Although artificial intelligence (AI), and even just the fear of AI, can have negative consequences for photographers, some people are having fun with it. Photographer and educator Dave Williams is one such person. He decided to put AI to use in crafting a fake vacation to Finland, which ultimately fooled nearly all of his Instagram followers.
“We frequently find ourselves enthralled by captivating vacation images that take us to far-off places in a world where social media has become the portal to our desires. In an effort to participate in this digital story, we embarked on a remarkable experiment that would challenge our online community’s critical faculties and push the limits of perception. The ‘we’ I speak of here are myself, Kersten Luts and Micah Burke,” writes Williams.
Williams and Luts explored the streets of London with their camera and an iPhone and started snapping totally mundane images. The duo then took these photos, and combined them with Photoshop and artificial intelligence tools, to transport Williams from the streets of London to the wilds of Finland.
“Our altered and sometimes completely made-up photos of Finland’s beautiful landscapes inundated my Instagram story over the course of three days, reaching the eyes of an astounding 37k followers,” says Williams.
He explains that what is most interesting to him is not the faked vacation photos themselves, but rather, that they so effectively fooled all but one dissenter who questioned whether Williams had actually gone on vacation at all.
“This surprising finding raises the intriguing question: How did our AI-assisted deceit go unnoticed by everyone save a single voice?” Williams asks.
The AI-Powered Ruse
Part of what made Williams’ lies convincing is that he crafted a full vacation story. His Instagram exploits were not just spectacular photos of incredible Finnish landscapes. Williams started with a photo of himself sitting in an airport terminal waiting to depart. In reality, Williams was just sitting on a bench in a typical room in someone’s home.
He used the Object Selection tool in Photoshop to select himself, inverted his selection, and then filled in the background with “airport lounge” within Photoshop’s Generative Fill. To add a bit more detail to the shot, Williams added a fellow “traveler” walking in the background, suitcase in tow.
“What’s really interesting about this whole process is that Adobe Photoshop now works in the way that most non-photographers always believed it worked anyway. It’s now possible to simply make a selection and describe what you want, letting Adobe Firefly, the AI inside of Photoshop, do the work,” explains Williams.
Many of the images that Williams used as part of his deceit were based around “plate” images, which have long been used as part of photo composites.
However, some shots, such as the reindeer image below, were created entirely from scratch. Williams says that putting the reindeer behind a tree helps overcome AI’s struggles with limbs.
No “vacation” is complete without food photos. Williams took a photo of a kitchen table from above and made numerous selections on the shot, and filled each of them with different images generated from text prompts.
One of Williams’ photographer friends, Peter Treadway, pointed out that the reflection in the spoon shows a softbox, which suggests studio lighting that is not apparent on the other objects in the frame. However, nobody pointed that out on Instagram.
Another plate shot is a selfie Williams captured in front of a local skatepark. He sent the image to Burke and asked him to put Williams in front of a lovely waterfall. While someone could notice some rough areas around Williams’ baseball cap, the final image looks convincing at first glance. The lighting in the two photos matches quite well.
Why Create a Fake Vacation?
“The point of this experiment with AI focusing predominantly on Adobe Firefly built into Adobe Photoshop with Generative Fill was not to deceive the audience maliciously, but to highlight that AI is here and it isn’t going away,” Williams writes on his blog.
Williams says that while his photos are clearly fake when inspected closely, he finds it a bit concerning that the photos made it past nearly everyone on Instagram without any skepticism.
AI technology is improving rapidly, and it will only get easier to fool people. However, it seems like it might already be a bit too easy.
With every fake vacation, fake person, and fake award-winning image, the line between reality and fantasy gets a little bit blurrier. The idea of a world where that line no longer exists is perhaps no longer completely farfetched, and that is unsettling.
Image credits: All images © Dave Williams, with additional credits listed in individual image captions