The Rise of AI and Impact to the Future of Photography
Not surprising since writing this article only a few months ago, the AI world continues to evolve quickly. Even the staples in photography processing like Adobe are fully embracing it. The latest being Adobe Photoshop generative fill, taking a photo and making it many times larger by completely creating the area beyond the original 4 walls of the frame. To think all this time I thought Nirvana's Nevermind album was photographed in a pool. Now we really know that it was an ocean filled with sharks!
I have also seen several photos in the last couple months on social media that I was sure they were AI created. Then after pausing I either realized it was a photographer I knew that doesn't create AI art or it noted that it wasn't AI created work. The lines are truly blurring. The following quote has rung true for me. A photo is as "factual" as we interpret it to be because the photographer made choices on what to include and exclude when clicking the shutter.
"Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts" - Garry Winogrand
Yet now those four edges have the ability to be completely altered to create something that never existed when the photograph was simply digital bits added to a media card.
For me nothing changes at this time. I continue to enjoy the act of creating what is still defined as a photograph. I will continue to follow the advancements of AI and what it will ultimately mean for photography, and art in general.
It's no secret that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere. I can hardly read the news without a new article in how it's being used or a company developing new AI programs. We all knew this was coming at some point, that shouldn't be a shock. The real eye opener at least for me is how quickly it's advancing and likely to be engrained in more of our daily lives sooner than later. How students and schools navigate education, how everyone gets information, the millions of jobs it will change or be eliminated, and even how it impacts the creative world which I work in. These are just a few of the many changes on the horizon.
When it comes to AI and photography, everyone has an opinion, obviously including me or I wouldn't have written this blog post! The first question I ask myself is what fears do I have in regards to photography I create and teach today. At this time I have no fears. On the creative aspects this isn't Chicken Little, the sky isn't falling. That said to me it's not photography, it's in a class of it's own. Even if an AI algorithm is scanning hundreds of photos to create a new piece of work it seems too removed from the original process to be a photo. Taking a look at the definition of photography on sites like Wikapedia it seems there is a case to be made that it's not photography.
"Photography is the art, application, and practice of creating durable images by recording light, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film."
While I am taking time to lift up the AI hood because I think it's important to know and see what is going on, I am not interested in making it part of the work I create today. The reason I got involved in photography is for the connection and experience I have while creating art which happens to be photography. When I create a photograph it starts with the click of the shutter on my camera in some location, typically outside in nature somewhere. While I may take artistic liberties to complete a final photo that I will share or print, it all starts with what I am seeing through the viewfinder or envisioning, and if not abstract has a sense of the place or environment it was taken in. Basically some level of fidelity to where I took the photo that AI may not have. I won't say my work is "real" or the "truth" because they are loaded words that is open to interpretation by the viewer.
If the starting point of creating new art is sitting at my desk drinking a cup of coffee trying to decide on the best wording for the AI prompt it would be missing the true human experience that I associate with why I do photography in the first place. I won't get the connection with outdoor environments inside my office creating AI art. When I look at the photographic process from beginning to end I often enjoy my time being in the field creating new photos more than being home doing photo editing. This explains my large backlog of yet to be processed work.
This isn't to say AI isn't present in some aspects of my photography workflow. I would be in denial if I thought so. For example one third party program I sometimes use, Topaz AI (it's literally in the name). It aids in certain aspects such as enlarging work for printing, removing noise, and more. More and more we have tools at our finger tips process image files that incorporate AI. Programs like these can assist but I am not using them to create artwork for me and they don't polish a photo into a nice diamond that is a piece of coal to start with.
There is the large lingering question if current AI software is infringing on copyright. All of these programs are scanning the work that is available online as input to these AI tools with output being a new image to a full term paper. What is my take? As much as I would like to keep my work from being included it's likely going to be hard to prove copyright infringement. Getty Images wasted no time suing the creators of Stable Diffusion. Not that I am a Getty fan but they have a slim chance of some case simply because it seems their watermark is showing up on the output. In general though it's going to be hard for most photographers to prove with concrete evidence that the work in question used a specific photographers photo. It would only be possible if the AI art took exact identifiable pixels from your image (for example the exact rock in your nature photo) and put it into the new piece unchanged, but that isn't what is happening.
This is no different for other mediums I would assume. Now that we have AI emerging that can create music it would be the same. In the non-AI world if I take a half dozen songs and remix them into a new song that I release commercially it's a copyright issue if I don't have written permission from the original artists. This is because you can normally clearly hear a string of beats, notes, voices, etc. that you can trace back to the original song. Similar to the photo challenges this is unlikely the case for AI music either. All of this of course is for those with law degrees to battle it out, likely in the courts for a long time to come.
The Value of Photography
As AI related work that looks like it could be a photograph becomes more and more prevalent I foresee a world where the interest and value of distinct and quality photography actually increases. This means some work will be less sought after because AI can do the job at a fraction of the price. As it stands visual AI is mainly getting good at creating fantastical work of made up locations yet I expect it will evolve photo realistic results for specific locations soon. I say this because creating work that looks like photos from specific locations isn't often a fully accurate representation of the area. Even before AI blew into the scene the proliferation of highly composited work was already making me unsure when I saw some grandiose scene on social media if it was based on a real experience or skillfully created digital art. While some companies will gravitate to leveraging AI work make no mistake in some cases AI is likely a ways off.
The pre-AI photography example I point out is one where an ad agency was going to use a photo to represent an area for a tourism marketing campaign. The marketing manager for this project brought the photo home to her husband (a photographer and friend of mine). He said the photo isn't taken in the region it's supposedly representing based on geographic features and type of vegetation. Sure enough he was right and the ad agency had to make the effort to take a new photo in the correct location. He saved a potentially embarrassing public issue for the campaign. AI will need to get these nitty gritty details down solid before it can be relied upon for serious business scenarios.
I will also say that I respect and appreciate many forms of art which includes high levels of digital creativity to create a landscape scene that isn't representative of what was witnessed at the time a person stood in a location to click the shutter. It may not be the cup of tea to create yet I still appreciate it if I find a piece engaging, even more so when photographers are honest about their style of work. This means not pretending it's representative of a place someone can experience when in truth it's a comprehensive artistic creation. Just be authentic about the type of work you create, there is plenty of space for everyone to create what we enjoy. When someone completely fabricates a story and photos like the snow leopard saga of 2022 they will find themselves in the center stage spotlight that no one would want to be under.
Therein lies the issue with AI. We are seeing stories like this Instagram "portrait" account that admitted after obtaining a large number of followers that almost all photos were AI generated. Or this story where an AI image was submitted to a photo contest, then it won. The creators of the work said it was an experiment that they planned to come clean after it was over, which they did. The fact that the judges didn't think it was a computer generated digital creation and when it was announced as the winning photo there wasn't a barrage of fakery comments, shows we can all be duped. Over recent years with advances of technology everyday people, not simply experienced photographers, are questioning many photos they see if it's some epic creation fit for a dystopian novel or an actual place. But like this contest, it's been shown that even highly manipulated photos aren't easy to spot. This means unless it's a crappy composite or garish AI image, many people either won't know or simply won't care. If it turns out we want or need to know the difference it will be tech that will solve it with the ability to determine it's source or how it was created.
While I am not interested in incorporating AI created work in what I do today, I would be foolish to say never. It's also not something to fight from moving forward. This never pans out well looking at the past. The podcast episode One Year: The Day The Music Stopped is a great reminder why digging our feet in the ground won't turn back time on new technology. It would be a little like film photographers in the year 2000 saying they want to stop digital cameras from being created and sold as they started to emerge for consumers. Just over 20 years later film photographers are still around yet it's mostly a niche. I say this as someone that follows some great photographers using film today. I enjoy great photographic work, I don't care what is used to create it. One of the few trophies I kept from awards I was fortunate to win in the 2000's is a glass pyramid with the Kodak logo etched on it. I kept it for the part of history it represents to me during a time that the world was quickly adapting to digital cameras and the beginning of phone cameras that would soon be ubiquitous.
As AI continues to evolve it's possible it's a more substantial part of what I do a years from now. I can't see where it will be at that time to make any bold declarations. It's not far fetched we all will be using cameras with advanced AI built in. In the near term maybe we will see less of the flashy influencer types racing to photograph and share the location of the next hot spot. If truly experiencing the outdoors isn't their goal they are likely to switch to AI. This would be a win for our environment.
On the other side, the potential dark side of AI, is definitely looming in my mind like many of us. I have to hope that we find how it can be used in a positive way for our society, beyond playing with the creative aspects, and that is the direction we need to advocate for. Tools are already being used to predict crime in advance (moving towards Minority Report) and the swift AI advances will likely see more of past Hollywood theatric sci-fi come to life. I realize AI is coming into view when the already human created social media apps hasn't panned out well so far. Ever the optimist yet not naïve to what may be coming. When I hear about companies like Snapchat starting to incorporate AI because they expect humans will be chatting with an AI bot just like they do with friends today it causes me to pause with a sense of worry. Pondering what may be a dwindling future for human-to-human interaction. As for jobs many will be altered and lost, however if history is any determinant significant advances with new technology often create as many new jobs through what is typically a bumpy transition. While it's not clear to me how, hopefully we see the same with AI.
It will be interesting to see how AI art evolves, the train has just left the station and has a long ways to travel down the tracks. For now I will continue to making the photographs I do today, helping others get outdoors to create what is meaningful to them, and enjoying the experience that comes with all of it.
Everything you see on my website galleries originated from a camera I was using. The AI photos here are for illustrative purposes. AI programs I used for the work you see here include: Starry AI, DreamStudio, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney (accessed through Discord). When it comes to nature photos I found Midjourney with an edge in creating "the best" work. Regardless of AI tool most of the time refining your prompt and image to build from will need to go through many iterations to get what you want in the end. Additionally, it's not uncommon for artists to use tools like Photoshop to make further creative changes. For these photos it was no more than a few rounds on one prompt before I moved on.