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AI and the Battle for the Future of Photo Editing


For photographers, AI photo editing is no longer a fringe topic for ML researchers or a gimmick employed by smartphone apps. With the impending release of Skylum’s Luminar AI and Adobe calling the latest build of Photoshop “the world’s most advanced AI application for creatives,” it’s time for the community to reckon with an important question: What does this mean for photography, photo editing, and creativity at large?

One of the hottest hot takes in the industry right now is that AI photo editing is going to be very bad for photographers and retouchers of all stripes. Whether it’s Luminar AI, Adobe’s Sensei AI-powered tools, or the NVIDIA technology behind Photoshop’s new portrait editing features, most photographers seem wary of this technology and its potential impacts of creativity.

Naysayers paint a grim picture of over-edited portraits and homogenous landscapes that are indistinguishable from one another–each of them edited using the same sky replacement tool, the same skin smoothing, the same fake fog, and the same “intelligent” dodge and burn tools. Like calligraphy or traditional printmaking, they envision a future where “manual” photo editing is an artisanal skill practiced by a dedicated few.

Meanwhile, defenders of the technology claim that AI will open up new frontiers in creativity and opportunities for profit by cutting down the time spent on repetitive tasks that waste time and contribute more to carpal tunnel than art. Some argue that lowering the barrier to entry into the world of photo editing will act as a “gateway drug” that will empower young artists to discover and expand their creative chops.

But what about the people on the front lines? How do the companies behind this tech feel about the “AI revolution” that they are bringing about? And what about professional retouchers and educators whose jobs depend on (and might be replaced by) this technology?

I wanted to find out, and so I reached out to Adobe, Skylum, Pratik Naik of Solstice Retouch, and Aaron Nace of Phlearn and asked each the same somewhat-loaded question:

Do you believe that the advent of increasingly capable AI-powered photo editing tools is going to be a net positive on the photography and retouching industries? Why or why not? Feel free to elaborate.

I’ve re-printed their responses in full below, in the hopes of injecting a bit of nuance and perspective into this conversation. As with most things in life, there is no black and white answer, but understanding the shades of gray might help a few of us prepare to live and work (and maybe even thrive) in the AI-powered future of photo editing.

Because as each of our responders pointed out in one way or another: unlike Thanos, this really is inevitable.

Alex Tsepko, CEO at Skylum

To cut to the chase, I think AI is definitely a positive thing that’s happening to the photo industry right now. People are using photography to build their brand, sell their services, goods, tell their friends and family a story. To do this well, they need to be able edit photos well; spending the minimum amount of time in the process.

Creators don’t want and most importantly don’t have to waste time on routine work. Instead, they use smart technologies to speed up the process of creating the photographs they need to tell their stories to the world via print, social media, or anything in between.

At Skylum, we believe all technology should serve a meaningful purpose and, ideally, a noble one. To that end, we thought by adding the power of artificial intelligence to Luminar AI, we could offer new ways of doing things.

When editing photos, people spend 74% of their time on repetitive, routine tasks, which we call grunt work. Because of the boring nature of this grunt work, people come to think of photo editing as more difficult and less satisfying. We believe that AI can automate much of this grunt work and free people to reinvest that time in their personal lives or in further developing their creativity.

When a professional opens a photo to edit, the end result is already well-formed, if not completely alive in her mind… this is not always the case with amateurs or hobbyists.

Lacking the knowledge of the professional, amateurs and hobbyists start clicking buttons and dragging sliders hoping to find their way to a great result. Too often, they fail. Looking at this problem, we wondered if artificial intelligence might serve as a guide; inspiring amateurs and hobbyists to find and develop their own style.

To solve these problems, Luminar AI uses artificial intelligence to evaluate the user’s photos and suggest several style options. Here, it is important to understand the software robot (AI) does not replace human creativity. In fact, human creativity, in the form of very talented professional photographers and retouchers, trains our AI to understand what a good image is and then guides it through a series of options to get their images there … quickly.

Thus, a creator has the immediate benefit of a creative inspiration, prompted by the AI, and does not find themselves stuck when experience is lacking or, in the case of professionals, the ideas are not flowing.

Maria Yap, Vice President of Digital Imaging at Adobe

[It is] absolutely [a positive]. I firmly believe that AI, when done right, helps amplify human creativity and enhances creative expression. For photographers and photo retouching professionals, AI-powered features across Photoshop and Lightroom eliminate manual and repetitive tasks, reduce complex workflows, and even enable adjustments to images in ways that were previously not possible with existing tools.

To address real-world needs and pain points, we work closely with professional photographers in developing our Sensei AI-powered features, and have seen that most photographers are quick to incorporate these powerful tools into their day-to-day workflows.

Photoshop is the world’s most advanced AI application for creatives, and we’re just getting started.

Pratik Naik of Solstice Retouch

This heavily debated topic is at the center of discussion today in our industry. No matter the genre, we’re all going to benefit from tools that work for everything from landscapes, portraits, and anything in between.

I personally am optimistic and embrace developments in tech that give us options for creativity. With our communities, I get to see how creatives work with our tools in order to further accomplish their vision. I know that there are also many out there that may consider it cheating to have these assisted tools modify a photo that goes well beyond what was there in reality. We could sit here all day and discuss whether something is a photograph or not. However, we can’t deny that these tools will help people get to their end goal quicker and more accurately, no matter what definition they use to define the final image.

On retouching portraits in specific, if tools enable us to get done faster, we’ll have the ability to get through more images. Based on how one manages time and rates, it could actually end up producing a positive impact in making more money. Because these tools are a part of the workflow chain, they still require user input to guide them in order to get to where each person wants. For example, if you gave the same image to ten retouchers, the end result will vary greatly, so taste and direction are still required. This is where experience in working will still take precedence and the tools themselves will not level the playing field entirely.

No matter what comes in the future, it can only provide additional opportunities for us to not only explore but implement these tools in our work to produce better results at a faster pace. Those who have a harder time adapting will always struggle, but I see promise with these tools if people can incorporate them into their workflow and businesses strategically.

Aaron Nace of Phlearn

Technology continues to evolve at a startling pace, and we have seen huge shifts in the photography industry in the past – for instance, the advent of the digital camera. Art and technology have always been intrinsically linked, and with each iteration of technology, new art forms are developed.

Whether these changes in AI are positive or negative depends on the subjective point of view of individuals, but one thing is clear – It is up to us to continue to evolve or get left behind.

My perspective is that I don’t see it as a positive or a negative, it is just a change. If you are unwilling to adjust with the change, you may see it as a negative, if you embrace it, then it can be a positive. Personally, I plan on embracing changes in technology and moving forward.

Final Thoughts

One of the most surprising things about the answers we got, especially the ones from Naik and Nace, is how generally optimistic they were. At worst, the sentiment is that these tools are coming whether you like them or not so you may as well find a way to work with them—”evolve or get left behind.”

No one’s denying the impact that automating large parts of the photo editing process will have on the art of retouching and photo editing. Google Maps came along, and now nobody learns how to read a physical map; automatic cars are so common in the US that hardly anybody learns how to drive stick; Spell Check isn’t helping anybody become a better speller. It would be naïve to imply that AI photo editing tools–the powerful, accurate, realistic ones–won’t have a similar impact on photo editing, encouraging some people to outsource more and more of their workflow to the algorithms.

But as Naik and Nace rightly point out, it would be equally naïve to buy into the idea that AI spells the “end of creativity as we know it.” Good art demands subtlety and surprise, and the latter is, by definition, impossible to automate.

This debate is a great distraction–sort of like obsessing over the latest lens that’s 2% sharper than the last, or touting the unique benefits of Brand A over Brands B and C. If you’re looking for something to debate in the comments or yet another company/technology/website/*fill in the blank* that’s coming for photographers’ jobs, AI is low-hanging fruit. But just as no combination of specs has ever birthed an artist… no amount of automation could ever truly snuff one out.

About the author: DL Cade is an art, science and technology writer, and the former Editor in Chief of PetaPixel. When he’s not writing op-eds like this one or reviewing the latest tech for creatives, you’ll find him working in a Vision Sciences lab at the University of Washington or publishing personal essays on Medium.