AI this, AI that. I know, we’re all getting a bit fatigued with the conversation. But, the truth is, it is looking as if it will be the next major evolution in many industries, photography included. And so, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we must adapt or perish.
As the quote from HG Wells goes: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” All he meant by that is that the world is constantly changing — evolving — and if you don’t change with it, you’ll suffer. A similar and related nugget of wisdom came from the ex-England goalkeeper, Peter Shilton: “If you stand still, there is only one way to go, and that’s backwards.” That is, it’s not really possible to stagnate in many areas of life, as you’re either moving forwards or you’re being dragged backwards.
One area that epitomizes that struggle like no other is technology, which is pervasive enough that it’s difficult to avoid. Nevertheless, photography — while technology-centric — feels something of an outlier outside of major evolutions (perhaps even revolutions) of the craft. A photographer with a 1970s Praktica wouldn’t be eclipsed by a similarly skilled photographer with a Nikon F6 from 2004, despite them being vastly different film cameras. This is mostly true in the digital era, though undoubtedly, the photographer with the newest digital camera may have various aids and quality of life benefits. The fundamentals of a good photograph haven’t really changed, but what is possible has.
This is where we saw an unusual moment in the history of photography when digital imagery become not only possible, but viable. In the early 2000s, professionals left analog for digital en masse, and while there will be those that want to debate that, it’s self-evident. Most photographers who worked during the transition period couldn’t believe their luck; digital photography solved myriad pain points — film costs, development, not being able to review shots as you take them, etc. — and the DSLR was warmly welcomed for that. Nevertheless, it created an ever-widening chasm in many areas of photography between those who embraced digital and those who remained steadfast with film.
Although some types of portraiture, for instance, survived just fine with medium format film in the hands of artisan and veteran photographers, most other areas could not keep up with digital. Clients were given images earlier, could see shots on set, had more creative control, could carelessly miss shots and experiment, and so on. Wedding photography became more reliable by an extraordinary degree. Sports photography became more interesting and faster, as missing a key shot wasn’t as much of a concern. Photojournalism was revolutionized, as photojournalists could provide images as fast as the news could be written up. Those who stuck exclusively to film needed a locked-down niche, some fantastic contacts, and staggering technical ability to compete.
Then comes the even more uncomfortable truth: Whether the skill ceiling of photography was raised or not with the advent of digital photography is a debate for another time, but I would argue that the skill floor was raised significantly. That is, in the digital era, it is far easier to be an average photographer than in the film photography era. This made photography as a marketable skill easier, and in some cases, photography as a lucrative career, harder.
For most photographers, harnessing the power of digital photography put you at a distinct advantage over those who did not evolve with the technology.
How Is Emerging AI Similar to the Digital Photography Revolution?
How is AI similar to the digital photography revolution? Well, it isn’t quite yet, but it’s close. AI in photography post-production (and video too) has been creeping in regularly. Where we used to have to make painstakingly complex selections of subjects in Photoshop by hand, now we can press a button for the same results in a fraction of the time. This is just one of many examples. However, as every writer in most sectors has discussed in the past year, AI is growing and improving at a rate of knots and to a frightening degree. Within the next 5 years, I suspect AI will be embedded in damn-near everything, prompt-based image generation such as Midjourney will be almost indistinguishable from real images, and ChatGPT (or similar software) will legitimately replace many tasks in their entirety.
A recent study put ChatGPT against local GPs for patients getting online help for ailments. The study allegedly found that ChatGPT was more accurate from a medical standpoint, and bizarrely, had better bedside manner. I have seen two polar opposite reactions to this. One GP remarked that he was concerned about the role of a general practitioner in modern medicine. Another doctor who I happen to have on LinkedIn instead remarked that doctors combining with ChatGPT could lead to an incredible improvement in medicine and treatment. I couldn’t speak to what is more likely to be true, but what I can say is that historically, it seems that the latter stance gives the best chance of success.
In the context of photography, the heralding of the apocalypse that so many are doing with regard to AI is the first GP’s approach: useless (albeit justified) fear for the future. The latter is a photographer realizing that AI is changing everything and that we need to harness it, not resist or avoid it. Although some of this is theoretical, there is plenty that is actionable as you read this. At the most basic level, ensure you know how to use all the AI tools in your editing suites. Then, you can look further afield. There is AI to fully retouch images, to cull poor images from collections, and AI that can repurpose photos and videos for different content uses. Then there is the business side where AI can automate many tasks, create marketing campaigns, or overhaul your accounting.
AI can also already be used to augment your creative process. You can get AI to create your lists of ideas, or inspire you, or you can composite your real photographs with AI-generated images. There are, for all intents and purposes, infinite ways you can harness AI to improve your output, workflow, and creativity. You just need to put the time in to learn how to get the most out of it.
AI is still in the early stages of changing our worlds, but it’s inevitable. You could ignore this advice for perhaps several more years and suffer few ill effects, but eventually, you will end up using it or have to be that exceptional, niche, and romantic photographer that beats the odds. Yes, AI may lower that skill floor once more, allowing even terrible photographers to create decent images, but that ought to motivate you to use AI to push you to the next level, not harbor bitterness about the craft until AI achieves sentience and herds us around like aphids. We are on a familiar path in photography where, once again, we must adapt or perish.