AI photography: The end of photographers or a new beginning?

It’s not unusual to feel anxious about new technologies and innovations in photography, and what they might mean for your own work. It’s a constantly evolving medium and, especially in the last few years where it feels like there’s a new camera or technology coming out every week, there’s always some bit of kit to make you feel like you’re missing out and have a set-up that’s not new or ‘pro’ enough. 

Thankfully, I stopped getting hung up on that a few years ago. After all, the camera is only part of what makes a photographer. 

But when I saw a popular trend of people posting AI-generated portraits of themselves recently, something felt different. For the first time, I got nervous that this was something that might actually take my job, or at least large parts of it. 

So what are the possible threats that AI poses to photographers, and are there upsides to it? 

Let’s go back to that initial gut reaction of fear. What was I afraid of? When I started seeing these seeing these highly-realistic, beautifully rendered portraits created by AI using nothing more than a phone selfie being widely posted across Instagram, I thought to myself ‘we’re done’. If this is what AI can do already, what’s it going to be capable of in 2, 5, or 10 years? Corporate headshot photography is surely over. Why spend time and money booking a photographer when you could just get everyone in your company to upload a selfie to HR and then have AI generate a set of perfectly lit, matching studio-shot headshots for the entire team? AI which of course could produce multiple versions and angles of each photo if needed.

It’s hard to think of any other value we can offer over and above that. On that side of things, we could well be done. (See also: actors headshots perhaps?). So far, the machines are winning and that doesn’t make for happy reading for professional photographers.

So what can AI not replace, but enhance? Well we’re already seeing how AI tools can help rescue blurred shots, enhance and upscale low-res images, remove unwanted background elements and it’s autofocus-improving capabilities as with the new Sony A7RV so in terms of workflow there’s plenty for pro photographers to be excited about. But will all of our work be gone?

Well, as long as there are in person events, conferences, parties, weddings, live music performances, fashion shows and award shows, professional event photographers will always be needed to cover them!

Likewise fashion editorials, album covers, press shots and news stories will still need our services for a while yet.

It’s certainly difficult to predict how not only photography, but writing, graphic design, coding and film-making will be affected by advancements in Artificial Intelligence. We’re only at the start of what it’s going to do and it’s fair to say its impact could change everything about the way the creative industries work. I honestly don’t know what’ll mean for us in the future but my gut tells me that AI, although it might replace some areas of our work, will create many more in the same way the internet, smartphones and social media all created new digital ‘ecosystems’ for us to work in.

One thing that came to mind as I was thinking about this post was how, on paper, we’ve never had it so good as creatives. Technology has removed so many of the barriers to entry and democratised creativity at a level we couldn’t have imagined just 15-20 years ago. And yet, we’re anxious, paranoid about tech. Is that just a natural human reaction, to fear the new, the unknown? 

I’ve recently been seeing a trend of young people buying digital cameras from the 2000s as a reminder of ‘simpler times’ and how imperfect, noisy and blurry images somehow feel more ‘real’ than images from high-end cameras you see on smartphones now (Does that mean it’s better to have a worse camera in 2023? That could be a whole blog post in itself). It’s bizarre on the face of it but there does seem to be this desire for ‘realness’ and almost a nostalgia for constraint, for a time when our devices were limited and could only do one thing. It’s the same reason there’s been a recent resurgence in popularity for things like vinyl, cassettes and VHS. In our hurry to move to an all-digital, always-on, always connected existence, perhaps we’ve realised the value in simpler, more considered experiences.

That appetite for ‘the real’ is what resonates with me and is the reason I think AI is not ready to completely replace us just yet. In fact, in might take away some of the areas of photography that we don’t always enjoy as much and allow professional photographers to focus on crafting their best, most unique, high-end creative work. Perhaps photography will become a more ‘artisanal’ occupation? We might already be on that path; people already have the ability to take professional-grade photos on the camera that’s in their pocket, but clients still see the value in hiring a professional because of how we make our portrait subjects feel comfortable and relaxed to create natural portraits, how we capture the important moments faithfully at events and help our clients tell their stories visually with our work. 

In conclusion, I thought about the last time the phrase ‘we’re done’, it was probably about 4 or 5 years ago when another photographer showed me some shots she’d taken on a soon-to-be-released Huawei smartphone that she’d been loaned for London Fashion Week. The quality looked amazing, better than anything I’d seen from a phone by that point. I was worried.

But we weren’t done then, and we’re not done now. Our role and work may change, perhaps completely from what it is now, but we’re not going anywhere.

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