My phone has portrait mode, do I really need a professional photographer?

Someone taking a picture with an iPhone

I can take out my iPhone X, open the camera app, launch the studio effect then import it in Snapspeed or Instagram, apply a quick filter, fine tune it, and have a decent photo. Do I still need a professional portrait photographer then? In 2018, the answer is not definite; it depends on what you want to do.

Technology is an enabler

Technology enables us to achieve more while ever reducing the learning curve associated with the activity. This is also true with photography, especially since Apple made neural photography accessible to the general public with the introduction of the iPhone 7 Plus in September 2016. With its dual camera design, it allowed separating the subject from the background by blurring the model’s surrounding (the so-called bokeh that makes a photo looked as if it was taken by a professional photographer). That was just the tip of the iceberg; rapidly other functionalities were added, the most prominent being the studio mode.

Google made the next leap forward, by introducing the portrait mode to single camera phones, though this was limited to the Google Pixel phone. That, however, laid the groundwork for other companies to do the same with other phones. Proof of that: Instagram just released the portrait mode. In a world infused by billions of images, it’s only logical to assume that AI-powered photography will only be made even more available to the general public in the years to come.

With this information laid on the ground, is it still relevant to hire a professional portrait photographer? The answer, as previously stated is: it depends. The software will change the definition of what is a professional photo shoot and what is an amateur one while bringing benefits for both.

Definition: Professional Photo Shoot

If you haven’t read my previous article (Portfolio photo shoot for emerging artists/models; what to expect?), I would suggest reading it first. One could describe a professional photo shoot as simply as a photo shoot where a professional (the photographer) is paid an agreed amount of money to deliver pictures. While that definition still stands, I think that more should be added to it as it is incomplete.

First of all, because some amateurs do get paid, simply saying that a photo shoot is professional since there is an exchange of money isn’t true. The role of a professional is to keep his/her knowledge up to date and, even better, bring it to the cutting-edge of new techniques; in this case the latest technology. As true as technology is an enabler for the general public, it is also another tool added to the belt of a photographer. I think that in the case of a professional photo shoot, what software allows for is quick concept development. It’s another mean that can be used to show more easily to an art director what you want to achieve.

Second, from a professional, you can expect an expert attitude from a photographer. This isn’t new, and is true for all skilled professions, but as photographers have to compete with the technology they put even more effort on this aspect. A photographer wants the shoot to succeed: that’s how he/she makes money! Thus, while an amateur might prioritize other events or postpone a shoot for a number of reasons (bad weather, not feeling for it, etc.), a specialist will make sure to be there on the date that has been set and will have made proper preparations for the shoot.

Finally, a professional photographer commands expert grade equipment. This is still relevant now: despite great advances in consumer technology, commercial equipment outperforms smartphones in photographic quality. While professional equipment allows for a greater fluidity and to adapt campaign photos for the different mediums, smartphone pictures are almost exclusively usable for social media and websites. Trends show that while smartphone cameras are rapidly evolving, Sony and Samsung massive investments in R&D maintain the technological advances of high-end camera gear. Also, all the major companies that develop smartphone cameras (Sony accounts for 45% of the market share as of 2017)[1] have a lineup of professional cameras or develop parts of them. They have interest in making sure the professional equipment stays ahead of general consumer technology.

To summarize, a good definition of what is a professional photographer in 2018 would be the following:

  • A paid photographer that keeps his/her knowledge to the cutting edge of the technology or at least up to date;
  • A photographer that has a professional attitude and professional ethics of work;
  • A photographer that uses industry standard equipment.

To know more about how a professional photo shoot unfolds, see my latest article on the subject.


Benefits of technology for amateur photo shoots

Technology has a lot to offer to amateur photo shoots as well. Photographs are memories, and these applications allow to remember and share those moments more easily. For personal use, they are cheaper and faster than hiring a professional photographer, save for wedding photography. For shoots that happens on the spot, it isn’t always possible or relevant to have had a professional photographer. Technology as an enabler, allows once again for quality pictures where it would not have been possible to have had a professional photographer.

Technology isn’t magic

It is important to remember that technology isn’t magic. It doesn’t create outstanding pictures out of thin air. The software has several limitations: it can’t fix the composition, it doesn’t know how to make you pose, it can’t create a concept on its own, it doesn’t replace a stylist, and is not 100% reliable.

It doesn’t replace a human (or a team)

One important limitation to think of when it comes to software is that it doesn’t replace a human as artificial intelligence is as much intelligent as we make it. Sure, it learns over time, that’s the core principle of machine learning, but it doesn’t have initiative. We can teach software to solve complex mathematical equations or play a chess game because it follows a logic. When it comes to art, however, humans have tried for centuries to create a method or a recipe for what defines aesthetics, and while some theories exist, the very nature of art subjectivity makes it difficult, if not impossible to give a single answer to what makes a photo beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Technology can so far only imitate techniques developed by other artists. Since this choice is limited to the database created by its developers and changes in technique cannot be made as it is pre-coded, if you don’t like the presets, all this artificial intelligence is pretty useless to you. On a commercial project, for instance, you must corner the style to adopt for your target audience. While professionals use technology to find which style to adopt, technology cannot do this by itself.

Technology cannot fix the composition of a picture magically. There are common tricks known to a photographer (such as the rule of thirds or diagonals), but there is not an absolute rule for every photo. Also, each rule has its own purpose, for example, you can use diagonals to create dynamics in a picture. The software doesn’t know what you want to do. So, while there are tentatives by companies such as Google to create artificial intelligence that can fix composition, it is not to the point of being professional and it is not reliable.

Another point is that software can suggest poses for your models based on a databank, but it cannot invent new ones. A professional photographer will use his/her experience to create poses for the models based on the emotion he/she wants to convey. And if there is one thing software doesn’t know how to interpret, it is emotions. 

Lastly, technology is not 100% reliable. Big tech companies will make sure the automatic mode works stellar in the demos, but as soon as you actually try it in the real world, it never works as magically. Meanwhile, professional photographers train for years to achieve a professional workflow that is as failsafe as it can, they also develop backup solutions, they have professional insurances that cover reshoot if that is necessary, you have very little recourses if the software you’re trying to use fails. Commercial projects and professional photo shoots need the reliance of a professional photographer and technology just hasn’t caught up with that.

Technology makes the profession evolve, it doesn’t replace it

As mentioned earlier, technology is just another tool for professionals, not a substitute for them. It doesn’t eliminate the photographer’s job, it makes it different. The competition will eliminate the photographers who haven’t updated their techniques. But just as film photography isn’t dead, it will take time before the pre-AI era digital photographers are gone. I predict that photographers that don’t adapt their techniques will change the title to technicians and they are likely to be hired at an hourly rate by bigger firms in the long term. That is alright, however, as not everyone is meant to be a freelancer and hourly paid jobs in photography are scarce.

Like in many sectors, technology will change this market sector forcing more specialized jobs, but the high demand for photography will make sure to also create hourly paid jobs in bigger firms that shoot more generic types of pictures with the help of artificial intelligence. Another positive point with creating technical jobs in photography is that it creates another way in to become a fully-fledged photographer. Today there are many paths that lead to becoming a photographer, one of which is being an assistant, but these paths remain a freelancer unstable job.

A final word

There is no doubt that the artificial intelligence’s role in photography will keep increasing as time goes. It has already changed the workflow of photographers and the expectations of the industry and will keep doing so as it becomes more readily available to the general consumer. While it complexifies the job of the photographer, it also creates a new sector of hourly paid technicians. More than jobs, artificial intelligence allow projects to be done faster and more efficiently by improving the communication between the client and the photographer.



[1] Tu, Ricky. “Digitimes Research: Global CIS Shipment Value to Grow through 2020.” DIGITIMES. August 01, 2017. Accessed April 11, 2018.






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