AI and Photography: Tools, Trends and Tips
As tech companies race to reconfigure their business models, teachers wrestle with new plagiarism problems, and everyone wonders what might be coming next, you may be asking: what does this all mean for photographers?
In these early days of the AI revolution, it’s still too soon to say. But now’s a good time to take a closer look at how AI is already bringing big changes to the world of photography.
What is AI? Artificial intelligence definition
Before we do that, let’s make sure we understand what AI actually is.
'Artificial intelligence' refers broadly to a field within computer science concerned with enabling computer systems to simulate human intelligence. When a computer performs tasks like visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, or translation between languages, it is using artificial intelligence to do so.
The process through which computer systems learn to complete tasks like these is called ‘machine learning’. Using machine-learning algorithms, systems take the data fed into them and “learn” new information, improving their performance by identifying patterns.
Some everyday AI examples that we’ve all become familiar with include autocorrect and predictive text, maps and navigation, search and recommendation algorithms, customer service chatbots, and so on.
AI photography apps
AI has been creeping into photography, too, even if your camera is no more than an iPhone. Facial recognition in autofocus mode? Portrait mode that identifies the subject and blurs the background? We have AI to thank for these features, and more. And there are already dozens of AI apps competing to help you enhance your smartphone camera shots.
The most prominent is probably Photoshop Camera, an intelligent camera app that suggests the best ‘lenses’ and filters for your photos in real time. Adobe claims to add a new ‘look’ each week, so there should always be something fresh to try.
Aimed more at advanced photographers, Halide enables you to shoot in RAW format. It claims to harness machine learning to expose your RAW files better, for maximum detail and minimum noise. Its AI-based auto mode is complemented by a manual mode that you can operate within your phone.
One more app worth mentioning is Focos, which uses AI to calculate depth of field automatically. You can also use it to alter focus, change the aperture, or even add multiple ‘lights’ after you’ve already captured your shot.
In-camera AI tools
More recently, we’ve seen the arrival of Arsenal 2, a so-called ‘intelligent camera assistant’. You attach the unit to your camera, which you then operate remotely via a mobile app. Arsenal then suggests settings based on your subject and environment. How? By using an advanced neural network to identify what you’re shooting and comparing it with a database containing thousands of professional photos.
In other words, it will tell you how to make your photo look more like the best similar images in the database. What you lose in originality, creative expression and artistic accomplishment, you gain in efficiency.
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AI tools for post-production
As these apps suggest, AI is also starting to play a bigger role in post-production work. Adobe Sensei, for instance, is a powerful AI tool within Lightroom. It allows you to add or adjust texture, improve clarity, enhance sharpness, and more.
Google, meanwhile, offers SR3 (Super-Resolution via Repeated Refinement) and CDM (Class-Conditional Diffusion Model). These tools allow you to increase the size of an image without compromising resolution.
Another tool you may already be familiar with is the Neural Filters function in Photoshop. Powered by the Sensei machine-learning engine mentioned above, Neural Filters use algorithms to generate new pixels in your photos. This enables you to make non-destructive edits while keeping your original image intact.
Moving beyond Adobe, there’s Luminar Neo. This is an AI photo editor with 20+ effects and features. It enables you to quickly and easily enhance landscapes, retouch portraits, and so on.
You might also try Topaz Photo AI, which lets you sharpen, remove noise from, and increase the resolution of your photos quickly and easily.
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Of course, you may have your own trademark personal style that makes your work unique. This may make you less inclined to let these automated tools loose on your images.
Well, Imagen has already thought of that, and found a way around it. This AI-powered photo editor analyses up to 3,000 of your previous photo edits to create what it calls your Personal AI Profile. You can then apply this profile to one of your images in Lightroom, transforming it in line with your trademark style in a fraction of a second.
Imagen claims to cut your editing workflow by up to 96% “so you can have more time to focus on what you love.” (Not so good if you love editing your photos manually!)
One time-saving AI tool that’s hard to argue with is AfterShoot, which seems to be aimed primarily at wedding photographers. AfterShoot’s main function is automatically culling unwanted images by identifying blinks, blurs, inferior duplicates and so on. If you’re a wedding photographer who dreads sifting through hundreds and hundreds of shots to find the ones worth keeping, this AI tool could be for you.
Generative AI and the visual arts
So far we’ve looked at AI-based tools that claim to help you take better photographs. The elephant in the room, of course, is generative AI – AI that produces images from scratch based on prompts.
From DALL.E2 to Midjourney via Stable Diffusion and others, these image-creation engines are already disrupting the visual arts world. The most prominent example is probably Jason M. Allen winning first prize in the digital art category at the Colorado State Fair art competition with an image created by Midjourney in response to his prompts.
The resulting backlash and fierce debate is proof that we are only just beginning to wrestle with the ramifications of generative AI.
What does AI mean for professional photography?
Which brings us back to our original question: what does all this mean for photography?
One interesting case is Booth AI, which is trying to muscle in on the product photography market. It claims that once you’ve uploaded some sample product images and entered your prompts, the AI can quickly generate lifestyle photos to showcase the product. For example, you can upload an image of a jacket and enter the prompt ‘Smiling woman wearing jacket in a London park’. Are the results up to scratch? You be the judge.
Another interesting example comes from photographer Antti Karppinen. Having captured an array of portraits for a commercial client, he then used those portraits as a dataset for AI that he can harness to generate new images of those same subjects in future.
To those questioning his approach, Karppinen has responded that, recognising the disruptive nature of AI, he is choosing to explore the opportunities it can bring.
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The value of 'eventfulness'
One thing generative AI will never be able to replicate is what researcher David Mellor calls the “eventfulness” of photography. Speaking to Amateur Photographer, Mellor has said that “you often think about [photography] in terms of someone with a camera who was in some place at some time and they recorded something happening, even if it’s a stillness, even if it’s nothing, there’s a kind of an event of a photograph, whereas what [generative AI engines] do is ‘eventless’ photography.”
He goes on to say that, though AI is undoubtedly changing the visual arts (just as it is changing many other aspects of modern life), “we’ll still need human creativity, photography, and the other arts, for its meaningfulness and beauty. As always, it’s the conjunction of human techniques and technologies where we find what matters.”
What changes will AI bring to photography in the future? That remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that big changes are already happening, and photographers will need more expertise and creativity than ever.