I normally don’t weigh in on topics like this, but I have been getting some emails about it, so I will throw in my ten cents worth. If you have watched the internet photo blogs recently you might have heard about the AI generated landscape image that won an Australian photo contest. The image was entered by an AI company without telling the contest it was an AI created image. The image won the contest, and the AI company came clean, making their point that AI generated photos are as good as those created in a camera in the field. But are they really ‘that good’? It depends on how you define photography.
There is no doubt that AI generated graphics and photos are changing the creative industry (not just photography). At your computer you can tell an AI program to create a certain scene or look and within seconds you have a ‘photograph’. Same with writing a college essay…just tell an AI program what the topic is and what class level, and your essay is written. Advertising and commercial photographers will have to compete with AI generated images in the future. But what about a wedding photographer? Do you want AI generated images with your faces, or do you want someone to actually photograph the real experience? Who will catch those intimate moments that only those who were there will know how it happened? Same with sports photographers…they have to record the actual experience in images. AI can create generic sports and wedding images, but so far AI can’t predict the future.
Let’s not forget AI is being used in our software like LR and PS. When was the last time you hit the ‘Auto’ button in Lightroom..this is AI computing at work. I use the Auto button often, so technically I am using AI in my photography right now. And AI helps you choose subjects with the new masking features.
A lot of what AI is doing now reminds me when Photoshop became popular and suddenly you could remove or add objects, change positions of people, move pyramids… Every photo became suspect; did the photographer actually take the shot or did they do something in the computer? Was there any truth left in photography? I have had editors through the years ask for my RAW files to verify things were captured in the camera. Remember just recently when sky replacement came out….anyone could add a new sky with a click of the button.
It seems there are countless ethical levels in photography today. What you can do…and not do in your photograph. If I am a news journalist and pose subjects in certain areas of the street for a shot then I have crossed an ethical boundary…this is no longer reportage, I am manipulating the scene for an image I have in my head., but it might not have happened in reality. For wildlife photographers feeding birds seed seems to be accepted, but feeding mice to bait owls crosses a boundary. Is your behavior helping or harming animals in the field? Landscape photographers don’t like the addition of elements that weren’t in the original scene…just look at the categories for photo contests. Digitally altered or only baseline edits applied (and what specific sliders can be used).
Let’s bring this back to the AI photo that won the contest. The owner of the AI company had this to say about his computer generated photo: “…we didn’t need to wake up at sunrise, drive to the beach and send a drone up to capture the image. We created this image from our couch in Sydney…”
Wow, all the reasons he states as hardships and problems are exactly why I take photographs! I can sit on the couch all day long, and so can everybody else. For me photography is about the personal experience of creating in the field, working hard for my image, not just hitting a keystroke on the computer. I have been very lucky to travel the world for 40 years creating images, experiencing different cultures, making new friends, witnessing amazing wildlife encounters and watching the northern lights dance across the arctic sky. These moving experiences occurred because of my photographic passion, and created the person I am largely today. For me, photography is about the experience as much as the final image. Images I create in the field are my attempts to show and communicate to others the deeply personal experience I have in the field taking the image. Without the field experience (you know…getting up early, freezing my hands, hiking to the mountain top), there is no passion or emotion in my images.
It’s true that the cost savings and simplicity of creating an image from your couch will appeal to many parts of the photo industry. No more big budget shoots, just hit the AI button. And maybe some folks can’t travel, can only stay at home, and creating photographs on the computer is very rewarding. It is a privilege to travel the globe creating images. My perspective on this new AI trend is to ask yourself what you really enjoy about photography, and what satisfies you the most in creating your images. Unless you are shooting assignments for clients, your work has to be satisfying to you and no one else. You choose whether to share your image or hang a print in a private room at home.
Take a look at the image above. I shot this image about a year ago in Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico. If I entered sunset, sandhill cranes, water and New Mexico into an AI photo generating program then it might create this exact image. But for me, personally, this image floods me with memories because I was there in the field taking the image. The air was dusty and cold, and the sound of hundreds of sandhill cranes cackling in the air was overwhelming. I had been out for hours driving and hiking around with my big lenses…I was tired and hungry. As I sat in the dirt along the road I watched in disbelief as one of the most spectacular sunsets transformed the sky into shades of orange and red. Cranes fed in the water only a few feet away while other birds parachuted into the shallow water at sunset. I kept hitting the shutter almost shaking with excitement. This was a sublime moment I would never forget. And that is what I love about photography, capturing incredible moments in the field witnessing the wonders of nature, culture and the human spirit.