Is Software Driving or Destroying the Future of Photography?

Photoshop's latest release included such things as sky replacement tools and the ability to change the expression of faces. This is in line with what other software platforms offer. Are these features helping or hindering creativity and the future of photography?

When it comes to digital art and using software liberally to enhance an otherwise ordinary image, I'm all for it. If we have the tools at our disposal to create wondrous pieces of imagery conjured up in the deepest recesses of our minds, then why not? Whether it's using Photoshop, Luminar, Capture One, or something else, I think it would be mad of us not to make full use of the tools available. However, for me, that comes with a caveat: that is digital art and not "photography" in the typical sense of the word. Let me give you a specific example.

I took this rather drab image above recently that was full of digital noise and devoid of many colors. However, the position of the subject (in a surfing sense) was great, and I wanted to use it. Thus, I had some fun with it and came up with a few different concoctions. The first is below.

From there, I created two sketches. The first, below, is consistent with the colors in the image above.

With the next one, I went all out pink and purple, for no other reason than I could.

These images got very positive feedback, so much so that the subject, a pro surfer from the town in Japan where I live, contacted me to get prints of the first two.

So, the point I'm making here is that I am not averse to using software for creative purposes in any way, shape, or form. I probably use it more "creatively" than most people. But here's the thing: I don't pass this off as traditional photography. It's obviously image manipulation using software, and I don't try to hide that, as I wrote recently here on Fstoppers.

However, with Photoshop's recent update, I feel it's different. If you're not aware, Adobe released some updates recently that, among other things, included some artificial intelligence with regards to sky replacements and facial recognition editing capabilities. Sky replacements are certainly not a new phenomenon and have been available for quite some time in other software platforms such as Luminar, but with Adobe's release, such advanced sky replacement tools will now be accessible to many more people.

Personally, I feel this was an inevitable update from Adobe simply because it’s playing catchup with other software platforms that have led the way. That doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it, though, as I feel it abrogates the post-production skills of many people who have become adept at such things. It is what is now that that genie's been let out of the bottle.

And that brings me to another of Photoshop’s recent updates: facial recognition and the ability to edit faces. In the latest update, you now have various sliders that can artificially put a smile on your subject’s face, or a frown, or add surprise, or change the lighting direction hitting your subject’s face, or even remove glasses. I don’t know about you, but this was absolutely horrifying to me when I first saw it. Why? Because I’ve always believed that the best portrait photographers, and the best interviewers for that matter, are the ones who can get the best out of their subjects. They are the ones who can put their subjects at ease so that they feel comfortable enough in front of the camera to give themselves to the photographer and let their guards down.

The ability to bring a smile out of your subject, or candid expressions, or authentic introspection that shines through in a portrait is a genuine skill that is learned and crafted over years and years of practice. That’s what separates the best portrait photographers and wedding photographers and interviewers. Anyone can point a camera at a subject to take a photo that's sharp and nicely lit, but bringing life and character out of your subject is an art form and one that I certainly haven’t perfected by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, it horrifies me that software is going in the direction whereby you can manipulate even the blandest of expressions on a subject's face to create a smile or a glow in the eye or a look that you’re happy with.

Sure, child photographers across the world might be jumping up and down for joy because they have battled for years trying to make little Johnny smile along with the rest of the family, but don’t you think it’s an absolute joy for the photographer when they’ve nailed down that skill and gained a reputation among their peers and their community for being a photographer that people want to work with because of how they make their subjects feel and shine?

With the latest update batches that now allow us to slide left or right to determine smiles or frowns or happiness or sadness or glasses or no glasses, I feel that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that within 5 to 10 years, we’ll be able to create any kind of face we want and add any kind of smile or expression we want faster than we can blink. That will make the art of the great portrait photographers almost obsolete.

Summing Up

There is a reason that we revere people who excel in their fields and rise to the top: it’s because they’re supremely gifted and have spent thousands and thousands of hours perfecting and honing their talents and craft so that they can stand above the rest. We marvel at the abilities of our favorite musicians and our favorite sportspeople and our favorite artists. And so we should. They are the best of the best. But is modern photography software taking us down a road where the best of the best suddenly come back to the pack because computer programs can fill in the gaps between mediocre and outstanding? Is that somewhere we want to go as a photography community?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Ivan Lantsov's picture

it make lazy, not need to know just fix mistake. terible terible!

Hector Belfort's picture

I'm sure its something that will be a fad for a while and then feel very unsatisfying. Personally nothing beats a getting it in camera. Being at the right location at the right time is a great experience. I suppose at some point people will have to declare when the sky is from the photograph or dropped in later. I remember when I first experienced HDR (Photomatix) is used to seem amazing. Now it looks awful. We may have to experience skies for a while that don't relate to the rest of image but things will settle down again. When it comes to portraiture I think that functionality will be more used. People like to look younger and don't necessarily like to see a real image of them. It's a pity a portrait can't be a more realistic representation of someone. Our younger selves always look great 10 years later. I think often there was no need to retouch.

Iain Stanley's picture

I look at modern portraits in magazines etc and wonder where all/any lines on the face are. How far will "acceptable" become? Hopefully it goes the way of HDR and is just a fad. Will be interesting to see it play out

jim hughes's picture

Well, it seems like the question needs to be asked.

I think a generation from now, a whole lot of today's "AI assisted" photography is going to look pretty cringe-worthy

Iain Stanley's picture

As Hector said above, you look at some of the HDR images that were all the rage a decade ago or whatever and shudder. I wonder if AI will go that way, or revolutionize editing. Time will tell.....

jim hughes's picture

In the future, people will be laughing at how all the software products of the early 21st century suddenly claimed to be using "artificial intelligence" when clearly no such thing existed at the time.

Bert Nase's picture

jim, it's just a marketing thing, same goes with "machine learning". You often recognize that most developers not even have the natural intelligence to have the cheap things like workflow or UI going. Every company suddenly has it's "AI" version or tools.

And at least these things have nothing to do with photography in it's own meaning. Most photographs are just composits or edited to death. Why is it so stunning to look at old photographs, not technically perfect but showing the world as they was/is? (and no, I'm not throwing the first stone).

Timothy Roper's picture

Just call it "special effects" and everyone will be happy. Audiences don't have a problem with all the "fake" movies, and I don't think they'll have a problem with similar digital effects in photos. Movies and TV, in essence, have even conditioned people to expect it.

Iain Stanley's picture

That's the issue though isn't it? People insisting no work has been done to their images.....

Damon Steinke's picture

This is NOT photography...make no mistake about it! This is nothing more than digital art. So sick of calling this photography.

Iain Stanley's picture

What is the "this" you're referring to?

jim hughes's picture

Basically we're losing control of the word "photography". It's been hijacked.

Any sort of art is ok, there are no rules. But don't have a computer draw the hard parts for you and call it "sketching".

Iain Stanley's picture

I can’t be sure, but are you referring to mine in this article? The one included (then coloured pink) was hand-drawn with pen on Wacom.

jim hughes's picture

No. I'm talking about some hypothetical robot with a pencil.

Iain Stanley's picture

As you can see from the screenshot of the new panel in PS, you've got 'Photo to Sketch' and 'Sketch to Portrait' and 'Pencil Artwork'.......soon you'll be able to just sharpen a pencil and smear the fallen lead across your keyboard and produce a 500 page novel instantly....

jim hughes's picture

Yeah things are moving pretty fast right now. Everyone and his dog wants to be an artist. And just like with "Artificial Intelligence", it's so tempting to believe that success can be achieved simply by redefining words.

Justin Sharp's picture

The history of photography has always been tied to technological innovation. The first to photography were the scientists and chemists, not the artists, they came along shortly after. The artists were called lazy artists that took shortcuts by not painting. After all, photography was just going to replace painting (admittedly, I'm paraphrasing history). I detest many of the recent technological advancements with software and especially A.I., but it makes perfect sense.

Iain Stanley's picture

I'm sure sarcasm and cynicism would shine through for many if they were forced to answer, but what is the logical, linear conclusion then? A satire piece was written here last week about new foreground replacement AI software, but is that so far-fetched? Then we'd have foreground replacement, sky replacement.....basically we'll just buy software packages full of libraries of skies, foregrounds, subjects, roads etc and we'll just mash them all's certainly feasible, don't you think? Sad to think of, but feasible....

Iain Stanley's picture

I can only shudder. Unfortunately, for every person who perishes at the thought, 30 will be jumping up and down in exultation

Justin Sharp's picture

I’m going to put on my rose colored glasses here. These concerns are nothing new and photography will continue, changed but fundamentally unharmed. Like I said, in the 1800s there were serious concerns over the future of portrait painters. Yes, there were probably more people that opted for the quicker and simpler photograph over the painted portrait, but painters continued on as photography found its own niche. Similar things are happening in other creative arts. Entire movies are being scored with computer software where you would previously be required to hire an entire orchestra. Yet, orchestra music continues. There are many more people buying mass produced furniture rather than furniture hand made by an artist woodworker. Technological advances has had a permanent and sometimes almost tragic effect on these genres of art making but they have carried on. Even the best software and A.I. doesn’t compare with a creative human who has an artistic vision and takes no shortcuts in communicating that vision. Of course, there are instances where that artistic vision might incorporate this A.I. but thats a whole other discussion.

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.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes, this is true. I guess that’s why “influencers” are releasing ever more “preset packs”.....

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

That, and at some point you just can't tell anymore what's real and what's not.

That's going to have implications for society.

Was that photo of Obama in an Iranian mosque real, two photos copy pasted on top of each other, or an AI generated fake after someone doodled something to show the computer the outline of what they wanted?
And what will that do to the viewers?

Deleted Account's picture

Just another tool for artists to use, and in some cases, abuse.
Did your R5 arrive yet?

Iain Stanley's picture

Ha, I wish! The vendor wrote to me last week and said the next shipment batch will be heading out on Nov 10.....can only hope I’m in that batch.

Deleted Account's picture

I'll be pulling for ya!! Keep us posted and review it after you have used it for awhile!!

Iain Stanley's picture

Just been sent via DHL. Expected within 7-10 days. Happy days!

Deleted Account's picture

I expect to see a portrait of you posing with it, the RF 100-500L mounted and a big smile!!

Sidney M's picture

How dare AI overprocess an image...when a human can overprocess it too. Increasingly many of the models in the galleries look like bad cgi anyway, and that is something which crept in with regular Photoshop before AI...

Greg Edwards's picture

It's worth remembering that photoshop isn't just used by professional portrait photographers.

I'm a graphic designer at a printers (with an interest in photography). You wouldn't believe the number of sub-par photos I have to deal with to use in documents, magazines, flyers that are provided by the customer. Usually taken with a smartphone or compact, or very rarely a DSLR and almost always by non-photographers. So, bad light, low res, high noise, weird colour balance... there's almost always something that needs fixing.

Getting new photos isn't always possible - for instance if they were taken at a one-off event. Or sometimes they have no clue how to supply the original, master versions, so I have to do with them what I can.

Tools like gigapixel have proven to be a lifesaver. It's incredible how much detail can be added to a low res photo to get it into a printable state.

I can see some of photoshops new AI tools being very useful to me. For instance, a group photo with one person looking the wrong way or frowning, or a drab outdoor photos taken on an overcast day - an ideal candidate for sky replacement.

Again, photoshop isn't just for photographers! It's perfectly acceptable to use it to fix a less than ideal photo if that's all you've got to work with.

Iain Stanley's picture

All very good points. We all see things through different lenses.

William Faucher's picture

As someone who's been working in VFX/CGI for over a decade, I've come to realize that photography is just a tool among many others. Sure you can use just one tool to make great images, but you're often shooting yourself in the foot if you do. Photography is an art, and art is subjective, there is no right or wrong.

Do we give cinematographers shit because they use CGI in their movies? Do we raise our fists and complain that what they're doing isn't "real" filmmaking? Of course not. We enjoy the films and consume the content. Photography is just another one of those things. If you want to be a purist, that is ok. In fact I gladly support people who shoot pure photography. But at the end of the day, where do you draw the line? Is changing white balance with a RAW file cheating? Is adjusting exposure after it was shot cheating? Does it have to be entirely in-camera? What about in-camera processing? What about the new Zeiss Camera with Lightroom built-in? Is that cheating?

The lines get real blurry, real fast.

Greg Edwards's picture

Absolutely. I re-watched 'Gravity' at the weekend. It's estimated that 80% of that film consists of CGI - more than Avatar! It's done so well that you don't realise a lot of the CGI scenes and scenery are not real. Nothing wrong with that at all. Indeed, a lot of modern film making wouldn't be possible without today's CGI tools. Heck, we'd still be watching Ray Harryhausen stop-motion epics!

But woe-betide an artist, designer or budding photographer wanting to replace an uninspiring sky or fix a frown in case it upsets the purist photographic snobs.

Iain Stanley's picture

Honestly, I don’t even know anymore.....for every definition of photography there’s a solid counter of “but what about.....?” Perhaps we should just clump everyone together under the all-encompassing umbrella of “artist” and be done with it. The problem will then be how we define artist!!

William Faucher's picture

Exactly. Now we begin to see the tip of the iceberg of why photography is so difficult to define. It seems obvious at first, but the more questions you ask, the less you seem to grasp the notion.

Like I said, I choose to see photography as a tool, a means to an end. If you just like taking pictures, that's great! Keep at it! But for most people out there, taking photos is just one step of a much bigger process. A small cog in the wheel of engineering that is Filmmaking and Image Making.

David Udin's picture

Like every bit of technology that's been applied to photography, good artists use it to make good art, and hacks will use it to make cliches. We are inundated with images, so many of them vivid, saturated, hyper-real, so that the ones that stand out now are the ones that don't hit you over the head with their cliched 'perfection'. Those may also have been manipulated, but they were done so artfully, and will stand the test of time.

Oh yeah, I realize that this comment is a cliche, too. I could cut and paste it into every article like this one.

Ron Berman's picture

Having been into photography for the past 60 years, and being from the "old school" I believe that a photograph depicts a moment in time that can never be replicated and therefore manipulation other than perhaps a slight crop or straitening is not pure photography. It's a great pity that the old maxim "a photograph doesn't lie" seems to have gone out the window.

Greg Edwards's picture

On the other hand, photo manipulation has been around for longer than the digital revolution. There’s a reason why many of Photoshop’s (and others) tools have their roots in the dark room and artists bench - dodging, burning, feathering, masking and airbrushing to name but a few.

Furthermore, photo manipulation to deceive the viewer is almost as old as photography itself. Not as easy, sure, but it was possible with a skilled hand:

Iain Stanley's picture

Where does long exposure fit into the “moment” spectrum?

Keith Meinhold's picture

I watched a video recently on Ansel Adams explaining about how he chose to process images. I wondered if the PhotoShop police might have a problem with his technique today. There are plenty of overdone images, but there are even more underdone images - none of us look or pay attention to them.

Iain Stanley's picture

Ansel who, the young folk ask....

william sheehy's picture

Photoshop has always had crazy filters. Just more sophisticated, nothing new.

Charlie Cawley's picture

There could be new description catagories of images same as you would specify "black and white", "color", "digital print", "digital modified print."
Of course it would depend on the integrity of the creator of the image.
That would be subject to Robert Capa's dictum, "The camera never lies, but photographers are damn liars."

Robert Lype's picture

A few years a go I donated a few prints to a sale for a non profit the prints where natural looking during the auction my prints fetched 4 time the prints which where clearly altered to the point didnt represent a true scene. Even in my stock Photography the trend is shifting back to natural images the shots that have been altered quite a bit to compete in the field dont bring as much.
Todays attitude of I can fix it in an imaging program lack the feelings that are needed in a good image. Finding a good scene study it and wait till the light right doesnt suit some photographers agenda. Even in the media field there is way to much shoot a bunch of photos something good will come out of it shows.
Dont get me wrong there is some really interesting work done through creative editing coming out sooner or later the industry is going to have to draw the line between graphic art and photography

bbetc's picture

I grew up in New Hampshire but left when I joined the service at 18. When I wasn't overseas, I returned fairly regularly because I still had family there. Many years later, I moved back and learned about the League of New Hampshire Craftsman, which had a photography section. I inquired about joining only to learn that I did not qualify because I used a video camera. Some time after that, they allowed previously juried photographers to use digital cameras but not new ones. Today, one may use either film or digital. My guess is that the "old school" wanted to limit competition but digital cameras eventually became the norm.