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Adapt or Perish: AI Is to Digital What Digital Was to Analog

Adapt or Perish: AI Is to Digital What Digital Was to Analog
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.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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It's another tool to add to a photographer's kit, and a very powerful one at that.

It's not the next stage of photography however, because AI is not photography. Both digital and analogue photography are about exposing light to a light sensitive surface whether that be a film, fabric, or sensor. AI is formed in a completely different manner and we need to stop confusing this discussion by assuming it has something to do with photography.

While it can create digital images that resemble photography, other than that it has nothing to do with photography. Just as a very talented painter may create incredibly realistic images - this still has nothing to do with photography.

I agree it's not photography. However, AI is advancing so fast that soon (years, if we, as photographers are "lucky") no one will be able to tell the difference. It's coming whether we like it or not. And I don't mean editing, we're talking about the creation of AI images verbally.

Creating random images in AI might replace stock photography….but if I’m hired for a wedding an AI image isn’t going to get produced with those people and that venue. Same with sports…I guess wildlife could get affected …but then you will have real photographers who say …”that is a real bear” and then coke will be like…”we want real bears to stand out from the rest”. AI is certainly not going to replace capturing the Super Bowl winning touchdown. Again unless you want a CGI version of it …which who would want that? Technically we can already get it - go see madden - so this will speed up the process but I again argue is SI really going to want an AI pic of the superbowl or the real thing?

Oh and photojournalists…isn’t there already a huge uproar about ethics if you even edit the exposure of photojournalistic photos?? So I’m sure AI generated photojournalism is NOT going to be a thing….unless we all embrace 1984 I guess.

A lot of folks are living 1984 without realizing it.

I said exactly these things commenting on a YouTube video recently. You cannot recreate real life events like weddings and sports plus the ethics of AI generated images of newsworthy events, war zones, politicians, basically all photojournalism.

Google, fake celebrity ai photos. All you will need is a few photos of said person, then you will be able to create any situation with that person.

But it comes down to ethics. It's not about whether you can recreate real people but about the ethical nature of it. Do you think an AI photo that depicts a famous person doing something they never would should be acceptable? How will we know what is real or fake and what would stop someone caught in a real photo, lets say breaking the law claiming its a fake AI picture. The legal implications are huge. I haven't even started on AI video.

Ask yourself honestly if you asked 100 people in the West if they could define ethics how many could. People are pragmatic, they soon ask the photographer to get lots of shots of the people, venue locations and just generate the moments in the style of movies or TV show lighting that they prefer.

That’s a dangerous rabbit hole you are suggesting there. If people use AI to generate photos of famous people and real life events, especially without permission we will see lots of them getting sued.

That's not what I suggested at all, I suggested that with source data of people's faces and costume it would be easy for ai to generate people's portraits in any of the locations the model trained on in whatever combinations people like.

The real slippery slope is when people use a particular photographer or cinematographer's signature style to train the model on if that breaks the industry. I think it actually does, and there's nothing in copyright laws that prevent it.

Absolutely, however one thing to remember is that those photographers who AI is replacing are going to go looking for other areas of photography that they can practice their skills and to earn an income. So being a wedding photographer, a sports photographer, a photojournalist, etc. is going to become harder and unfortunately it will also drive down income levels as more people chase the same number of jobs. Analog to digital showed this. AI is coming and it will impact us all in ways we cannot even imagine in both good ways and sadly bad ways. So the smart people will start learning it and the fools will debate it.

A large part of what is now considered photography has driftd into photo based illustration. That is, starting with a image and changing it to something (sometimes very) different than original. It's that image manipulation part of the business that will greatly be affected AI. No hours of post processing.

For those of us who think of photography as capturing an image as visually close as possible to the actual subject as viewed (especially in documentation and news photography), and leaving it as is, it won't change things much. (though it might encourage the use of cryptographically signed original images which cannot be modified without breaking the code. In the coming era of deep fakes, that may become very important).

Whilst I don't like to add or clone out objects into my photos I certainly play around with the contrast and often create photos that were not seen in real life. I do also like slow shutter photography to add blur. These are just simple artistic decisions but still a form of photo manipulation.

"...cryptographically signed images that can't be modified without breaking the code"

I've been wondering the same thing. I read in a photo forensics book that the easiest way to prove the origin of an image is to trace it back to the original camera through metadata. That makes me wonder if it might be possible to use the original camera as a direct connection to the internet and immediately upload images to a blockchain and cryptographically encode the metadata proving the origination point of an image. I honestly don't know how to describe an exact process but I think some kind of camera-to-cloud-to-blockchain is possible and maybe necessary for certain things like photojournalism and event/sports photography. Also, geopositioning data could be useful for proving actual places exist in landscape and architectural photography.

Just some thoughts...


There are two types of AI linked to photography.
The good one is the one that allows us to work faster on our own images.
The other one is based on stealing photos to generate image outputs that have nothing to do with photography.

Ah ah ah.

The term 'AI' is unfortunately being used to refer to a lot of different things -- none of which, by the way, are what the term was originally intended to mean before the marketing departments got hold of it, i.e., silicon-based sentience. At any rate, it's become a buzzword being applied to lots of disparate advanced computing scenarios, most of which only share one characteristic: using a whole lot of other people's work and then applying algorithms created by (human) devs to attempt to come up with a pleasing response.

What those programs cannot do is create... unless you count the crying-wolf effect (begun by the spread of Adobe's products), of mistrusting ALL of the images we see.

Little do you know. Yes, there are programs out there that can create images that look like photos. Right now, they don't all look great or perfect but it's coming fast.

It's true that some people consider a pastiche of others' work to be creating.

You're right. We're using Ai as a catch-all term and I've been doing that too.

I noticed that a lot of curators (at the mega galleries and others) are calling it "generative art."

Personally, I think we're screwed. But then painters thought that of us at one time. Whatever hppens, I think it will be all downhill from here. RIP photographers and true photography.

Imagine that, humans creating technology that will destroy millions of peoples enjoyment of creating Art and for some, their livelihoods.

Don't worry about the images that Ai will create, the real elephant in the room is monetization.

There is a myth that digital photographers ran film photographers out of business. That is dead wrong. Most successful (cashflow) film photographers were able to adapt to digital easily. The problems came when social media replaced print because social media is monetized differently than print. There was simply no way to charge the rates necessary to maintain the overhead of a traditional print era photography business anymore and that opened the floodgates to millions (literally millions) of cheap one-light guerilla style photographers with social media profiles. This change in monetization introduced a brand new type of photographer aka the rise of the content creator. Businesses don't go out of business overnight and this is a process that is still going on even today. Most photographers that call themselves professionals at this moment are actually content creators with maybe a few paying jobs as sidegigs. In the end, film photographers that adapted to digital lost out to content creators and that was totally the result of social media and had very little to do with differences in image quality between film and digital.

Most of the digital photographers saying "adapt or die" probably don't have a business plan that factors in the tokenization of hosting and the demise of web2 social media platforms based on advertising revenues from viewership. The early adapters to the web3 model are the nft artist and most digital photography content creators are not capable of succeeding at that because their portfolios were designed to be viewed for free and not purchased as investments. Basically, Ai images aren't necessarily going to run digital photographers and content creators out of business but the change in monetization due to parallel developments in technology probably will.

The real world isn't good enough, long live Fake.

I disagree. Art is expression of the individual human soul. Digital introduced an artificial view of what the human soul perceived. This was no different than when analog was introduced over the naked eye. However, AI is not the individual human soul reflecting his/her/its view of the world. It is a machine coalescing the collective experiences of humankind and attempting to render what it expects we will agree is a interpretation or expression of the experience. This makes it completely antithetical to art. If you apply AI in combination with a human's vision then fine, but AI alone is not art. Not even close.

"AI" is to today's lexicon what "e-" and "dotcom" were to the early 2000's. "AI" is a misused and misunderstood concept that thankfully does not yet truly exist. Yes, so-called "AI" automated tasks will likely further speed post-processing and basic editing. So, to a degree, I agree that photographers who learn to leverage those tools where applicable may gain some cost and time-to-delivery advantages over those who do not use such tools. That may mimic the film versus digital divide.

"AI" is not photography. The most urgent needs are to develop reliable tools to detect and expose images generated purely by AI just like those used to detect AI generated text.

But when a person saves a text, photo or video to 1's and 0's, it's been created and there's no cookie to track it's input.

I'm not sure if we're talking abut the same topic or not, but there is a book by MIT press called "Photo Forensics" that deals with authenticity in digital photography. The author also wrote a simpler book called "Fake Photos." He really demonstrates how difficult the problem can be and I'd imagine Ai just made it infinitely worse.

I don't know for sure if there are ways to prove authenticity with metadata or not because I don't know exactly how/when/if it can be faked. I'm wondering if photographers could someday shoot images straight jpg and upload them directly to the cloud upon capture fully encoded with geoposition metadata and have images automatically minted as nfts and entered into a blockchain with a history that shows no manipulation. That might be the way to prove at least that an image was captured photographically at an exact time and location and not manipulated, but that wouldn't necessarily prove that a human being took the photo. It's possible that a human may or may not have taken a digital photo, but we're definitely not going to be able to prove authorship of Ai generated images. Did a human prompt it or did a non-human prompt it? If we can't prove forensically that a human or a machine made the image then a human can't claim it's his property.

My thinking is that the problem of authorship is solved easily with a juicy piece of slide film or maybe even a polaroid because those are photomedia directly connected to a physical object through an exposure that probably was carried out by a human :-)

Just some thoughts...I'm still super open minded about where all of this might be going

Engineer who started working on AI in the 70's resign.


I don't have paid access to the article, but I'm sure that there are other sources to find on the topic.

I find what AI is doing to fine art and Landscape photography so distasteful that I'm shopping for Medium format film cameras and looking far a little space for a darkroom. I have no desire to measure my work against images generated from whole cloth that don't even have parts that we captured live. But in truth I even hold my digital work at the basics of Lightroom. now get off my lawn I suppose...

".... now get off my lawn I suppose"

What if all of those old curmudgeon film photographers were right about digital the whole time?

What if we just spent 20 years listening to a never ending parade of fake photographers mocking real photography (film) while hiding behind new technology because they had no talent and couldn't shoot worth a damn in the first place? What if Ai is the new technology that's now replacing all of the fake digital photo bloggers? What if "adapt or die" really means using an old technology to fight a new technology? What if Ai is actually photography's best friend and it was sent here by God to weed out all of the fake photographers from the real ones?

I think Ai is making fools of all of the fake digital photographers and bloggers that got away with their shenanigans for the past two decades. Now, it's time for them to be replaced by both new AND old technology simultaneously. They can't shoot film because it will reveal how much they suck and they can't keep shooting digital because Ai is going to be better at it than them. Plus, they're losing the web2 monetization system that originally gave them the advantage in the first place.

I did film photography for over 20 years. Sometimes it would be for weeks or months before I got my film back, long after when I took the photo. I became more selective in my shots, therefore shooting less. (I've never had a lot of disposable income.) Photos would go into a box where I would occasionally pull out and have a company develop enlargements that were often disappointing. With digital over the years, I was able to get instant feedback and I could crop and edit as I please. I am not afraid to take a lot of shots to practice, practice, practice. Film killed my practice and digital renewed my love of taking photos and most definitely helped me improve as a photographer, plus I have complete control over every aspect of my shots.

Yeah, I remember when I first got a Kodak dcs520 and nobody had seen a digital camera before. Models kept asking me why I kept looking at the back of the camera all of the time. They thought it was weird that a screen could be on a camera. That was forever ago :-) You're right about the joy of instant feedback and I really loved that in the beginning.

You might be surprised how much better you've gotten over the years if you ever decide to to try film again. Your film might even be better than ever! But I wouldn't say the same for people that have only shot digital as I think they've learned to see the world too brightly.

I still shoot film from time to time and send it out for developing. It forces me to be more thoughtful and deliberate. And I actually appreciate the lag between the shot and the feedback enough that I will often leave the digital images on the card for a week before downloading. I like to look at them without the "recency bias" of having been there.

AI lacks human creation. If we are talking about art, it is ONLY available from the human/ . .experience. That is, being human. AI can produce graphics, butit can't produce art. Commercial photographers should get their insurance sales licenses; artists, not so much.

Just wait a few years, you'll be surprised at how good it will become.

Art is in the eye of the beholder and if that beholder doesn't care if it is human generated or AI generated or prefers the AI generated then the human artist is **** out of luck.

I have used AI some. Sort of fun. My idea is clear. Money will drive this monster. With what time I can shoot left at age 76, AI is no anything more than art I did not create...I understand I can spend a lot of time with AI to use. For sure the bread and butter for Editing software as all the platforms adopt. All you young folks go for it this AI. But I pass. Composition, style color is where I stay. AI is a powerful tool.

The luxury of age I guess. I'm actually kind of glad I'm 57 now. Those who are say like 45 are at a disadvantage to those who are younger and who will go straight to AI based work. The 45 year old's will need to reinvent themselves, which is not easy. Those older and much older don't have to worry so much as time will take care of them (us).

I could see a time in the immediate future where you provide people's images and your photos of a location as inputs and then use AI to generate a photo shoot with those people at that place that never happened. This is where it gets creepy, of course. But with enough images of various input subjects / objects, and a very competent AI engine, software can make a map or model of the people and the spaces to be able to see things from a 3-dimensional "multiperspective" and fill in the photo shoot. Again, creepy. Maybe it feels creepy now the same way some new tech felt creepy to older generations in the past. But yes, resistance seems futile when it comes to technology. We will be steamrolled or assimilated. Or we will live life like a photographic hermit in the side of a mountain of obsolescence, left shaking our fists at the AI-generated sky.

That immediate future is now if you know what you're doing with different tools. I can't do it but I have seen it done by people I know personally.

What is really creepy and scary is what happens to court cases where photos are used as evidence. Any defense can now simply say that it is AI and is fake. And this isn't just high profile cases. What happens in a divorce case where one parent wants to screw over the other for child custody? Just hire someone to develop a fake image of the other parent abusing the child. Yeah if you really wanted to you could probably do it with the right photo and photoshop today, but AI makes it easier, faster, and cheaper. And as a parent you have access to images of the child and the other parent for the AI expert to work with.

We risk entering a world that we don't know what is true or not unless we see it with our own eyes.

There are real horrible stories similar to the ones you describe already. Regulations are coming.

"Don't believe your lying eyes", said every government at every point in history.

Wait until the government say hey because of how good AI is now. We need you all to wear these tracking devices. This way you can legally protect yourself from any future images that may come up from AI........

We don't need to adapt to anything to be honest. Creating an AI images is just that, creating a CGI image. It's not photogrphy it's simply computer generated graphics. People have been creating graphical representations of things for years and years already, it's only gotten easier. Again it's not photography. Photography is the art of capturing subjects in reality, it's the real deal. Unless there's going to be some all dancing and singing Android running around with a camera it's not replacing me any time soon because I still need to go and photograph someones wedding, someones newborn, family, maternity session etc etc Don't forget the fact that we as photographers are hired for our abilities to connect with real people and adapt to environements to capture the best images we can for clients. So folks we all need to just calm down :-) AI image creation is just creating pretty pictures of things that dont actually exist. Can you use ai in your photography workflow, absolutely yes and the market is heading in that direction to help us in our processes but it's not this DOOM AND GLOOM scenario