Modern workers are facing a looming crisis as technology takes over. Will photographers be spared? Ben Davis isn’t so sure…
Can you see a robot performing your job? Image by Alex Knight
A new industrial revolution is coming, and it’s set to transform society. Don’t just take my word for it: a recent report from consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers highlighted that more than 10 million UK jobs are at risk over the next 15 years as automation gathers pace in the computerised age.
Entire swathes of the workforce face elimination. Those on the forefront of this change include people employed in the retail, manufacturing, transport, administration and data sectors, which is why there are serious calls for the government to look at plans for implementing a Universal Basic Income for every citizen, as robots and software are increasingly used for low-skilled tasks. It might sound like science fiction or tinfoil-hat paranoia, but it’s likely a fast-approaching reality.
On the website willrobotstakemyjob.com, they predict that photographers will likely be spared by the industrial transformation, giving us just a 2.1% risk of automation. But I’m not so confident that photographic occupations will be immune from the shifting tide.
It’s true that photographers have a set of creative skills that are currently difficult to replicate with AI, and this specialism could help the industry survive. However, it’s impossible to predict precisely what image-making tools and technology will be available in the coming decades.
Just recently, Adobe teased a new selfie app called Sensei, powered by AI and machine learning. It combines 3D-facial mapping, automatic portrait masking and style transfers, and allows users to alter their physical appearance and control depth of field effects. There’s also the iPhone 7’s new Portrait mode, which is capable of creating images that look like they were captured on a DSLR with a fast portrait lens.
As technology like this develops it may be bad news for portrait photographers, as anyone with a thumb could capture professional looking headshots. On the flipside it’ll be welcomed by anyone who dabbles with online dating, until the inevitable disappointment when you meet up in the unfiltered flesh.
Who’s to say what other photographic advancements will put creative skills in the hands of the untrained masses? Imagine a world with smart cameras, powered by artificial intelligence. They could guide the user towards the most aesthetically pleasing compositions, and then take full control to produce a perfectly balanced exposure with pin-point focusing and the optimum depth of field. It’s not an impossible development, and if it were to become reality, it would mean any Tom, Dick or Sally could capture professional quality shots.
Perhaps photographers will have to reposition themselves as something more pretentious like a “creative visual consultant” or an “image content guru”, taking control of the lighting and styling of shots. Maybe that’s how creativity can survive in an automated world. But let’s face it: most creativity is a cocktail of past ideas and influences. At some point surely AI could take over this role, armed with software capable of rendering any lighting setup, colour scheme or scene arrangement.
This could especially be a portent for product and advertising photography. Products could be 3D-scanned by cameras and then AI would render the most pleasingly stylish images based on a catalogue of billions of shots. Goodbye highly skilled product photographers.
Possibly event and social photographers could be spared from machine learning and AI, and I’m not just hopefully saying that as someone who primarily earns their income from wedding photography. John Hawksworth, the chief economist at PwC provides hope by stating “routine tasks are more susceptible to automation, while social skills are relatively less automatable.”
Wedding photographers rely on personality and people skills as much as they do technical know-how; it’s no good having one without the other. There’s also an element of skill in arranging groups, selecting locations and choosing moments while influencing behaviour, even if it’s done supremely discreetly. Surely we’re safe from transformations in technology?
Not so fast. For most wedding photographers, 70% of the work is in post-production. That’s why prices of £1000 or more are justified, as a wedding may take a photographer 40 hours of skilled labour to process. Now imagine owning processing software that precisely recognises every image inputted, and instantly makes an accurate selection of all the keepers. All the shots where people look their best, eyes are open and the composition is best balanced. The software could also apply all the necessary RAW adjustments to polish the pictures to perfection, based on advanced algorithms and machine learning. The post-processing of a wedding would take minutes rather than weeks. In this world, how could photographers justify their fees without resorting to robbery?
Unless we found new ways to offer services or sell our skills, incomes across the photographic industry could plummet.
But changes as dramatic as this won’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual creep that has already begun and people will adapt to the changing environment as they always do. The alternative is extinction.
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About the Author
Ben Davis is an award-winning professional photographer with more than 10 years' experience in the industry. His internet home is www.cambridgeshireweddingphotography.com