Which image in the banner is a photograph, and which is computer generated? Can you even tell anymore? With the addition of computer generated imagery (CGI) and artificial intelligence, the process of creating images has provided commercial photographers more tools than ever. I sat down with award-winning food photographer Steve Hansen to discuss this topic and to delve into the question: "Is it enough to just be a photographer these days?"
You've undoubtedly come across a Steve Hansen image (whether you knew it was his or not). From the grocery store shelves, to the almond milk in your fridge, or in the form of numerous awards, Hansen’s work has surely crossed your path. I first came across it about five years ago when I took his class called Capturing Food in Motion. In this class, he brings us behind the scenes for the making of what he is most famously known for: his “splash” images.
If I had to describe Hansen’s work, I would string together some catchy phrase that might include the terms, “neurotically perfect,” “explosively creative,” and “a celebration of food and color.” Perhaps a more succinct description is “a creative perfectionist’s study of color and movement through food.” His work has been an inspiration of mine for many years. It was truly a pleasure to sit down and chat with him. I will share a few highlights from our talk, and you can watch the full conversation in the video at the top, where I will give you the answers to your “what is what?” image quiz.
Hansen has garnered widespread recognition for his "splash work." He has developed a widely recognized style by creating decomposed photographs of soups, yogurts, chocolate, burgers and more, with the ingredients levitating, wrapping, and splashing in the most intricately beautiful ways.
I found myself sometimes commenting on social: “Is this really a photograph?” His answer was always, "yes." It was hard to believe it, but I knew from the class I had taken how he had created these magically orchestrated pieces.
Soon though, he ventured into CGI, and the guessing games became more entertaining and challenging.
I asked Hansen what his reasons were for venturing outside of the photography world into the daunting beast that is CGI. His answer was not what I expected.
" got into CGI out of boredom. I was doing shoots in New York all the time, and I just had time on my hands in the evenings when I wasn't out. I had a project where I needed a package rendered, and I had no idea how to do that.
He reached out to a colleague in the field for the rendering. After contracting out that assignment he wondered: "Could I do this on my own? Could I use this as a tool to incorporate into photography?"
If you don’t know what CGI is, it’s essentially creating images that must be modeled and rendered as opposed to being shot with a camera. In the still world, it’s essentially an image created digitally from scratch.
Can you tell between these three images below which is the photograph, which is the computer-generated image, and which was made using AI?
Hansen expressed that the learning curve for CGI was steep.
It sometimes took me three to four hours a day studying the process top to bottom for five years at least. I use maybe 12 different software programs, each of which is its own Photoshop times ten.
CGI accounts for approximately 30% of his current work. One way Hansen has chosen to integrate the technology is by creating backgrounds for his “hero” shots. These cocktail shots are an example. These cocktails were photographed, but then placed in a computer-generated background he designed.
For Hansen, the intensive days of set builds are now often replaced with CGI environments he designs.
My big question for Steve was: with all these developments in technology, is it even enough these days to just be a commercial photographer anymore? Look at these three images below. One is a photograph, one is a computer-generated image, and one is AI. Can you tell which is which?
When I look at the work of Hansen’s CGI marvels, and Tim Tadder’s AI pieces (I interviewed him here), I find myself wondering: “Is it time to evolve or die in the world of commercial photography? Are we headed towards an expectation that creators should also be proficient digital creators?"
Hansen says no. Although things are changing quickly in our world as photographers, Hansen’s experience is that productions run similarly to how they did in the 80s: “A lot of these productions that happen are almost old-school. Technology has changed, ideas change, and the concepts have changed, but how you go about producing something hasn’t changed a lot.”
I think if CGI didn’t put photographers out of work, AI won’t either. I just don’t see it replacing anything.
As for AI, Hansen expressed that it helps him get out of creative ruts: “I use AI for creative inspiration. Throwing data at it and seeing what comes back at me kind of triggers some creative response in my head. I use it to sort of jostle my brain and think of something differently and then pursue it.” He describes the art of AI as “soul-sucking” when it’s used as a tool to create a piece from scratch. He has a segment on his website called AI Explorations.
I never call it my image outright. It’s still a very gray area as far as copyright. It’s in no-man’s land.
An overabundance of articles have emerged discussing the potential impact of AI on the field of photography. My conversation with Hansen wasn't focused on that. Instead, our discussion aimed to delve into the question: "As commercial photographers, are we moving towards an expectation for us to acquire proficiency in these emerging technologies to maintain our competitive edge?" When I scroll through his AI explorations gallery, it seems that the answer is yes. Yes, you have to keep up with all these tools. These tools are powerful and they are the future. Essentially though, Hansen's answer was no. Acquiring these skills for him was a combination of curiosity and having extra time on his hands.
I use a variety of different tools to get to the end point that the client is looking for, that I am looking for. However I get there, I do not care. I don’t want to limit myself.
His experience in CGI and his recent inroads into AI appear as a natural progression for someone who transitioned from being a chef to a stylist, then to a photographer, and finally to a designer. His skill acquisitions seem to be born from being a perpetual learner more than a need to stay relevant. It was Einstein who said: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Perhaps, Hansen’s passionate curiosity is what has continued to hold his position as a leader and pioneer in the commercial food photography industry. You can watch the full conversation above.
Here are the answers to the photography/CGI/AI quizzes.
The best part is in the comments! Share your questions and thoughts below, and let us know if you guessed correctly.
All images used with permission.