Snapchat Is the Next Evolution in Photography
The company’s Landmarkers feature seamlessly melds the real and the imagined
Snapchat is back, and it’s doing just fine. That’s the message the company wanted to get across when it held a flashy event on April 4 in Los Angeles, unveiling a ton of new and quirky ideas designed to lure users back to its app.
The presentation could have been mistaken at first for a yellow-tinted Apple event, but the company showed off a bunch of creative new ideas, from an in-app gaming platform to Snap stories coming to outside apps like Tinder. But the standout was a new feature called Landmarkers, which allows you to remix the world around you with augmented reality filters in real time.
If you’re visiting a famous landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, tapping and holding within the camera will reveal special new filters. Tap a filter, and Snapchat will layer another reality on top of it, seamlessly blending the real and virtual worlds together. The demo teased the Eiffel Tower vomiting rainbows, New York’s Flatiron Building covered in 3D pizza, and other psychedelic possibilities like buildings growing eyes and long necks.
The camera is now the app.
These new “filters” are driven by the community — any user can invent one using free software — allowing creators to make a mark on the physical world by intimately tying it with the digital one. Landmarkers is a genius move, not because it’s weird or perfectly targeted to millennials’ sensibilities — though it is — but because Snapchat wants to redefine the way we think about cameras. The camera is now the app.
My initial reaction to the feature’s demo was one of confusion: Why would Snapchat build this? But that confusion quickly morphed into a realization that I was watching the beginning of the next wave of photography: the intersection between what’s real and what’s invented.
To understand why Landmarkers might change photography, we have to zoom out.
Cameras have always been driven by trends, with the format evolving in time with the march of technological progress. Changes in format — black-and-white film to color, analog to digital — redefined the way users saw the world. As smartphone photography surged and put cameras online, anywhere and everywhere in the world, entire new subgenres of picture-taking emerged, evolving faster than ever before.
When smartphones were in their infancy and offered consistently awful quality, mobile photography was weirder within those technological limitations. A generation grew up layering on thick filters before sharing photos online. It’s easy to forget that filters were so popular that we read into their meanings or tied our emotional state to them, and we got excited when Instagram added new ones.
Today, it’s hard to remember if I used filters because I liked them or if it was just a great way to cover up how terrible those photos really were. The miniaturization of camera sensors and lenses was an incredibly complicated feat that took years to perfect, but when smartphone cameras got about as good as a point-and-shoot, filters began to disappear. Still, they defined mobile photography as a format for years.
As always-on 3G connectivity and better-quality cameras became ubiquitous, the next wave arrived. Stickers, layers, text on images, vertically shot videos, and ephemeral content that self-destroyed after a few hours all became the new normal, even though they were unimaginable just a few years ago. Snapchat pioneered a lot of these ideas, which we now consider a basic component of social media.
Since 2009, Apple, Samsung, Huawei, and other smartphone makers have battled to create the “best” mobile camera every year. We’ve finally reached the inflection point where phone cameras are so good that we’re left to argue over tiny, incremental differences in quality — differences that really don’t matter anymore. What does matter is that billions of people around the world now have incredibly capable cameras in their pockets, and anyone can shoot a great photo with little effort.
Landmarkers is a bet that the company can define an entirely new category for experiencing the world from a different perspective — invisible to the naked eye.
Photography, in the way we traditionally think about it, has reached a turning point: It has become exponentially more difficult to squeeze notable technical innovation out of the hardware every year. We can see this in the latest batch of smartphones: Google focuses on software in its latest Pixel devices to push its cameras to new heights, with features like night mode and a single-lens portrait option that employs machine learning, not superior lenses, to generate better shots than ever before.
That prompts new questions: What is a photo, anyway? Is using software to create a better photo cheating, or is it a natural evolution of the art? The answer, clearly, is that photography has always been fluid and always will be — and that there’s no going back from here.
Which brings us back to Snapchat’s new features. Landmarkers is a bet that people want new ways to use their cameras and that the company can define an entirely new category for experiencing the world from a different perspective — invisible to the naked eye. Ingeniously, Snapchat’s existing interactive selfie filters helped us grow familiar with the idea of combining the real with the virtual; applying them to the world itself is a logical next step in evolution.
Landmarkers uses Snapchat’s vast data set of photos — literally thousands of them are added to public stories of landmarks every day — to build an accurate understanding of the physical world’s dynamic shapes, lighting, and viewpoints. Snap used millions of publicly shared photos from its service to create rich 3D maps of famous buildings, but it’s easy to imagine Landmarkers eventually working on any building or place in the world. All of this makes the feature incredibly difficult for competitors to clone—an important advantage as the company tries to win you back from Instagram.
Augmented reality has long promised similar ideas, but they have never really arrived, because the complexities of location combined with object recognition and spatial tracking is difficult without a lot of data. Access to incredibly precise phone sensors and high-quality photos from every vantage point imaginable was not the expected solution to that problem, but Snapchat was able to quietly build the most powerful understanding of the world around us while we were just sharing photos with friends.
This is the intersection of the raw computing power in your phone, the precision sensors that power makes available, and the sheer ubiquity of mobile photography. Snapchat is well placed to own that format shift entirely and offers a look at where photography goes when we’re not engaged in a race to the bottom for the best camera specifications. We start looking beyond the format’s rules entirely for the first time, toward something radically different.
Snap has struggled to build a convincing case for users to come back since it went public and Instagram began to steal its audience, cloning its features one by one. The company lost users for the first time in 2019, after years of incredible growth. Snap needs to win them back — and, perhaps more important, the company needs to convince investors it can do so. Landmarkers is a way of proving the company still has it, while building a moat it can finally defend against copycats. Whether or not users pay attention is another question.
Before we know it, though, I suspect we’ll be layering our photos with 3D animated objects that aren’t really there, remixing the buildings around us in psychedelic ways, and blurring the lines between what’s real — or isn’t — even further. And it’ll be completely normal.