Benedict Evans has done some calculations and estimates, and his conclusion is that all the digital photos shared this year are going to be more than all the photos taken on film in the entire history of the film camera business:
Hence, at least 2 trillion photos will be shared this year, and possibly 3 trillion or more. Spread across roughly 2bn smartphone users, that’s only 2–3 photos per day per person, which is not so extraordinary, and of course use is not actually spread evenly, so there’s room in that number for some people to be sharing lots and others none.
That’s just how many photos were shared, though. How many more were taken and not shared? Again, there’s no solid data for this (though Apple and Google probably have some). Some image sharing is probably 1:1 for taken:shared (Snapchat, perhaps) but other people on other services will take hundreds and share only a few. So it could be double the number of photos shared or it could be 10x. Meanwhile, estimates of the total number of photos ever taken on film range from 2.5–3.5 trillion. That in turn would suggest that more photos will be taken this year than were taken on film in the entire history of the analogue camera business.
Apart from being the classic bit of trivia that makes you go, Huh, who would have thought? I struggle to find this comparison meaningful. The context around the act of taking a photo and sharing it has changed dramatically over time. It has changed within the history of film photography (before and after the revolution introduced by the 35mm format, for example), and of course it has changed after the shift to digital photography and after smartphones have become ubiquitous photographic tools always connected to the Internet.
Before, the average person didn’t carry a camera with them all the time. Taking photos was usually an activity planned in advance: you brought your film camera with you on trips and holidays, or at gatherings such as weddings, and at certain parties and dinners. The photo enthusiasts would bring their cameras to photo-walks, too. Sharing photos was always a delayed activity (you had to finish a roll of photos, then go to a photo lab to have it developed and the photos printed). With slides, there was the typical, often boring occasion of gathering around the slide projector in a darkened room to see dozens of holiday pictures at a time. Instant photography meant Polaroids, but given that packs of Polaroids have always been expensive, and more expensive than a regular 35mm film roll, instant sharing with film wasn’t even remotely comparable to the instant sharing we carry out today with smartphones and global connectivity.
Before, fewer people owned cameras. I’m thinking about my family, but I believe it was common in many other households. There was one ‘serious’ camera in my household, that belonged to my father. He took photos at birthdays, during Christmastime, sometimes brought the camera with us during Sunday walks at the park or around the city we lived in, and during extended excursions or trips. I had a less sophisticated camera he passed to me, but used it rarely and wasn’t particularly fun to use either. Today, when I happen to see a family of tourists, everyone has a camera or a photo-taking device. Today I see 10-year-olds with low-end smartphones taking photos of everything that surrounds them. They probably take more photos than I did even in my most trigger-happy film photography phase, when I went through a disposable camera after another.
Today, the convenience and ubiquitousness of connected smartphones, and the fact that snapping a photo virtually costs nothing, make more people shoot more photos, also with an unprecedented level of compulsion I may add. In 1990, you didn’t see people in a cafeteria or restaurant snapping photos at their food before eating. Photography was a purposeful activity with higher associated costs. You generally thought twice or thrice before wasting a shot when you loaded your camera with 24- or 36-exposure rolls. Today there’s plenty of room for very spur-of-the-moment pictures, especially because the sharing part of the process has gained much more weight than in the analogue photography days — you can share your photos with the world now, not just with your circle of friends — so every moment, every situation in your waking hours has the potential of getting photographed, documented, shared.
So yes, the amount of photos taken and shared has increased exponentially, but so have changed the tools, the technology, the habits, the culture and the whole context behind photography. That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that today the whole world is taking and sharing a crapload of photos all the time. And that’s why a comparison between the current digital+connected scenario and traditional film photography makes little sense to me in this regard.