Could Artificial Intelligence Replace Photography?

Could Artificial Intelligence Replace Photography?

With technology continuing to move on at a swift pace, there's been plenty of recent discussion as to whether digital renders can truly ever replace product photography. Taking this one step further, is it possible that one day, artificial intelligence could simply create images without needing any input from a photographer or digital artist at all?

As photographers, we often marvel at how amazing modern technology can be, how magical that new "must-have" camera feature is, or how smart the image-processing software has become. I don't consider myself to be especially old, but when I think back to using a manual-focusing 35mm SLR (because that's all we had to use, not because I'm a hipster) and compare that experience to the incredible face detection or eye detection autofocus on modern mirrorless cameras, it's hard to believe these huge technological advances have happened within my lifetime. Even the act of sitting in my living room, controlling the lighting and home entertainment with my voice, or video-calling a friend in another country on an iPad are literally things that my child self would have considered science fiction. Even my smartphone is significantly more powerful than any computer I had access to before I well into adulthood. In the grand scheme of human history, the time it's taken us to get from the first commercially available camera for the general public to smartphones with very efficient digital cameras in the pockets of most people in the Western world, is amazingly short.

DALL·E mini

This week I saw some funny images posted on social media from a project called DALL·E mini. They were crude images of very random things like Joe Biden eating a hot dog or spiders wearing sombreros. Silly images on the internet are nothing new, but these were supposedly produced by artificial intelligence. Some of these images looked like simple drawings or cartoons, where others looked like renders lifted from a video game in the early 2000s. None were what I would consider realistic. Most of the images shared on social media were quite silly, so naturally, I wanted to look up where these images had come from. A short Google search took me to DALL·E mini. This Transformer-based text-to-image generation model was designed by Boris Dayma, Suraj Patil, Pedro Cuenca, Khalid Saifullah, Tanishq Abraham, Phúc Lê, Luke, Luke Melas, and Ritobrata Ghosh. 

DALL·E mini is very simple. You type in a short text prompt, then the AI, which has been trained on unfiltered data from the internet, gets to work and produces nine images based on the text stimulus. These images usually vary quite a lot from each other, but represent the AI interpretation of your input, based on data on the internet. Right now, it's not especially fast, taking between two minutes and four minutes to produce images which are of questionable quality at best. After playing for far longer than I should have, I can see that it's nothing more than a meme goldmine right now, but as a concept, it's fascinating, with exciting future possibilities.

The model is intended to be used to generate images based on text prompts for research and personal consumption. Intended uses include supporting creativity, creating humorous content, and providing generations for people curious about the model’s behaviour. Intended uses exclude those described in the Misuse and Out-of-Scope Use section.

It's worth noting that these images are created by an artificial intelligence, which was trained on unfiltered data found on the internet, to produce its own interpretation for the search terms users give it in the form of a selection of basic images. It's also worth considering that people on the internet are using their own creativity and imagination in asking this AI to create things for comedic effect. If you're planning to look at the discussion board or try the image generator yourself, be aware of the bias and limitations text provided by the dev team, and be aware that some people on the internet are jerks who will find it funny when AI produces questionable or offensive images.

While the capabilities of image generation models are impressive, they may also reinforce or exacerbate societal biases. While the extent and nature of the biases of the DALL·E mini model have yet to be fully documented, given the fact that the model was trained on unfiltered data from the Internet, it may generate images that contain stereotypes against minority groups. Work to analyse the nature and extent of these limitations is ongoing.

The Future of AI-Generated Images

It's probably safe to say that no photographers will be losing their jobs to AI any time soon. This technology does, however, raise some questions about what the future of imaging might look like. We now live in a world where stock images are available online in seconds for anyone who needs a generic image. Sure, stock images were taken by a creative professional who will make some income from them, but what will happen when machine learning gets to the point where some generic images can be created by AI? Who owns the rights to those images? Could this one day replace a large portion of the stock image industry and be of detriment to stock library photographers? Could we one day see renders of products or places produced entirely by a machine algorithm being used for commercial purposes?

Memes and silly images aside, I wanted to see how close this system is to creating a lifelike landscape, so I gave DALL·E mini a simple text input to see what it would make of beautiful landscape as a text input. Here's the image it produced this morning. Watch out, landscape photographers! The machines are coming for your jobs!

I appreciate that from the look of the images produced today, it seems like a stretch to think it could ever replace a professional photographer, but 30 years ago, an iPad and FaceTime were the stuff of science fiction, yet now we all carry tiny powerful computers with high-megapixel digital cameras in our pockets every day. The possibilities for the future are exciting or terrifying, depending on your point of view.

Renders, which are still created by human beings, are taking over from product photography in some places. Is it only a matter of time before digital images are so lifelike that we won't need real-life photographers in as many situations? Is it possible that there won't be a need for commercial photography at all one day?

What do you think about renders or AI replacing photography? Is this technology exciting or worrying? How far off might a legitimate commercial use for this technology be? Let me know in the comments.

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15 Comments
S Browne's picture

Can fiction replace fact? Can imagination replace reality? Can AI replace humans?

Alan Klughammer's picture

Your points in order:
Apparently, just look at the world today.
When has photography (or most other imagery) ever been about reality?
that is the question isn't it. Maybe at some tasks

S Browne's picture

My point: the question "Could AI replace photography?" is dumb. Can apples replace oranges? I guess they could for some purposes. But AI can't 'make' a photograph. AI can make CGI.

Brad Wendes's picture

I guess the next question would be: when will cgi be indistinguishable from a ‘real’ photograph? And would it even matter in some cases?

Bert McLendon's picture

AI needs vast amounts of existing data to come up with its final product, which, as of now, is garbage. =P

I'm sure when there are more input parameters like Camera height, horizon level, technical inputs, object lists, time of day, etc... it will be more accurate and I could see IKEA feeding the AI their entire catalog for a first start. But anything "good" doesn't come easy and still requires human input.

S Browne's picture

Artificial flowers might seem indistinguishable from real ones. But I wouldn't recommend giving them to your girlfriend or wife.

Charles Mercier's picture

As I've said before, yes, eventually, it will. But it's because "people" don't want to pay good money to creators. They want good for cheap. (I call it the Walmart effect.) It's going to be a sad future because those in power (and many ordinary people) want everything for almost nothing.

D M's picture

"digital renders can truly ever replace product photography"

Yes. Look up "Why IKEA Uses 3D Renders vs. Photography for Their Furniture Catalog" For IKEA the future started around 2005.

For any number of industries, 3D rendering is replacing product photography.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

3D is quite different from AI. I find the IKEA example quite over used. Ikea sells on six continents product that have simple lines and come in very few colors and no option. It's mass produced and they have a huge catalog. 3D for them is ideal and totally inexpensive. You won't see IKEA at a furniture market anywhere around the globe, but there are furniture markets because there is a real industry of furniture beside what IKEA produces. Most of those other brands can't afford or need 3D because furniture lines are often short lived and photography can be done faster than you can do 3D in that industry. Creating realistic looking 3D furniture is quite difficult without a photo of the item and then there are often issues that require altering the product and review the 3D model as well. Most manufacturers are too small to have a 3D team in-house. It takes time to go back and forth before final approval. One would think, you just build it and sell it, but it's more complex. Market time is when you sign contracts and see if the product will do good or will be cancelled by the next market only 6 months later. Many products are typically approved within a month before market and then there are deadlines before shipping to a show room etc. Then you have samples made overseas for the show room that may or may not ship on time, be pulled from going to market for whatever reason. Yes you can have the 3D done from renderings and cad, but if you have items cancelled, that's a cut in your advertising budget. Everything is simple until the real world hits you.

Ed C's picture

Fstoppers must be really desperate.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Why not....it's replacing everything else. But seriously....it can't and never will replace reality. Hence the word....Artificial...

Brad Wendes's picture

What is real in modern photography? Is film real? Or images straight out of camera? Does an image stop being ‘real’ when we make any adjustments in Lightroom? Does an image stop being authentic if we clone something out, or make a local adjustment?
Is a composite a real image?
Where do we draw the line on what is ‘real’?

Timothy Gasper's picture

Damn right film is real. That's why I've been shooting with it for over 50 years. Straight out of the camera is also the same. If I do have to edit...it's at the very minimal. As far as..does an image stop being ' real' when we make any adjustments in Lightroom....damn right it does. It's now the "real" image you saw when you were filming it. Same goes for darkroom work. Any 'adjustments' only alter the very image in its natural state...as the photographer saw it. As for cloning it....not really. It's still the same image...just repeated. For composite...not sure. Can you explain further? Where do you draw the line on what is 'real'? Easy...that which you see with your own eyes..without any alterations or extended manipulation which are contrary to the image in its natural state. Reality is just that...real. Nothing added or subtracted.
Now..if you're speaking about photography as an artistic expression or creative process...then the answer is very simple. Whatever goes. The universe is the limit. But then...we're talking about 'reality'.

Brad Wendes's picture

Thanks for your insight, it's interesting to know where different people draw the line. I know many photographers who would say the image is still authentic after some colour adjustments, or even cloning out a distracting element.
Regarding my question on composites: If a photographer took a selection of photographs (a background, then multiple subjects, for example) then made a composite image from them, could that be considered 'real' as all the elements were photographed. I'd assume from your response that it would not be 'real' and authentic in your opinion.

As for realism, I was simply responding to your comment regarding reality. Photography is often considered an artistic medium, and doesn't always resemble reality. So, could AI algorithms one day create digital images in place of human photographers? That's the question being posed in the article, rather than debating what constitutes a realistic image (although I do enjoy that conversation).
I think that it's entirely possible in our lifetime for useable commercial images to be created by machine learning, I don't think it will be a suitable replacement for human photographers, or considered to be thoughtful or meaningful art, but I think that some stock images or product imagery could one day be created without the need for a human artist or photographer.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Good. As for composites...yes, elements of the scene would be real of course, but you have to ask yourself one question....is that what I truly saw when I took the photo? But...saying it's an artistic expression...then no problem. But it isn't the real scene. Just real elements of the scene...plus or minus other elements. When you stated...'Photography is often considered an artistic medium, and doesn't always resemble reality'. Well that answers the question in the title. It's 'Artificial'. That in iteself denotes it can never relaplace reality. Just express its own version of it. And of course AI can be used commercially. It's already being done. But the title of this article reads diferently. Could or will it ever replace photography? I am somewhat sure that it will to some degree, but it could never or will ever replace reality. Just compose its own version of it.