CLICK. Not many of the countless cameras in the world today still have mechanical shutters, but the sound of one has persisted into the smartphone age – as a familiar signal that an instant has been captured for posterity.

We trust photographs, even if they have been manipulated. Models are Photoshopped to fit ideals of beauty; our own snaps are filtered to add glow and grain.

Now the ability to alter photos is about to leap forward once again. Replace one of the few surviving components of a traditional camera – the lens – with arrays of sensors and smart algorithms, and you can adjust the focus, lighting and even the angle of a shot (see “Future cameras will make living photographs reality”).

This “computational photography” often works by extracting or extrapolating from information that’s already there. So the image is not what you saw – but not necessarily fake either.

When van Leeuwenhoek first looked through a microscope in the 17th century, what he saw was so unexpected he had to train himself to see anew (see “Eye of the Beholder: Life through the camera obscura”). What future cameras reveal may be equally unfamiliar – and will reshape our ideas about the authenticity of photographs.

To be sure, the camera never lies. But we may not always recognise the truth it reveals.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Seeing in a new light”

Issue 3015 of New Scientist magazine

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