What we can learn from the history of tech in photography [Episode 3]

02 Oct 2020 by Joy Habib

Digital photos, smartphones, photo manipulation, AI… These are just some of the tech breakthroughs that have turned the world of photography on its head. Meero stands at the intersection between technology and photography. We often reflect on the history of these tech revolutions and how they were first perceived. As tech enthusiasts, we see these innovations as great opportunities. But we also know that big changes often come with their share of fears. Our teams wonder about the impact that these changes can have on professionals and the general public alike and strive to understand them from a historical perspective. 
In this series of four episodes, we’re revisiting the big revolutions that changed the history of photography… and the many controversies they brought about.

Catch up on the first two episodes : 

The invention of photography

Digital photography

Episode 3: Photography and the Internet

147,000 photos are uploaded to Facebook every minute. And we’re not even talking about Snapchat, Pinterest, or TikTok…

We could go on about the importance of social media in our daily lives. We’ve got the stats to prove it: 347,222 Instagram stories per minute, 459,360 new Twitter users every day. But we all know that already. 

These apps are staples of our lives: they allow us to stay in touch with those we care about and to keep up to date. And what do we see when we spend endless hours scrolling through our feeds? Photos! Visual content reigns supreme on the web, whether it’s produced by amateurs, journalists, graphic designers, or artists. And more often than not, these photos and videos were shot on smartphones. 

Smartphones and social media go hand in hand. These two revolutions in the world of communications have triggered the downfall of the point-and-shoot camera, an icon of the early 2000s. The Internet Of Things has turned the world of photography on its head. 

In previous episodes, we have talked about the artistic and economic issues that have shaped the history of photography. Brace yourselves for a newcomer that will shake things up: the Internet. 

If it has a ringtone, it’s not a camera   

The year is 2011. Just a few days before the passing of Steve Jobs, Apple launched its 5th generation iPhone, the 4S. On the surface, nothing too revolutionary. The iPhone 4 had paved the way for the selfie era with its innovative frontal camera. By 2011, mobile phones were already a force to be reckoned with in the world of photography. Most photos uploaded on Flickr, the most popular photo-sharing platform at the time, were shot with an iPhone.  

But the iPhone 4S was a technological revolution. For the very first time, a mobile phone could compete with cameras from a technical standpoint. In its review of the 4S, the magazine Digital Trends calls it the “point-and-shoot killer.” And the reason is simple: it could take 8-megapixels photos and shoot videos in 1080p HD. 

2011 is also the year when sales of point-and-shoot cameras begin to drop. After peaking at 120 million item ships worldwide in 2010, the sales will plummet to 35 million in 2015. 

The launch of the iPhone 4S put an end to a long-lasting rivalry between smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras. Like analog cameras before them, point-and-shoots had rallied against the threat of a new-comer taking over their industry. Those who once were the pioneers of photography are now campaigning against smartphones, accusing them of not performing well: “If it has a ringtone, it’s not a camera!”

Smartphones had already won the battle of connectivity: attempts to sell cameras with a WiFi connection had proven inconclusive. Consumers massively swayed towards mobile phones, finding them more convenient as they allowed them to share photos via MMS. By improving the photo quality of their iPhone cameras, Apple went against the last stronghold of traditional photography. A few years later, Apple is still making the same point: its “Shot With iPhone” campaign aims at proving that its photos are on-par with professionally shot images.


Apple iPhones might be iconic, but they weren’ the first phones to be equipped with a camera. The J-SH04 was launched as early as 2000 by the Japanese company Sharp. The gadget is a big hit: “When you have caught the image, fire up your personal SkyMail service, and you can send the pictures electronically to anybody else who has got one of these phones,” marveled a BBC journalist

What are these devices for, exactly? The BBC polled their readers by asking them what they would make of these new and improved gadgets if they could get their hands on one. The answers are striking: they predict some of the most lucrative and disruptive uses we make of smartphones and digital photography. 

“I could see it being a great way of shopping for clothes on a wide scale,” says Lizz. “No longer would girls have to go in groups, they could each scout out the good outfits, send pictures, and compare prices.” She also predicts the rise of online dating. “Set your friends up on dates and send instant pictures to potential mates.” For another respondent named Chris, mobile phones are a convenient way to send pictures to insurance companies after an accident. Another respondent says he hates having to carry multiple gadgets “If it is integrated with the phone, as should the organizer and the browser, that would be just so cool.”

These testimonies go to show the rising need, at the turn of the millennium, for the Internet of Things. The expression “Internet of Things” designates objects whose primary usage is augmented by the benefits of connectivity: it can send and receive data. Smartphones are the very first IoT cameras, and consumers are quick to adopt them. They generalize new uses of photography that go beyond art, journalism, or personal archives.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

New networks for photos 

How many photos in your phone gallery were shot to be shared with someone else? Did you capture a funny situation in order to show your friends? Did you shoot a nice landscape to post on Instagram? 

Social networks allow us to share our experiences with our friends and acquaintances through long-lasting or temporary content: whether you’re building an Instagram feed for the ages or posting stories that you will delete the morning after. All it takes is a few clicks to receive immediate feedback. Our cameras have a new function now. They are the tools that allow us to say “I was there!” and prove that we’ve participated in various social events: holidays, concerts, parties...  It’s no longer just about preserving precious memories in our personal archives (these precious Kodak Moments that were presented by the company of the same name). 

But Kodak is the first company to have had the intuition of the photo-sharing market that social networks such as Instagram will later tap into. In a Harvard Business Review essay, Scott D. Anthony explains that the famous photo company had, back in 2001, created a photo-sharing platform called Ofoto. For Scott D. Anthony, the failure of this initiative can be explained by Kodak’s insistence on making their consumers print out their photos instead of embracing the digital age. 

Beyond the social sharing, Instagram’s photo filters were an important factor in the success of the platform. Anyone can, without any technical knowledge, retouch their images and make them more flattering. Which, in turn, opens up new debates: can we trust the photos we see? Advances in artificial intelligence make computational photography even more powerful. 

But it’s not just about retouching. The future of photography depends on the power of algorithms. The most powerful cell phones have reached a plateau in the performance of their physical components and now rely on the computational power of their programs to outperform their competitors.

Read the next episode to know more about that:

What is computational photography?

Sources : 

Lee Shu, How Digital photography reinvented itself to become better than ever, Digital Trends, 2010

The BBC, Taking photos with your phone

Scott D. Anthony, Kodak’s Downfall Wasn’t About Technology, Harvard Business Review, 2015

The Guardian, I-phone 4S launched by Apple

Domon Data Never Sleeps

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