AI has changed photography forever: but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come under a lot of fire recently. It has been accused of replacing human writers and coders, and even educators are concerned services such as ChatGPT will encourage students to cheat. Photographers are the latest group clutching virtual pitchforks and torches, as they try to stop AI from encroaching on their industry. But will AI replace human creativity, or simply enhance it?

It wasn't too long ago that traditional photographers were decrying the arrival of digital, warning it would slowly replace film photography. But, over time, many were forced to admit that the ability to see an image immediately after it was taken and make necessary adjustments was a good thing. Many have forgotten just how much the industry has changed.

Analog vs digital

Rather than replace human photography or creativity, digital provided greater creative freedom and flexibility. Storage and sharing of creative work and portfolio tools were quickly enabled across every device. Editing digital images using computer software also helped them to explore new creative avenues to bring their work to life.

Traditionalists will state a strong case for camera film's superior aesthetic and look over digital images. Film has a unique texture, grain, and colour rendering, arguably more artistic than smooth digital images. Elitists will also blame digital for devaluing the craft of photography by making it easier for anyone to create. But I suspect that most photographers would begrudgingly admit that they would not want to return to an analog world.

Waiting for a film to develop before seeing its images would put photographers at a severe disadvantage in 2023. Many idealists have conveniently forgotten about the developing costs as they fondly review the past through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Digital technology empowered a new generation of photographers by providing significant advantages over film, and once again, the winds of change are blowing through the industry.

AI vs digital

Mark Twain is credited with saying that history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme. Once again, many photographers are now afraid that AI will replace human photographers and lead to job losses. Many are concerned that the influx of AI-generated images on our newsfeeds lacks the creativity and artistry of human intuition and experience. In addition, some believe the images lack authenticity or personality and are ultimately soulless creations that are destroying the art.

However, AI-powered software can help automate mundane and repetitive photography tasks. In the same way that digital provides photographers with the gift of time and increased productivity, AI will automate tasks such as image sorting, object recognition, and editing. As a result, it will become much easier to improve image quality by identifying and correcting frequent problems such as noise, blur, and underexposure.

AI tools will also challenge photographers to think differently, and bigger, as new creative possibilities open up for photographers. For example, new technology will take editing and manipulating digital images in Photoshop into new territory, as AI transforms how photographers create stylized photos and add special effects.

AI-generated art

AI will undoubtedly play a crucial role in making it easier for photographers to capture, edit, and share high-quality images. But it's also beginning to cause controversy with the ability to create a new subgenre of art. This year, we have already seen AI-generated pictures that are surreal, abstract, or even photorealistic.

However, rather than replace human creativity, AI produces the best results when collaborating with photographers on artistic projects. Forward-thinking artists and photographers use algorithms to push the boundaries by generating compositions or even entire images, which they then use as a starting point for their creative process.

AI Time Machine from MyHeritage already allows users to transform their selfies into realistic fantasy historical portraits, while Lensa's Magic Avatars quickly converts selfies into pictures in various styles. But what started as a consumer-led concept is already making its way into the marketing and advertising departments of big business.

Last year, DALL-E, by OpenAI, was trained to generate images from natural-language text. As a result, it can quickly create images, from illustrations of objects, animals, and scenes, to more abstract concepts such as emotions, ideas, and even fictional characters, allowing marketers to turn text briefs into visual art.

Education, education, education

The journey from analog to digital was just the beginning for photography. Rather than resist change, as we prepare to enter a new era where AI and humans complement each other's strengths to push the boundaries of creativity, photographers should learn how it could transform their workflow.

There are many online resources, such as the Digital Photography School, that provide a variety of tutorials on AI in photography, including how to use AI-powered image-editing software and how to use the technology to create images. Predictably, Adobe's Creative Cloud platform also includes several AI-powered tools for photographers, including Adobe Sensei, which uses machine learning to enhance images and automate tasks.

DeepDream is a program initially developed to help Google engineers better understand the capabilities and limitations of neural networks. It's worth checking out and has gained popularity among artists for its ability to create surreal and mesmerizing images. Darkroom is another AI-powered image-editing software that uses machine learning algorithms to automate and enhance the photo editing process. It is designed to help amateur and professional photographers improve their workflow and produce high-quality images more efficiently.

Suppose you are interested in going a little deeper. In that case, there are many courses on AI in photography, including a course on machine-generated art and one on using the technology in image editing on the Coursera online learning platform. Ultimately, AI is not the big bad wolf. It's merely a tool to assist photographers with their workflow, automating technical tasks and providing new creative possibilities.

Democratizing creativity through AI

Somewhere along the way, Big Tech convinced the world creativity was all about a handful of people with the best techniques and software skills. The reality is that it’s inside the imagination of each and every one of us. AI could help millions of people bring their creativity to life. It has the potential to augment and accelerate the creative process, making it easier for individuals to unleash their creative potential and create content that resonates with their target audience. In short, AI serves as a valuable assistant rather than a replacement for human creativity.

It could open the door to less experienced users from various backgrounds to create high-quality content without needing an expensive Adobe creative cloud subscription. Don't be fooled by lazy headlines suggesting that it's a replacement for a professional photographer's artistic and creative ability. The one thing that has not changed is that the true artistry and vision of photography will always come from the photographer's personal touch, skill, and how they leverage the increasing number of tools at their disposal.

AI has picked up the baton from digital, and is empowering photographers by transforming their workflow and images. There is a strong argument that by automating cumbersome tasks, photographers can free up more time and energy to focus on redefining and enhancing creative opportunities.

This is not a time for binary thinking or knee-jerk reactions to technological change. Alternatively, maybe we should reflect on how the industry has evolved over hundreds of years and will continue to do so. There will undoubtedly be benefits and drawbacks, but understanding how you can leverage AI in photography to enhance the creative process and help a new generation to thrive in the industry should be something to celebrate rather than fear.

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