a touted feature on photo-intended cameras as early as 2008 with the Nikon D90, but in the 2010s it became an obligatory, if not the key, feature for the development of many cameras. Just as the world of image-making in general has been evolving, with journalism, commercial imaging, art-making, and nearly any other field of communication having grown to be more multimedia oriented, the cameras themselves have also evolved to meet these photo-video hybrid demands. In the early stages, video capabilities were an add-on and novel feature to complement the photo functions, but now, as 2020 begins, it’s one of the key selling points of most cameras, and photo-spec’d cameras are even beginning to encroach on video-specific cameras’ territory. Will there stand to be much of a difference between the cameras used for the two mediums in the next decade?

3. Smartphones

Love them or hate them, smartphones are possibly the single most impactful technology to the world of photography in the last decade. Despite many photographers arguing that they “aren’t even real cameras,” smartphones, like the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy phones, have revolutionized what we now expect from a camera. Smartphones have nearly displaced an entire sector of camera type (compact point-and-shoots) and are now the most popular type of camera in the entire world. They are the true “camera you always have with you.” While the iPhone debuted in 2007 and smartphones as a concept have been around since the 1990s/early 2000s, the modern do-everything with an advanced camera system is purely a product of the 2010s. It will be interesting to see how much further the photo technology can be pushed in a smartphone over the next decade, and whether these devices will stand to further diminish the market share of standalone cameras.

4. CMOS Sensors

CMOS sensors are not unique to the 2010s and were certainly in place during the 2000s, but this last decade has seen the gradual demise of CCDs and led to a now near-monopoly of CMOS-type sensors. It’s very difficult to find a photo camera at B&H today with a CCD sensor, with all of them being entry-level point-and-shoots and extremely high-end medium format digital backs. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in the fine details of semiconductor development, but I can say, from a practical standpoint, that nearly all photographers have benefitted from this overwhelming switch to CMOS. These sensors consume less power than CCDs; they have faster read speeds and reduced lag; they are less expensive; and they are simpler to implement into an imaging system. They have given way to all of the video capabilities we are afforded with modern digital cameras and especially with back-illuminated technology, the high ISO performance everyone enjoys. Stacked and layered sensors are also bringing a new level of speed to focusing and continuous shooting and are helping prime the mirrorless camera for sports photography. The cons, however, relate to the lack of a global shutter and the presence of rolling shutter distortion…but for most photography applications, the benefits of a CMOS far outweigh those of a CCD.

5. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

Something most people already take for granted, the presence of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in cameras is an innovation that cannot be understated and is something that will continue to be important into the 2020s (when, if we’re lucky, all wires will disappear). These wireless methods of connectivity are so important because they open up the world of photography to match our general image- and content-viewing habits, namely, via social media. Rather than having to wait a day or two to develop and print your film; rather than having to wait till the end of the day to return to your desktop to unload your memory card; and rather than having to open your laptop to preview your photos, wireless connectivity means you can simply pull your smartphone out of your pocket, connect it to your camera, transfer the photos, and share your image with millions in an instant. It’s pretty amazing when you think that this was essentially an impossible feat just 10 years ago.

6. (Instant) Film

It’s funny to write a “top innovations of the decade” piece, which is mainly focused on all of the new digital tech of the last 10 years, and then confidently add “film” to it. Film, the key medium that digital has been trying to replace over the last 20 or so years, has taken on a new level of popularity in the last decade and carved out a unique but serious niche in the world of photography. Film isn’t really a new technological innovation, but its presence as something exciting and fresh is a new idea. FUJIFILM, Polaroid Originals (née Impossible), Kodak, Ilford, and many others have had to work at innovating film photography from a branding and marketing standpoint since the technological end of the process had been figured out many years ago. And the funny thing is, for the most part, they succeeded. In the mid-2010s, instant film was one of the hottest-selling photography products in the entire industry…and that’s not just including film products; it was more popular than most digital cameras during the holiday seasons. Film has taken on the guise of being something that is more fun, more playful, and more covetable, and hopefully these assets will continue to cement film’s presence well past the 2020s.

7. Full-Frame

Full-frame has recently become the most popular, or at least most talked about, sensor format. It’s a funny “innovation” to point out because it derives from something so old. Full-frame sensors are modeled after the image format of most 35mm film cameras and subsequently have made the use of older lenses more reasonable since the focal lengths match in terms of fields of view. The interesting thing, though, is that full-frame sensors are a newer innovation and succeed a long line of cameras with smaller sensors as the professional standard. Even though full-frame sensors have been around since 2002, they didn’t become popular until 2005 with the Canon EOS 5D and 2008 with the Nikon D700. It took until the 2010s for more full-frame models to enter the scene, most notably in 2013 when Sony unveiled their first a7-series cameras. Since then, full-frame has become a standard of sorts, an expectation in so-called “high-end” cameras, and is a technology most people are still striving for. It’s a new standard in the photo world, and despite the capabilities and prevalence of APS-C sensors, full-frame is now the more coveted format by most.

8. In-Body Image Stabilization

Likely the most niche innovation in this list, I’d like to posit that in-body, or sensor-shift, image stabilization has been one of the most defining technological innovations for camera development in the last decade. It’s the simplest topic in this article, too; it’s a technology designed to help reduce the appearance of camera shake. It started popping up in a few cameras in the late 2000s but became a mainstay feature in the mid 2010s or so. Compared with optical/lens-based image stabilization, sensor-shift image stabilization is a newer development and arguably more important since it can be used with any mounted lens. It opens up new possibilities for where and when we can take clear, shake-free photographs without the need for additional specialized equipment.

9. Selfies

Sorry I have to include this, but it’s true—selfies are one of the most important “innovations” in photography in the 2010s. Especially when you consider photography outside of “photography,” the rise of selfies throughout the past decade has signaled a change in how we view and choose to portray ourselves using new recording and communication mediums. Beside the fact that selfies and Instagram go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly, selfies have also spurred camera manufacturers to revise the physical designs and capabilities of their cameras to suit this form of self-portraiture. Tilting screens, in-camera skin-smoothing modes, selfie sticks, and even vlogging are all consequences and subsequent innovations of this new fascination with ourselves.

10. Drones

Finally, I’d like to end my list with a topic I’m sure will continue to grow wildly over the next decade: drones. Up until a few years ago, the word “drone” typically sparked thoughts of secret military aircraft. Nowadays, it has taken on a much friendlier tone with consumer-grade unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones have moved from being extremely expensive and specialized pieces of equipment to widely accessible and common imaging tools that are being used to open new doors in how we photograph subjects. We’re no longer relegated to working from the ground; drones are our first real, in-use technology to tap into the childhood expectation of flying cars. It’s exciting to see how drones have been used in the few years they’ve been available, and it’s even more exciting to think of how they will be used as their technology continues to evolve and become even more accessible.

Those are my top 10 photo innovations of the 2010s. Did I miss any key points from the last decade? Let me know in the Comments below what you think are some of the most technologically important moments from the last 10 years.

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