When is a photograph not a photograph?
Mirram-Webster defines photography as:
the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor)
I doubt any of us would disagree. That definition captures both traditional film photography (whether that is 35mm film or larger format) as well as what I will call traditional digital photography (with a point-and-shoot, DSLR, or mirrorless digital camera).
I suspect that most of us would still call something photography even after we captured an image as described and then edited the photo with Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or another digital tool. We’ve been producing images altered by our software for decades, all under the banner of “photography,” whether it be client services or the creation of fine art pieces.
Photographers have incorporated stock images by others, digital textures, digital backgrounds, and even hand-drawn artwork into their pictures. When I recently photographed an attorney at his home and then replaced the background so that it was consistent with the background of his firm’s other attorneys’ headshots, everyone involved knew what was happening, and it was called photographic services.
We’ve used content-aware fill for many years. Photographers have replaced dull skies with more interesting ones. The Professional Photographers of America (hardly what I would describe as a leading-edge organization) offers a degree called “Master Artist” that is earned by entering digitally-altered, composited, and created images into exhibition. This digital manipulation is performed with photo editing software, and photographers are the ones doing it.
And then AI-powered image generators entered the picture (pun intended).
Now, we face ourselves at a crossroads, with many photographers voicing strong opposition to the use of images created (entirely or in part) by tools powered by artificial intelligence. Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DALL-E have become trigger words that get the opinions flowing. Is it “cheating” if a photographer uses an AI-generated element in their creations? Can we still call it photography?
PetaPixel asks where is the line between a photo and AI art?
A new word exists – synthography – to describe the process of generating digital visual artwork based on input prompts.
Here’s my take on it all: If photographers (synthographers, artists, pick your term) are honest about how they create their work, I couldn’t care less if their images involve elements produced by AI-powered software tools. Your clients couldn’t care less about straight-out-of-camera. Incorporate AI-generated backgrounds or scenes into your photographic creations and merge them with things captured from your own camera. Create images generated entirely by artificial intelligence. As long as you’re representing that is what’s happening, the tool isn’t of consequence.
I use artificial intelligence. I call myself a photographer. If I enter work into a contest or other forum, I will be honest about how things were created. I won’t misrepresent computer-generated AI artwork as my original work. If I were to shift to focusing entirely on using AI and stop using my cameras, I don’t think I’d call myself a photographer anymore. But as long as my camera is involved, photography it is.
I’m giving a talk for the Seattle-Area Photoshop User Group tonight, exploring the creative side of artificial intelligence. Some might say that most of what I will speak about isn’t photography. I say that if photographers aren’t considering these options as part of their work, they’re creating a self-imposed barrier to creative possibilities. What is photography to you?