Retro photography from the future: grains, pixels and artifacts

When the hippest trend in photography means going back to the faults and limitations of cameras of the past generation, then how will retro photography look in the year 2040?

One look at today’s most popular photography styles would make photographers in the 70s cringe with horror. Just about every retro style offered by the likes of Instagram or Hipstamatic is based on undesired side effects of the cameras and materials from the days of analog photography. Light leaks, washed out colors, dust and scratches, blurry edges and unintentional vignettes were once a sign that something went wrong. Today, it brings a warm and cozy feeling of retro stylishness to thousands of otherwise perfectly crisp and clean photos on social media sites.

So, that leaves you to wonder… Will there ever be a future generation turning perfectly fine 100 megapixel photographs into something that looks like it’s been shot by a Kodak DC20 or a Nokia 7650? Will JPG artifacts ever be a desired trip to the good old days of plastic lenses, lousy digital sensors and pixels?

If so, here’s my shot at predicting how retro photography from the future will look!

Effect 1 — The wonky sensor

Early digital cameras were often susceptible to image noise. The combination of low light and the small, primitive sensors used in cheap digital cameras and early camera phones is a sure-fire recipe for a grainy picture — the sensors were simply incapable of capturing enough photons for a well-lit photo. Channeling the light through a slow cheap-ass plastic lens doesn’t help either.

Effect 2 — Compression artifacts

Heavily compressed photos get those typical JPG artifacts. While compression is less and less vital as cheap storage increases (and even compact cameras start offering the option to save huge RAW files), it once was the difference between fitting 30 or 60 photos on your 32MB memory card. In compression, colors and shape are reduced to easily compressible patterns, leaving recognizable marks on the photo. Today, bandwidth and storage are cheap, and you can easily compress an image with nearly no visual impact and still know it can be served and downloaded in a split second. So, in 40 years, will JPG artifacts be hip?

Effect 3 — Bit rot and glitches

Whether you had some bad sectors on that old 3,5” backup disk or you lost some packets in cyberspace while downloading pictures of the net, you probably ran into bit rot. It’s what happens when 99% of your data is fine, and the other 1% is borked. And with data rot eating away at the 0’s and 1’s of your “My first digital cam pix” CD-ROM, who is to say your pics won’t look completely glitched up at 2040’s family reunion?

German photographer Thomas Ruff made image compression his thing, and released several books containing nothing but heavily compressed (“crap quality”, in internet terms) photos.

Effect 4 — Pixelation

Oh, the pixel. Feb by Nintendo nostalgia, outdated yet prevalent image formats (I’m looking at you, GIF) and a new generation of digital artists, this colorful cube, the shining square of the screen, the ultimate element of elementary electronic art lives on. You bet your blocky little butt this style will shout “the year 2000” for future generations.

And, although not technically a by-product of yesterday’s digital cameras, the limited palettes and low resolution of early game consoles and handhelds will surely evoke the warm feeling of simpler, better times.

Onward, future photographers!

I think I covered all the characteristics of current digital photography that have a potential to inspire a future generation of hipsters. Today, none of these effects are really desirable, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pop up on my retina-hologram of my grandkids’ timeline some day.

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