Photography in the Age of AI

July 27, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Kilauea LighthouseIn the Light of LightningThis shot was particularly challenging as it was taken at 8.45 pm with no artificial lighting-- except for the beacon, which shines behind the kilauea lighthouse. All of the other light in this photo comes from three lightning flashes over one 25 second exposure...
I went out the intention of photographing the lighthouse and lightning bolts, but the lightning strikes were of the cloud-to-cloud variety so i took another approach. I decided to gather light from multiple lightning flashes and use that to light the lighthouse and kilauea point against the ocean and sky. It was incredibly difficult finding enough light to enable the auto focus so that the lighthouse was sharp and clear. It was just too dark for me to manually focus on the lighthouse with any clarity. I tried and tried, but nothing came out sharp. So I waited and waited for the storm to get closer. I waited for the perfect blast of lightning-- one that would be both close enough and bright enough to provide sufficient light for the auto focus to pick up detail in the lighthouse and "focus" where I wanted. And I got it. Once focused, i then turned off the auto focus and tried several shots at various timed exposures, hoping to get several flashes of lightning in one exposure. well, my plan worked, and after three and a half hours in the rain and storm, i got the shot. The reward was well worth the difficulty.
Kilauea Lighthouse and Refuge, Kauai, Hawaii

Photo taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f/2.8 @135mm, 25s, ISO 800, No Flash. Award Winner, December 2012.

***Limited Edition Metal Prints-- all sizes-- SOLD OUT. Mahalo!
In the Light of Lightning, Kilauea Lighthouse, Kauai. 25 seconds, f/2.8 @ 135mm,  ISO 800. Single exposure edited in Aperture with Topaz Denoise. 


Beauty is Truth, truth beauty,-- that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

~ John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn


Photography in the age of AI and Photoshop-- when Generative Fill allows one to add features, subjects, mountains and motorcycles into any image from any time and place by simply typing words into a box; in the current milieu where what is presented as beautiful is often not true--has value in that it can still communicate the perfection, serenity, chaos, and serendipity of the natural world. Photography can still communicate the dharma, or the teachings of the universe-- the Truth and Beauty of Keats and the Romantics-- without using AI. I would even argue that by exposing us to the truth, photography reveals the falsity of fake.

Yet, we have moved far away from the romantic notion that Truth is Beauty. The photographer's audience has become pessimistic and cautious. The wonder and amazement that they wish to feel and express has become reserved and bitter. They fear being duped by falsehoods trotted out as truth. The viewer recognizes the need to question the beauty that they see rather than accept it blindly. This is the age of AI. This is the viewer's response to Photography in the modern world. This is what photographer's have done to themselves and the industry. This is a sad state of affairs. A time when all is questioned because the natural world has not only been misrepresented, but subsequently and-- dangerously-- accepted as "art", "workflow", and standard practice.

This is bullshit.

But it is the current age. So how can we as photographer's who wish to represent the truth of beauty, the truth of the natural world, the beauty of the special moments that we have experienced and wish to share with others do so? I believe the answer lies in the story of the photograph. The story that accompanies each photograph-- the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why-- has become just as important as the photograph itself. 

A picture is no longer worth a thousand words because without authenticity a picture is worth nothing. So the story-- the thousand words-- is a method to support and authenticate the experience and truth depicted in the image. In the age of AI where falsehoods, manipulations, and misinterpretations have become the norm the story has become witness to the truth. And if photography ain't true-- in my eyes-- it ain't beautiful. In this way both the image and the story become witness to the gospel. The gospel for which Jack Kerouac said the only word that he had was "WoW." This is the gospel of amazing images that inspire, and lead the viewer to believe in what is possible-- even if it is something new and to them so far unseen.

So photographers be ready to tell the story. The who, what, when, where and why. And if your story contains AI and Generative Fill consider if your story is even worth telling. If your answer to the how is merely I typed the word mountain into a text box and a mountain magically appeared you are devaluing photography, but tell your bullshit story anyway. Let viewers know that your representation of the world is fake.  

Viewers, please, be kind and open to imagery that if even at first may seem unbelievable. With respect, ask about the story. Not to confirm your disbelief, but to know the truth. Be kind and supportive. Open to the photographer's story and work flow. Listen to the how and the why. The intention and the ideas behind the photograph. Allow both the image and the story to bear witness to the beauty and truth of the world.

In closing I will leave you with two things: First, a quote from OSHO that prefaced my first photo book. And second, I will tell you the story of the image above, In the Light of Lightning. 

"Only the real can know the real,

the true can know the truth,

the authentic can know the authentic that surrounds you." 



On December 8, 2012 Naomi and I were having dinner in our condo in Princeville. A strong electrical storm was hitting the north shore that evening, and throughout dinner I got up and walked to the lanai door to look at the lightning flashes until I couldn't stand it any longer.

Finally, I said to Naomi, "Im going to the lighthouse."

She said, "In this weather!?"

I replied, "Yes. I have an idea."

So I grabbed my gear and drove to the Kilauea Lighthosue. I parked the MIMNI Cooper in the cul-de-sac above Kilauea Point. I set up my tripod and camera and stood with umbrella out and tried to photograph a lightning bolt as it fell from the sky in the vicinity of the Kilauea Lighthouse. But I misjudged the storm. It was primarily sheet lightning  racing across the sky. No lightning bolts appeared. So how was I to photograph the scene? I decided that I would try to use the flashes of lightning as a natural flash to illuminate the lighthouse against the night sky.This was my strategy and subject-- the What. Now for the How.

Auto focus was a problem as it was too dark for the camera to pick up focus on the lighthouse window. And infinity focus was just too soft. So I waited for a strong flash of lightning, and placed pin-point focus on the lighthouse window. I then locked down the tripod, careful not to move the camera from the desired composition and I waited. I finally got a strong flash of lightning and the auto focus hit on the window. Sharp and in focus, the composition was set, but I still didn't have a photo as the exposure time was too short, leaving the lighthouse underexposed and the scene too dark. I placed the Canon 70-200mm lens on manual focus and was careful not to touch the barrel so as not to disturb focus that I only recently achieved. With focus set and composition dialed in all I had to do now was wait and get the timing right. I waited for a flash of lighting and would then press the remote shutter release. I started with exposure times of 15 seconds. Through trial and error I extended exposure times to 25 seconds and reviewed the LCD screen on the back of my Canon 5D III after each photograph. And then it hit. Just right-- three separate flashes of sheet lighting in a single 25 second exposure on December night at the Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai.

I was there-- in the rain-- at the cut-de-sac for about 3 hours. But at around 9pm magic struck and I was there to witness it and am now able to share it with you. Naomi called while I was out there and asked, "Are  you OK." All I could say was, "I got it! I think I got it!" Soon after that phone call I I packed up everything and drove home, excited about what I think had in camera. You never know until you see it on the computer, and really, never know until you see the image printed, but I was confident that I had an incredible and unique image of the Kilauea Lighthouse. Once home, I immediately put the memory card into the iMac and there it was-- In the Light of Lightning. I jumped up, and began giving Naomi high fives, happy that what I thought was possible actually was. 

And just to sweeten the scene, in preparation for the 100 year anniversary of the Kilauea Lighthouse  to be held in April of 2013, the Lighthouse underwent an extensive renovation throughout the summer of 2012 . I was able to take this photo just a few weeks after workers dismantled and removed the scaffolding covering the lighthosue. So the exterior paint and stucco is a s fresh as it will ever be. Yes, I acknowledge the serendipity-- and luck-- of some great images cannot be denied. But as my father would say, "I would rather be lucky than good." ;-)




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