Will AI Art Replace Photography?

January 16, 2023

I've written about AI before in an article titled, Is AI Bad For Landscape Photography?, and my conclusion was that it could be used for good practical application in terms of printmaking. Topaz Labs is a company that specializes in innovative photography software to overcome technical limitations. Many photographers use their services and I doubt that most people have any ethical concerns around its' use as the tools are not designed to deceive or be a replacement for creative input. This article is about a more controversial application of artificial intelligence however.

The current investment hype in Silicon Valley is around generative artificial intelligence. While the concept of AI has been around for decades, generative AI is about creating new content based on imagery, sound and text. This is a relatively untapped market that can have wide-ranging implications ranging from practical, philosophical, economics to ethics. Google and Microsoft are two tech giants that have have recently ramped up their investments around this type of technology. In Google's case, they appear to have been caught flat-footed here as they likely see ChatGPT, a recently-released chatbot, as a threat to their core search business. Microsoft has decided to get ahead of the curve by investing $10 billion into OpenAI which could possibly be integrated into their Bing search engine among other things.

What is DALL·E 2?

DALL·E 2 is a large-scale language model developed by OpenAI. It is a follow-up to the original DALL·E model, which was released in December 2020. DALL·E 2 is a transformer-based model, like the original DALL·E, but it has been further fine-tuned to generate more diverse and coherent outputs.

One of the main features of DALL·E 2 is its ability to generate images from text descriptions. This is known as "image synthesis", and it allows DALL·E 2 to create new images from text descriptions that have never been seen before. DALL·E 2 is also able to perform a wide range of language-based tasks, such as text-to-speech, language translation, and text summarization.

(The above section was written by ChatGPT based on several prompts by me.)

It's pretty wild that software can learn from crawling hundreds of millions of images on the internet to create entirely new images on demand. Out of curiosity I have decided to test this out for myself. I've included AI-generated photography & illustrations that I made in DALL·E 2 and Midjourney to accompany this article. Each took about ten seconds to generate. Is this art? You be the judge.

Is AI a Threat To Photography?

It depends on your definition of threat. In its' current state I don't see the quality being up to par with most professional photography. In addition, while these files are acceptable for blogs and social media, the resolution is very limited at this time. There is also relatively little control over the output aside from text-based prompts. Someday in the near future I could see some photographers losing some commercial work or licensing opportunities to generative AI artwork but how is that any different from anything else that has changed the photography industry over the years from rights-managed stock photography to microstock agencies to crowd-sourced "assignment photography" and Instagram influencers? Industries evolve all the time so those who evolve with it survive and those who would rather complain about it don't. Generative AI art will only improve over time. This is not going away anytime soon. I personally think this is fascinating technology. While this will not replace photography for me, I could see myself using some elements of this for illustrative-purposes when the need calls for it.

Why Photography & Art Will Never Be Replaced by Generative AI

The difference between AI-generated artwork and photography is that photography at its' heart captures something that actually exists in real-life. No matter how amazing AI could ever look, it can never physically be there nor replace what photography represents. Sure, for some commercial uses, clients may not care how the art was created as long as it fits a certain aesthetic but for other purposes such as fine art photography prints, people generally do care that a real person saw something and captured an image of it. It is a human-based connection. While some might argue that Photoshop renders this a moot point, I have to disagree. To create photography, someone still has to see a real-life subject and photograph it first. And no, I'm not arguing that photography is 100% true-to-life. I'm just saying that photography has its' unique qualities that other types of art can't replicate. Conversely, AI is not real at all. Art is not just about aesthetics. What art represents is as important if not more important than what it looks like. AI can mimic and create a lot of things but it can never be you, Marc Adamus, Albert Bierstadt or Salvador Dali.