Will AI and Automation Replace Photographers, Retouchers, or Models?

Will AI and Automation Replace Photographers, Retouchers, or Models?

With more and more jobs at risk from the progression of automation and AI in society's workplaces, how does the photography industry fare?

Robots, AI, and automation has already ravaged a number of industries that were one staple forms of employment. Any role that has repetitive and routine tasks is beginning to see the occupation of its position taken by technology over persons. Supermarkets, warehouses, and factories are the most affected and most discussed, but as the technology improves, the expansion of its risk to human workers swells too.

A think tank in 2018 estimated that 1 in 5 jobs will be "displaced" by automation and AI by the year 2030. Now, while a bleak statistic, it's worth mentioning that this isn't strictly a loss of 1/5th of all jobs, as certain roles AI cannot outperform humans, at least not for the foreseeable future. There's even evidence that the total number of jobs will rise in that timeframe. Nevertheless, certain jobs will become obsolete where AI can unambiguously outperform and for a lower financial investment.

Oxford University researched this area extensively and their analyses have shown that out of 702 examined occupations, 12 had a 99% chance of displacement by technology. These range anything from data entry clerks to watch repairers. Worryingly, "models" have a 98% chance of being replaced by AI, though I suspect that is with reference to ecommerce. Generally, the arts and the computerization of occupations are non-overlapping magisteria. In fact, the estimated probability of photographers being displaced by AI is only 2%. A probability that is likely a sweeping glance of the profession at large.

Commercial photographers, for example, have seen a lot of their photography work encroached on by technology. While not directly replaced by robots — although that'd be a more dramatic summary — 3D renderings are becoming commonplace. A question I get asked regularly in my consulting work with watch brands is whether it's ok for them to use 3D renderings of their watches in their marketing. Sadly, it's not only "ok", it's pretty standard practice, even from the giants in the industry. Similarly, in real estate photography, cameras and software pairings are allowing estate agents to walk around the house filming the location, only for the software to process it in to a 3D rendering. As mentioned with models, it's hard to imagine that mass ecommerce photography couldn't be replaced entirely along with those displaced models.

Retouching, being somewhat of a niche profession, wasn't part of this Oxford University study, but for me, it's the biggest worry. One only need look at the direction Adobe Photoshop has gone with the Content Aware Fill tool. In the last decade, Adobe has worked on automating tiresome and laborious tasks, like intricate cloning.

Not to mention, Adobe's face detection is so advanced now, that it can easily pick out faces from all angles, and each individual feature of that face for localized manipulation. Even the most modern cameras like the Sony a7 III have facial recognition in which you can photograph a face, save it to the camera's memory, and set a priority for focusing throughout your shoot. It doesn't seem to me to be much of a leap to have this combine with Content Aware Fill and the feature manipulation of the Liquify tool to displace beauty retouchers. Beauty retouching is a fantastically intricate and difficult task to be executed to a high standard. However, a lot of what it does is time consuming routine tasks; the chief warning sign for technological automation of an occupation.

What do you think? Will the photography industry be drastically affected by AI and automation, or will its intangible qualities and nuances prove it resilient to the robot armies? For those interested in the subject and want a more than cursory glance at the issue, I have left a number of references below for further reading.

Lead image courtesy of Athey on DeviantArt

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chris schmauch's picture

No. Maybe. No.

Edward Blake's picture

We're only at the very beginning; however, it is entirely foreseeable that AI will be able to produce a photorealistic image or video, optomised for the psychology of the target audience, and do so rapidly and at low cost.

It's OK, lawyers also believe they'll be fine.

michaeljin's picture

AI and automation will eventually replace every profession. It's just a matter of time. The only question is what we will all do with ourselves when we eventually become a "post-work" society and how our values will adjust to that new reality.

user-156929's picture

If they replace every profession, nobody in a "post-work" society will have any money to buy the products and services, AI produces.

michaeljin's picture

Why would we need the concept of money at all in such a society? Think of Star Trek.

user-156929's picture

So a handful of us would fly around the universe? :-/

disclaimer: I've never seen Star Trek. I've heard of it, of course, and know the basic premise. When other guys were watching that in the 70's, I went on dates with girls. Weird, I know! ;-)

michaeljin's picture

Well that would be nice, but I meant more about the notion of a society where there is no such thing as want since technology has gotten to a point where you can pretty much have anything you want and because of this, there's no need for currency anymore. There are tons of holes as it pertains to the TV series, but that's one of the premises of the future that Star Trek imagines.

Frankly, it challenges the mind to think how we could possibly adapt to such a situation when we are so defined by our material possessions and the endless rat race of our work to acquire those possessions whether they are for sustenance or luxury. I have no doubt that we'll find some way to manufacture new types of conflicts, but it is fascinating to consider what a society where there is no necessary work to do might look like. We'll likely still have the arts since it will probably give people some sense of purpose, but the things we choose to do would be for our enjoyment, not because they were necessary.

What would you do in such a world? If you didn't have to work, never had to worry about money, shelter, food, etc. and the only things you had to do was whatever you wanted. What do you think the world would be like? Fortunately, it'll probably be generations before such a world comes to pass and we'd probably have plenty of time to transition into such a world, but if it was suddenly put upon us, I'd reckon it would be the first time many of us would ever stop to REALLY think about what would make us happy beyond the material possessions which would now hold no meaning since they're available for free to everyone.

As far as Star Trek, you know that they've had tons of spin-offs since the original series, right? I actually think that they're still making new episodes even now... Also, what are "girls"?

user-156929's picture

Some people are greedy and all people need "purpose". Such a future will never occur under human rule.
"Girls" are what women were before they found their purpose. ;-)

I think the creative professions will survive. I can't see AI replacing (or being allowed to replace) professions which involve any kind of design or creativity. Sure, technology will improve to perfectly retouch a portrait but I wouldn't classify that skill as being creative anyway.

user-156929's picture

In a world where nobody had to work, nobody was hungry, etc.. , there would be no need for creativity; just pretty pictures. The arts reflect our lives.

We will find out. Maybe in our lifetimes.

greg tennyson's picture

I wouldn't mind having a robot assistant that could hold gear, shoot BTS video and charge batteries while providing a wifi hotspot.

Or for a slightly darker view, we would be the assistants for the AI and the robots

user-206807's picture

I predict that with the progress that will make the AI, in a few years it will be enough to photograph an apple and let the software transform it into a face.

A few more years and the AI can create anything from anything ...

Long live creativity!

Alex Cherkasov's picture

but how about wedding, family, event photography? The AI software and physical abilities of robots have to be the same as humans'. It won't happen even in long-term period..
robots will need emotional connection with client to have the ability to capture nice photos in these photography fields.

user-156929's picture

Read "Crucible" by James Rollins.

David Pavlich's picture

If you've ever strung a tennis racquet, then you know what kind of technology is needed to make us a 'work free society'. Stringing a racquet isn't even important, but it takes a tremendous amount of manual dexterity just to get the string out of the package or off of a reel before the process of stringing even begins.

'No Work Society'? As long as evil exists in the human species, it will never happen. It would take but one rotten person to hack into whatever it is that controls the 'bots' that butters our toast or grills our ribs (I'm a foodie :-) ) to turn your toast butterer into a raving lunatic.

You can't leave out human nature in this 'new age' discussion, especially the dark side, Master Yoda. :-)

David Pavlich's picture

More on topic, if photography comes down to AI deciding what is or isn't a photograph, then it's time to take up playing the banjo. Besides, when AI becomes self aware and you give it a bad photo critique, it just might fire a lightning bolt out of your laptop to remind you who's boss. :-)

barry cash's picture

Yes human nature, elected or appointed officials and greed is the issue look at Venezuela’s happiness!
The old saying watch out what you wish for can be modernized to be careful what you dream for.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I shoot a lot of sofas, chairs, bench, just name it, typically for silo and 20 years ago, I was told this work would be all digital within a couple years. Thousands of pieces later, things haven't changed one bit for me. Clients like to keep some irregularities in the images, fabrics are constantly changing, often rolls arrive last minute, patterns on fabrics can go to extremes from one item to the next. I know what each client expect, height, angle, etc. Shooting and clipping don't take me much time. It would take a phenomenal amount of programing to make AI competitive and yet, a graphic person would still need to be paid to enter what ever AI needs for each piece and analyze the result to pass the image on to the next dept. This reminds me of image setters that do tremendous jobs, but when a laser breaks down, repair can cost 10k and production comes to a total stop or the company has to have multiple image setters for back up. And then 2 years later the new machines come out better and faster. Technology is great but expensive too.