One of my favorite expressions is a “sea change” moment. Even Merriam-Webster’s entry for sea change is highly evocative: “Archaic. A change brought about by the sea.” You can imagine a time in the past when the ocean represented the ultimate unknown. To watch the sea, of all things, change, would be grand and terrifying.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that we’re in a sea change moment right now. I don’t say that lightly. As I see it, the incredible progress of artificial intelligence and machine learning in recent years is more than just a small trend, but something really fundamental. It doesn’t just apply to photography, but since photography is what I know best, I’ll try to keep this article more limited in scope.
It started off small enough. Several years ago, our post-processing software began to get slightly better upsampling and noise reduction algorithms. Then those algorithms got better. Artificial intelligence began lifting smartphone cameras beyond their small-sensor limits. Today, it seems that each new mirrorless camera and post-processing software is coupled with the buzzwords of “artificial intelligence” and “subject recognition.” It’s suddenly everywhere.
But the moment that gave me pause was when I opened ChatGPT. You’ve probably heard of it by now – it’s a language-processing model that can generate realistic-sounding answers to almost any question. The AI is known to screw up on some highly technical topics, but there’s already talk of people using it to replace their college essays and similar. I wanted to see if those concerns were overblown, so I gave it a simple prompt: “Write a few sentences about photography in a way that doesn’t sound like artificial intelligence wrote it.”
Here was its answer:
Photography is the art of capturing light and memories. It allows us to freeze a moment in time and look back on it with fondness, to remember the way the sun hit a loved one’s face or the way the wind blew through a field of flowers. It’s a way to tell a story, to document our lives and the world around us. Whether it’s through a professional camera or a smartphone, photography gives us the ability to share our perspective with others and to see beauty in the everyday. It’s a constantly evolving medium, and with each new technology and technique, we are able to push the boundaries of what is possible and create truly breathtaking images.
Really, that’s a mesmerizing response. When I saw that – and remembered that this technology is still in its infancy, literally two months old – I felt like I was watching the sea start to heave and shift in front of me.
To be blunt, people will use ChatGPT to replace Photography Life. They will use it to replace Thom Hogan, Nikon Rumors, Ken Rockwell, and the handful of other non-conglomerate-owned photography websites that have managed to hang on so far in the content-farming era.
If you’re feeling nervous, I should say, I don’t think they’ll succeed. Not completely. But when one person can generate 100 photography articles in a few minutes – articles that are better-written than what you’ll already find on content-farming photography sites (I’ll be nice and not name names) – they will. And the Google search engine, not smart enough to recognize the high-level factual errors bound to be in those ChatGPT articles, will start to rank them higher and higher. New photographers will only be increasingly misinformed.
The bigger sites like ours will probably weather the storm, but lots of smaller, independent photography blogs will be totally overwhelmed. Or, alternatively, they’ll need to shift to platforms like YouTube and TikTok to build a reputation and have anyone see their work. (That is, until the not-too-distant day that AI can make realistic video tutorials about photography, too, and spams them out again.)
It may sound like I’m being negative, but for all that I’ve written so far, I don’t think that technology – including this – is something to be scared of. My first thought when I tested the Nikon Z9 and Sony a1’s ridiculous machine-learning autofocus systems was, “this is amazing,” not, “the robot apocalypse is nigh!” Even ChatGPT leaves me in awe more than in fear. But I feel compelled to point out the issues that I see coming in the near future, and there are plenty of them in sight.
As for Photography Life, it’s really hard to say where this goes, but my guess is that we’ve been here long enough to stay in Google’s good graces no matter what happens to the internet around us. Even if we’re completely crowded out of search engines one day, there’s still a smaller audience – maybe you’re a part of it – who will remember Photography Life and keep visiting us anyway. I’ll continue to write articles as long as that audience exists.
But even though this won’t spell doom and gloom for Photography Life, it very well could shrink the “run by real photographers” landscape to just a handful of popular sites. (The photography world is already like that in some ways, and we got to this point just with traditional content farming, not the hyper-accelerated nature of ChatGPT.) Take that as you will.
Given all this, I’d like to make a few things clear. My stance is that Photography Life won’t publish any AI-generated articles. Nor will we post any AI-generated photos or illustrations. Every person I hire to write about photography will be a real photographer. Every piece of gear we review will pass through our hands. And finally, we’ll continue to be available in the comments to answer your questions about photography, help you choose equipment, or just talk.
At the end of the day, that’s all I can do as a person who loves photography and wants more people to learn and enjoy it. I can’t spit out a hundred articles an hour, so I try to make everything our team publishes on the homepage count. If that’s not enough to stay afloat in a world of generated content, so be it, but at least I feel like I’m not selling my soul.
Where does that leave you? I think you’d be wise to cultivate the skills to navigate a changing sea. The world is about to get more and more artificially generated, attention-grabbing, and shallow. The best advice I can give is to spend less time consuming the glut, and find real people you trust instead. I’m not talking about our website, and I’m not even talking about photography. Instead, I mean people who you see in person, learn from, and really talk to. Family, friends, pastors, doctors, teachers, fellow photographers – they’re not always going to be perfect, but at least they’re real.
Also, focus on the good. For all the potential concerns that I’ve mentioned today, I’m utterly convinced that AI will progress in ways that make our lives better, too. In everything from new medicines to new autofocus algorithms, the next few years have tremendous potential. Keep trying new things. And keep taking pictures. As a photographer, you already know an important truth about the world, one that will be very valuable in the future: The best antidote to oversaturation is just to keep things simple and tone it down a bit.
AI machine generated photography content will be the least of our problems when this thing takes hold.
“Where have you been, it’s alright we know where you’ve been.” Etc
“Welcome to the Machine!”
That is one future I very much hope does not come to pass. Then again, we’re not too far from that as things are right now! So AI is probably destined to accelerate the trend.
PS. Is your 3rd image Portland Bill, Spencer? Have you been over here? If not, it looks quite similar.
It’s not Portland Bill, but the similar landscape is because it’s from the coast of Doolin, Ireland, so hardly the opposite side of the world!
I thought that Chat-thing’s response was pretty poor. It hardly describes Don McCullin let alone Chris Killip.
I’ll stick with Thom Hogan thanks. And your good selves.
To be kind to its creators, Chat-thing is in the range of bland to pointless.
Humanity is capable of using AI (or, correctly, machine-learning) to the good. But humanity does not always – or often – reach its capabilities. So we’ll get plenty of bad – as we do now with current Tech.
As for Google, inventors of surveillance capitalism, “the most toxic business model since the opium trade”, the less said the better.
Another of my trusted writers. I have a select few.
Robert, I think that’s a good way to sum it up. And you’re right, ChatGPT’s description of photography is really idyllic. Lots of important photos are a lot more grim than that.
Good vision and understanding of AI place in our lives, especially as photographers. Our view of our world through the lens must be of compassion and humanity. Thank you for the article.
Hi Gideon, you’re very welcome. Glad you enjoyed the article so much.
Hi, Spencer !
As always a very informative article from you. Only one minor spelling mistake. You have written Miriam Webster instead of Merriam-Webster. It is noticeable because it is at the start of the article. Miriam Webster is an Australian singer.
Thank you, Naren! Just adding a few typos to prove this article was written by a human. Nevertheless, I’ve fixed it :)
I’m glad you liked it.
I will always check daily for what Photography Life has to say, to show and to teach.
Thank you, David! That’s what keeps us up and running every day.
I normally rely on ‘Google recommended articles’ to direct me back to this site, but I’ve finally added it as a shortcut to my home screen! I’ll be doing this with the limited number of sites I bother to visit now as I think you’re right, AI is about to really mess with algorithms.
I really hate those “Top 10” type of articles when it’s quite clear it’s just a combination of different reviews thrown onto 1 page. They never make sense, the pros and cons always contradict each other, etc. I feel AI will bring more of that.
Absolutely, Sam. It’s really easy to write a generated “top 10” list of products based on Amazon descriptions alone, and I’m sure AI tools will be able to pop out a few dozen of those articles without breaking a sweat. Strange, because how can you really rank products you’ve never used?
A thoughtful and worthwhile post, Spencer. Big changes are coming, for sure.
But my two cents on the AI paragraph on photography:
Yes, it is well enough written and not obviously incorrect, but does it really say anything original? Not to me.
What AI will do, is doing, is expose the sheer redundancy of so much that is written by people on all subjects. Good riddance. I look forward to the growing irrelevance of Twitter and all the other platforms that make it so easy to spout off.
What remains worthwhile is original and creative thinking and expression, and there will always be a place for it. L
That is a good point. Let’s say I want to write about something that no one has written about before, like “Lizard Photography in Place XYZ”, AI could not write a convincing article. Someone else mentioned a review of a lens.
However, I don’t think AI will expose any redundancy or fluff because a lot of sites already write a tremendous amount of fluff of the form “Top 10 XYZ” where they have not even tested the gear themselves, and unfortunately those sites are already doing very well, partially due to search engine gaming.
I think you are very right, that original and creative thinking is very worthwhile, but at the same time, getting this type of material out in the world by itself is rather difficult. It is not that people do not value it, but that people’s typical habits combined with tech giants make it difficult for people to realize that it is worthwhile and/or find such material.
Fair points, Jason. Though I doubt it was ever easy for any writer or creative person to get recognition even if he or she was a genius. Some only get recognized after their deaths, sadly.
I do disagree with you a bit, however, re the fluff sites. My sense is all the folks writing pablum will be replaced by bland AI stuff, which won’t stand the test of time. Hope so, anyway.
The world needs more quality, less quantity, thinking and creating.
Really interesting points, Tim, and I agree with you. My one question is whether it will get harder for people to find that original, worthwhile creative thought in a deluge of AI filler content. I don’t think it will be much of a problem for bigger, existing sites like ours, which will probably keep having plenty of reach. But I wonder if newer creatives will find it increasingly difficult to break through.
Please see my last comment to Jason, Spencer. Surely, it is always harder to stand out in a crowd, and the volume of verbiage on the web is a crowd!
Probably takes lots of original thinking, savvy marketing, and luck!
Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I do think that original thought surfaces more often than bland imitation and repetition.
Your website does stand out, and your success must reflect an appetite for thoughtful writing and analysis.
Newer creatives will surely have to work harder and perhaps partner more with those like PL with established scale.
All the best and thanks for your excellent work.
Photography is something open to (nearly) everyone on the world, and about progress. Things have developed and hyped (color-photo, Panorama, ..), others have gone (HDR is not as relevant is 15 years ago). The progress can only be based on individual experience.
AI systems can only process information which is already there ; ChatGPT has it’s limit in the year 2021 (trainingsdata was create before that date). Everything after that date cannot be correct.
I enjoy (nearly since beginning of PL) that I can read experiences, such as the first lens-tests by Nasim with identical photos though several lenses with both optical and handling comments. Or the Noise-Reduction articles (e.g. Stack many identical pictures, and get noisefree pictures). This is the experience what works best, and not which thoughts have most often shared.
This is, what I like best from PL, and that cannot be replaced by any technology like AI.
Thank you, Joe. That’s a great point, the AI will reshuffle existing content, but it’s not going to invent something totally new, like reviewing a camera or lens for the first time. I’m glad you’re enjoying those parts of Photography Life.