Is Photography Dead? The Relentless March of AI

Is Photography Dead? The Relentless March of AI
With Adobe's latest beta offering what they call Generative Fill, we're given a very powerful feature that lets us create or undo what is in our images. And I think features like Generative Fill are causing another round of soil searching, praise, and panic from photographers. I've tried to put my own thoughts in order, so I'm humbly sharing them, even though my thoughts will continue to evolve, or maybe devolve. I also wanted to create a forum in comments for your more recent thoughts as AI becomes more and more mainstream.

I've been playing with the Photoshop beta for a couple of days, and I have to admit it is a knockout. Adobe has put some great effort into these new AI tools. While slow to get into AI, of late, Adobe is picking up momentum, responding to customers who are demanding new and better AI tools. 

The Adobe Generative Fill is mostly impressive. Unlike Adobe's Content Aware fill, it removes people or objects and pretty much leaves a credible background in place. 

Here are some automated mannequins at the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ.

I selected the center gunfighter, pushed the Generative Fill button and added no text instructions.

Boom! The man is gone, the background is filled in, other than a suspicious black box the AI delivered. It's easily erased.

In this example, I had a throwaway shot of some cacti at sunset.

Using generative fill, I asked for a few more and it delivered. I'm not sure they are a totally believable addition, but the AI did get the lighting right. 

So, Should We Be Thrilled or Terrified?

Maybe a little bit of both. Every advance in photography has been met with suspicion and naysayers. The switch to digital quickly became an us against them thro down, but rather quickly, digital became a match for film, and in most ways exceeded it, especially in dynamic range and detail. 

When Photoshop and other digital editors came out, there was criticism from many corners saying the result would be a bunch of trick shots and not art. And there were a lot of trick shots. HDR went through the same rite of passage, although I sense the use of HDR has become less popular as we get better sensors with more dynamic range. Still, every so often, I see a tasteful (to me) HDR image that blows me away with its beauty and restraint. 

So, here we go again. With these new advanced tools, we're going to see a lot of awful photos, but photographers will find ways for these AI features to speed up their workflow and become more productive. They'll also learn to solve image problems in seconds that would have taken hours before or been simply impossible to accomplish.

And let's not forget to thank Adobe, Skylum, and the others who are pushing the boundaries on AI to deliver tools we could only dream of having even five years ago. Now, the photography world is changing very rapidly, and criticism, both artistic and technical, has not caught up yet. 

To my mind, photography has always been about the art of seeing, not the art of doing. The seeing begins with the composition, the lighting, the color, the shadows, the textures, and the subtleties. If I need to summon some AI to complete my vision, so be it. Ultimately, the art comes from me: my eye and the eyes of every creative photographer out there. 

As someone told me years ago, if we give Ansel Adams' camera to a guy off the street, we get crap, not magic. It was all about Adams' vision, not his gear, or in the present case, the software.

I'll look at each AI tool as it comes along and see if it furthers my art or cheapens it. It's true that even now, we can't always tell if a photo is real or AI. To some, that really matters. To others, they look at the final product and like it or they don't. At the end, if it will be art or not, I think will be dependent on the vision of the artist.

So, is AI the end of photography? To some degree, the kind of photographer you are will answer the question for you personally. I don't see wedding photographers, for example, being heavily involved in this, other than maybe using it to save some previously unsavable images. I would think most customers would want fidelity of the event. It's the same in sports and news photography. People expect and should get reality.

In advertising, AI will continue to make large inroads. Not so much for portrait photographers, but AI is already being put to some use there, enlarging smiles, getting rid of blemishes, etc. 

For landscape and nature photographers, I predict a robust debate, with heavy use in some circles, avoidance in others.

Please share your thoughts below.

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I've given up "soil searching" (paragraph 1)...not enough gold in them thar hills

Generative fill is not a problem at all. It does an impressive job at replacing/removing simple or obvious details by not entering any key words, but the result with key words didn't impress me so far. I attempted to add a tornado behind my subject and it never provided something close to what i expected while it did good with other specific fills. It's probably me, but I felt like wasting an hour only to not get anything close to what I wanted at time. I've read also that Adobe is looking to implement a system of points to limit access which is already not sounding attractive.

Painters have the freedom to include our omit whatever they want in their compostions. If they are painting a scene of a sidewalk cafe and a car comes along and parks in front of it they don't have to include it in their painting. They can paint what they saw behind it. Photography is not dead. It has just become more imaginative. It's Art.