Sometimes we’re brimming with ideas and ready to shoot. But, what can you do when the ideas dry up?
Iterating For Fresh Combinations
I recently attended a Masterclass at The Societies of Photographers 2023 Convention in London on the topic of generating ideas for illustrative images. The speaker, Kris Anderson, took us through a method he uses to iterate ideas when exploring a concept for a new image.
He started with a brief description of an image, then changed one thing, then another, and repeated this to provide a list of possibilities. He then showed an initial sketch which was refined further to give the pathway to the end result. Below you can see his initial mock-up and then the final image titled “Relentless”.
Thank you to Kris for permission to reproduce his images here. Please do take a look at more of Kris’ work on Instagram.
Afterward, Kris and I were talking on Messenger and he came up with the brainwave of getting AI to automate the iteration process. This got me thinking, so I explored whether there were ways that we might be able to use AI to help us come up with ideas for a shoot, such as locations or props that might suit a theme.
Essentially, I wanted to see if in some ways AI tools could take the place of bouncing ideas around between friends and producing initial sketches. Below are the results of my early experiments with two AI tools.
AI Tool #1: ChatGPT
The first tool we are going to look at is ChatGPT from openai.com. This seemed like the obvious place to start as it is one of the best-known of the early AI chatbots that is free to access at the time of writing. Perhaps writing to ChatGPT could be a bit like discussing things over Messenger with a friend?
Let’s say I want to do a sci-fi-inspired shoot. To get more ideas, I’ll base it on a movie. But, to make sure that there is plenty of diverse material to draw on, I’ll only choose sci-fi trilogies. So, I asked ChatGPT to name 5 sci-fi film trilogies. It suggested Star Wars, The Matrix, Back to The Future, Alien, and Blade Runner.
I’ve always been a fan of The Matrix triology, so I took that as my inspiration for what followed. For the shoot to look authentic I would need a good location and some styling and props that would help the viewer make the connection with The Matrix.
Finding Potential Locations
Shooting on location, but can’t think of anywhere suitable? Try getting ChatGPT to suggest locations for you. Tell it the city or area you want to shoot in and describe the type of environment you are after.
For example, I asked it for 5 locations on the outskirts of New York that could be used for a photoshoot inspired by The Matrix films. Here’s what it came up with:
- Red Hook Grain Terminal
- New York State Pavilion
- Floyd Bennett Field
- Tarrytown Psychiatric Hospital
- Croton Aqueduct
I’ve never been to New York and wouldn’t have a clue if any of these were any good. So, I looked them up on a Google image search to get a feel for each of them. As far as I could tell, they seemed a pretty good fit visually. But, I had no idea if they were accessible or not, so would have had to look into that further. I did a couple of Midjourney visualizations based on a Matrix character and the location, but the images it generated didn’t really help me much.
Here is what it thought of for the Croton Aqueduct:
These were its suggestions based on a motorcycle outside the Red Hook Grain Terminal:
I’m sure plenty of you are yelling at the screen already! I don’t think these are providing me with realistic scenes I could actually capture on location. So, it is hard to evaluate from what we have so far whether planning a shoot at one of these sites would be worth it.
To continue the experiment, I thought I’d try something closer to my home and test the results. That way I may actually know the places it suggests and be able to evaluate them better.
Here is the prompt that I used: “suggest locations in Norfolk, UK for a photoshoot themed on the Matrix – places must be open to the public with free access”. This is what it came up with:
- Norwich Castle
- St Andrew’s Hall
- Norwich Cathedral
- Felbrigg Hall
- The Broads
- Cromer Pier
- Great Yarmouth
Ok, the list is better than nothing, but by no means ideal. For a start, Felbrigg Hall is owned by the National Trust so you can’t get in without paying and they don’t allow photography for professional purposes without a license. The Broads is a large area of man-made lakes, windmills, and tourists in boats, so I’m not sure which part it had in mind… Norwich Cathedral and the Castle again don’t tend to like people taking photos inside other than the usual tourist snaps. So, sorry ChatGPT, but that isn’t the most helpful list. In fact, it just reads like a list you might get if you asked for places to visit as a tourist. To an extent, Cromer Pier and parts of Yarmouth could be OK. But, on the whole, the results aren’t all that great.
So, local knowledge is still really important. Don’t go booking a location shoot based on a ChatGPT suggestion just yet. It might help you get started with your research, but you’ll still have to do some legwork to do. If nothing else, at least it gets the process started if you have a bit of a mental block or no idea where to begin.
Styling and Props
We had rather mixed results with the location hunt. Arguably we could have got something similar (certainly for the Norfolk query) from a simple Google search. How about props and styling? Supposing we wanted to do a James Bond 007-themed shoot. But, for some reason, we were struggling to think of props that could help sell the story.
Here is our search phrase typed into ChatGPT: “suggest 10 props for a james bond inspired photoshoot indoors – all props must be able to be used indoors”.
Here is the answer it gave me:
- Martini glasses and shaker: James Bond is famous for his “shaken, not stirred” martinis. Incorporating martini glasses and a shaker into your photoshoot can create a classic Bond feel.
- Vintage telephone: James Bond often receives important calls on a vintage telephone. Incorporating a similar prop into your photoshoot can help create a Bond-inspired atmosphere.
- Playing cards: James Bond is known for his love of gambling. Incorporating playing cards into your photoshoot can create a similar feel.
- Briefcase: James Bond often carries a sleek, high-tech briefcase. Using a similar prop in your photoshoot can help create a Bond-inspired atmosphere.
- Cigarette case and lighter: James Bond is often seen with a cigarette case and lighter. Incorporating these props can create a classic Bond feel.
- Bow tie and tuxedo: James Bond is always dressed to impress in a sharp tuxedo and bow tie. Incorporating similar outfits in your photoshoot can help create a Bond-inspired look.
- Gun and holster: James Bond is known for his use of guns. Incorporating a fake gun and holster in your photoshoot can create a similar feel.
- High-tech gadgets: James Bond often has access to high-tech gadgets, such as watches with hidden cameras. Incorporating similar gadgets in your photoshoot can create a Bond-inspired atmosphere.
- Aston Martin car model: James Bond is famous for his love of Aston Martin cars. Incorporating a model of an Aston Martin car in your photoshoot can create a classic Bond feel.
- Book collection: James Bond is known for his love of literature. Incorporating a collection of classic books into your photoshoot can create a similar feel.
Spot the tiny problem with one of these? Yes, it is rather hard to imagine an Aston Martin car being used as an indoor prop – in my studio at any rate. Nevertheless, it has picked up on some of the classic iconic symbols associated with 007. They aren’t all equally as useful, but a combination of a few of them could indeed help us to style a themed shoot with props that people would connect with James Bond.
At any rate, the results are more usable than we found with the location search.
I also asked it for 10 props for a photoshoot inspired by the Matrix films and it came up with the following list:
- Black leather outfits
- Metallic or chrome surfaces
- Green-tinted lighting
- Wires and cables
- Neon lights
- Futuristic chairs or seating
- Digital screens
- Martial arts weapons
For those familiar with the movies, this list makes a lot of sense. Although, I’m not sure how prominent chairs were. Can’t say they stuck in my mind!
Overall, I’d say that this is a good list with potential to help with styling for a shoot. Could I have come up with them on my own? Quite possibly. But, in a moment of laziness I didn’t have to think too hard. Others of a lazy disposition or those who are just tired and unable to think straight may find ChatGPT could save them some time coming up with props and styling ideas for themed shoots.
AI Tool #2: Midjourney
There are various AI image generators available as a quick Google search will reveal. I’ve so far only explored Midjourney so can only write about my experience with its text to image generator. Others may well yield very different results and be more or less effective for the purposes we are looking at here.
For those who have yet to try an AI image generator, let me briefly outline the process. You put a prompt in for the AI to work from. This is normally a text description of what you would like the image to show. You can also put in images as references for it to create a derivative image.
In Midjourney, you are given 4 images in response. You can then ask for variations on one of those or have it upscaled if you are happy with how it turned out. There is of course more to it, so consult the documentation or ask in forums to go deeper with it all.
At this stage, we move on from ChatGPT to Midjourney because we want some quick visual ideas that we might base a shoot on. Effectively, we are going to use Midjourney to build a sort of mood board for us. I took some of the keywords from our initial research and put this into the Midjourney image generator: “man and woman wearing long black trenchcoats and sunglasses, holding martial arts weapons, in a metal room with green lighting and a computer screen, photorealistic, details.”
As you can see, these are from the list supplied by ChatGPT with the added prompts asking for the images to be photorealistic and detailed. Here are the images that it generated:
I then asked Midjourney to make a series of variations based on the first of the four suggestions and ended up with this:
After another variation I did an upscale of my favorite suggestion so far to give me this image:
There are elements here that are not obviously from the movies, but the overall feel works well. One of the key limitations I have found with Midjourney at the moment is that you can’t really tweak an image slightly with good control so that it turns out the way you want. It would be great if we could tell it to change a single element without altering the rest so that we could get a series of visual iterations for our mood board. Yes, we can tell it to make variations, but not in a very precise way (for now at least).
Nevertheless, from just an embryonic idea to a set of keywords from ChatGPT and through a few iterations in Midjourney I had an image that embodied aspects of the Matrix movies and could be feasible to shoot in the right location or in the studio.
If I wanted to, then I could start working out exactly what I’d need to do to create an image like this. For example, I could look to cast suitable models, speak with a stylist about hiring props, investigate potential locations and start to plan my lighting.
The two AI tools that I used helped me to explore ideas both in words and visually. They functioned in similar ways to a planning meeting, giving me material that I could build on. Some of the suggestions were far from perfect, but at least it gets things moving if you are feeling stuck.
If you are working mainly on your own, then these tools might come in handy. However, expert knowledge (such as of good shooting locations!) and the social buzz that you get from working with a group of people are hard to replace.
About the author: Joe Lenton FSICIP MA ASWPP ASINWP ADPS is a qualified international photography judge and mentor with The Society of Photographers. He is a freelance advertising photographer specializing in product and architecture photography. Based in Norfolk, UK, Joe lives with his wife and two cats, Ozzy and Sharon.