A Revolution in Photography?

Posted by on Friday October 7, 2016 | Photo Gear

An example of art created by Google's neural network. Image: Google.

Sony’s new a6500 and RX100 V and their blazing fast burst modes and impressive autofocus specs have prompted The Verge’s Sean O’Kane to declare that we’re living through nothing short of a revolution in photography:

Quality aside, this type of feature is changing the basic exercise of photography, which is to capture a subject in a particular moment. This idea was famously framed by French photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson as “the decisive moment.” It’s the kind of tenet that gets beaten into the heads of anyone who takes photography classes in grade school and college, and it is on the verge of being wiped out by the pace of technology….we live in a moment where, after almost two centuries of photography, one of the most basic foundations of the medium is changing. A photographer equipped with a camera like the RX100 Mark V will still have to anticipate the right moment to start firing, but there’s far more room for error than ever before.

“Spray and pray” is nothing new and what Sony has done is arguably less revolutionary than evolutionary–they’ve refined and improved upon an existing concept. And O’Kane is unquestionably right. Between the use of 4K (and eventually 8K) video to isolate higher-resolution still images and advances in autofocus, image processing and improvements in buffering, it will become increasingly more difficult to miss the decisive moment unless you’re completely asleep at the switch. But that is merely an amplification of an existing trend.

But O’Kane hints at something later in his article that is different, and genuinely revolutionary: the use of artificial intelligence to help curate the hundreds of frames modern cameras are generating to help us find that decisive moment.

We touched on this theme briefly in our interview with Adobe senior product manager Josh Haftel, who speculated that Lightroom could eventually scan a new batch of images and suggest keepers based on both concrete qualities (is it in focus?) and possibly more subjective ones as well (is it beautiful?).

AI is quickly emerging as a dominant trend in the development of photographic workflow tools, particularly for stock photography and video markets where there is simply too much data for humans to canvas and organize. (As a sign of the times, the photo service EyeEm recently changed the company description from “a global community and marketplace for real photography” to “an artificial intelligence company with a global photography community and marketplace.”)

In an era where cameras rip away at 24 fps and memory cards hit 1TB, culling images is becoming an exponentially more difficult chore. It’s a natural fit to have software step in and help photographers sort the wheat from the chafe. New services like Picturesqe have been developed to do just that.

But AI holds more potential than simply a means of churning through images to find ones that are in focus and properly exposed. It can make subjective judgements, too. EyeEm, for instance, has an algorithm that it is training to make subjective judgements about the esthetic merits of images.

Would photographers trust software to select the artistically “best” image on their memory card? After all, AI is already doing more than making bulk judgements. It is creating “art.”

So there is a revolution underway, but it has less to do with burst modes than with the supplementing (and possible usurpation) of human judgement with the judgement of machines.

Read: PDN’s coverage of artificial intelligence in imaging.


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