Robots Can’t Edit Photographs

Artificial Intelligence photo Editing

Why outsourcing your editing is a slippery slope to commoditisation.

Robots can’t be creative.

In the past few years we’ve seen the dawn and domination of mirrorless cameras and exponential improvements in software and computing power. Speaking as someone who started shooting on black and white film, moved to digital on a 6 megapixel camera and now shoots solely only on mirrorless bodies, I can honestly say that it’s never been easier to produce great quality photography. I appreciate that things like Autofocus and Auto exposure are forms of AI, as outlined by renowned marketer and thinker, Seth Godin when I asked him the question ‘Is AI in photo editing a slippery slope to commodotisation?’ as part of his AKIMBO podcast. He also said that people who are in favour of creativity should embrace artificial intelligence. And whilst many of Seth’s teachings have shaped how I do business, I’m afraid I disagree on this particular point.

As we all know, it’s not the tools that do the job. It’s not the software that comes up with the creative idea. The creativity, the injection of emotion, and the art comes from what’s between your ears. And, in the romanticised version of this story, what’s in your heart.

You could argue that the art of photography ends as soon as the shutter closes. Job done, let’s pick up our jumpers and go home for some beans on toast. But that would be a naive, purist and romanticised point of view. Post-processing, whether in a darkroom or on a computer plays a huge part in the look of the final image. It’s another chance to reinforce your creative voice, to refine things a little, and draw attention to the point of the image. Because after all, every image is taken for a reason, to get a message across, right? Well, I’d like to think so. Sometimes the message is just, ‘oh this looks nice’. But more often it goes much deeper.

As a wedding and family photographer, I spend time getting to know the people who I”m photographing, how they interact with each other, what their relationships are like. I’ve invested a lot already in terms of time, planning, observing, and building a rapport with people. I’ve chosen my lens, camera settings, background etc. I’ve probably thought about 101 things before releasing the shutter. So not only do I find it difficult to let someone else edit my photos (I guess that’s my own issue), but I feel that I owe it to my clients to be 100% authentic, to own the final image and say ‘I made this’. I don’t want the image to be just ‘fine’. Outsourcing my editing would be like losing half of the creative process. And by the creative process, I don’t just mean applying a preset to the image. As a storyteller, I need to know where the image fits in the final set, how it plays a part in telling the story. If I let someone else edit my photos I’m losing that connection with the story and my ability to create a slideshow or an album that cuts a little deeper than ‘here are some nice photos of flowers and stuff and people smiling, oh and a little silhouette of you at sunset’. Most images don’t make sense on their own. And there will be people who will be thinking

I may be prone to waffling on about this, so I’m going to attempt to break it down into bitesized chunks (which I wrote myself) explaining why outsourcing editing is not all good.

1) It’s a slippery slope from artist to commodity and a race to the bottom

I’ve always thought of myself as a photographer, and by definition, an artist. I create stuff that didn’t exist before. I see it as creating images of more than just ‘stuff’, more than just pointing the camera in the direction of the action and pressing the button. In particular, when it comes to photographing weddings, it’s about creating images of characters, moments and emotions. These photographs will be hugely important to people as they continue their journey through life. For me, photography is not a commodity. Well, it is a commodity of course, but it’s an art too, and I guess you can have more of one and less of the other, depending on your viewpoint and what you’re photographing. If you don’t really care, are in a price war, have clients that can’t tell the difference and are in it purely for the money, then sure, outsource your editing. Hell, you might as well get someone to shoot for you too. But be prepared to be seen as a commodity and forever be involved in a price war and a race to the bottom.

2) Robots can’t edit

Yes, there are people who can edit for you, the human approach is definitely a massive plus when it comes to editing. From seeing what works and what doesn’t to being able to identify distractions, and when an average or even slightly out of focus image might actually be a hidden gem.

AI EDITING

There’s a new kid on the block and its name is AI editor. Programmed by evil geniuses to make humans irrelevant. Following a crazy summer of pandemic-induced rearranged weddings, many photographers in the wedding game had a RIDICULOUS editing backlog. It came as no shock that companies offering AI editing took this opportunity to prey on burnt-out, stressed-out wedding photographers who were desperate for some kind of help and respite from the proverbial mountain of digital files piling up. But let me tell you a secret, robots can’t edit. They can’t see a light switch that could easily be cropped out. They can’t break composition rules to produce an interesting image. Perhaps there are things that can be fixed by AI, if you get a lot wrong in camera, but in an age of WYSIWYG photography, these mistakes should be few and far between. The editing process can be a hugely creative part of the whole process, and being creative is what makes us human, or rather, being human is what makes us creative. It’s what separates us from robots. That, and being able to feel, which also comes into photography, even during the editing process.

There are also companies that offer AI culling (choosing the good ones and ditching the bad ones). But again, I don’t believe that this can be a good thing. There will be images that are missed. It’s inevitable. But what if one of those images is a masterpiece waiting to be edited. They cull out images where people have their eyes shut or out of focus too. But some of the best documentary photography I’ve seen contains people with their eyes shut and maybe slightly out of focus to boot. It’s Henri Cartier-Bresson who once said ‘sharpness is a bourgeois concept’

3) If you outsource your editing you can easily disconnect from the story

Having invested so much emotional energy in your work thus far, the practice of editing brings you back to the story and gives you the opportunity to choose images for an album, slideshow or blog post, that tell the story from your point of view. You know the people involved and how the day went. So when working your way through the images, it’s easy for you to remember the day and create a series of images that will show your couple that you were in tune with their wedding. If you outsource the editing, you lose this curation of the images and can lose track of the story. When it comes to choosing images for a slideshow for example, you could easily miss images that might be important storytelling photos.

4) Editing your own photographs helps you to improve by learning from your mistakes and evaluating your own work

Not only will editing your own photos help you to become better and quicker at editing, but it will also help you to evaluate your own work. One thing I love about photography is that I’m constantly learning and striving to improve my work. When editing my own images I can see where I might have been better with a different lens for example, where I should have not been lazy and used flash, where I could have closed down the aperture to bring in more context or used a faster shutter speed to help freeze the action. Spending time looking at and editing your own images is a great way to improve and learn from your mistakes.

Speaking as someone who learned to edit before I could use a camera properly (and I’m still learning), perhaps I’m biased. But fo me, the edit is part of the journey of creativity and I want to own it.

This has been a pretty interesting topic of conversation recently and there are a lot of opinions on this. I know many great photographers who seem to be successfully using AI editing, and I’m pleased it’s working for them. Many have told me to give it a try. I’ve reluctantly agreed. Perhaps my opinion will change.

comments +

  1. Katherine says:

    A very interesting read. Thanks for highlighting this.

  2. […] About the author: Steven Rooney is a wedding photographer based near Southport in the North West of England and serving the whole of the UK and beyond. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here. […]

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