Automation is great, but there are some things that technology just can’t replace. One of those? A human touch.

Many times automation mitigates human error. But there are contexts where tech makes its own flaws.

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This is the case when it comes to automated photo editing.

Your product photos are what potential buyers have to get an impression of your product. If it’s a poor image, they’re going to think the products are of the same quality. And that’s not what’s going to drive sales.

So, what are the pros and cons to automated photo editing, and does it ever make sense to use it? Let’s take a look:

In this article:

A breakdown of automation and AI

While automation and AI are often interchangeably used, they actually refer to different things. Let’s take a look at the definition of each:

  • What is automation? Automation is when you use technology to set up systems and processes that begin and end on their own. In business, automation happens in almost every single department. You can automate marketing, inventory management, HR, and even photo editing.
  • What is AI? AI stands for “artificial intelligence” and refers to machine learning. Essentially, this technology replicates or replaces human intelligence, and it’s more successful for basic tasks and concepts. Over time, this technology “learns” and becomes more powerful—sort of like forecasting for inventory based on historical data. If you give more input to the computers, they can learn more effectively.
  • What’s the difference between automation and AI? While automation and AI both rely on some sort of human involvement during the setup, AI gives computers more independence. Automated workflows and sequences happen based on parameters you’ve set manually, whereas AI involves machine learning which includes advanced data analysis and predictive modeling.

So, what does this all have to do with photo editing?

In photo editing, you can use automation to accomplish tedious, time-consuming edits. For example, if you need to put everything on a white background, you can use automation to apply the edit to a large batch of images. Some companies also make the mistake of using automation for detail-oriented edits, like clipping paths. These often result in Photoshop fails — remember the Target thigh gap debacle of 2014?

AI also has a role in product photography. There are some web-based photo editors that are completely executed by computers.

5 Jobs That AI Can Never Replace in Your Ecommerce Business

Drawbacks of automation and AI

Outsourcing your work to computers isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, automation and AI can actually ruin your product shots and send you back to square one.

You’re limited in what you can do

While AI might have its place for basic edits, the technology is very limiting, especially from a creative standpoint. “Manually editing photographs is still a more widespread technique than using a tool that relies on artificial intelligence because you have a stronger control over the way the image transforms,” says Aamina Suleman, senior digital marketer, content creator and visual designer at LogoDesignGuru.com. “With an AI-powered tool, you’re limited to algorithms.”

This means you might not get the perfect look, and it almost always requires manual tweaking. Plus, the results could be subpar, in which case you might have to start all over and do it by hand — which takes even more time than just editing by hand in the first place.

You don’t exercise creativity

Because AI is so limiting, it also prohibits creativity. This can be stifling and take the passion out of your wok. “AI cannot take creative direction from the end customer.” says Bil. “As such, you still have to do a fair bit of manual work.”

Imperfections happen

Quality control is extremely important when you’re letting machines do some of the editing work for you. “The most tiring factor in manual image editing is that it requires graphic designers to put on their eagle eye lenses to pinpoint the smallest anomaly in the picture,” says Suleman. “Many designers and brands are trolled when Photoshopping goes wrong.”

And while you might think using automation and AI will help you spend less time on nitty-gritty edits, this could actually make your job harder and more time-intensive in the long run. Instead of looking at shots to see how you can manipulate them, you’re looking at shots to see how they’ve been manipulated and if they need to be fixed. And then doing the work of fixing them when needed. When all is said and done, you might’ve been able to do it faster with a human.

Manual work is required

Sensing a theme? Automation and AI don’t completely eradicate the need to do edits by hand. You still need to review each image before handing it off to the computers. “There are a variety of images that need different treatments,” says Suleman. “You should analyze the photograph first and then decide how you want to approach it.”

And it’s also important to perform a quality check after the software has manipulated your image. as well as perform quality checks and spot edits afterwards. “The key benefit of AI is having good manual editing skills and being able to deliver on your client’s brief,” says Bil. “Without this skill, a customer is likely going to seek out a different photographer.”

High-quality photography only

If you’re using an automated tool, you’ll likely need to provide high-quality, high-res original source images as much as possible. No smartphone product photography here! You should use high-quality JPEG files or non-compressed formats, recommends Bil. “Compression can mess things up with AI-based background removal,” she says.

“The trick is that the background being removed has to be relatively distinct from the product. If your background is sharp and the foreground is sharp, the algorithms struggle to detect edges well as they typically use contrast detection,” explains Bil. So if you’re not working with a high-quality camera and lens, your shots might not be suited for an AI-based photo editor.

Benefits of automation and AI in photo editing

There are certainly scenarios where it makes sense to take advantage of automation and AI to speed up your editing workflow.

Handle large batches of edits

Product launches, new collections, seasonal changes, upcoming trade shows — there are lots of times when a large batch of photos that need editing come across your desk. An estimated 1.2 trillion photos were shot and billions shared via an online platform in 2017 alone.

When you have lots of edits and impossible deadlines, automation and AI can help speed things up. Give the simple tasks, like basic background removal or resizing, to the computers so you can focus on the more important and creative details.

Stay within budget

Using photo-editing technology can be budget-friendly, especially if it means you don’t have to invest in employee hours or financial resources to accomplish the edits. Keep in mind, though, that even if it’s free to start with — if you or your team needs to spend a significant amount of time reviewing or fixing mistakes, it might not be as budget-friendly as you initially thought.

What’s the cheapest way to put a product on a white background?

Take care of all your simple edits

AI has its time and place, and simplicity is key. The less complicated your edit, the more likely it will be suited for AI.

As an example: “You can use an automated tool to work with basic images with higher levels of contrast,” says Suleman. “As far as a complex photograph is concerned, it’s better to build up the layers for a more refined result.” Amazon product photos are another good example of photos that might work for an AI-based photo editor.

“But if the customer is doing something for their website or catalog with a particular specification, AI will likely not be very helpful as it will only address specific use cases,” says Bil. “For example, we do a lot of product photography for cosmetics and jewelry which require very specific shadows which, at times, are manually created. This is not effectively handled through AI.”

Our team of professional designers create every drop shadow by hand

Get nitty-gritty edits off your plate

Those simple, basic edits are also the most tedious and frustrating ones. They take the most time and attention to detail. But they’re foundational to an effective product photo. That’s why AI makes a good “assistant” to take those nitty-gritty edits off your plate.

“Manual editing is still the way to go for achieving a specific look.” – Alice Bil, owner, studioEPIC photography

“Since AI is good for tackling specific steps in your workflow, you can use it for tasks such as background removal which has been heavily tackled through software and there are a lot of good tools that allow you to do this effectively,” says Bil. “The trick is that the background being removed has to be relatively distinct from the product.”

She notes that AI is ideal for automating specific tasks in a workflow, but “manual editing is still the way to go for achieving a specific look that is desired by the customer.”

Find out how children’s brand Ice Cream Castles took their nitty-gritty photo edits off their plate

AI and photography

Did you ever think that the people you see in photos online could be fake? As in, those aren’t actually photos of anyone. Instead, AI creates visuals of real-looking humans. Sounds great because you don’t need a budget for models or signed releases to use the images. But in reality, these images are often distorted and can breed mistrust with your audience.

Here’s an example from Generated Photos. It might be free, but this person’s face looks unrealistic.

Generated photos example

Automation and photo editing

Remember, automation and AI might be similar but they’re two different things. Automations are especially ideal for speeding up your workflow. You can use actions and plugins in Photoshop to make your job easier.

But if you’re outsourcing the photo editing, you want to steer clear of automation. Some companies use automated technology and even AI to accomplish their photo edits. This leads to mistakes, which defeats the purpose of outsourcing in the first place. So when you outsource, look for a company that does every edit by hand. Our designers, for example, zoom in up to 300% to get pixel perfect edits every time.

AI and photo editing

AI also has its use for photo editing, digital asset management (DAM) in particular. With AI, you can automatically tag and add metadata to your image files for easy organization and retrieval. In some cases, the technology uses the photos themselves to extract product information, for even more advanced DAM.

Should you use automated and AI-powered photo editing?

The answer, like most questions in business, is that it depends. There’s always a time and place for automation and AI, but you don’t want to go overboard. Sometimes, your product photos need a human touch.

Learn about our team of designers, your virtual photo-editing studio

Alexandra Sheehan

In her past agency life, Alex has led digital marketing initiatives for Fortune 500 companies. Now, she’s passionate about helping retailers and retail industry leaders harness the power of the written word and fuse it with strategic content, email and social media marketing campaigns.

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