So: Will AI destroy photography?
Well... maybe, sorta. But... No
I've been asked many times in the past month about my thoughts on the new wave of Artificial Intelligence tools that have become available and how they might change the world of photography.
Let's have a think about it
(And yes, if you haven't guessed already - the hero image for this post was created with AI. It's pretty obvious if you take a second look, but that's because I don't really know how to use the tools effectively yet)
Some Important Terms
The next two sections might seem a bit obvious, but they are important. Bear with me.
What Is Photography Anyway?
If we're going to talk about the art of Photography, we'd better work out exactly what photography is.
Photography: the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor) - Merrium-Webster Dictionary
There you go. If the image was taken on a camera... it's a photograph.
Film cameras, digital SLRs, mirrorless and bridge cameras, iPhones... they are all cameras, and the images the produce are all photographs.
Edited or not - it doesn't matter here.
Who is a Photographer?
We also need to work out what makes a photographer as part of this discussion:
Photographer: anyone who uses a camera to take a photograph - Me
From an iPhone selfie, through to a tourist taking a photo of a local attraction and a wedding photographer taking shots of the bride and groom... they are all technically photographers.
However, to keep things a little more simple, I am going to describe a photographer as someone who purposfully and thoughtfully takes a photo with the explicit purpose of printing or sharing the result as photograph. Anyone who would call themselves a hobbiest photographer or above.
The Current State of AI in Photography
So, where are we in 2023 when it comes to AI in photography?
There are basically two categories of AI in play today that could affect photography, photographers and consumers of photographs.
- AI Editing tools that use models trained on machine learning to help edit an existing photos. Think Topaz Photo AI, DxO DeepPRIME, Adobe Object Detection, etc
- AI Image generating tools that create an image either from a text prompt, or by using an existing image (or images) as 'inspiration' to create an image from scratch. Think Midjourney, SuperMachine, etc
Will AI Editing Tools Kill Photography?
These tools are used by many photographers as part of their editing process. After taking a photo they might run their photo through any number of these tools to perform some or all of the following:
- Noise Reduction
- Image Sharpening
- Object selection and removal
- Automatic tone and colour manipulation
- Sky replacement (just a very sophisticated photo compositing tool really)
- Resize photos to a higher resolution.
Some people may not agree that these tools are within the spirit of photography, or they may not like the results they produce... but most would agree that these tools aren't going to stop people taking photographic images any time soon.
Quite the opposite. These tools help people get better results from their cameras, which encourages more photos to be taken.
We can debate all you like about if the manipulation of photos with these tools turns the resulting image from a photograph into another form of digital art - but the reality is that these artworks are a result of, or were largely created by the process of photography.
AI photo processing tools will not kill photography.
Will Generative AI Kill Photography?
Here's where things get a little more tricky.
If you're not familiar with generative AI applications: Just imagine that you can describe any scene you can think of to an image generator and it will spit out a photo-realistic image. None of the pixels in the image represent a real scene, the whole thing has been generated by a computer.
We're still in the very early stages of this technology and already the results are good. Scary good.
- Incredible DallE-2 Images
So what does that mean mean for photography and photographers?
Well - there will always be people like me (and I imagine you if you're reading this) that will want to persue the art of chasing the light and creating a 'real' image. We will keep photography alive.
But things will change.
There will no doubt be a large number of people who will move from photography to generated art to create their digital art. These people are concerned with the end result of the art they produce, rather than the method by which it is created. Rather than waiting for the perfect light to capture a landscape image - they will be able to describe it to a computer and have it produced perfectly.
Questioning What's Real
This really brings about one of the first 'problems' with generated AI imagery - if people start spruiking their images as 'real' (and they will!) then people will really need to question everything they are looking at.
Price and Accessibility of Equipment
The market for DSLR cameras and equipment has been declining for a long time. If enough artists move away from traditional photography and towards generated images then camera manufacutures will either have to start charging more for their gear, or will decide it's not worth the effort and pull out of manufacturing altogether
Decent camera equipment may become too expensive for many people, and might eventually only become affordable to those professionals who make enough money from photography to justify it.
Speaking of professional photographers - how will being able to generate any image you want affect them?
Stock Photographers: I think people who make money from stock photography will be hurt the most. These 'generic' images are prime candidates to be replaced by art directors typing what they want into an image generator.
Wedding and Event Photographers: People are still going to want their actual events recorded for prosperity. Never say never, but I can't see AI generated images replacing the desire for actual photos of real-life events.
Landscape & Fine Art Photographers: There will definately be a shift in this area towards generated art. There will however always be people who seek out imagry that was taken of a real-life scene. This will shift towards higher-end (priced) art.
Nature & Wildlife Photographers: I don't think there will be a huge shift here. Sure, there will be plenty of generated images with fake wildlife in them - but most wildlife photographers work would still need to show 'real' images. A lot of wildlife photographers also fall into the 'enthusiast' category who will continue to chase the thrill and/or seek the tranquility that comes with chasing a real animal.
Photojournalism & Street Photography: Will be fairly safe. There will still be a need to capture real life events and emotions in a similar way to event photography.
However - there will be a lot of images circulated that are either edited with AI to change the narative to push political or personal adgenas. Imagine a real-life catastrophic event happening and AI generated images to use the event to push dangerous ideologies. A lot of people will be fooled by these images and they have the potential to sway elections, government actions... etc. Scary!
This will be the most dangerous part of AI generated imagry (and video). It will soon become very important to question everything you see and hear.
These image generators also bring up quite a few copyright concerns.
The images they create are due to them being training on millions of photos scraped from various sources. Many of those sources include photographer's work. Work that the photographers had no idea was being used to train an image generator.
You can also ask an image generator to create an image 'in the style of' your favourite photographer or artist - that begs the question: If an artist has perfected a perfect style that others aren't really able to recreate by themselves... but an image generator can create just with a few words... if not a copyright issue, does it certainly present a moral issue?
There will be many legal tests of these image (and other) generators over the coming years.
They certainly aren't going away, but as a society we will need to come up with some rules around use and fair compensation/attribution to those who had no idea their images were helping to create these new tools. Interesting times ahead.
So - In short - no, AI image generators won't kill photography.
AI Image generators are here to stay - and they will only get better at producing realistic (or not) images as time goes by. It won't be long before it will be almost impossible to distinguish a real photo from a generated one.
It will change things. The latest iteration of AI technology is certainly going to be disruptive to a lot of people, activities, jobs, etc.
The future of where this will go - no one really knows at this point
But I am certain of one thing - so long as I can hold a camera, there will be at least one photographer left in the world :D