I am sure when you hear the term deep fake photography or video that you don’t think of it having anything to do with nature or art photography. It normally conjures up thoughts of political drama or someone sadly creating a deep fake out of revenge. Right now the greatest real threat is to our news sources with the potential to create a zero-trust society. I am not going down this rabbit hole though.

What I am curious to know is how it will or will not impact the art of photography. The volume of quality photos out today that have moderate to extensive processing has exploded over the last decade. I have no problem with that and this post isn’t debating either what great art is. Some people are fine with photography that borders on fantasy while others prefer a more realistic look. Even though my work falls more in the realistic spectrum, it’s a personal choice that we each make.

Yet with the growing technological ease of creating deep fakes, I predict it’s only a matter of years before tools used by companies or individuals will be able to easily scan a digital file to understand how “altered” the photo is. Technology has existed for years that can scan an image to say whether something has changed in the digital file yet is typically used by companies to determine forgery. For example, I wouldn’t ever send a photo to an insurance company while making a claim that has the latest high-end camera photoshopped into a photo as proof of owning it. Besides the fact it’s simply wrong, companies have had the technology for many years with algorithms to tell if photos were altered and what pixels were changed. No matter how clean and perfect your processing may look to the viewer.

Here are a couple of examples of my work where one might be categorized more in the moderate to highly processed realm and the other is pretty much straight out of the camera. The average person probably doesn’t know but any tool used to scan digital files for altered pixels will certainly be able to tell.

While we need this technology to ensure accurate news reporting and keeping dishonest people from trying to do things they shouldn’t, I am curious how this could end up bleeding into the artistic side of photography. The AI geared programs and plugins are growing by the month making it easier and easier to create stellar looking imagery. Of course, it all depends on what people care about and I have read multiple articles mentioning digital imaging experts are starting to say nobody cares about authenticity anymore. Letting the pendulum swing too far in that direction is a concern though. Will we are not able to believe any photos anymore? If so that should concern us all, even as artists.

Many nature-related photography competitions today have a Photo Art, or similar category, that they ask entrants to use when the photo is altered to whatever extent is outlined by the competition rules. Then there are some contents that it doesn’t matter leaving it up to the entrant to decide. Sure some of them require a submitted RAW file along the way as evidence the photographer is following the rules to the winner’s circle, yet the amount of “processing” that can be done through even camera settings continues to grow. Will we instead see the file scanned and then based on say a certain % that was altered after the photo was taken be the determining measure of whether the entry is placed in a traditional category vs photo art? Will we have a digital fingerprint added to each file that if the photos are altered after taken goes into it’s own category?

Could we enter a world where prospective buyers from companies that license images to those purchasing art pieces have an app on their computer or phone that can scan a photo file and provide analysis on what was / wasn’t altered along with other related data points? Would something like this then provide more value for top-notch imagery that has “less processing” or less altered after they are taken?

There certainly are reasons for wanting to know whether something real or is it Memorex, as the 80’s ad slogan went. At the simplest level knowing whether the landscape scene is one that really exists in some fashion or is complete fiction. The ability to create a photo that looks like a real place that someone can visit yet that is completely dreamed up combining photos from multiple locations grows easier by the year. I do see where we might get to a tipping point that what is deemed by some as a realistic and minimally processed yet still truly artistic photo, goes up in perceived and real value over other work because technology continues to make it easier and easier to create final pieces that look real yet are complete fantasy.

While this all may seem farfetched, where we are now with photography would have seemed near impossible 15 years ago. What comes in the next 15 years is likely to be another jump in technology that we can’t yet fully comprehend. Just look at reverse image technology. I can put a small resolution file in a program that scans millions of photos on millions of websites and it very rarely comes back as a false positive when a match is found.

I bring all this up not because I want to see all of this happen. Really it’s quite the opposite. I am hopeful that we can continue to distinguish how photography is evaluated and categorized to allow each of us to work in the photography medium that suites us best. Restrain is what is needed for the documentary side to keep us from edging into a dystopia. When it comes to work ranging from straight out of the camera to complete fantasy, we don’t want technology to start limiting the creative potential to what might be next. There is plenty of room for work covering the full spectrum. If we are fortunate the kinds of technology that has allowed deep fake photography and videos to flourish will be there to save us and provide needed balance.

What do you think is coming next in regards to technology that can evaluate attributes relating to digital image files and how we decide as consumers what is “real”? Is there another phase in photography around the corner or at the start of it now?

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