Are AI Features Taking Over Photo Editing? Is It Time to Panic or Celebrate?

Serious and pro photographers can’t help but notice that AI is creeping into our craft. Maybe “creeping in” is not the correct metaphor. It’s actually rushing toward just about every software application we use. Luminar was an early adopter, and their upcoming Luminar AI, well, it has AI in its name.

Adobe just launched its latest version of Photoshop with a host of AI based features. It can replace a sky, turn a frown into a grin, re-light an image, colorize a mono image, and like Luminar, make structural changes to a portrait or photo slimming a person and turning their head. There’s more coming. Luminar is adding ky reflections in water (the holy grail in sky replacment), eye color changes, and more. 

So when is a photo a photo? And are heavily edited photos truly photos anymore? AI is everywhere, not just in our craft. Auto assembly, spam filters, astronomy, biology, political polling, and automated driving are all being re-shaped by AI.

The Beginning

Let’s start with what AI is, and what it isn’t. At its core, AI is based on repeated observations of human behavior. With an AI based car, it may recognize a stop light or stop sign and apply the brakes. It does this from learning what humans do. But it’s not being creative. It’s mimicking. And under some circumstances, edge cases AI researches call it, the car might crash in just the right unexpected situation.

It is the same with AI in photography. Yes, AI can tell (in most cases) that your white levels are too hot, or the color balance is off, or if clarity controls are needed. The problem is that even those simple “fixes” are not purely creative decisions, and they may interfere with creativity. Your color balance choices may not align with existing “norms.” You may not want clarity but control of focus. 

Even the term “AI” is somewhat troubling. The intelligence being used is not artificial. It’s gleaned from intelligent users. Garry Kasparov, the famous chess grandmaster who has thought deeply about AI, and was defeated by Deep Blue, an AI based chess program. He has suggested a new meaning for AI that has merit: Assisted Intelligence.

AI in Photography

AI can help a mundane image look better, it can make suggestions for cropping based on well understood rules, but some of the best and most creative images throw away the rule of thirds and other rules, and often the results are breathtaking. 

Almost any image taken by a photographer is modified by that photographer. He or she will make cropping decisions, perhaps dodge and burn, maybe, god forbid, insert a better sky. I’ve routinely removed a few tourists when I’m roaming in the Arizona canyons to get a great shot. Why not?

Some Personal Thoughts

I used to study Ansel Adams photos, and enjoyed his book The Negative. Adams did a lot of work in the darkroom, and a lot in the field. Red, yellow, and blue filters changed the contrast of the sky in his mono images, dodging and burning in the darkroom let him emphasize what he wanted and guide the eye over the image. Adams made big changes from the original negative. Lots of changes. He took control not trying to capture the scene as it was, but how he saw it. He made each image an Ansel Adams image, and while someone can write algorithms to mimic his style, and people often reach for his “look,” the result won’t be Adams and it probably won’t be as artistic, or artistic at all, just a kind of obviously bad clone.

Those images are sort of like the pod people in the 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” They looked right, had all the right memories, but they were alien imposters.

At the end of the day, I do not fret too much over the AI revolution. Tools are being provided, and we can use them or not. Even in the upcoming Luminar AI, one can process an image as one would in Lightroom and never touch an AI button or slider. It’s the same with Photoshop. Nothing forces you to change a smile or whiten teeth. AI never has to be turned on. On the other hand, inexperienced amateurs are welcome to turn a mediocre vacation photo into a passable one. It’s likely that the software will make some intelligent decisions the editor would never think of. 

I don’t feel threatened by the existence of those tools, because my work and vision are my own. On the other hand, AI based masking and noise reduction tools can save me a lot of time. I’ve used the Luminar excellent sky replacement by inserting some of my own skies, and I often like the result, and the time it saves me. I like the Adobe take on sky replacement too. Again, you don’t have to use it. Or the body transformations, or anything else.

Yes, as AI continues to roll on, we’ll see a bunch of bad photos, but we’ve always seen bad photos. I don’t think AI will offer a “good taste” or a “compelling image” button. But if you can use those tools wisely and tame them, making them your servant rather than letting them make a servant of you, that’s for the better. 

To answer my original question posted in the headline, AI is no reason to panic. Like any tool, we should welcome it and use it wisely. AI can save you a good deal of time at your computer and can greatly enhance the result. For newcomers, it can certainly improve your photos, and hopefully, you will dig in a bit and find out what AI is doing to your photos and learn from that, making you a better photographer. I noticed in the beta of Luminar AI, it highlights the changes that were made, and you are free to manually back them off or enhance them more. That’s as it should be.

I think Skylum is taking some bold steps, and Adobe and others are being forced to come on board. Competition is a good thing, We all benefit.


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