When we look at photographs, the perspective is determined by what was the dominant imaging technology of their age. The most obvious example for this is photographic film: Starting out in black and white, later turning into color, the whims of film manufacturers determined the chromatics of an entire era.
The same is true for cameras and camera lenses in particular: Analog SLRs often came with a 50mm lens, which was believed to be the closest equivalent of what the human eye sees. Some photographers shot their pictures with slightly wider 35mm lenses, but the perspective remained the same: A viewing angle determined by two focal lengths that had become commonplace.
Today, analog photography may remain a vibrant niche, but the great majority of photos are taken digitally—and on phones. The rules of the game may have changed, but the dependency on technology remains the same: Whatever manufacturers put into their cameras will determine how we picture the world around us. The aesthetic of the time emerges from it.
What’s more: Whatever dominant manufacturers put into their phones forces the hands of other players, meaning that technology is constantly being copied to ensure feature parity.
A safe bet on wide-angle
In that light, Apple’s iPhone 11 announcements should be viewed as moment of shifting perspectives: Rather than giving all their phones a telephoto lens (as their flagship products have had for years) the company added a wide-angle camera to all of its new models. Apple is betting big that wide-angle photography is the next big thing — made abundandly clear by their product pages full of eye-catching wide-angle shots.
The bet is probably a safe one: While Apple no longer has the dominant platofrm (there are more Android phones than iPhones in use), it still has an outsized cultural impact and the marketing might to determine where the market is going. It may be playing catch-up on camera technology, but many of the world’s most influential media creators continue to use iPhones—and once the new model drops, they’ll gain access to a wide-angle camera at once.
Not only should this result in an avalanche of wide-angle photography (at least until the their spectacular viewing angles become normal), it could once more change the way we capture our world.
Wider, ever wider
When the phone became everyone’s favorite camera, the format of the device itself changed how pictures were taken: Whereas cameras were designed to be held horizontally, resulting in landscape format pictures, phones are designed to fit into the palm of our hands—and are held vertically.
This is why the portrait format became the de-facto standard for photography in the age of the smartphone: It was simply the natural format to take pictures in. Platforms like Snapchat and (later!) Instagram latched on to this trend and built their products to mirror this behavior—which is why Stories, the dominant imaging format of the present, is vertical only.
The broad introduction of wide-angle lenses won’t change that, but it should help push videos. Wide-angle lenses lens themselves much better to moving images than narrower viewing angles (after all, you want to keep a subject in the frame), and make it a lot easier to shoot compelling video. Apple further blurs the line between photos and videos by adding the video recording capability right into the shutter button on its camera app—a feature Instagram has had for years.
With ever more powerful smartphones, the devices we create on have become the ones we use for consumption. A few years ago, shooting vertical video on a phone meant that it could not be properly viewed on a horizontal desktop screen. That’s no longer a worry to contemporary creators, who naturally capture their world in the vertical format. Equipped with the technology to create even more compelling video, I envision the new way to capturing our times as a hybrid between still and moving images, ever-wider, and unapologetically vertical.
Until the next iteration of technology, that is.