My social feeds are full of one thing right now – photographers talking about AI generated images. And it surely promises to be the biggest disruption to the field of photography since the advent of digital itself.
Firstly, what is it and how does it work?
What we’re talking about here are systems that create images from text based inputs. You just type what you want into a box, and the AI produces an image based on that. A convincing image. A realistic one. One that is indistinguishable from a photograph.
For the purposes of this post I used DALL-E 2 to try and create images that were similar to my own photographic style. So I asked it for the things that I like to photograph.
Here’s an example.
In this case I used the words:
cairngorms scotland scots pine blizzard dramatic clouds
About 3 seconds later it gave me these results:
So just to be clear, none of these images are real. They aren’t even real places; they never happened.
They don’t just look good though. They look gorgeous. They really do look like something I might have produced myself. For comparison, here are some real shots from earlier this year:
I think mine still have the edge in quality. But technology tends to get better. I won’t have the edge for long. Which means that now I have some terrifying thoughts.
1) It’s going to completely disrupt the commercial photography market. Why pay a photographer to go take a photo when you can just ask a computer to make you one?
2) Our traditional idea of copyright is completely unprepared for this.
3) We’re probably not ready for the sh!tstorm of misinformation and lies this will enable.
Okay, those are the big thoughts. But just to narrow the field a bit – what does this mean for people like me? Landscape photographers – whether your’e a professional or not?
Let me start with the positive – the one thing I’m certain of. The most crucial aspect of landscape photography will never be touched by this. The reason we all do it in the first place – for the experience of the place itself.
That’s not going to change – I’m pretty sure of that. So I don’t fear for my own future employment either, because the majority of my work is guiding and AI won’t change people’s desires to explore and see things for themselves.
But I do think it’s likely we’ll see more and more fake landscape photographers in the next few years. Folk gunning for big competition prizes with totally fake shots; instagram feeds full of gorgeous but unreal images; more and more people who value possessing an image over creating one.
That will just be a symptom of the fact that some people will always see more value in the possession of an image than the act of creating one. But it prompts an uncomfortable question. What value does a landscape image have?
Now I might argue that I’ve put years of sweat and toil into my photography. In order to get the shots I do I’ve spent decades getting to know the landscapes of the Highlands in intimate detail. I’ve learned the skills of survival in order to brave horrendous weather. I’ve learned to read and predict the weather and the movement of the sun and moon. I’ve practised navigating in extreme terrain and weather. I’ve learned the names of plants and the calls of animals. I might argue all of that, and charge accordingly, but at the end of the day the result you get is just an image on a screen. And now AI can produce just such an image at the press of a button.
So while the value of the experience may be inviolable, I really don’t know about the value of the image itself. Landscape photography is already a saturated market. With this? I really don’t know if there’ll be any commercial value left.
Except for this. The value of an artist’s connection to their audience. That will be more important than ever. For now at least, I know that my own audience still value the fact that my images are real – that it’s a real place, a moment that really occurred, that hasn’t been altered, and that it’s something they could share in if they visited that place with me.
So here’s my prediction. The human side of the story has never been more important. As much as we’d like our images to be worthy and valuable in their own right – simply by virtue of their own beauty – that’s just not going to be true any more. They will still have value though – in the experience of an act of creation, and as moments of a story that people will still want to join in themselves.
AI is going to be a game changer, and it’s here right now. Great if you’re in the market for cheap imagery. Maybe not so good if you’re an artist working with photography as your medium. Maybe it will be easier than ever to lie to each other, and ourselves. Maybe if that’s the case then truth will be more precious than ever.