I recently watched a video on YouTube by the very popular landscape photographer Thomas Heaton. The video was titled “AI editing will ruin photography as we know it” where Thomas discusses a new photo editing program soon to be released by Skylum: Luminar AI.
The First Image Editor Fully Powered by Artificial Intelligence
Skylum describes it as the ‘first image editor fully powered by artificial intelligence’, it is capable of analyzing your photos and then suggesting what edits and effects you should apply. With it, you can automatically transform the look of your photos, quickly and easily, without having to actually put in much time or effort yourself. The software can pretty much do it all for you.
You can add in weather elements such as mist, drizzle, sunbeams, fog, etc. So that regardless of whether or not there was any fog in the landscape when you took the photo, you can add it to your final image, without the need to learn how to use masks, or layers, or any of the other tools you would typically use in Photoshop.
You can add in a completely different sky and Luminar AI will be able to adjust the light and color of your image so that it actually looks as though the photo was taken with the ‘fake’ sky you’ve just added.
It can analyze the composition of your photo and crop it accordingly so that your image looks good compositionally. So don’t worry if you don’t know about basic composition rules, Luminar AI will even take care of that for you.
You can add bokeh, remove skin blemishes, and much, much more, and this is all without the need for masks, adjustment brushes, or layers.
The argument that Skylum makes is that this will mean you will be spending less time in front of your computer and therefore have more time actually out taking photos and creating.
Arguments Against AI
Photographers such as Thomas Heaton are very much against this software. In his video, Thomas argued that unless you fully claim that your image was created using this software and using Artificial Intelligence then you are being deceitful as a photographer. He also believes, therefore, that you lose integrity as a photographer and will never improve your own skills or develop your own style.
If you rely on AI to edit and create your images for you, then how can you grow and develop as a photographer? Your style will be dictated by the software. It will look like everyone else who relies on the technology too. Your style will essentially be Luminar’s style.
Now, Thomas Heaton is clearly very passionate about the outdoors and about landscape photography and obviously has a genuine love for both. He loves what he does, loves landscape photography as an art form, and has spent a lot of time and effort honing his skills and getting to where he has in his career. It would probably be fair to describe him as a purist and as someone who also loves being outdoors and taking photos of the World as I see it, I completely understand where he is coming from in his arguments against AI editing.
I suspect, however, there is another reason why Thomas Heaton is against this software, which he did not claim in his video…
Is Thomas Heaton Worried?
As a professional landscape photographer, I suspect Thomas is also worried. Thomas actually makes a living from his craft and often gets paid by companies such as travel boards for the use of his photos. He gets paid by these companies because he is very good at what he does — he is one of the best in his field and is capable of taking stunning, spectacular photos that not just anyone could easily take.
At least not until now perhaps…
We have already seen how oversaturated the photography market, particularly travel and landscape photography now is. Everyone is a photographer these days and this software now makes it easier than ever to produce stunning results.
Now anyone really can go out and take an incredible landscape, cityscape, or portrait image without even having to put in any real-time or effort themselves. Simply get this software to analyze and edit the photo for you…
Unfortunately then, I believe the beautiful photos we’ve all become accustomed to seeing on our Instagram feeds are only going to become more and more common and if these types of beautiful looking photos become more readily available, are companies going to pay photographers such as Thomas Heaton a lot of money for photos which aren’t quite as unique anymore and where they’ll be able to get something quite similar for much less?
I’m afraid I think this does lower the value of photographers even more.
So, as it is already harder than ever to make a career as a photographer, thanks to smartphones, Instagram, globalization, COVID-19, etc etc, this may sound like a further nail in the coffin for professional photography as we know it; but fear not, because I do have a solution…
With everything I’ve just said, it’s not enough to just be able to take an aesthetically pleasing photo anymore. That might have gotten you far 10 years ago or so, but now anyone can do that! So I argue that aesthetics are perhaps less important than they’ve ever been, in terms of standing out at least.
Because of Instagram, we’ve become obsessed with aesthetics. Most people now when they go out with their camera, focus on creating the most impressively looking image they can in the hope that that one photo will then get a ton of likes on Instagram and in turn, hopefully, more followers.
Oh how shallow photography has become!
No one cares about depth or soul or meaning anymore — it’s all about aesthetics and the hope that same other-worldly looking landscape or sunset will gain a lot of digital hearts or thumbs-up on the internet.
But aesthetics can easily be replicated. Story cannot.
It is the story and the meaning of a photo that makes it unique and that makes it powerful.
So if you want to stand out as a photographer in 2021 and beyond, get away from this focus of taking single images for Instagram. Stop chasing the likes. Focus on a project, on a concept, think of an idea or story that you want to tell, something that you are actually passionate about and care about and build something around that. Put together an actual body of work.
I’m not saying you should give up landscape photography and become a documentary photographer, not by any means. If landscape photography is what you genuinely love, then that is what you should do. But even with landscape photography, there are many stories you can tell.
Landscape photography is not just about that one single photo of the panoramic views from the summit at sunset. Why not tell the story of the actual day and of the hike? Photograph and show the struggle getting to the summit, photograph the people you were with, photograph the mud on your boots, the weight of your backpack, the open fire in the pub when you stopped off for a pint when you got back down. There are so many things you can photograph which, when put together will actually tell a story about the hike.
And that’s just focusing on one day. You could think of a concept or project around a particular theme, person, or idea within landscape photography and spend years photographing that…
So I urge photographers, to stop photographing for likes, stop focusing purely on aesthetics and what you think will do well on social media, and focus more on telling a story with your photography.
Not a lot of people can tell original, interesting stories in a powerful and meaningful way using photography. Why not strive to be one of those few?
P.S. You can hear more on this subject by watching my video at the top of this page.
About the author: Chris Gouge is a photographer, traveller, and YouTuber based in the UK. You can find more of his work on his website, YouTube channel, or by following him on Instagram. This post was also published here.