Good or Bad AI - the Photographic Competition Dilemma

Various photographic bodies such as the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) and the SPF (Scottish Photographic Federation) have recently published similar guidelines about the use of AI software that supports the generation of photo realistic images. These are principally concerned with the generation of image elements rather than complete images, which are unequivocally a different form of graphic art.

At first glance, the guidelines seem sensible. They recognise that completely prescriptive rules are impossible to create and they ask photographers to follow the spirit rather than the detail of the rules. Their fundamental notion is that all elements of an image must be derived from photographs taken and owned by the image creator. Image editing to improve resolution, remove or add elements from images, etc. is allowed. So, a photographer can legitimately add a sky to a landscape photograph so long as this is taken from another that they have taken; however, adding a machine-generated sky is unacceptable. In a portrait, it is acceptable to reshape the subject’s chin (say) using an editor but not to replace the chin with a generated equivalent.

It’s when you start to think about this, that you realise the inconsistencies in these guidelines when applied to photo editing systems that incorporate machine models trained through machine learning.

Image editors such as Photoshop have, for several years, incorporated models created by machine learning that have dramatically extended their capabilities and has made them much easier to use. These models are trained using many images and, using these models, the editor can recognise a sky or a chin and isolate these for editing. So, this is good AI; however, if the same or similar models are used to generate pixels, this is bad AI and is not allowed. If you are a photographer with the skills and ability to realise your vision of reshaping a chin say, then it is OK, even if you use an AI-enabled editor to do so. However, if you are a photographer with the same vision but without the editing skills, you can’t use bad AI to realise your vision.

Now, let’s look at cloning. Say you have an unwanted element in an image and you decide to replace it with pixels cloned from elsewhere in the image. You will probably use good AI to help you mask the element to be replaced and Photoshop will almost certainly use good AI to support the cloning process. However, you can’t use bad AI to replace the element with generated pixels, even if these are virtually identical to those you might have cloned from elsewhere in the image. Soon, however, I suspect you won’t have an option here as a logical development of Photoshop’s smart healing brush (if this hasn’t already happened) will be to make use of generative AI.

Of course, there is no good and bad AI.

The decision that those who care about photographic competitions have to make is whether the use of AI models in photo editing is acceptable or not. If so, then it is unrealistic to continue to insist that all elements in an image must come from photographs taken by the image creator. Such a rule exclude those with ‘artistic’ vision but without the technical virtuosity to realise that vision and it is practically impossible to enforce. The time required to check raw images is prohibitive when multiple images are combined.

If AI-enabled editing is not permitted, then the only logical way forward is to change the rules for open photographic competitions. These should be similar to that used for nature photography competitions i.e. nothing can be added to or removed from the raw image except by cropping. Of course, there can be a separate class of competitions for composite images that may include generated elements or those taken from other images.

Frankly, I think the problem here is a human rather than a technical one. Photographic bodies are floundering around because they do not wish to alienate the large number of photographers who already use AI-supported photo editing to create composite images. They are searching for an acceptable fudge because of the furore that will arise if they don’t find one. I doubt they will.