An AI-Generated Image Has Won A Photo Competition And This Is Only The Beginning

It’s golden hour somewhere on a beach, and sun-kissed waves are crashing around two surfers as they venture into the ocean. The scene is captured in a captivating aerial photo taken with a drone by ‘Jane Eykes,’ and the image, which you can see a cropped version of above, won a photography contest hosted by Australian photo retailer digiDirect.
But not everything is as it appears. It wasn’t taken by Jane Eykes, and it’s not even a photograph in the traditional sense – it’s an entirely AI-generated image created by the Australian company Absolutely Ai (under that pseudonym).
Absolutely Ai entered the resulting image into the competition as a test of how far AI-generated images have come, using Midjourney, an image-generation program in the mold of Dall-E, fed with simple prompts such as ‘two surfers, sunrise, beautiful lighting, drone shot, wave crashing’. It turns out that he went quite a distance.
“The surfers in our image did not exist. “Neither does that specific beach or stretch of ocean,” says Absolutely Ai. “[the image is] composed of an infinite number of pixels extracted from an infinite number of photographs uploaded online over the years by anyone and everyone, and what you’re left with is a new, entirely convincing award winner.”
This story adds a new thread to the ongoing discussion about AI in art. I spoke with Absolutely Ai’s founder, Jamie Sissons, an award-winning professional photographer – in the documentary genre, ironically – about the importance of AI-generated imagery for photography competition organizers and entrants, as well as the wider photography world.

How good are AI-generated images currently?

There were many positive comments on the image in the 24 hours after digiDirect announced it as the winner of its ‘Summer Photo’-themed Instagram contest. Simply put, no one thought the image was suspicious.
Absolutely Ai then publicly admitted to digiDirect its experiment and declined the prize money, and the story made headlines across Australia. The winning image has come under intense scrutiny now that it is in the spotlight, particularly from photographers. That scrutiny is focused on whether or not the drone shot is convincing rather than its aesthetic quality.
“I say it’s a convincing image because no one had any reason to doubt it,” Sissons explained. “There are some things that don’t look right with it – I’d say it’s over-saturated, the wave doesn’t quite crash the right way, the run-off, the lines through the waves aren’t quite right. But even when you look at it closely, it’s a convincing image.”

And that’s the point: 95% of people lack a critical eye for image detail, as well as the time and/or desire to pore over an image in great detail. We swipe our screens, pause for a moment when an image catches our eye, double-tap to like it, and then continue scrolling.
However, this story raises another red flag, particularly for photographers, because the image should have been identified as a ‘fake’. After all, this was a photography contest judged by photography professionals that awards photographers for their creative efforts, and the professionals were fooled by an image that was created using only a few word prompts (and from a huge pool of photos from almost entirely unknown sources, which is a whole other issue).
And this is just the beginning of what’s to come. “These are still very early iterations of what we will see from AI technology,” Sissons says. “A lot of these platforms and apps are still in the testing phase, so who knows what it will look like in a year, two years, five years?”

Should photographers be concerned about artificial intelligence-generated images?

AI images are not without flaws. Hands are a well-known trap – how many people do you know who have six fingers? And AI can struggle to create a realistic image when the prompts are extremely specific,’ Jamie explains. However, keep the prompts broad, and AI is already a terrifyingly effective tool.
“The prompts for my winning image were general and could be portrayed in a million different ways,” Sissons explains. “AI is also excellent at executing ideas: It will come up with something that is perfect for a lonely person. However, the more specific you are – a lonely child sitting on a bench, it’s raining, the bus is late – the more it will struggle. The wider it is kept, the better the outcome.”

For businesses with an insatiable appetite for new content, general ideas presented through images are bread-and-butter marketing and social media. “There will still be a need for photographers to cover specific ideas, but work around broader themes in photography is under threat,” Sissons adds. “I’d be concerned if I were one of the major stock libraries.”
Indeed, when it comes to stock libraries, Getty is fighting back, suing Stable Diffusion for $1.8 trillion (opens in new tab) for what it considers “brazen” intellectual property theft on a “staggering scale” after its watermark began appearing on Stability AI-generated images.

The following chapter is about man versus machine

Photographic technological advances, such as digital photography, Adobe Photoshop, and the iPhone, have historically been met with mixed, and often highly emotional, reactions, and AI is no exception. “As a medium, photography has always been at the forefront: constantly adapting and evolving, it has a singular ability to transform itself and push boundaries,” said World Photography Organisation Founder and CEO Scott Gray. We are interested in photography as an art form, and the Sony World Photography Awards have Creative Categories in the Professional and Open Competitions that encourage photographers to experiment and explore the medium’s dynamism.” With technological advancements, a broader audience of creators is engaging with lens-based work, and we look forward to seeing how this can expand photography’s reach and impact.”

After Absolutely Ai revealed the true nature of its contest-winning image, digiDirect publicly acknowledged(opens in new tab) that it had indeed awarded its prize to an AI-generated image by mistake, and chose a new winner.
As a guarantee of authenticity, the photo retailer will request that winning entrants submit the raw image of their edited entries, including metadata about the camera used, for future photography contests; this is already standard practice for high-profile contests such as the World Photography Organisation’s Sony World Photography Awards.

DigiDirect has announced a new competition that will accept photo or image submissions. The prize money has been increased, and an expert panel of photographers will judge the submissions without knowing whether they were created by humans using a camera or artificially. It’s man versus machine, and I know who I’m rooting for as a photographer.

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