Is AI Photography Here to Stay? Ethics, Goals, and Questions.

I’ve been toying at the idea of recording a podcast about my thoughts on AI photography for a while now. For a while, I’ve put it off because I really don’t know if I want to add any more volume to a subject that’s already been talked about and debated for a while. But, it seems like AI photography, or even just AI photography tools aren’t going anywhere. So, here are my thoughts, questions, and my own personal ethics when it comes to the matter. There’s a video below, and a whole lot of text.

AI Generated photo. The prompt was “typical instagram photo. a person who is small in the landscape. A big open valley of a desert landscape. The sky is orange with sunrise and there is some soft glow.”

AI is Ruining YOUR Photography… For Me.

The essence of my feeling about AI in photography is that it doesn’t affect more own photography at all. It has no bearing on how much I love taking photos.

I don’t do photography for the desire to be better than other people, or have people awe at my photos, or to win competitions – or even to make money. I do photography because I love the process of it. I love getting out and trying to make something. I love the challenge of trying to bring together all the different elements required to make a cool photo. And I love the challenge of trying to do it in one single frame.

But, over the years I’ve felt my joy of seeing other people’s work drop significantly.

Part of this is a decaying trust I have with photographers. It started to dwindle with sky replacement, then it go worse when people started adding elements, and it’s gone almost completely with AI photography. I don’t enjoy seeing people’s photos anymore because I’m often left thinking, “did the photographer even take this photo?”

I know other photographers that have been dissuaded from doing photography due to AI. They feel like, “why compete against cheaters”.

I don’t have that feeling at all. I still love making photos as much as ever. I just don’t love seeing other people’s work as much anymore. The joy has been sucked out of it.

AI Generated. The prompt was: “A photographer with a tripod and camera taking pictures on a cliff. The landscape below is an ocean with waves crashing against the cliff.”

Difference Between AI Photo Editing Assistance Tools and AI Photo Making

I think I need to be clear on something here. The term AI has been wielded like all over the place lately. Basically, anything automated is now called AI. In photography specifically, when I’m talking about AI there are 2 different things I’m referring to.

AI Editing Assistance Tools

When I’m talking about AI editing tools, I’m talking about things like the auto button on Adobe Lightroom. Or, maybe even the creation of a mask in Lightroom that finds the sky. Or, in other apps like Topaz, reducing noise or focus stacking.

Largely, I’m ok with these tools. They are just ways of speeding up the workflow and helping you edit things you’d be able to do manually – but would take more time.

Well I’m on the topic, at what point will we get an AI spot removal tool from Adobe? That’s what I really need.

AI Photo Generation

So if AI editing assistant tools are on one side of the coin, AI photo generation is on the other side. This is when you use a software such as Midjourney or Imagine.Art to completely create a photo using a text or audio prompt.

For example, you might write a text that says, “A mountain valley with an alluvial river running through the middle of it. The sky is a beautiful and colourful sunset and the mountain peaks have a glow of sun. In the valley there are pine trees and some wildlife visible”.

Then, the software reaches thought all the various information it has store and builds an image based on your prompt. Sometimes, it’s beautiful. Sometimes, it feels nothing like what you asked for. The art – excuse the pun – in the process is being able to prompt the software well.

. This is AI photographer. Prompt: a dense forest of ferns and greenery that's full of mist. there is a person walking through the middle of the scene is a dog.
AI Generated Photo. The prompt was: a dense forest of ferns and greenery that’s full of mist. there is a person walking through the middle of the scene is a dog.

Did you Really Create That?

So I kind of want to be clear, when I’m talking about a lot of this AI photography stuff, I’m referring to AI photo generation.

Referring to AI photo generation, I’ve heard a couple analogies that I think sort of sum up about how I feel about it.

The first analogy is Lego blocks. The analogy is that if you had an unlimited amount of Lego blocks, and then you prompt a set of workers to build you something based on your ideas. That idea can be basic or elaborate, but in the end you’re just giving a general description, they are the ones putting it together.

It’s like if I were to buy a house, give the architect a full description of how I wanted the house to look. Did I build the house? Did I even design it? Did I really create anything?

To be honest, I think it comes down to personal opinion. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve created anything when I use AI photo generation, the same way that I wouldn’t feel like I build a house if I gave some prompts and ideas to a group of builders and architects.

Also, I want to be clear on something: if you love generating photos with AI, go for it. If generating photos with AI brings your joy, happiness, and empowerment, don’t let me personal feelings on it dissuade you. I’m not going ever going to judge your feelings towards your creations or your art.

AI Generated Photo. The prompt was: "two Tourists stand on the edge of a volcanic crater looking down and in. The volcano has some lava shooting out of it and flowing down one of the sides."
AI Generated Photo. The prompt was: “two Tourists stand on the edge of a volcanic crater looking down and in. The volcano has some lava shooting out of it and flowing down one of the sides.”

What’s the Legality of AI Photography? Who Owns the Rights?

There have been some interesting discussions about the rights of AI generated photos – or at least the elements in the photos.

In fact, almost comically, people have taken both sides of this discussion with incredible amounts of surety. I don’t think either can really claim something to be true. In my opinion, neither have gone through the courts properly enough to have decided it. I mean, even in film photography there are debates on ownership.

In AI photo generation there are 2 sides I’ve seen. The first is that since a human needs to hold the rights (a program can’t), the person who prompted the image is the rights holder. This website cites a couple court cases that make that seem to be the case.

However, I think this is still a debate. For example, AI doesn’t create things out of thin air. AI draws pixels, images, and data from all over the place. There’s no guarantee that an image I have taken hasn’t led to the generation of an AI image. Maybe it’s the face of a bear from one of my wildlife photos. Or, a mountain from a trip to Patagonia. But, if any bit of my image was used in the creation of an AI generated image, I would argue that the rights are at least partly mine. And if a human claims ownership of an image that has my work in it, it has breached my own rights.

There’s another website here that talks about the fact that by copyright law, only a human being can own the rights to an AI generated image. This is where I personally believe things will get messy.

For example, let’s say artist #1 creates a beautiful image using a very well organized prompt. Then, they sell that photo. There’s absolutely nothing protecting the original creator, because they don’t own the rights. I could download that image from the internet and print it, sell it as an NFT, or put it up in a gallery. Of course, I wouldn’t own it either. No one does.

Personally, I think this will get sorted out over time, but for now, don’t ever believe that you own the rights to the things you generate using AI.

depicting a futuristic metropolis at twilight, where sleek, luminescent skyscrapers tower over bustling streets filled with hovering vehicles, while a vibrant blend of neon lights reflects off the rain-slicked pavement below.
I actually asked ChatGPT to give me a prompt for a cool photo. It gave me this: “depicting a futuristic metropolis at twilight, where sleek, luminescent skyscrapers tower over bustling streets filled with hovering vehicles, while a vibrant blend of neon lights reflects off the rain-slicked pavement below.”

Digital Art vs. Photography

Here’s the thing, ever since photography went digital there’s been a blurring of lines between what is photography vs. what is digital art. I mean, is all digital photography just digital art? And actual photography has to be on film or slides?

We don’t have judges, laws, and courts to decide this. We just have the court of popular opinion. And, we have my opinion.

My personal opinion is that photography becomes digital art as soon as elements that aren’t present in the photograph are put into it. I’d even argue that if you remove something from a photograph, it becomes digital art.

It’s my opinion that editing using tools like lightroom and adjusting things like exposure, contrast, etc. doesn’t constitute digital art. It’s still just editing a photograph. We dodged and burned back when we were in dark rooms, it’s just editing the things that are already present in the photograph. In the digital version, it’s editing the data that’s already there.

In my opinion, it stops being photography and becomes digital art as soon as you start adding things. For example, sky replacements or adding reflections or multiplying the birds in the sky.

The blur in the line is, in my opinion, when photographers blend multiple images. of the same frame. Personally, I feel like if they were take more or less at the same time, it’s a photograph. If they were taken more than – say – 15 minutes apart, that’s digital art.

That being said, I don’t care if you do digital art or photography. Do whatever makes you happy. For me, it’s all about disclosure. Don’t act like your sky from Arizona and mountains from Italy are one photograph. When you share it with the photography community, explain the process.

AI photo generated with the prompt: “landscape featuring a serene alpine lake nestled between majestic snow-capped mountains, with a clear blue sky overhead and vibrant wildflowers dotting the meadows along the shoreline.”

Should We Just Go Back to Film?

Here’s the easy answer: yes.

If you’re a photographer and you’re annoyed by the shifting in the artform away from photography and into digital art; absolutely, go back to film. Sadly, the only way we as photographers will be credited with our art being “photography” anymore without any scrutiny is by using film.

Will I be going to film? Not a chance.

I honestly don’t care what people think about my photos or how they were made. I don’t do photography for the credit people give me about my skills, and I don’t do photography for a reaction. I do photography because I love the challenge of putting it all together.

AI Generated photo. ChatGPT’s prompt was: “depiction of an ancient temple hidden within a dense, mist-covered jungle, with intricate carvings adorning its weathered stone walls and sunlight streaming through the towering canopy above, casting mystical rays onto the sacred grounds below.”

Some Examples from Imagine Art, Including Prompts

On my podcast, I talked about some examples that I made using Imagine Art. I’ve used those examples throughout this post, including the prompts I used in the caption.

I’m very curious that if you use the exact same prompt would you get a totally different image than I got? If that’s the case, it almost definitely proves that the prompt is only a small portion of the creation.

Funny enough, the best looking images, in my opinion actually use prompts I asked ChatGPT to create for me. Basically, I asked ChatGPT to make me a really cool prompt for an AI generated photo. Then, I asked for a new one, then another new one. I did nothing.

AI Generated photo. The prompt is: “the golden hour glow over a tranquil seaside village, where pastel-colored houses line the cobblestone streets, leading to a charming harbor filled with fishing boats bobbing gently in the soft, pink-hued waves, all beneath a sky painted with cotton candy clouds.”

Summarizing my Thoughts on AI Photography

As I stated in my intro and in the podcast, I’m not personally bothered by artificial intelligence generated photography. It doesn’t change how I feel about the photo making process. I’m not even sure it degrades my market as a professional photographer. But the one place that it has already affected me is enjoying other people’s work.

I’m now constantly underwhelmed when I see photos because I have lost a bit of respect for the work that goes into the image. I mean, it’s very possible the photographer did make the image that I’m seeing on Threads themselves. But I will wonder.

And – if I’m being totally honest, I’m not impressed by the fact that an AI generated an image for you either. A lot of my friends, colleagues and clients have shared things they’ve generated with AI. They’re pretty proud of them, and that’s cool. But honestly, I see them and think: meh.

So how do I summarize AI generated photography? Meh.