October is a wonderful month in so many ways. Cooler temperatures, changing scenery, more exciting landscapes top my list. But it is also a month for new and exciting technology. Many photography companies, whether hardware or software producers, release new products and new updates to existing products. This month has been ridiculously full of pent-up demand for new stuff and the manufacturers did not disappoint.
This article won’t review all of that. Many blog and vlog posts have already done so. Instead, I want to talk about one feature nobody seems to have really highlighted. Last week, Adobe released the latest versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, to much fanfare and focus on its superb and enhanced capabilities. The new masking tools are phenomenal. You can also do more and more with automation and “neural filters”, and even drop in assets and have them automatically be absorbed and “harmonized” into the scene you are creating. But there is even more for you to know.
The whole movement toward creative composites – drag and drop compositions – has opened some debate about just what photography has become. You can now easily mix and match images to create a scene that you may have never really witnessed. While artistically, in my view, this is no different than painting or sculpting, which by definition reduces any real scene to the artist’s vision of that scene, photography has always had some association with capturing the reality of what you see around you.
I know, I know, you will challenge that. The very fact of putting a frame around something means that you are not capturing the reality of that scene. And it goes on from there. I understand, believe me.
But we now have the ability with artificial intelligence, with libraries of available backgrounds and supporting elements, to create an image with a single keypress. The most prominent example is “Sky Replacement” which is now present in almost every top tier software, including Adobe Photoshop. Too sunny when you were there – drop in clouds. Too dark when you were there – drop in a warm glow on the horizon. Too plain when you were there – drop in an ominious thunderstorm.
I value tools that help me express the true nature of a place I visit. But using someone else’s sky to give expression to what I was feeling when I visited the location is not something I can legitimately do. That said, if I have skies from that same location taken by me at a different time that more perfectly convey what I want to say with the image, I don’t hesitate to use them. Its an interesting fence to walk. Each maker has to decide that for themselves.
But that’s not what this article is about. Quietly, without any real notice, Adobe included a new beta-version capability in Adobe Photoshop. It is called Content Credentials. Essentially, when you export the finished work and prepare it for release, you can include a thumbnail of each asset used to create the final product, information about what edits were done, and verification that you were the maker of each asset and of the final product. This can then be examined by the recipient through websites such as the Content Authority Initiative to inspect and confirm the provenance of each asset used.
This capability is still in development and has some limitations. If someone prepares a file with this information and sends it to you and you then add the file to a composition of your own, the original provenance information is lost. You can save out your own activity on the final product, but not the original provenance of the assets you received from someone else.
We’ve all heard stories about composite images that were represented as the maker’s original work. Even in my small world of local camera clubs, we’ve heard stories ranging from competition submissions that were nothing more than pure stock photos downloaded from a website, to multiple makers suddenly having the same skies in images from very different locations on the planet.
Perhaps this is a debate at all because in most of those cases, the images were represented as the maker’s own work and were also represented as what they saw when they visited that location. In any other genre of photography other than photo documentary, journalism, nature or landscapes, the creation of composite work would not be an issue. The artist’s vision would be encouraged, not discouraged. One of the most talented photographic artists in my circle routinely takes a plain documentary landscape image of his own, often in areas that are drab and really not interesting, and converts it to a colourful, emotional work of art that represents the true feeling of the place that he had when he visited it. The finished product in no way resembles what you and I would have seen just standing there. His finished images are emotionally impactful and tell the exact story he wanted to tell. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But so too, they are never represented as documentary.
And all the assets and all the edits were his. So I guess the real bottom line and the real utility of this new feature is exactly that: confirming the authenticity of the effort put into the piece. The intelligence being built in to our software tools has to be countered by some equal intelligence to allow us to confirm how the resulting products were created. This has both legal and simple fairness implications.
And yet, maybe a part of me also sees the opposite side. The lines between photography and graphic arts have been becoming more and more blurry. Maybe in the end (for non-commercial purposes anyway), it doesn’t really matter what went into the creation of an image. Like all forms of art, the maker took materials he/she had collected, tools, ideas and vision and combined them into a piece that could be shared with the world. He/she created something that conveyed their emotional connection to that piece or situation. Who cares if the source materials were only the maker’s or came from a variety of creators. Especially if those other creators have offered their work for this specific purpose – for use by other makers. A sky included in software such as Luminar has already been paid for – the artist has received compensation for providing the image to the software developers. And those of us who purchase the software have already paid for the rights to use the images.
So, for at least non-commercial purposes, like my local camera club, maybe our approach needs to change. Maybe we can accept some degree of asset acquisition rather than asset creation. It’s an interesting debate. I look forward to seeing which direction this takes in the coming months and years.
Footnote: After writing this blog, I coincidentally watched a 60 Minutes piece on “synthetic media”. Whole feature films, with today’s most popular stars, can now be created without a single human actor being in front of the camera. How? All with artificial intelligence, which studies the past movements and manners of individual actors and recreates them in the new situation, with new dialogue and action. The real concern is that this same technology is also being used to spread fake information to unsuspecting people. Hmmm. So maybe we really shouldn’t worry too much about a sky here and there.