In late 2001, a weekly BBC radio segment featured a brief review of the Sharp J-SH04, a Japanese mobile phone that was the first to feature an integrated camera. And on the BBC’s website, commenters weighed in on how they might use such a magical device. Possible applications ranged from “I would use the camera during business meetings to take sneaky pictures of competitors notes for analysis later” to “take pictures of friendly dogs I see when I walk around” to “infinite uses for the teenager, not entirely sure what the rest of us would do with one though.” They were all right, as it turns out—though they had no idea how big the technological tidal wave would ultimately be.
At this point, people take more than a trillion photographs each year, the vast majority of which come courtesy of a smartphone. The cameras in our pockets may not be able to match high-end DSLR or mirrorless cameras, but they’re packed with sensors and software that can help us create stunning images instantly. We’ve responded by snapping pics at every conceivable moment, from mealtime to pilgramages to a day at the museum. We take photos of concerts, of our friends, of spectacles both planned and unplanned, and—depending on your age and social-media activity—of ourselves.
All of which has led to some predictable hand-wringing about what all this phone photography is doing to us. It’s taking us out of the moment! No, it’s making us keener observers of the world! It’s making us narcissistic! No, wait, it’s making us insecure! The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the vast, hazy middle—but we wanted to see exactly where in the middle it lies. So for our latest episode of Tech Effects, we turned the lens everywhere we could. We quantified how close-up selfies can distort our face; we talked to experts about how photography can change our emotional memories of an experience; we even went head-to-head with a professional photographer while wearing eye-tracking glasses to see how a lifetime of photography changes the way we process visual input. None of it may make you a better picture-taker, but it might just help you understand what a camera can do to your mind and your emotions. No selfie stick required.