The cameras shaping society: have our smartphones made us more narcissistic than ever?
We've come a long way since one puzzled journalist wrote of the camera phone: 'It's not immediately clear what they're for, and that mystery is not sufficiently seductive to make many of us shell out'
The announcement of a new range of iPhones has become an annual tradition firmly fixed in the second week of September. Apple’s big event last week included the unveiling of the iPhone 11 and its big sister, the iPhone 11 Pro, and while both have a sleek design typical of their predecessors, one feature of the Pro stood out, both figuratively and literally: its camera.
High-end smartphones now typically feature a “bump” on the back to house the camera, but the iPhone 11 Pro’s protrusion contains no fewer than three lenses and was described by Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, as enabling “a whole new level of photography”.
In truth, the iPhone’s photographic capabilities have been lagging behind companies such as Samsung, Huawei and Google, but the emphasis on it at the Apple showcase demonstrated one thing: if the smartphone has become central to society, the camera has become its most seductive element.
The rise of the smartphone camera
It’s estimated that far more than a trillion pictures were taken last year, the vast majority of them on smartphones. But it’s worth remembering how recent a phenomenon this is. As the first camera phones were revealed, in 2003 a puzzled journalist at The Guardian wrote: “It’s not immediately clear what they’re for, and that mystery is not sufficiently seductive to make many of us shell out.” But shell out we did, with growing enthusiasm, and by doing so we came to find out precisely what they were for.
There’s the added dimension of the influence of crowd behaviour. If they are filming it then so must I.
Sheffield Hallam University researcher Eleanor Lockley
“Photography makes a lot more sense in people’s lives than it used to,” says anthropologist Daniel Miller. “The camera prior to the smartphone was clunky technology, and what did people do with the photographs? They mainly ended up in shoe boxes. But people have found all sorts of creative capacities with the smartphone camera.”
We’ve discovered that they’re not simply for capturing a moment for posterity, or shooting video, or communicating face to face, or translating text, or scanning barcodes, or checking how we look, or identifying buildings. “We’ve done nine studies [into smartphone camera use] all across the world, and no two populations will use it in the same way,” says Miller.
Forget megapixels, now we want more lenses
As the pictures and video we capture have played a bigger part in our lives, our desire for them to have higher quality and higher resolution has grown. Technology companies have been only too happy to indulge us, developing hardware and software that produces results indistinguishable from high-end cameras. But while the main metric of a digital camera’s power used to be the number of megapixels, there’s now a more obvious visual comparison to be made: the number of lenses.
The iPhone 11 Pro’s triple configuration of a wide, an ultra-wide and a telephoto lens may look impressive, but it’s actually something of a late developer. It’s 18 months since the launch of the first three-camera smartphone, Huawei’s P20 Pro, and plenty of other companies (Samsung, LG, Xiaomi and Sony, for example) have followed suit since then. All of those phones have demonstrated improved performance in low light and have firmly established the idea that the more lenses the better. (A patent filed last November indicates that LG may be working on a 16-lens smartphone camera.)
The things that professional photographers could do, now pretty much everyone can do.
Anthropologist Daniel Miller
But the phone that has grabbed the most plaudits for picture quality in recent months has been Google’s Pixel 3, a single-lens camera for which the power lies in its software. By combining a series of images with different exposures to form the best picture possible, it’s the code that does all the heavy lifting – and better still, that makes the camera remotely upgradeable, improving with each software update. Apple has recognised this and last week it promised that later in the year a new system called Deep Fusion will coax the best results out of its new range of iPhones, combining nine images into one beautiful whole.
“The things that professional photographers could do, now pretty much everyone can do,” says Miller. “And while smartphones are expensive, the camera aspect of smartphones is incredibly cheap, easily available and easy to use.”
Have the advancements in camera technology made us more narcissistic?
That ability to record anything we see on the spur of the moment and make it look as beautiful as possible, coupled with almost unlimited storage and the incredible distribution power of the internet has had an effect on society that feels profound. Selfie culture has been criticised for engendering a kind of narcissism (Apple is encouraging this even further with a new “slofie” feature that’s essentially a slow-motion video of your own face) but our need to document things to impress others now extends to all our experiences, with our lives mediated almost entirely through a lens.
“Connectivity is at the heart of everyday use of smartphone cameras,” says Eleanor Lockley, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University who focuses on the sociology of communication. “Yes, it acts as a form of evidence and a source that can be recalled at a later date – but then there’s the remote connectivity gained from sharing it with people online. ‘Look, I was here. I’m doing things.’”
That need to capture and share has become incredibly potent and Lockley believes that it’s contagious. “There’s the added dimension of the influence of crowd behaviour,” she says. “If they are filming it then so must I.”
It could lead us to a point where life almost requires to be captured in digital media to feel complete, a notion that was memorably described by author Laurence Scott: “A moment can feel strangely flat if it exists solely in itself”.
In addition, the images we make of those moments are gaining a hyper-real quality that’s almost more vivid than the experience itself. Miller, however, cautions against demonising the growing power of the smartphone camera. “Almost every single innovation has positives and negatives, new capacities and problems that arise from them,” he says. “We are gaining capacities that previously were restricted to few professional photographers – so why wouldn’t everybody want to do those things? Nor is it surprising that people want to look good all the time. These are conventional, precedented aspirations, and I worry about the denigration of people that’s implied in these critiques.”
As we instinctively reach for our smartphones to capture yet another picture, we may question whether our behaviour is unusual. But what’s unquestionable is the strength of that impulse, and smartphone developers will continue to deploy increasingly sophisticated technology in an attempt to satisfy it.
Published: September 16, 2019 06:06 PM