The Ramifications of AI on Photography

Originally published at: https://www.naturephotographers.network/articles/the-ramifications-of-ai-on-photography/

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and How Does it Work?

If you have been paying any attention on social media these days, you might notice that there are a lot of photographers that are incredibly excited about this new thing called AI image generation, and an equal number of photographers who are losing their minds over it. Photographers are screaming at the tops of their lungs: “AI is the end of photography!” I can only imagine that this is what it must have been like when Photoshop was first introduced or when the first digital camera was advertised. Whenever there is a new system or technology introduced that has the potential to be very disruptive, you tend to see people get angry, nervous, excited, and sad – some all at once! While this is understandable, I don’t think the sky is falling quite yet! Let’s examine AI and how it may or may not impact us as photographers.

For starters, if you want a fantastic primer on how AI systems work in more detail than I can provide here, you should check out the excellent article by Tim Parkin in his magazine OnLandscape. In a nutshell, computer programs are written to examine millions of images, training the AI system to learn how to generate similar images based on keywords and text prompts. Now, let’s first clear up a common misperception about AI – these systems do not “store” your photographs and use them as references to paint new versions. Rather, the systems use an algorithm that looks through many millions of images that have text associated with them (think keywords and alt descriptions), which then generates a database of concepts, shapes, colors, etc. based on these keywords and associated images. This database can then be tapped into by the system when a prompt is typed into the system which then returns a series of results that may or may not resemble what was entered as text. For example, if you typed “A Colorado Lake at sunset with Mountains” into Midjourney, a popular AI generation tool, it may return a result that somewhat resembles an actual location but not exactly. The more words used in the prompt may let the user hone in on a result that they really had in mind but in actuality the user has limited control over the final result of what the AI system creates for them.

How are Artists Using AI?

There is not really a limit to what you can do with AI image generation and I think that is why it is so appealing to creatives like photographers. Some photographers are generating AI images and sharing them on social media to great fanfare. Others are taking their own photographs and uploading them as inspiration for the AI system to then make changes to it based on word prompts. For example, I uploaded my photograph, “Capitol Peak Clearing Storm” and added the words, “Red Sunset Colors, Snowy Trees, Birds flying through clouds” and asked Midjourney to imagine it as a new image. 

Or you can upload 2-5 images and ask the AI system to blend them into a new image. The results are interesting. What I am seeing some photographers do is take these photographs and then work them further inside of Photoshop in order to make artistic adjustments to them to match their vision for the end result. Others yet are using AI as a conceptual starting place for a sequence of images based on a theme. And others yet are simply uploading the results and calling them their creations with little to no explanation. Whatever you think about the above use cases, I can verify that it is fun to take the systems for a spin. 

What About Copyright?

I’m sure by the time I’m done writing this article there will be new news about the copyright implications of AI generated images; however, as the case stands today it looks as though there is some clear guidance emerging from the courts on this. While the copyright office has declined to register works created “solely by a machine with artificial intelligence,” it seems somewhat likely that it will be possible to register AI created images due to the fact that user-initiated prompts are needed to generate the work. With that being said, as I’m writing this article today, the U.S. Copyright office issued a ruling on a case involving a graphic novel. The graphic novel was written and “illustrated” by Kristina Kashtanova using AI generative imaging where Ms. Kashtanova made very minor changes to the AI generated images she used in the novel. Set aside the fact that Kashtanova used the likeness of a real person (the actress Zendaya) to generate the prompts, as that may invoke other questions you might have about the artistic provenance of the images. In the end, the Copyright Office granted copyright to the novel itself but not as AI artwork:

“The Office has completed its review of the Work’s original registration application and deposit copy, as well as the relevant correspondence in the administrative record. We conclude that Ms. Kashtanova is the author of the Work’s text as well as the selection, coordination, and  arrangement of the Work’s written and visual elements. That authorship is protected by  copyright. However, the images in the Work that were generated by the Midjourney technology are not the product of human authorship. Because the current registration for the Work does not disclaim its Midjourney-generated content, we intend to cancel the original certificate issued to Ms. Kashtanova, and issue a new one covering only the expressive material that she created.” 

As far as AI generated images meeting the standard for copyright, we still don’t know for sure and I think this will be battled in the courts for a long time.

On the flip side of the equation, there is mounting pressure from artists claiming that these AI systems are using their copyright-protected work to “train” the AI systems, without their permission, thereby violating their copyrights. To understand why this argument likely won’t go very far in the court system, we must first understand what copyright plaintiffs must prove to get infringement damages:

  1. That the copied work was protected under the copyright law (easy).
  2. That the copied work was actually copied because there is a substantial or striking similarity between the original and accused copy (not so easy).
  3. That the copying is not excused in some way (i.e., fair use – almost impossible).

Based on these three criteria that exist for copyright infringement, it seems unlikely that any plaintiff could win a case. While it would be simple enough for them to prove that their work is protected by copyright, there is rarely little to no similarity between the original photographs and the AI generated images, which makes it hard to prove substantial or striking similarity. In fact, it is unclear whether any particular AI generated image can be traced to any particular training image. Even more problematic, earlier court cases have permitted near verbatim reproduction as a fair use such as with the Google Books case. The courts perceived that the end result was  transformative enough in character to allow fair use. As such, it seems very unlikely that the courts would now rule that AI generated images, which barely resemble the underlying training images, would get past the fair use doctrine. 

Are AI Generated Images Considered Art?

I’ve seen a lot of photographers exclaim things like, “AI isn’t art!” At first glance when AI images started popping up, I held similar beliefs, until I did some thoughtful analysis on what constitutes art to begin with. First of all, I think we tend to hold art in higher regard than we probably should. The litmus test for something to be art is actually quite low. For example, someone actually auctioned off an invisible statue made of nothing, for over $18,000. Certainly the buyer thought it was art. The dictionary says that art is, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Using this as our yardstick, are AI generated images art? I suppose one could argue that entering prompts into a computer system requires some creative skill, and certainly imagining the end result that went into the formulation of those prompts requires some imagination. So, I would argue that AI generated images do pass the “art” sniff test; although, I would personally not place a ton of value in said art since I don’t think it requires a great deal of skill to create. That’s my own personal value for art however, and you are free to value different things in different ways. Art is kind of awesome in that way.

With all that being said, I think some photographers should probably get off their high horse when it comes to evaluating AI generated imagery in the context of creativity. I am personally seeing much more originality from some AI “artists” than many photographers who simply replicate popular iconic destinations or copy someone else’s composition (sorry if that offends you).

Who is the Artist – Man or Machine?

Certainly a fair question to ask when evaluating an AI generated image is who should take credit for the result? Is it the person who input the words into the text prompt, the software engineers that programmed the AI system, the creators of the images that were used to “train” the AI, or the AI algorithm itself? I will admit that my initial reaction to AI images was not positive and I had no desire to give credit to the person who entered the text prompts. I suppose a middle ground is a more reasonable position to take, and I also believe that the amount of “effort” that went into the imagining of the prompts paired with any work done to the end result would help to qualify some level of artistic claim by the person entering the prompts. But perhaps this is an interesting cross-road of human creation where-by all involved parties deserve some credit for the final creation? Given what we know about how AI image generation works, why should the end result belong to a singular entity anyways? It is going to be fascinating to see where the courts and the Copyright Office take this concept going forward and I think it will be a very bumpy ride!

Is AI Generated Imagery Considered Photography?

Interestingly, I got into a very rigorous debate about this very question with a fellow photographer on Twitter who was making the case that really anything could be considered photography and that we shouldn’t put rules around what is or is not photography. I found that line of thinking to be a bit ludicrous myself, mostly because concepts, ideas, and objects have definitions that have been established and carefully defined over long periods of time so that there is a general understanding amongst humanity as to what something is or is not. With that being said, another venture into the dictionary provides clarity as to what a photograph is: “a picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused onto film or other light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment, or stored digitally.” So, by following this definition, I don’t think one can make a cogent argument that AI generated images can ever be called a photograph. I can personally only think of one reason why someone would want to pass off an AI generated image as a photograph and that would be to deceive their audience, like this guy did. You see, for generations, humans have come to an understanding as to what a photograph is and what it represents – someone’s interpretation or documentation of an event, moment, or object – captured with a camera. A camera is a device which requires some skill to use; whereas, AI generated images use a computer algorithm to generate an image based on a prompt of words. These require vastly different skill-sets, learning curves, artistic direction, and training to use and therefore should not be classified as the same thing.

How Will AI Disrupt Photography?

Like all new technologies, AI has the potential to be massively disruptive in the photography industry. Certainly if I was in the business of creating commercial conceptual work for large brands I would be very nervous about my future as an artist. Imagine a company like Disney creating their own AI dataset of all of their own characters and then having the ability to mock-up a new movie story-board almost instantly. I certainly feel for the artists working in those capacities as their future is likely murky. Fortunately, I think that AI will have little to no impact on most other forms of photography and may even open new doors and opportunities for artists to experiment. In regards to nature photography specifically, I don’t see AI having much of an impact. Afterall, people still prefer real world experiences over virtual ones since we are social animals connected to nature. There will always be a market for helping others experience a deeper connection to nature through traditional photography and photography has proven itself as a popular hobby that encourages outdoor recreation. 

Pessimistically speaking, I do think AI has the chance to disrupt more traditional landscape and nature photographers seeking to sell their photographs as artwork to the general public, whose ability to detect manipulated photos of real-world scenes is extremely limited. Recently, I saw a post on Instagram where people were fawning over a “photograph from Yosemite,” only to later learn it was generated by AI. Still, hundreds of comments poured in asking the “photographer” what it was like to capture the photo, etc. Yikes! Additionally, as more and more AI generated images that continue to blow people away flood the marketplace, I think more traditional nature photography will lose additional mass appeal, especially on social media. Unfortunately, social media algorithms help to determine what gets seen and if something has immediate visual impact, like most AI generated images do, then they will rise to the top and get seen more than traditional photography will. One thing is certain – the genie is out of the bottle and he’s not going back in.

Are There Any Silver Linings?

Fortunately, I think that AI will have little to no impact on most other forms of photography and may even open new doors and opportunities for artists to experiment. It also can be an awesome tool for people to express themselves without having to leave home. Most importantly though, I think there are three silver linings that should not be overlooked. First, AI image generation still has a lot to sort out. It is notoriously bad at rendering body parts such as hands and fingers and I think most of the images look quite fantastical and gaudy. Second, I posit that some photographers that are purely motivated by extrinsic rewards such as Instagram followers, likes, and comments, may decide to shift to using AI, reducing the overall pool of people engaging in ridiculous and damaging behavior outdoors. Third, I think this is an opportunity for nature photographers to differentiate themselves as being able to offer real-life experiences in nature, which have so many positive impacts on people’s lives, ranging from improvements in mental and physical health to an increased awareness of environmental issues.  

Are There Ethical Considerations?

I think if photographers are to use AI to create images, and later share them online, they should be honest about how the work is created. I think there is a fair assumption by most folks that work shared on platforms like Instagram and Flickr are assumed to be photographs unless otherwise said. If you are known as a photographer already it seems fair to postulate that most people seeing your images will also assume they are photographs. No one likes to be lied to. I don’t see any downsides to being honest about your chosen medium of art, so be proud of what you have created!

How Can I Get Started in AI?

While I am sure there are many ways to get started with AI image-making, I’ve found the Midjourney platform to be the best and most accessible. It requires you to use discord, which is a fantastic application and website that hosts servers for text, audio, and live chat relating to the server’s purpose. Using Midjourney requires you to become familiar with the various types of prompts that can be used, and they offer multiple ways you can augment your creation using various parameters. Using AI to make images can be a lot of fun, so why not give it a shot? I’d love to hear your comments below, if you have any (bonus points if you use AI to generate them). 


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Thanks for this Matt.
A good friend of mine, an accomplished portrait and street photographer, has been going over to the AI dark side lately. His characters look like they were generated by a comic book AI program, with superhero and fashion model features.
He didn’t appreciate me suggesting he was being sucked in by the photo equivalent of a video game.
James Hendon

Very interesting, Matt. I’ve been hearing a lot about A.I. generated photography lately but was having a hard time imagining what might actually be involved. While it isn’t a process that appeals to me for a variety of reasons, I do think it is and will even more become, a viable tool for expression. As for, “what is art?” I am of the school that art is fundamentally about intention, vision, and process, not product. After all, what can we say about Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a seminal and iconic work of art that, as an physical object, is nothing more than a mass produced urinal signed R. Mutt.

Thanks for the summary and thoughts on AI in photography. My undies aren’t in a bunch about it, as it doesn’t affect my work. I can see how someone doing product/commercial photography might be worried, though.

I would add that the general public’s appreciation of nature photography is limited in the first place. Gaudy HDR and overly processed scenes have always been big hits; more naturalistic scenes and “unperfected” natural scenes, not so much. I confess this has bugged me for awhile now. Those absolutely perfect scenes (grand landscapes and small scenes, alike), without a hair out of place, are just soulless. AI is only going to exacerbate this trend.

In light of my opinions on that subject, and to garner bonus points, I tried ChatGPT to generate a reply to the query regarding “use of AI used to generate idealized depictions of nature.” It expressed my feelings about the subject pretty well. To wit:

"As an AI language model, I can provide an objective response to the use of AI to generate idealized depictions of nature.

One of the concerns with using AI in landscape photography is that it can lead to the creation of unrealistic or idealized depictions of nature. AI-powered tools can be used to remove imperfections, enhance colors, and even generate new elements that were not present in the original scene. While this may result in aesthetically pleasing images, it can also create a distorted or exaggerated representation of nature that does not accurately reflect the reality of the scene.

Furthermore, the use of AI to generate idealized depictions of nature can contribute to a disconnection between humans and the natural world. By presenting a version of nature that is polished and perfect, we may become further removed from the messy and unpredictable reality of the natural world. This can lead to a sense of dissonance or disillusionment when we encounter nature in its unaltered state.

It is important for photographers to consider the ethical implications of using AI to manipulate images of nature. While certain forms of post-processing are generally accepted as part of the photographic process, we should strive to create images that are honest and authentic representations of the natural world. By embracing the imperfections and complexities of nature, we can create images that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also contribute to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the natural world."

P.S. Did you generate that image of the alien hand holding an astronaut in a jar? :grimacing:

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Yeah It bugs me too =)

LOL! Spot on!

Yes I did! It took me like 30 minutes to get the prompt right.

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This may be a bit of a side tangent, but I am curious when you think someone needs to disclose how their images are made. For example, in the past you’ve mentioned people should be honest when compositing, and here you say they should be honest when generating images with AI.

To be honest, when it comes to sharing my work, I am very lazy and want to do as little work as possible while still putting it out into the world. Almost all of my postprocessing ends up being basic raw edits, minor color adjustments, dodging and burning. Occasionally some mild to moderate cloning, and even more occasionally mild stretching. I have basically no desire to use drones, composites, or AI.

Do you think I need to include “I am a human and I took this photo with a stationary camera on a tripod and it’s a single exposure and here’s a list of things I did in postprocessing” on every one of my photos I show online? It sometimes feels like there’s an unspoken “default” case where no disclosure is ok, and then invisible tripwires to be wary of when using certain techniques.

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I think there’s a reasonable expectation that when someone looks at Brent Clark’s photographs that they are pretty natural and no such disclosure is needed. I think once you start pushing things in terms of compositing, swapping skies, or basically mis-representing the scene for the purpose of insert reason, it only seems fair to say as much - at the very least when asked. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect it 24/7/365 but I also can see how this would get tiring.

I guess another reasonable question would be - why try to pass something that’s not a photograph off as a photograph to begin with? I’ve still not once been given an answer to that question that isn’t rooted in some self-serving purpose resulting in deception and an audience left feeling duped.

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My view is AI is a train wreck for the artist that uses it. Not because of the result per se, but because more simulacra further severs the connection between humans and nature. Sure, my camera is a machine, but I have to be in nature to use it, and it requires skill. AI in my camera to focus on eyes at least requires me to look at nature through a viewfinder. Typing text in to a box to generate an image from other images holds no value for me at all.

Perhaps we can create a “slow photography “ movement that compares to AI like “slow-cooking” compares to fast food.

Note I’m not a Luddite. I work in high tech and design the stuff that powers everything from cell phones and MRIs to AI hardware. I just think technology has consequences, sometimes good, some times not so much.

Here is a question, would you trust an AI to diagnose and prescribe your meds? Its comming, and then the outcome is suddenly going to really matter.

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To me, lack of authenticity just means commodity rather than art. If someone lies, they just reveal they are in an exchange relationship, and not even an honest one. It’s a moral question for me. That said, if the art is obviously not reality, it speaks for itself. Nobody needs to disclose to me an ICM is not real.

One word: transparency. I can understand and appreciate art for the sake of art. However, if “artists” have a need to fool their audiences, that is questionable and unethical.

Matt, thanks for sharing your views and starting a dialogue, which will likely go on for quite some time, I believe.

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Thanks for crafting this wonderful article. It will be a fun ride to see where AI takes us, and by us I mean humans, not just photographers.

This story reminds me of an “argument” I once had with an octogenarian that was part of a small photography group. We would get together, share prints and discuss them at length as a learning experience. One time he exclaimed that one of my prints was just not realistic. It was a scene from a Colorado lake with burned trees and some smoke still lingering from a forest fire. My processing of the digital image to produce the print involved a bit of dodging and burning and one exposure adjustment to lift the shadows. When I asked why he felt it wasn’t realistic, he said it just looked fake. Ok… Still confused I asked, so what prints always look real and his immediate answer was the work of Ansel Adams. My response was that I’ve never walked out in nature and viewed it through my eyes in Black and White, so which part of that is realistic. Let’s just say we never came to an agreement on the topic!

AI is here, and it is here to stay. Embrace it, play with it, use it on occasion, or ignore it. For me, the images I capture while out in nature are the least important part of the entire experience. The most important part is being there, wherever there is. That won’t be replaced by any technology in my lifetime.

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Thanks for your response, Keith, and yeah, the argument about photography being “real” is a tired one although I do think viewers expect photographs to at least somewhat represent what the photographer witnessed to some degree… it’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not the photographer has met that mark or not. And of course, not everyone has this expectation, which is totally fine too.

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Yeah to your point, there’s much more impactful things coming relating to AI than how it impacts the art world!

A great article @Matt_Payne and I’m enjoying reading eveyones input on this topic!

I’m responding to this AI “craze” along with some inspiration of one of your latest podcast episodes with Walid Azami by raising the prices of my photographic prints. If AI generated art is going to flood the market, and I think that it will, there is no way I can or am wanting to compete with that so I’m choosing to go after a different market entirely - one that appreciates and values human-made art. :slight_smile: I don’t really care if I sell less because I’m doing what makes me happy and what feels right to me.

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Very interesting and incredibly comprehensive article, @Matt_Payne!

I’ve dabbled a bit with Midjourney, mostly for more unrealistic or fantasy based images, but also for some landscapes, just to see what I could accomplish with it at its current level.

While I found it to be most rewarding and impressive in a “instant gratification” sense, compared to nature photography, it’s like cheap fast food vs. fine dining or even a good home made meal.

Beyond being a cool pastime, the closest useful/creative perspective I can see is for illustrators and some painters or digital artists, as a sketch pad or visualization tool for exploring ideas and concepts.

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This reminds me of a passage in Susan Sontag’s book *On Photography." It may be relevant to this point of being real or art or both. Sontag says:

But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.

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You couldn’t have explained it better. I love to stroll around, and sometimes I photograph the scenes that move me. I never “construct” images or go out with a specific idea about an image.
I don’t understand the ongoing discussions about “photography as art”, it doesn’t interest me. I like or don’t like an image, creative/original or not. If someone likes to build an image in his computer, so be it. He missed the essential part of being outdoors. (A lot of photographers miss that too, by the way, chasing images).
Yes, AI will be embraced by the popular media. The only thing that might sting me a bit, that it takes skill to make a good photograph. That skill is a lot less important with AI. But that feeling is similar to what I felt when the digital era started. It took me a lot of time to achieve the results I wanted in B&W printing. Those skills suddenly turned useless. Before going digital, I spent time at apug.org… Maybe a similar road is ahead.

Thanks @Matt_Payne for your interesting article!

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Right on man, glad you enjoyed that episode and this article!

Hey Matt, enjoyed your article and podcast on AI.

The podcast had a good mix of passionate guests and offered a variety of viewpoints.

It was great hearing everyone’s take on this hot topic, even when things got spicy.

I started using Stable Diffusion and MidJourney about 6 months ago.

They are wonderful tools and I think we have only just scratched the surface regarding the creative ways we will find to use them.

Unfortunately, with such rapid changes, there is always a greater chance that there will be those that are adversely affected by it. I don’t think we have a good idea to what extent that will be, especially since it will be hard to quantify what losses in revenue creators will be subject to. In some cases, I suspect it isn’t a zero-sum game scenario.

Personally, I’ve never tried to use the software to recreate the types of images I take with my camera. I enjoy the whole process of creating images the old-school way too much. In fact, one of the most rewarding parts for me is just being out in nature, and taking in the experiences with all my senses.

I originally got into using AI to create album covers and thumbnails for my songs and then eventually started making music videos.

Are AI Generated Images Considered Art?

This reminds me of a hot debate we had within our local photography group a few years ago.

The question was, “Is photography art?”

My view was and still is that it isn’t.

It’s like asking the question is painting art?

Is a painter an artist?

Not all the time, but they can be.

It’s interesting how the meaning of words can change over time.

Maybe the skill sets are originally named for a more utilitarian purpose, like painting the wall of a house and then broadened to include more artistic endeavours, like a fine art oil painter.

Can photography be art?

I think it can be, but the act alone isn’t the qualifier.

I think the same can be said about AI generated images.

Is AI Generated Imagery Considered Photography?

I think at this point in time for most people it probably isn’t.

However, words and definitions can change with time.

We tend to think that the words are actually the things themselves and forget that they are just representations of how we observe the world around us.

Awful

In Old English, ‘awe’ referred to “fear, terror or dread”. This later morphed into a solemn or reverential wonder, and ‘awful’ and ‘awesome’ were synonymous with awe-inspiring. Later, ‘awful’ took on a solely negative connotation, and the word found its modern-day usage to mean extremely bad. ‘Awesome’, meanwhile, evolved in the opposite way, probably in the mid-1900s, and came to mean extremely good.

Fantastic

Coming from the old French term fantastique via medieval Latin and Greek, ‘fantastic’ originally referred to things that were conceived, or appeared conceived, in imagination. It’s only recently – some sources say in the 1930s – that it took on another meaning of extremely good or wonderful.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find that AI-generated images will be considered photography in the future. I suspect that the majority of people responsible for adopting the name will not be the creators of the images but those that use them.

How Will AI Disrupt Photography?

I agree with you, I think the more traditional photography will be disrupted by AI. Especially since AI is heavily trained and weighted on content from the past.

Are There Any Silver Linings?

I like you list of silver linings.

As you mentioned I think the more that AI crosses over with photography the more creative we will have to be to stand out from the AI flood of images coming our way. Maybe we will need to shift our emphasis further away from the past and the present and focus more on the future. when it comes to our creations. Instead of copying what was done in the past and present use them as a springboard to push ourselves into the future and think about what could this scene become.

I’m not sure what the future holds but I’m sure it’s going to be fantastique!!!

You can check out my AI video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhrGvB8sfhM

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Thanks Andre!

For those that have not listened/watched the podcast I did on AI - you can find it here:

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