With the capabilities of image-processing software increasing every day, what does photography have left to offer?
Today: sky replacement. No, wait: automatic sky replacement. No, wait again; sky replacement with lighting adjustment. “AI art” from DALL-E, so engaging that people say “wow” and photographers spend hours fiddling with it. “Filters” that make people look like celebrities with perfect skin. “Upsizing” software that spins out new detail to fill the gaps.
It’s only getting worse (or better, if that’s how you see it). Eventually, people will be able to get any image they want right off-the-shelf, then adjust it to taste via sliders with labels like “Colorful”, “Moody”, “Glamourous” or “Edgy”.
Artists will, of course, find ways to work with all this. But what’s left for photographers? Two things, as I see it: authenticity and originality.
Authenticity just means an actual photo. I’m not a “straight from the camera” guy – we can clone out distractions, combine exposures, adjust dynamic range, enhance colors, all sorts of things. But the end result has to feel real: it’s an actual place, it was really raining, it’s a genuine object aged by time, the bird was really there. Yes, software can create those illusions, although “deepfakes” of celebrities are easier than believable synthetic landscapes. Authenticity is about stuff that’s impossible to explain or quantify; we just know it when we see it.
Originality doesn’t mean something that’s never been done before; it just means the idea came out of your head. You decided what to shoot and how to get it, you did the composition, the processing. It sn’t a mashup of stuff scraped off the web by a guilt-free “AI”. You didn’t just click a button labelled “optimize”. It’s intentional, not the output of algorithms.
Having said all that (and you may not even agree) here’s a photo I did recently, which I will say is authentic and original. I did extensive curve adjustments, pushed areas to black, combined exposures (to bring in more lights on the highway), and adjusted color to convey how the city felt as I stood there in the dark, listening to the traffic, and maybe reflecting a bit on the 50 years I’ve lived here. Not everyone will like it… hey, that’s the best part.