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This article is part of the Creative Slice series, where we explore our relationship with creativity and how it flows through our daily lives in weird and wonderful ways.

Here, Fred Wissink, CAKE’s Creative Director, explores the narrative around AI-generated images versus traditional photography from a historical and professional perspective.

Since photography emerged as an art form, the debate among many has been: “Is that real?”

In fact, there are several examples of photo manipulation throughout history. For example, the legendary artist Man Ray made the Violin d’ingres shown below.

vintage photo manipulation

And then we have some less famous, but equally entertaining manipulations here:

vintage photo manipulation

In case you were wondering, these image manipulations were done far before the invention of computers. The process involved layering separate film images onto each other to create a new image.

The advent of Photoshop in the early 90’s was a game-changer: after all, digital media is far easier to manipulate than actual pieces of film. Digital retouching is so common that even our photos selfie modes do an eerily good job of it.

For a very long time, photographers who had great retouching skills or teams could make an everyday image look just a little more special. Or, completely fantastical! Just look at any commercial photoshoot, like this one I made for Mobifone with Take a few years ago.

Obviously there is a lot of image manipulation going on. But at the core, they are still photographs.

Is It AI, Or Is It A Photographer?

This segues neatly into today’s topic: AI. I know it’s a topic that seems to get discussed nonstop lately. But really, can you blame anyone? It turns non-artists into creators of incredible talent. It turns writers into visual artists, and visual artists into (somewhat) decent writers. It is incredible stuff. However, there was a comment on one of my recent LinkedIn posts about my previous musings about a friend’s car that I helped photograph.

The commenter asked: “Did a real person build this car … or is this an AI image?”

For some reason, I was both flattered and a little annoyed by the idea that my creative image, and my friend’s skills could so easily be assumed to be computer generated. 

Then I had a longer think about it, and I realized how quickly AI generated images have become the norm. So quickly that they are now flooding image searches more than actual images. People are starting to automatically assume that anything that looks even a little unrealistic simply cannot have been made by human hands.

A good example is the screenshot below taken by one of my partners at The CAKE Collective when he was searching for stock images for a proposal. Have a look at the screenshot and ask yourself: how many real photographs do you see in that grid?

AI is taking over google image search..

This brings me to the photos in question from my LinkedIn post. Let’s look at one from the fine folks at CAKE, and one from my own work.

AI or Photographer? Photo Comparison: Round #1

This is a bottle shot made by Kevin Lee next to an AI rendered image. I’m using this as a comparison because someone did indeed ask Kevin if his shot was AI generated.

To many, it might seem obvious, especially when the shots are side by side. If you look closely, there are small things that signpost the photographer’s image clearly as a photographer’s work. The placement of highlights, the composition, the focus on the detail, as well as the real life feel and texture to the shot.

Now, I’m not saying the AI image is a slouch. It’s pretty good for something that took all of 45 seconds to generate, but it lacks a certain … soul.

AI vs Photographer comparison one

AI or Photographer? Photo Comparison: Round #2

I posted this one recently, which is a shot of my friend’s incredible car he built by hand (hop over to TikTok and give him a follow if you haven’t already).

AI vs Photographer comparison photo number 2

Let’s ignore the different skies for a moment and focus on the vehicles. Aside from the different paint styles, glossy and matte, the colours are very similar. The lighting style is similar, and even the stadium in the background looks fairly realistic.

I guess this is why I shouldn’t be surprised when people ask if a photo I make is AI-generated or not.

How Much Photoshopping Is Too Much Photoshopping?

There’s been much debate about how much ‘Photoshopping is too much Photoshopping’. To frame that argument, keep in mind that people have — as I mentioned above — been retouching and manipulating photos for a very, very long time.

An excellent case in point: the photograph below of James Dean made in Times Square. The photo on the right is the finished, well-known, and now iconic image.

The photo on the left is what came straight out of the camera … in 1955!

Can Generative AI and Art Coexist Happily?

I think for many photographers, the influx of AI-generated content can be a little scary. We’ve worked hard over the length of our careers to learn how to create images that evoke a feeling. Images that tell a story. AI can be unnerving when it removes all that hard work and seems to relegate us into a less important level of creativity.

On top of this, photography has long been the underappreciated little sibling of the art world. 

Someone sees a painting and says: “Wow, I could never do that! That’s amazing, it must have taken so much time to learn how to do that!”

The photographer snaps a photo, and most people say: “So your job is just pushing a button? I can do that.”

Unfortunately, it’s this sentiment that keeps photography rather lower in the bottom of the pile as an art form.

W1ith the advent of AI, anyone can become an artist. Now, this is pretty incredible and has led to some fascinating creations. But it also pushes photography down the pile again. When AI images become photo realistic, what happens to artistic integrity?

In the end, I feel there will be a crossing of paths or an amalgamation of the two mediums at some point. However, I personally hope that they stay separate. Generative AI art can have its place … and photography its own as well.

If you’d like to see more examples of early photo manipulations, check out Fix The Photo and this article about rare historical photos.

For some fascinating AI-generated art, The Fractalnaut has an excellent science fiction series about a universe of sentient plant life that uses AI images to tell stories.

I hope you found this little musing entertaining and thought-provoking.

This article first appeared on and was reproduced with the author’s permission. The original article has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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