When I leave for work, my iPhone, sensing me leaving the driveway, tells my house to lock my doors, drop the temperature, turn off the lights and close my blinds. My house checks the weather forecast on the Internet, and since it’s going to be a hot, sunny day, my lawn sprinklers are activated in order to water my lawn before the sun heats things too much. My washing machine checks the energy rates and starts a wash cycle while electricity prices are low.
Arriving at my desk, I want to take some of the photos on my camera and send them to friends. Surely, in an era where my phone, house and even my appliances are constantly connected to each other, it should be easy to get pictures off the camera, but instead, it’s a physical process that involves plugging in the camera or putting a card in a reader, copying files to the computer and then using some other software to get them to a myriad of different services.
Working in the field is even worse. Trying to connect strobes requires a bag full of cables and transmitters, none of which talk to each other. Want to trigger a PocketWizard-compatible Dynalite with nothing but an Elinchrom Skyport controller? You’re out of luck.
The “Internet of Things” is coming, a term that refers to the addition of wireless communications to everyday objects, allowing them to talk to each other and improve our lives by sharing data. Appliance manufacturers are working hard to make our toasters and our cars and our air conditioners work with each other, so why are our cameras—which essentially are portable computers—so far behind our major appliances? What would camera companies—and the computer and accessory companies they work with—need to do to usher in a new era of the connected camera?
Luckily, I’ve been fuming over the gaps in camera technology in photography for decades, so I have some suggestions.
First, let’s look at the various standards that may or may not be found in a camera you buy today.
There are several primary connectivity standards in use today—some wired and some wireless—and they’re familiar to anyone with a mobile phone or computer.
On the wireless front, there are WiFi and Bluetooth, both with various different flavors of each, mostly that determine data transfer speeds. Typical wired connections include USB, Ethernet, HDMI and Thunderbolt. Again, each has different versions of the standard, often with different types of connectors.
USB is most often found in the older, slower USB 2.0 standard. Only higher-end cameras have USB 3.0, and then there are several different connectors one might encounter. Ethernet is found on some pro cameras; Thunderbolt has yet to arrive on pro cameras and is only on one video camera.
WiFi comes in different speed standards from the original consumer 802.11b (up to 11 Mb/sec.) to the current 802.11ac (up to 780 Mb/sec.). Bluetooth is up to Version 4.0—much faster than previous versions. There’s also a low-energy version of Bluetooth used by things like the Apple Watch (part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard), which allows devices to communicate while using very little battery power.
Then we have a technology called NFC, short for near field communication, which allows for easy setup of data transfer between devices that are close to each other. This is what allows people to buy a Coke at a vending machine simply by tapping their cell phones to it. Several cameras have NFC, but its use isn’t widespread in cameras or in computing.
Bluetooth, which is in everything from headsets to phones to watches, is conspicuously absent from cameras. While Bluetooth is slow at data transfer—it tops out at about half the speed of USB 2.0—it’s still ubiquitous and would be handy in a world of standards, which I’ll talk about below.
And, for geo-location, there’s GPS, of course, which is found on every phone on the market, as well as some laptops, but is missing from most cameras.
Look at the camera market and you’ll find a strange implementation of these protocols. Many consumer cameras have GPS, and sometimes have WiFi, and they usually have USB 2.0 connectivity. Professional cameras rarely have WiFi or GPS, but usually have USB 3.0 connectivity, and sometimes Ethernet jacks and HDMI.
Of those that do have WiFi, very few use it for direct transmission of images. Usually, the WiFi is constrained to transmission of images from camera to phone or from camera to computer. Capture a photo in the field, and even if you’re surrounded by a high-speed WiFi access point, you usually still have to transfer images to your phone or laptop first.
The HDMI ports are usually used for playback, though a few of the cameras that shoot 4K also use the HDMI for data recording.
Then there’s a range of other nonstandard communication systems used in photography, as well. There are optical strobe-triggering systems like Nikon’s Speedlight system and radio strobe transmission systems like PocketWizard and the Elinchrom Skyport.
Another constraining point is the “operating system” of a camera. You don’t really think of it, but the menu system and the operation of a camera is a teeny little operating system like a miniature version of what your Mac or Windows machine runs. When you make a selection in the menus, the camera’s central processor changes the way camera input and output are handled.
Every camera manufacturer has their own operating system, and most have different systems in their top-end and their consumer cameras. Not only is there no consistency going from camera model to camera model, but there’s no consistency from brand to brand. Imagine switching from a Dell to a Compaq, and the volume on one was controlled from an icon on the top menu bar and on the other by a setting three levels deep in a folder on the desktop.
Different standards don’t just make for difficult learning curves; they make for impossible interoperability between devices. Strobes that work with Nikon’s TTL system don’t work with Canon’s TTL system, for example. This is by design, unfortunately. These companies put a lot of work into their proprietary systems (that’s a very good thing), so they don’t want to see competitors being able to use their hardware. The unfortunate side effect is that everyone has to buy brand-specific everything.
This is what Olympus, Kodak and Panasonic were getting at with the development of their Four Thirds system, an “open” standard that companies could license and use, but for obvious reasons, the major camera manufacturers have a vested interest in not cooperating. If you can move seamlessly from one camera system to another, what’s to stop you?
AN IDEAL CAMERA WORLD
I’ve long imagined a camera world that was more along the lines of the world envisioned by Apple’s iOS 9 and OS X, or Microsoft’s Windows 10, where mobile and desktop devices just work together. Here’s what it would look like.
All cameras would have a core level of functionality so that consumers, accessory makers and
developers of apps would know that any camera they pick up has a minimum level of interoperability with other devices. For example, the cheapest cameras could all have USB 2.0, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS, plus conform to the various camera standards for image transfer, lighting and other devices, which I’ll outline in a moment.
Cameras would have a core operating system controlled by the manufacturer, but also a user interface that could be customized with themes and different layouts. If a photographer preferred tabbed layouts, it would be possible to put all the camera controls under tabs. If buttons were preferred, everything could be controlled with buttons and pop-out choices. Desktop or mobile apps could be used to select the theme and to drag around the order of the objects.
It also would be helpful here if standards for quick configuration of devices, such as NFC, were adopted more widely on phones and laptops. The iPhone has NFC, but only uses it for Apple Pay. Few laptops have NFC and virtually no desktops. It may not be a big deal to pull out a card and plug it into a reader (and it’s often faster than WiFi), but in the wireless, connected world, it’s all about workflow.
Standards would be incredibly important, and they would lead to a new world of accessory sharing and development in the photographic space. Companies would be free to make features specific to their own systems, but they also would have to work with the standards. For instance, Nikon’s infrared-based wireless triggering could work with Nikon strobes, as long as it also could talk to an open standard of infrared strobes, as well as radio strobes.
A key standard would be for image transfer and sharing, something that would allow for easy access to images on a camera. Several of the camera manufacturers make apps that allow for wireless or wired transfer of images from the camera, but these are also proprietary, and let’s face it, the camera manufacturers aren’t particularly good app developers.
If a protocol was established for sharing files, and for remotely controlling cameras, app developers could create a world of sophisticated programs for manipulating images and controlling cameras, while the manufacturers would be free to develop better systems.
A standard for flashes and strobes, be they controlled by direct connection, wirelessly by infrared or radio transmission, or any future triggering system, would allow devices from various manufacturers to work with each other. A PocketWizard could trigger an Elinchrom strobe, a Nikon body could work with a Canon flash, and so on.
Another standard would allow devices with built-in WiFi to transmit files directly to clients, effectively turning a camera into a portable hard drive, and allowing a device like a phone or laptop to be the wireless transmitter. You can do this with WiFi accessories on the professional cameras, but any of the devices with built-in WiFi (and they all should have built-in WiFi) should be able to send files to a client without a plug-in component or an on-camera app.
A major advance would be an accessory standard that manufacturers could use to enable high-end cameras to add features without needing to connect things to the outside of a camera. It would be incredible to add radio strobe control by sliding a transmitter into the bottom of a Canon pro DSLR (the same way you can add the same functionality to a Sekonic flash meter).
With communication protocols between devices, every accessory could talk to each other. A light meter could send its data to a camera and could control the output of a strobe. A strobe could tell the light meter what its settings are without the strobe having to trigger for a measurement. LED light panels could communicate their white balance settings, and so on.
Camera manufacturers aren’t in a rush to integrate any cooperative standards in their devices, unfortunately. That’s largely because the modern camera was invented in an era where secrecy and proprietary infrastructure were seen as advantages—the intellectual property of a camera company was as important as the mirrors, motors and optics they designed.
We live in a world of interoperability, driven by the application ecosystem of the modern mobile phone and the drive to simplify everyday life through automation and communication. If camera companies want to keep their products viable in an increasingly networked and cooperative world, they’re going to need to see the ability to collaborate with other tools as an advantage and design accordingly. Otherwise, consumers are increasingly going to opt for their phones over their cameras, simply because they’re easier to use and easier to network with the devices around them, even if their cameras still take superior images.
You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.