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.
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.