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.