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Are AI Features Taking Over Photo Editing? Is It Time to Panic or Celebrate?

Are AI Features Taking Over Photo Editing? Is It Time to Panic or Celebrate?

Serious and pro photographers can't help but notice that AI is creeping into our craft. Maybe "creeping in" is not the correct metaphor. It's actually rushing toward just about every software application we use. Luminar was an early adopter, and their upcoming Luminar AI, well, it has AI in its name.

Adobe just launched its latest version of Photoshop with a host of AI based features. It can replace a sky, turn a frown into a grin, re-light an image, colorize a mono image, and like Luminar, make structural changes to a portrait or photo slimming a person and turning their head. There's more coming. Luminar is adding ky reflections in water (the holy grail in sky replacment), eye color changes, and more. 

Image courtesy Skylum

So when is a photo a photo? And are heavily edited photos truly photos anymore? AI is everywhere, not just in our craft. Auto assembly, spam filters, astronomy, biology, political polling, and automated driving are all being re-shaped by AI.

The Beginning

Let's start with what AI is, and what it isn't. At its core, AI is based on repeated observations of human behavior. With an AI based car, it may recognize a stop light or stop sign and apply the brakes. It does this from learning what humans do. But it's not being creative. It's mimicking. And under some circumstances, edge cases AI researches call it, the car might crash in just the right unexpected situation.

It is the same with AI in photography. Yes, AI can tell (in most cases) that your white levels are too hot, or the color balance is off, or if clarity controls are needed. The problem is that even those simple "fixes" are not purely creative decisions, and they may interfere with creativity. Your color balance choices may not align with existing "norms." You may not want clarity but control of focus. 

Even the term "AI" is somewhat troubling. The intelligence being used is not artificial. It's gleaned from intelligent users. Garry Kasparov, the famous chess grandmaster who has thought deeply about AI, and was defeated by Deep Blue, an AI based chess program. He has suggested a new meaning for AI that has merit: Assisted Intelligence.

AI in Photography

AI can help a mundane image look better, it can make suggestions for cropping based on well understood rules, but some of the best and most creative images throw away the rule of thirds and other rules, and often the results are breathtaking. 

Almost any image taken by a photographer is modified by that photographer. He or she will make cropping decisions, perhaps dodge and burn, maybe, god forbid, insert a better sky. I've routinely removed a few tourists when I'm roaming in the Arizona canyons to get a great shot. Why not?

Image courtesy Skylum

Some Personal Thoughts

I used to study Ansel Adams photos, and enjoyed his book The Negative. Adams did a lot of work in the darkroom, and a lot in the field. Red, yellow, and blue filters changed the contrast of the sky in his mono images, dodging and burning in the darkroom let him emphasize what he wanted and guide the eye over the image. Adams made big changes from the original negative. Lots of changes. He took control not trying to capture the scene as it was, but how he saw it. He made each image an Ansel Adams image, and while someone can write algorithms to mimic his style, and people often reach for his "look," the result won't be Adams and it probably won't be as artistic, or artistic at all, just a kind of obviously bad clone.

Those images are sort of like the pod people in the 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." They looked right, had all the right memories, but they were alien imposters.

At the end of the day, I do not fret too much over the AI revolution. Tools are being provided, and we can use them or not. Even in the upcoming Luminar AI, one can process an image as one would in Lightroom and never touch an AI button or slider. It's the same with Photoshop. Nothing forces you to change a smile or whiten teeth. AI never has to be turned on. On the other hand, inexperienced amateurs are welcome to turn a mediocre vacation photo into a passable one. It's likely that the software will make some intelligent decisions the editor would never think of. 

I don't feel threatened by the existence of those tools, because my work and vision are my own. On the other hand, AI based masking and noise reduction tools can save me a lot of time. I've used the Luminar excellent sky replacement by inserting some of my own skies, and I often like the result, and the time it saves me. I like the Adobe take on sky replacement too. Again, you don't have to use it. Or the body transformations, or anything else.

Yes, as AI continues to roll on, we'll see a bunch of bad photos, but we've always seen bad photos. I don't think AI will offer a "good taste" or a "compelling image" button. But if you can use those tools wisely and tame them, making them your servant rather than letting them make a servant of you, that's for the better. 

To answer my original question posted in the headline, AI is no reason to panic. Like any tool, we should welcome it and use it wisely. AI can save you a good deal of time at your computer and can greatly enhance the result. For newcomers, it can certainly improve your photos, and hopefully, you will dig in a bit and find out what AI is doing to your photos and learn from that, making you a better photographer. I noticed in the beta of Luminar AI, it highlights the changes that were made, and you are free to manually back them off or enhance them more. That's as it should be.

I think Skylum is taking some bold steps, and Adobe and others are being forced to come on board. Competition is a good thing, We all benefit.

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David Illig's picture

Panic or celebrate? I’m not one to go all hysterical, so would it be OK if I do neither and just continue to muddle through as I’ve always done?

derek j's picture

if it bothers you, dont use it. if other people use it, it does not concern you.

David Illig's picture

Who said anything about being bothered? Indeed, refusing to become hysterical may be the antithesis of being bothered.

derek j's picture

i was not responding to you

Timothy Roper's picture

The second set of photos, of the woman, says it all: AI can't turn a bad photo into a good one. Until it can choose a better outfit, a better pose, and do better hair styling, it really won't be "taking over" much of anything. Except, maybe, those fantasy landscapes, which always remind me of Franz Bischoff paintings of Yosemite. (check him out, if you want to see how some paintings used to really distort reality).

derek j's picture

that was an odd photo for them to highlight. kinda like they're saying we can make your photos slightly less bad.

Sam Sims's picture

It has got to the point where you don’t even need to take a well exposed photograph and can simply rely on AI and other tools to ‘fix’ it or even artificially replace elements of the photograph. I question what is the photographer then actually doing? What I love about photography is seeing the photographers own creative vision, ideally with minimal editing or at least something that still looks natural, not some AI algorithm. AI certainly isn’t for me.

davidlovephotog's picture

Bad guessing tools where you will spend more time fixing the problems they cause then doing it from scratch. The remove background tool still leaves jagged edges, spaces untouched in crevices and hair half transparent. (for those of us that are not Adobe influencers with provided stock pics to edit.) You can make someone smile now? You mean those magical teeth that Photoshop adds?

Dan Ostergren's picture

Ok but who wants to make a guess at how many more articles about this exact same thing that we'll see on fstoppers before the end of 2020?

Jens Sieckmann's picture


derek j's picture

per week

Andy Work's picture

I'm guessing more, perhaps 10 or so.

Ed C's picture

Hard to say how many but I'm guessing the progression will go from every 2 weeks to every 3 weeks to monthly. Hard to say from there. At least they have greatly lengthened the frequency of: why I switched to, why film you MUST shoot film, why every landscape photographer must use old lenses.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

It's all about outsourcing. Since centuries. We don't hunt or farm anymore ourselves. We have supermarkets. We don't need to keep things in mind. We have Google for that. Cars will drive us to the next destination. And we don't analyze and edit our photos manually anymore.

Sam Sims's picture

Also, thanks to the number of automated features in cameras, people can simply frame their picture and let the camera do the rest.

Btw, plenty of people still manually edit photos. AI hasn’t completely taken over.

chris bryant's picture

If you are a competent photographer: Panic.
If you are a crap photographer: Celebrate.


Joe Svelnys's picture

Combined with Brains in Jars, we will be out of the creation process altogether soon enough; that is as long as we can keep our camera's brain-bowls clean and constantly fed with broccoli.


jim hughes's picture

The world changes. I get that.

There are really just 2 things here that bother me.

First, as a former software engineer, I'm annoyed by the gratuitous use of the term "artificial intelligence" when no such thing exists in the world today. What new here is just better image processing and pattern recognition. A "neural net" isn't intelligence, it's just more algorithms and data doing a task set up by a programmer. Maybe in 200 years we'll have "AI" but I actually doubt it.

Second, people increasingly seem to want imagery of an idealized world, not reality. Every bride now expects to look beautiful, every parent wants that baby looking right at the camera, everyone wants perfect weather in the photos of their dream vacation, every photographer wants the Milky Way behind those mountains at night. It's ok, it's just a combination of human nature and salesmanship. But I'll be glad when it's over.

W Mitty's picture

Amen on your comment about the overuse of the term "artificial intelligence". I think most people think it is a lot more than it really is. In its essence, it is no more than a recursive curve fit to a culled set of data, per an a priori model (remember quadratic curve fitting from first calculus?). So it is only as good as the data and the model. 20 years ago, Kalman filters could solve all of your problems. Now, it is AI. Both certainly have their place, and are indisputably the right algorithms in many situations (what would Google be without AI?). But application of AI to creative arts will inevitably "optimize" on that which is most prevalent in the data set. In the end, it will tend to homogenize instead of revolutionize (channeling Don King there for a moment). But that happens in all of the arts. Popular music is a perfect example of forced homogenization, but that hasn't stopped others from composing and playing really impressive and innovative work. In art, Thomas Kinkade cranked out paintings like the Hallmark Channel cranks out Christmas moviesand sold by the thousands, but the art museums of the world are constantly being reinvigorated with new amazing art.

That being said, AI will certainly have its place in photography. It will be most useful for high volume photographers who just have to crank out photos with a certain style or look. Learning an individual photographers style and applying it is a perfect application for AI to boost productivity. And that is alright by me. It is not to be feared, nor argued against. The present trend in highly over-stylized landscape photos is pretty unappealing and I am guessing it will wane. "AI powered" photography will do the same. And AI will become a productivity tool, not a generator.

Every shiny new thing causes excitement and panic, but for the most part, tastes always tend back to more restraint and elegance. Sometimes it takes a while.

David Illig's picture

“I'm annoyed by the gratuitous use of the term "artificial intelligence" when no such thing exists in the world today...”

Bingo! And it is by no means certain that “AI” will ever exist. Tons of fast storage and retrieval do not equate to original thinking.

Paul Scharff's picture

I love having the OPTION to use AI for some retouching. First, we can always use it on just a part of our image of use it for the entire image at reduced opacity that we can control. Second, for certain jobs it can be a lifesaver. I do a lot of real estate listings, and on a gray day I need a blue sky. I used to do it myself and it took 3-5 minutes per shot because of the challenge of sky selection through trees and branches. Now it's a one-click keyboard shortcut on Photoshop. So I'm very happy to have the option.

Kent LaPorte's picture

When my niece who is a competitive college swimmer was loaned a Nike razor swimsuit is shaved seconds off of her time. It also shaved seconds off her competitors' times. However, they soon discovered that average swimmer's benefited more than elite swimmers. The U.S. Swim Association, I believe, then asked for a international ban of the suits.

My boss, a pharmacist and cyclist, always talked about Lance Armstrong and whether or not EPO should be allowed, as well as other performance enhancements, simply because the genie was already out of the bottle and was hypocritical when you consider well-funded teams versus others competing. Aside from the long term safety issues and the image it creates to developing teen competitors, the argument was one more of an individual's choice of personal ethics and risk. The debate between us still rages on.

I don't know what this exactly means to this conversation, but you can draw your own conclusions.

N Novo's picture

The problem is that AI or automated image enhancements become the inherent baseline expectation for viewers. Even today, when displaying a carefully planned, executed, and edited photo on a phone display, the common response is "nice phone" or "which filter did you use?" Any human effort or talent is increasingly brushed off as an automated creation.

Alexander Lauterbach's picture

AI editing I want: automatic removal of sensor dust and other spots, intelligent removal of unwanted lines, halos and more
AI editing I don't want: sky replacement, one click photo editing

anthony constantinou's picture

If its bother you then avoid