What do you think of when you think of computational photography?

Wikipedia defines it as “digital image capture and processing techniques that use digital computation instead of optical processes. Computational photography can improve the capabilities of a camera, or introduce features that were not possible at all with film based photography, or reduce the cost or size of camera elements.”

In a panel at PhotoPlus Expo, several experts explored scenarios for what computational photography will mean for creative professionals. The short answer: more immersive virtual reality, smaller and lighter cameras that nonetheless perform as well if not better than DSLRs and the embedding of more information inside images to enable augmented reality experiences.

For photographers, computational photography creates some cognitive dissonance, according to Allen Murabayashi, co-founder of PhotoShelter. “You no longer have to get it right in camera” because the camera is increasingly smart enough to get it right for you. But that doesn’t mean that all of photography is on a glide-path toward a utopian future.

The central question photographers face is whether they can “transcend the novelty of these [technologies] to best leverage these features for storytelling,” Murabayashi said.

Jim Malcom, General Manager of Humaneyes North America (makers of the Vuze Camera), was very bullish that VR creators can do just that.

“People don’t know what they want until they experience it,” he said. With VR, creators now have a “fourth screen” — a VR headset–to create content for. There are 15 million headsets in circulation now, he added, and the market for VR content is already valued in the billions of dollars. While computation will enable VR cameras to capture increasingly more realistic footage (by, among other things, faster stitching of stereoscopic content), it’s up to artists to experiment with the format, he said.

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Rajiv Laroi, co-founder of Light, made the most sweeping prediction. In the coming years, computational photography “will be the norm” and DSLRs will be like film cameras are today: a small audience will still use them, but most photographers will have moved on.

“It’s like when flat panel TVs came out, there was no longer a reason to buy a CRT,” he said.

The L16, Light’s first product, is the poster-child for computational photography. It combines 16 cameras into a single, relatively compact body while still producing huge RAW files (up to 160MB at a pop) with light-field capabilities to alter focus points and depth of field after an image has been captured.

Camera companies need to start viewing their products as “computers with sensors” or they’ll be in dire risk of being left behind by the world of computational photography, Murabayashi added.

For Steve Medina, Producment Manager at the augmented reality company Avegant, the promise of computational photography lies in the ability to blend in real-world information with photographic objects. “Augmented reality doesn’t replace photography, it adds context and information,” he said. As an example he cited a movie poster with characters that would “come alive” when you pointed a phone at them.

Computational photography doesn’t simply mean totally novel experiences, either. It also means adding information to photographic and video metadata that wasn’t available to earlier cameras. In a previous job at GoPro, Medina was working on technology to feed the camera information like a user’s heart rate, acceleration, height and orientation from external Bluetooth sensors. This information could then be used by the camera or by desktop editing software for cutting the video. “Maybe you want to focus only on moments when the filmmakers heart rate was high or when they were moving rapidly,” he said.

For pro photographers looking to navigate these emerging technologies, Murabayshi’s advice was simple: look to differentiate yourself by knowing “which technologies to use to tell which stories,” he said. And don’t think of yourself as an artist, but “as a service provider of visual communications.”

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