Audubon Photography Awards Creates AI Versions of the Winning Images

Mated Pigeon
Mated pigeons groom one another. This photo, left, by Liron Gertsman won the grand prize. An AI representation of the image generated by DALL-E, right.

The Audubon Photography Awards has recreated its winning photos with artificial intelligence (AI) to see how the synthetic images match up to the real work of photographers.

The National Audubon Society approached the photographers that won the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards and asked them to describe their photos in a few sentences to “someone who can’t see the image.”

Then, with their permission, Audubon fed those descriptions into the AI image generator DALL-E and compared the generated images alongside the real photos.

Comparing Real Photos to AI Photos

AI photo compared to real photo
A diving chinstrap penguin, left. The photo by Karen Blackwood won the amateur award. Recreated by DALL-E, right.
AI photo compared to real photo
A dunlin avoids a crashing wave. The photo, left, by Kieran Barlow won the Youth Award at the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards. Generated by DALL-E, right.

In an article for Audubon, Photoshelter chairman and co-founder Allen Murabayashi warns that AI technology poses “fundamental questions” to wildlife photography.

“Soon we may not be able to tell if a bird photo is real or fake,” he writes.

“It’s not just photographers, but also conservationists who must contend with these developments. Photography has long been used to build wonderment of the natural world and to bolster arguments for protecting declining species, addressing habitat decline, and boosting public trust in the reality of climate change.”

AI photo compared to real photo
This photo, left, of an Atlantic Puffin on a lava rock rock taken by Shane Kalyn won the Professional Award. DALL-E goes in much closer, right.
AI photo compared to real photo
A female Baltimore Oriole carries nesting material in a real photo, left, taken by Sandra M. Rothenberg. It won the Female Bird Prize at the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards. DALL-E’s attempt, right.

However, Murabayashi insists AI will not replace photography as the technology will not “end our drive to document everyday wildlife moments.”

“For all the transformation AI may bring, I find it unlikely that it will turn human effort, expertise, and experience into quaint anachronisms,” he says.

“The joy of observing a bird and the effort to trek into the backcountry to capture an exquisite photo remind us of nature’s beauty and necessity. It’s up to humans, not AI, to act accordingly to preserve our world.”

AI photo compared to real photo
A Verdin catches a caterpillar on a cactus, left, the photo by Linda Scher wonn top prize in the Plants for Birds Award by. Recreated with AI, right.
AI photo compared to real photo
A brown pelican avoids a shark below, left, a photo that won the Fisher Prize and taken by Sunil Gopalan. Recreated with DALL-E, right.

This is not the first time a photo competition has tested to see whether AI can replicate the work of its winners. Last year, the Royal Meteorological Society challenged viewers to take the Turing test to see if they could tell which work was from the winners and which was AI-generated.