I can’t think of any technology right now that has more hype around it than artificial intelligence. It’s not entirely unearned hype, either – I tend to be pretty skeptical of “the next big thing,” but some of the feats in the AI world are nothing short of stunning. It’s already impacted almost every field in some profound ways, from medicine to art – including, very visibly, photography.
To that end, I’ve seen a few questions float around in various forums, including:
- Is artificial intelligence harming photography?
- Are AI-generated (or AI-supplemented) photos really “photos”?
- Can AI-generated images be considered art?
Those are some deep questions, and I think they call for a moment of introspection as photographers. What really makes a photo a photo? People have been manipulating photos since the dawn of photography, and it ramped up dramatically with Photoshop and similar tools. But right now is the first time that “photos” can be generated from thin air – type a short prompt, and you’ll soon immediately have a picture of whatever you want. Say, a photorealistic image of a ladybug on purple hydrangea flowers.
I can’t see the future, but I have been wrestling with these questions for a while. Photography is my hobby and my livelihood – it’s also a source of many of the most important moments of my life. Of course I don’t want to see it decline or be replaced by AI.
It’s for that reason that I would pose a different, but closely related question to help us answer the previous questions more clearly: Why is it that you do photography in the first place?
Figure out that question, and the rest follows.
Table of Contents
A Brief Background
Before anything else, I want to make it clear what I mean by “artificial intelligence.” It’s a term you’ll see everywhere, but not everyone agrees what it means, and a lot of marketing teams seriously stretch the definition.
For this article, the artificial intelligence that I’m referring to is image generator type – where the AI invents an image from scratch (well, from a database of existing photos) based upon keywords or prompts that you type. At a later date, either I or one of our other writers will publish an article discussing other AI/machine learning tools, like upsampling, noise reduction, and so on. But it’s the image generator AI that has the potential to rewrite photography as we know it.
That brings me back to my question from a moment ago: Why is it that you do photography in the first place? Depending on your answer, you’ll gain a lot of insight into what these AI images will mean for you.
Why Do You Do Photography?
1. Photography for Its Own Sake
To put it plainly, I like photography. Whether I get a great photo or not, I feel the same – it’s really enjoyable just to go out with a camera in hand.
As hobbies go, photography gets full marks from me. It’s creative and analytic at the same time. It rewards your effort and gives you tangible results. It also blends well with other hobbies and professions – I know many scientists, car enthusiasts, art collectors, and others, who turned to photography to supplement those areas of their life.
Taking pictures also gets you moving. I’ve always liked hiking and spending time outdoors, but as a landscape photographer, I find myself going out into nature more often than I ever would otherwise. Many of my favorite memories are moments that I only experienced because I’m a photographer – seeing bear cubs in the wild, getting caught in a sandstorm, hiking a nine-day trek in Iceland, and more.
In other words, photography doesn’t need to be a means to an end. It’s worthwhile in and of itself, even if you don’t bring back any photos that will go on your wall. Many of my favorite days of photography didn’t result in a single good picture. I love the process, and that’s enough.
How does this relate to AI? Quite simply, AI is a different process. Maybe you’re someone who gets enjoyment from typing keywords into an AI generator, seeing what pops out, and modifying your prompt until you have an interesting image. I’m not. The novelty was fun the first time I tried it, but the idea of sitting in front of a computer any more than I already do is almost repulsive to me now.
2. Photography to Record Memories
Do you know what subject I photograph the most? It’s not my favorite landscapes in Colorado, or even product photos for my reviews at Photography Life. It’s iPhone pictures of my cat.
No, that answer does not evoke the spirit of Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson and the etherial magic of photography – but in my defense, he’s a cute cat. When he does something silly, I take a photo, end of story.
For most people, especially non-photographers, photography is about recording a memory. How many of us got into photography in the first place because we wanted a way to capture memories from a trip or pictures of our family?
I don’t need to write a thousand words to say that AI simply cannot touch this side of photography. At best, one day, you’ll feed an AI generator some photos of yourself, type a few sentences, and get something vaguely resembling a memory you have. Any time that you want to really document a trip, a concert, a wedding… forget it. AI will never replace photography in this area.
3. Photography to Earn Money
Let me start by saying, if you went into photography to earn a lot of money, I question your judgment (although I congratulate you if you succeeded). Every photographer I know started photography first because they loved it, and only later – if at all – turned it into a career.
But let’s say that you don’t care about photography, ethics, real images, or any of that nonsense. It’s all about the money, baby!
In that case, you might have something to fear from AI, although only if you shoot for some very specific industries. There will always be room for wedding photographers, real estate photographers, high school portrait photographers, and most of the other types of photography that earn decent money today. No matter how convincing an AI “photo” may look, it won’t be very useful if your client needs a photo of their house, and you’ve just generated a different house from scratch.
I’m sure, however, that real photography will lose ground in advertisements and product images. That’s already been the case for a while. (Many of the generic product photos you see on sites like Amazon today are not actually “photos,” and they haven’t been for years – although for now, they’re mostly 3D models rather than AI-generated images.) I’m also concerned for stock photography, which already has declined massively as a profession and will likely see an even greater loss in revenue in the coming years.
What if you’re clever and want to turn the situation on its head… to earn more money by creating and selling AI work yourself? It might work if you’re just trying to gain a following on Instagram. But if you’re selling to clients, not a chance. No client will pay you $1000 to generate an AI image to match their vision once they realize they can generate it themselves for free. There’s maybe a 1-2 year window right now where you can make money this way, because a lot of people don’t know how to generate these images themselves. After the technology has progressed just slightly further, you’ll need to find a new job.
In short, if earning money is your main purpose with photography, there is a chance of AI upending your career – it really depends on what type of work you do. Still, for most professional photographers, apart from advertisement photographers, I wouldn’t worry any time soon. Few people would want a computer algorithm (which wasn’t even there) to imagine their wedding from scratch, or to invent the winning moment in a football game based on a description of that moment.
4. Photography to Create Art
One of the main reasons why I do photography is to make art. You can call it pretentious if you want, but when I put creativity into my compositions and my prints, I see that as art. It is a way to create something tangible out of ideas and emotions, putting an image from my head into reality.
I’ve always had a broad definition of art. I think that any process which involves our creativity can be art – whether that’s cooking a good meal, singing a song, taking a photo, or painting a classical painting. Some people have much more limited definitions, and I’m not here to change your mind on that. But for someone like me who is willing to call a lot of things “art,” how does AI imagery fit in?
Despite my broad definition, my first reaction is to dismiss AI imagery as not art because it lacks the human side of things. That’s basically the view that the US legal system is taking right now in not allowing people to copyright AI images. Then again, I can’t deny that there is still some human element involved in making an AI image. You need a bit of creativity in order to choose the right keywords to type, then cull through the results and modify your keywords to get an image that you like, or that matches what’s in your head.
I would make the following comparison. Let’s say you decide that you want to display a seashell on a shelf in your home. You go to the beach and pick up a nice seashell, then discard it when you find a better seashell, and so on. When you get back home and put up the seashell, is that art?
AI is basically the same. You didn’t create the images, but you did find some that matched the idea in your head. Maybe that’s art to you, and I’m fine if you think so. Personally, I think it lacks the creativity that goes into other art forms, so I don’t consider AI-generated images to be art. And yes, people said that about photography in the early days and were proven wrong. But even if I’m proven wrong about this, it’s still how I feel about AI imagery today.
Let me return to the questions I posed at the start of this article. Hopefully the answers are clearer now.
- Is artificial intelligence harming photography? In some areas, yes. If you have a career as an advertising photographer, you may need to find another job in the next few years. And if you’re trying to gain a quick following on Instagram, you could be crowded out by AI-generated work. But in most regards, no. AI will never replace the fundamental reason that most people take photos: to capture a memory. Nor can it replace the photographic process – just going out and taking pictures – that attracted many of us to photography in the first place. And if you do photography as a form of art, AI is likely to be an unsatisfying substitute.
- Are AI-generated (or AI-supplemented) photos really “photos”? No, they aren’t. It’s a separate medium – you could call it photorealistic digital imagery. Photography is specifically defined as “drawing with light.” AI-generated elements don’t involve any more light than something like drawing a smiley face in Microsoft Paint. If you put even a small AI illustration into a photo, it turns the photo into digital art. It’s akin to replacing the sun in a photo with a clip art drawing. Whether that matters to you is one thing, but no, AI-generated images aren’t photos.
- Can AI-generated images be considered art? Sure, they can – everyone’s definition of art is different. I have a lenient definition of art and am still not willing to count it, though. Art is about creativity, and there’s not much room for creativity in the AI-generation process (basically choosing keywords and culling the results). Making a sandwich is a higher art form with more room for creativity. Although, AI images could always be a form of art if you add some creative flare of your own to the mix, like printing it out and shredding it.
There are many places where AI-generated photos concern me. Because it’s so easy to fake a scene (like the Pope image from a moment ago), it will be even easier to fool people than ever before. Propagandists will publish photorealistic AI images and contrived illustrations meant to inflame their readers. It’s already happening to a worrying degree. Not to mention that people will trust real documentary photos less and less, especially when they show something “inconvenient” to their beliefs.
As worrying as that is, it’s different from the question of whether AI will replace photography and render it obsolete. I simply don’t see that as possible. Did photography replace painting? It changed painting, but did not replace it. Likewise, artificial intelligence will surely change photography, but it can never capture genuine wedding photos or pictures of our families growing up. Nor can AI replace the reason that many of us take photos in the first place, which is simply that we enjoy it. To me, bringing a camera out into nature will always be more fun than typing words into a box. There are real reasons to worry about artificial intelligence, but outside of a few specific sub-genres, rendering photography obsolete is not one of them.
Based on the previous AI-related articles we’ve written on Photography Life, I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this are, to put it mildly, not fans of how the technology is being associated with photography. But I’d like to hear more. This is a nuanced issue considering that AI technologies have some obvious benefits in photography, like better autofocus tracking, despite all the potential concerns. Where do you draw the line? Are you willing to use software like AI upsamplers and noise reduction? What about AI spot-healing tools, or even more extensive edits than that? I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below.