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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

Does AI mark the death of real photography?

I'm sure that it hasn't passed you by the use of AI is suddenly everywhere; and photography has not escaped. You may have seen this article about a photographer who won a prestigious international competition with an AI generated image, with the intention of kickstarting a debate about AI in photography.  


So, in this blog, I wanted to tell you my views on AI in photography, and show you an example of how I used it recently. I would also love to hear your views by commenting at the bottom of this post...

Photo modification is as old as photography

The first point to make is that photo modification and manipulation is as old as photography. Back in the days of prints produced in darkrooms, the photographer could modify the photo by manipulating the amount of light that hit the photographic paper by literally waving their hand over the paper as it was exposed to light. 


In the modern era, it still makes me chuckle when people on social media try to claim that their photo is "pure" because it's straight out of the camera; in reality, what they are really claiming is that they have simply left the photo modification to the software writers at their phone or camera manufacturers, since unless the photo is a 'raw' image, corrections have been automatically been applied by their phone or camera (see this article on raw versus jpeg camera outputs).

AI is changing the game

Although for decades, software could be used to significantly manipulate images (so much so that the term 'Photoshopped' entered mainstream vocabulary to mean a photo that had been manipulated) to do this type of manipulation required specialist software and skills to match, However, the rise of AI has rapidly brought significant manipulation (adding or removing objects or whole parts of images) into the mainstream. For example the Google Pixel mobile phone Magic Eraser function, which uses AI to automatically suggests objects or people that are distracting in a photo and prompts you to seamlessly remove them. 

Does it matter if photos are manipulated?

This is where we move from facts to opinions! As a landscape photographer, a large part of the enjoyment of the genre is in planning a photo shoot around weather and tides, getting out of bed early and driving to a location in the dead of night in the small hope that everything comes together and Mother Nature puts on a light show at sunrise. In other words, it's the difficulty in capturing a beautiful real-life scene that is at the core of the enjoyment of landscape photography, and is also a demonstration of the skill of the photographer.   


I also do some manipulation to my photos; the extent to which I am prepared to manipulate them is a purely personal decision and includes:

- Basic corrections to contrast, brightness and saturation

- Removing small distractions (e.g. a branch poking into the side of the frame)

- Combining multiple photos taken at the same time to extend the dynamic range (bracketing) 

- Merging different photos taken at the same location but at different times on the same visit (e.g. merging a blue hour shot with a firework shot taken an hour later


However, there are a number of types of manipulation that you regularly see in photos all over social media, that I personally refuse to do such as:

- Replacing a boring sky with a beautiful sunrise sky from another day (or even taken by another photographer) 

- Producing multi composite shots (such as merging a photo of the main subject with a background from a totally different shoot)


In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with these major manipulations, however I do think they start to cross over from photography into photo art, and personally I believe that the photographer / creator should state that they are composite images, and not a single photo, otherwise I believe they are being misleading. 


As an example, I remember seeing a photo on social media that was shared by David Attenborough; it was a beautiful image of a snowy landscape with a barn owl flying over it. However, it was clear to me that it was a composite, since the light and shadow on the barn owl did not correspond to where the sun was! The original poster had not stated that it was a composite, so unsurprisingly the thousands of people who shared it assumed that it was a single photo by a talented photographer. In reality it was a pleasant snowy landscape and the creator had overlaid a picture of a barn owl from elsewhere, and not even done a great job of it! There is nothing wrong with creating this type of digital art, but by not stating that it was a composite, I believe the thousands of people who shared it on social media were misled.   

AI further blurs the lines between photography and art

With the recent adoption of AI, the line between 'real' photography and digital art are now being blurred even more, and as a photographer I am having to decide if, and how I am prepared to use AI in my photography. As an example of the potential power of AI, below is an example of how I have recently used the so-called Generative Fill (AI) in Adobe Photoshop on one of my photos.  


Last week I took a trip to Paignton in order to take a photo of the Christmas Train of lights. I had carefully planned the time and the location so that I could get a shot that was different to the ones that I had taken before of this colourful festive steam train. The first photo below is a single photo that I took with the camera.  



I was really happy with this photo, apart from one thing; I wish I had used the camera in portrait mode, so that I hadn't chopped off the top of the steam cloud! The more I looked at the photo the more annoyed I was that I hadn't done this when I had taken the photo, as the missing smoke plume really detracted from what I thought was pretty good photo. So what could I do about it? I could go back to Paignton another evening and try again (another 80 mile drive and 4 hours of my time), but instead I decided to take the opportunity to have a play with Generative Fill (AI) in Photoshop. 


After checking out a quick online guide to how to do it (see here) I opened the photo in Photoshop, and after a couple of simple steps and a 30 second wait while AI did its thing, I had a new version of the photo shown below...  



My reaction was a simple 'wow' to the potential power that AI can offer photography. In my purely personal opinion this was a legitimate use of AI, as it significantly improved the photo without radically changing it from the original that I took with my camera. What do you think? I would genuinely love to hear your views and generate a discussion, so please comment at the bottom of this page [to do so you will need to subscribe to my website, but I won't use your sign-up details for anything dodgy!]...


I'm taking a break

This is the last email of 2023 as I will be taking a break until the new year. I hope you have found these emails helpful during 2023, and I wish you and yours a peaceful Christmas and a creative 2024.


Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography in 2024, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses if you're Devon-based, as well as residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers for those who are not. I also offer gift vouchers for any of my courses if you'd like to persuade a loved one to buy a course for you as a gift!


A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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