#1305. My view on generative AI in photography

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Aug 21

To me, it all boils down to whether you enjoy using it.

Leadenhall Market lights

This is a real photograph, made with a real camera (not even a Smartphone) by a human being (me) in a real-life location (Leadenhall market in London).

Its ethereal quality bears some resemblance to the polished look of images generated by diffusion models such as Midjourney.

But it’s not quite as … good? … as what Midjourney would have produced. The symmetry isn’t perfect, the lighting isn’t as uniform, it shows too many of the grounding defects of human photography outside a studio.

Sophia Byonist

This is one of the two AI-generated portraits of Al Byonist’s stunningly beautiful (and sooo wise looking) twin daughters I published in this month’s “favourites collection”. By the way, I will not do that again. It was just an experience.

I doubt that I will ever make as good a portrait myself. The model is – literally – out of this world. The lighting is what us photographers dream of and encounter all too rarely. The “location” is to die for. The specified camera and lens (Pentax 6×7 and 105 mm) are legendary, expensive, heavy and not in my possession. And the specified film (Portra 800) isn’t part of my process. And let’s not mention the talent and experience to achieve this even if all the other stars did align …

And that is without doubt what explains the success of generative-AI: with the exception of the occasional misshaped hand or unrealistic topology, results exceed what most of us puny humans can achieve in a lifetime of practice, without requiring any training. You might think this portrait required much trial and error, but it was one of my first images and my very first attempt at virtual portraiture! My quick test also yielded flowers, cars, architecture, interior design, graphics for my AI website, post-apo Paris, and high-art forgery … with the same ease and systematic gobsmacking spectacularness of result.

Yep, that’s fake, and specified to look like an Otus lens took it.

A lot has been said, filmed and written about the use of generative-AI in photography. All authors have their point of view. I agree with some arguments and disagree with others.

The idea of right and wrong in using AI is particularly interesting. My position has always been clear: photography is a manipulative artform. Even the most diligent and trustworthy photojournalist has to frame, therefore exclude about 90% of the scene to make the photograph. Every photograph results from the emotional response of the mind-eye system of a human being. Every single photograph (except direct copy/scanning/reproduction) is subjective interpretation, involves choices, and is therefore a personal take on a situation.

Because of the implicit lie of describing the world through photography, I see no problem with using photoshop, or AI, as part of the creative process. We’ve all seen the lovely view from the cliffs of Santorini, but few photographers show the rows of tourists pushing in to all take the same frame in numbers that would make Oxford Street on Black Friday look like rural Montana. Editing with Photoshop or generating images of AI is no more a distortion of the truth than pretending that Santorini is this minimalistic haven made of white stone and seawater. In all 3 cases, we are just trying to make images we find beautiful, and that’s perfectly legitimate.

This is (not) where I’m writing this post and is (not) taken with my old smartphone.

My problem with generative AI is that it is absolutely no fun at all. It is, without doubt a child’s dream come true, but certainly not this older man’s source of pleasure. It feels more like the culminating point of a culture in which delayed gratification, effort and the learning curve, have all been sacrificed to the Gods of immediacy and 5-second stardom.

Susan Sontag wrote

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetise the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats.

In “On Photography”

In that respect, photography is dead. The End. Generative AI will serve that purpose with so much more efficiency that I would not like to be in the boots of someone currently making a living at it with 2020 tech such as digital cameras, lenses, memory cards and possibly lighting.

No camera got wet in the making of this image

My dear Susan continues:

The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.

In “On Photography”

Spookily prescient, in 1977, right? And oh so ripe for generative-AI!

The bucket-list ideal?

You type a prompt, a more or less elaborate one which can explicitly contain images to copy, and you get an image.

As far as I can tell – and this may be wrong – there is no learning curve involved. Some options will require a few minutes of attention, and will let you imitate someone’s style or copy someone’s image with no ethical qualms or technical hardship. I did just that to a truly lovely image of a white flower sent to me by co-conspirer Philippe, and the result is above. Look how good I am at flower photography. Look at me. Me.

So what’s wrong with that? No effort, and guaranteed results?

My summer residence in the foothills of some mountains only true geniuses have heard about 😉


I can see this (and ChatGPT) becoming fantastic tools for generating ideas, confronting ideas, modernising ideas. But, in both cases, your control over the finished result is severely limited (unless you explicitely copy an existing image). And writing a novel with ChatGPT or creating a photo series with Midjourney would be equally tedious and unfulfilling to me.

Why do we photograph? Why do we take up any hobby? Why do we strive to learn anything difficult? Because it’s rewarding. The learning, not the result. Every single scientific study I’ve read on the topic says it. It’s what builds self-esteem, it’s what forces us to forget our a priori and listen to someone who knows better. Struggling to get mildly better, and eventually doing so is a far more fulfilling experience than generating 100 images then realizing the glass-ceiling imposed by the technology cannot be broken, and that anyone can become proficient in a couple of hours. I believe it also makes us appreciate and respect the work of talented artists a lot more.

Elon stole the tower

I love AI. In a world that needs to scare itself to feel something, sensationalist claims about AI receive all the attention. And the fact that it objectively mirrors who we are, and that the usual douchebags will use it for personal profit at the expense of all others, sure does not help. But it’s a wonderful technology that will transform society for the better if we use it to that end. All it takes for evil to triumph … you know the drill.

And I can really see artists using AI with fantastic results. It’s already happening.

It will probably displace the learning process from the craft to the art of ideation, exploring semi-randomly, and curating, which is fascinating in its own right. But it’s not for me, and it’s not photography.

Veni. Vidi. Quiti.

Should I credit Midjourney for these images? Others seem to do it, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit that the fine print of a company built on crunching the images of the whole planet without consent require it under death penalty or worse. So here goes: all images, except the first and last, on this page were made using Midjourney. Hopefully, that’s enough.

The first and last were made using a broken Hasselblad X1D, a damaged 30mm lens and a bit of Portuguese Chardonnay, after drinks with my wife and daughter. I’ll stick to that recipe 🙂 🙂 🙂


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thanks for the very stimulating post, Pascal. No truer words were ever spoken (written in this case) than “AI is not photography.” The images produced using cameras (including cellphones) have soul – something that AI will never have.
    It’s definitely not for me either.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Nancee. I don’t think the current generation of AI image recognition would have spotted the visual potential in a car wash and turned it into a great photo series. It may happen one day, but for now, only artists interested in creativity can do that. It’s hard to imagine anything more remote from your series than the (non photo) images in this post.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Oh well, notoriously I detest “arguments”, and “opinions” along with them, since they’re just the fossil fuels that feed “arguments” anyway.

    And I try to back away from any issue where someone wants me to be “judgmental”, because it just makes me squirm uncomfortably. Ce n’est pas pour moi!

    No – I’d rather roll along doing my own thing, and peering at what everyone else is doing. Some attracts the eye more than others do – that’s life – c’est la vie!

    I had a wonderful time for half a century with film. Now I’m trying to see whether I can make it another half century, this time on digi. Already AI is creeping in. I don’t remember a single photo I’ve taken in digi, that I haven’t “manipulated” in post processing.

    But I did stuff like that before, in film. Not to the same degree, certainly – and not for the same reasons either. However, it would be dishonest to claim “I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me!”

    So I think I’ll just sit this one out. And keep doing my own thing. Something I’ve been doing for the past 80 years anyway. Too old now, to break my bad habits.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Just spotted something else, that might be of interest in this discussion.


    At least I have the excuse that my photos did all have a human involved in their creation! Maybe that’s enough to save me from the flames of purgatory!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, interesting, thank you.

      To be fair, I think real artists won’t use generated images directly, but will montage/collage/blend … them into their own work. So they can still copyright it. Hopefully. With lobbies at play, you never know what ungodly decision will become the law.

      • Allan Dew says:

        Hi Pascal,
        I enjoy looking at photos taken years ago taken with simple tools and the craftsmanship of the photographers. It’s what stimulates me to try and improve.
        For me AI used in our art form leaves me feeling “nothing”. An example that comes to mind is a wonderful film “Man on Wire” Philippe Petit’s 1974 high wire walk between the New York World Trade Center twin towers. That was real and something you won’t forget. Today everyone knows all that sort of thing is done with a green screen, not real, instantly forgotten.
        Your “real images” are beautiful.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Thank you so much, Allan.

          Save for execptional situations/luck, I don’t believe anything can leave a mark without having required effort and thought. And I’m sure some artists will put in the thought and work to create meaningful work using AI, but this sort of quick automated generation will most likely be destructive more than anything else.

          In 10 minutes, I can generate book covers, illustrations and more stuff that used to be the dominion of expert craftsmen. And since the AI’s ability to generate some was trained using those craftsmen’s images, it feels very unfair that it will put them out of work. And, you are right, on top of that is the fact that the generated images feel “empty” somehow. Extraordinary at first glance, then devoid of any substance. So we move on to the next shiny object.

          Strange old world.

  • John Wilson says:

    Fascinating subject PJ, and the legal ramifications are already starting to hit the courts. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out because it is not going to go away. I’m with JP … this is not for me. I have enough trouble sticking to one of my “insanity” projects long enough to produce a suitable collection. I get bored really fast once I figure out the recipe … not much, or no, new learning; just repetition like a robot.

    • pascaljappy says:

      My thoughts exactly, John. Fine tune it, then what?
      It’s different for a pro who needs efficient tools and doesn’t care as much about the journey, I suppose. But for me, no cigar.


  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    I imagine an AI generated
    replica of Magritte’s
    “Ce n’est pas une pipe!”
    (including the caption)
    with the added caption
    “Is this an image?”.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Mise en abyme 😉

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Scratching my head…

        • pascaljappy says:

          Sorry, Kristian. This is a term used to describe a text that contains a “recursive” segment that is a smaller version of the whole. Or when you see a picture containing the picture itself, the inside picture containing the picture again, and so on. A bit like when you see two parallele mirors facing one another.

          Your comment describing the AI-generated image of Magritte’s painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, with the title “Ceci n’est pas une photo” evoked the same feeling 😉

  • Call my a cynic but…

    This time last year (or so) , NFTs were all the rage. Now they’re not. This year it is pretty much mandatory to have an opion on AI imagery.

    The world goes on, forever.

    ps – was your X1D broken after the drinks, or during? 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi David,

      You’re right, all those technologies go through a cycle of hype before they settle down and become either mainstream or extinct. AI is here to stay, there is no doubt about that. But it’s harder to know what will become of generative AI. Nvidia has made big bets on it, providing chips designed specifically for it, so there’s industrial backing. Microsoft seems to believe in it as well. But I’m pretty sure some new trick will oust it from the mainstream media within 6-12 months.

      Ah, the poor X1D fell on the floor with lens attached, twice in two days, in Holland, a couple of weeks prior to the drinks 😉


  • Lad Sessions says:

    Thought-provoking, Pascal. Thank you! I enjoy photography for the making, and I enjoy the (steep and long) learning curve–and I also delight in the results, occasionally. But AI is taking over my post-processing software, ON1, and I’ll see if I can use it successfully and honestly. So far I’ve enjoyed the ride.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Lad. PP, particularly the tedious aspects, does seem like a perfect use for AI. Lightroom has a few AI tricks to offer as well, as in automatically selecting the sky or a subject. And no doubt there will be more to come.

  • Mer says:

    An excellent post.

    The unstoppable rollout of AI is fascinating. Waiting to see where it beds in and changes the way we do things, the potential for advances in areas like medicine and architecture-building-fabrication. Given access to enough(correct) data, there’s a real strength in being able to form a cohesive result from fragmented information – the sort of collation that’s difficult and time-consuming for us meat-creatures. It won’t always be for the better – alternative facts have never had it so good and the development of autonomous AI military hardware seems inevitable. Sigh.

    Regards images, it feels like a consumption-production sort of thing.

    Consumption. A lot(most?) of people won’t care where an image has originated and as you said, it’s briefly acknowledged and then on to the next shiny thing. However, there will be a few that value images created by a person behind a camera, appreciate the imperfections and capture of real things in a real place and want images they can live with for years rather than seconds.

    Production. For hobby photographers, I’m not sure that much has changed, given that a lot of the pleasure comes from picking up a camera(includes phones) and taking a photo, from learning to work with the constraints and strengths of your equipment. Knowing that much of what you photograph is unrepeatable – different clouds, different light, etc. – is part of what makes it so rewarding when it all comes together. Sure, AI might produce a technically superior image, but once the initial rush has worn off, it’s a tedious process.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Mer.

      You are right, sadly. As long as sad, scared, tiny little men rule us, AI will be used for killing others. But there are also nobler and better men at work who will undoubtedly help humanity live longer and better, be more creative and fulfilled.

      For production, I think AI will be useful in many hidden places such as better AF, better exposure, setting recommendations, PP options … It’s the generative AI that makes the images for you that I can’t make myself love.

      For consumption, it’s hard to imagine how humans can be able to ingurgitate more content than is already offered. There are just two ways to go. Same content, cheaper, or better content. As usual we’ll see both in our feeds. I don’t this will change much.


  • >