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Why now?

Apologies in advance, this is going to be a long one…. If you make it all the way then thank you.  AI (Artificial Intelligence) in photography is not a new thing, so why now?  For me personally it seems to have a tipping point where you can’t have a conversation with other photographers and AI doesn’t at some point come up.  We think the impact is huge and yet we probably haven’t fully realised the impact yet or what is to come.  There is already a culture of ‘that has been Photoshopped,’ to imply a photograph has had some significant editing and we now have a situation where that trust has eroded even further, and we now have to question ‘is the image AI generated?’  And so for someone who has a passion for photography, socialising with like minded people who also enjoy photography AI does pose a risk.  We have already seen how the smartphone has disrupted photography where most images are now taken on them.  Why join a ‘camera’ club if you just use your smartphone?  We have already seen dwindling membership at clubs as a result of less people getting into photography at a serious level (I’m not trying to imply smartphone photography is not serious), so why even take an image if you can just type a few words to generate one?  This could have dire consequences for the future of camera clubs and photography.

Does it really matter?

I enjoy taking photographs and using my camera, so does it really matter?  I will continue to enjoy taking images and using a camera, AI is not going to change that (yet).  And I suspect for those already with a passion for photography are going to continue in that vein, albeit perhaps a growing niche?  Yet, it is easy for me to say it doesn’t matter…. I’m not making a living from taking photographs.  Have those who have had images ‘scoured’ by machine learning to generate AI images been properly compensated?  I don’t think people take into consideration that whilst the resulting AI image maybe ‘unique’ it is based on millions of images it has ‘learnt’ from.

Smartphone photography and the Internet has already devalued image libraries.  Why purchase an image for a news article if you can use AI to create one for you?  Does AI disadvantage me as someone who wishes to continue down a more traditional route?  Do I run the risk of being left behind?  Do other photographers who embrace it and use it have the upper hand?  I guess only time will tell.

Integrity lies with the individual

One of my biggest issues with AI is the blasé approach to using it.  Because it has become easily accessible people use it without disclosing that use or passing work off as their own.  This is where the aforementioned trust comes into play and you are left thinking ‘is this image AI generated?’  On top of this, excellent images get asked the same question when it is genuinely a photograph, but because it is so good there is a misconception that it must be AI.  So integrity lies with those individuals that use it.  Should they be declaring when sharing this work that it is AI, or contains AI elements?  International and national competitions have to take some of the blame in being too slow to address AI.  This is evident in competitions that have been won with AI images only to be revealed afterwards that they were AI.  But it does highlight that some people will be tempted to use AI to ‘cheat.’  This happens in all walks of life, no different to drugs in sports.    

It’s digital art, not photography

Adobe have to take some of the blame here.  The very title Photoshop implies ‘photo’, and yet photo editing tools are now littered with AI tools, so it must still be a photograph right?  Well, I would argue at this point where elements are added that are not the work of the ‘photographer’ it becomes ‘digital art.’  So why the distinction?  There is nothing wrong with digital art, even anything it gives a platform for this type of work whilst creating a clear distinction from photography.  So how do you declare that distinction?  It’s true not all AI tools introduce elements to an image.  But in my opinion where an element is added to an image, i.e. the software has used that vast library of machine learning to generate a subject this becomes digital art.  AI denoise and lens blurring are tools that are less easy to define.  I would argue at this point the original photograph is still the main element of the image and nothing has been added?  In fact, the blurring of lines is made worse by not all tools being labelled ‘AI’ when they are using this technology.  Again, responsibility lies with Adobe here. 

These features are built in, so it must be okay to use right?  I think the easy access to these tools means people use them without thinking of the consequences or wondering how they work.  I’d be the first to say that these tools are fun to use, but I would not use them and post/submit that work anywhere and not disclose it.  Because these tools are built-in then it must be no different to the other editing tools we have used for years, so must be okay to use?  Some will say that using AI is no different to adjusting levels, cropping, cloning, dodging and burning etc etc. Going back to the idea of ‘that must have been Photoshopped.’  We’re in blurry line territory here again, but do any of those tools introduce elements not produced by the photographer?  And editing of images goes back to the darkroom, it is not new to digital photography.  However, no one in the darkroom was able to add something by saying a few words to the emulsion… 


So pretty grim so far (sorry) if you are a photographer…  And yet the scary bit is it is only going to getter better.  I would class myself as someone who has always had a passion for technology.  If you had asked me 5 years ago you will be able to generate an image with 1 sentence I probably would have laughed.  And yet, here we are!  So imagine what it will be like in another 5 years…. It is going to be even harder to distinguish an image as AI generated.  How long before you can just type a phrase straight into Instagram or Facebook to generate an image without reaching for your camera roll to upload one?  AI to a degree is already in cameras, but how far will it go?  How long before you are not really taking the image because the camera is doing so much of the work for you or enhancing the output?  

Final thoughts

Am I angry?  Scared?  I’d describe my emotions over AI as sadness.  Photography as we know it is going to change.  I’m fortunate that I have close friends that share the same passion and desire to capture images on the sensor and we drive each other forward photographically.  However, ‘traditional’ photography is going to become more niche as time goes on, in the same way smartphones have eaten into compact camera and SLR sales.

I leave you with this digital art (not photograph!) generated in Photoshop.  A blank canvas was opened, the canvas selected and Generative Fill used with the sentence ‘beautiful seascape with slow shutter speed on the sea washing around rocks.’  It took literally seconds.  Thanks to those photographers (I can’t credit them because I don’t know them) whose images were scoured to teach the machines on how to produce this work…

Digital art.  A seascape image created using AI and Adobe's Generative Fill