Here's Why AI Headshots Are Great for Photographers

Here's Why AI Headshots Are Great for Photographers

Since the introduction of AI-generated headshots, many have been lamenting the inevitable end of our industry, forecasting doom and gloom across every online forum almost on a daily basis. But one photographer isn’t afraid, and in fact, he believes that AI technology is actually good for headshot photographers and ultimately will strengthen our industry.

Recently, I sat down with Scottsdale, AZ, based headshot photographer Tony Taafe to discuss his view of AI and its impact on the photography industry. To my surprise, Taafe has taken a decidedly different view of how the technology will change the headshot landscape, as he believes there are still many challenges before AI headshots can be a truly viable alternative to the genuine article, if they ever can be at all. Looking at the long-term impact, he believes that AI headshots will ultimately bolster our industry, becoming a net positive for headshot photographers after the initial excitement over the technology has waned. Here’s why.

Image by Tony Taafe, used by permission.

A Security Risk

According to Taafe, “It’s a security risk. Companies, or individuals, don’t own any of the information once it’s uploaded to AI generators.”

He adds that with both of his businesses, Tony Taafe Studio and Headshot Booker, his largest clients have never once agreed to a contract that doesn’t include some control over the images taken of their employees. “Corporations who have even the slightest idea of brand protection will never agree to you photographing their employees and saying ‘We’re good with whatever you want to do with these images.’”

We're the key to authentic marketing in a world where everything will look and feel the same.

Image by Tony Taafe, used with permission.

Companies we work with often request that they have exclusive usage rights to their images. I've heard photographers comment that companies do this because they want to take advantage of the photographer. They don’t. They have to protect their information and brand from outside usage.

No One Relates To Perfect

In addition to being a security risk, AI-generated headshots give a false sense of perfection. “'Show me perfect, and I will show you a liar' is a well-known marketing phrase, and if it isn’t, it should be,” Taafe says.

Large companies spend millions of dollars on marketing in order to present their brand and unique as authentic. Tony says that “the most impactful way to do this is through their people – most products can be replicated, people can’t. AI headshots completely obliterate this. It's a more sophisticated version of the iPhone emoji; people know it's fake.”

It’s a “marketing disaster” in his view, because no one relates to perfection, which AI-generated headshots attempt to create. Companies understand that clients relate to the humanness of their team members, and that even if it’s on a subconscious level, genuine photos of their employees are one of their greatest branding assets. Showcasing employees as perfect automatons does not build trust with potential clients, because it creates a first impression with them that the company is fake, or worse, obscuring the truth about their people, hence, dishonest.

Taafe believes that AI headshots are fine for those looking to garner likes and comments on social media, but not for the serious professional. This is because they not only fix every imperfection, but also change the shape of the face, create unrealistic lighting, and even place the subject in a fabricated environment. People who want this kind of photo are our “nightmare clients,” he adds.

Image by Tony Taafe, used with permission.

Perhaps the strongest argument Taafe makes against AI headshots is that they present “a copyright minefield.” Regarding working with both large and small companies, He says: “Companies we work with often request that they have exclusive usage rights to their images. I've heard photographers comment that companies do this because they want to take advantage of the photographer. They don’t. They have to protect their information and brand from outside usage.”

Taafe cited a ruling by the US Copyright Office which calls AI generated art a “completely mechanical” process with “no place for novelty, invention, or originality,” and therefore not worthy of copyright protection. He continues, “This is great news for companies who want to use the images without having to secure exclusivity, but a complete no-go for companies who need to make sure their images aren't used by anybody who wants to use them in any way they like.”

Those of us who have worked in the headshot industry know that it’s also common for companies to require photographers to sign NDAs when contracted to capture their team. These agreements often ban the photographer from not only sharing the photos online, but from even sharing social posts that include BTS images of their office space, firm name, or any other information about the company and their location. These companies don’t just value their privacy; they understand the legal implications of having their spaces and people broadcast across the internet without their consent or branding control. If they choose to use AI headshots for their team of hundreds or thousands of employees, they cede legal recourse and invite others to use images of their team members in whatever way they like, without the ability to protect themselves.

Headshot photographer Tony Taafe. Used with permission.

A Bright Road Ahead

Taafe told me that he is not against AI headshots. He believes they are fun and here to stay, and that they have "earned their own place on our journey."

He continues, "AI headshots are a very decent social media product; what we provide is an exceptional marketing product." 

Finally, after reading and speaking with many photographers over the last year who forecast complete doom for our industry, it was refreshing to get a different perspective from Taafe. As our conversation wound down, he concluded with some encouraging words: “I genuinely believe that headshot photography, even with a potential short term rollercoaster of companies who dip their toes in the AI water, will come out of this stronger and even more valuable than it is today.”

“We're the key to authentic marketing in a world where everything will look and feel the same.”

Pete Coco's picture

Pete Coco is a portrait photographer and musician based in New York. When not performing as a jazz bassist, Pete can be found in his studio working with a wide range of clients, although is passion is creating unique portraits of other musicians and artists.

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Wishful thinking. There will be a small percentage of head shot photographers left, but companies are motivated to navigate the issues presented here. There is a huge cost and time savings from the perspective of a business and it is their duty to find efficiencies; that's capitalism baby. Though, if you are really good and there may be a few clients left.

Cost, savings and efficiency have nothing to do with return in investment. That's just cost of production and cost of photography in advertising is a very tiny part of a gigantic industry.

spencer robertson I think you might be wrong on this one. I don't paint myself as an expert, but the motivation for AI usage with most serious companies won't involve the downside of foregoing usage rights for their own branding or employees.

Taafe has it dead on. I agree with everything and I'll add that there is also an AI fatigue coming up. There are a lot of things you can't AI, including new products for example, the way some things are bundled for sale and so on. It's kind of being hired for an advertising photoshoot and dictate to the client what you want to do and totally ignore their plan. If you don't show that you understand their project, you're done, no more phone calls. Now mixing AI and real that's definitely something happening today.

I beg to differ on AI capabilities and new products. Beck's Beer used AI to create a recipe for a brand new beer, name the beer, design the logo, design the packaging, and design the advertising. The implications for product development and commercial product photography are staggering. You and I might be tiring of the subject, but big business never tires of finding ways to higher profits at lower cost of labor. Granted portraits/headshot clients value authenticity, but professional photographers of all types are already under extreme competitive pressure. I can't imagine AI isn't gonna add to the toll.

I see what you mean. I don't think however that it is specific to photography but more designers. Beer, sodas and other products have already been taken over by CGI graphic wise. The can itself might be radically different but production must be a real nightmare and cost might not be sustainable for the average client. But it would be nice after they launch the product to get an idea on what really happened if this sold or quietly disappeared.

Also, there is Glaze, and Nightshade now. They are apps designed to poison AI models by tricking them to think an item is something else that it is. For example AI can read that the real image of a horse is a night stand or a hamburger after the process is applied.

When even comments on Linkedin are recently written by AI, people are starting to get tired of AI and are looking for ways to present themselves as authentic and credible living people.

And here is the role of headshots, the more AI there is, the greater the importance of a real photo that is a reflection of reality.

AI Fatigue will be a thing with photos. The same way people got quickly bored of the iPhone emojis etc. security concerns aside, uniqueness can't be replicated by AI. Or at least not yet.

Photographers who dip their toe in the water of A.I. will never again have any of their work trusted as real.

My vote for best reply!

Couldn't have said it better myself! I've already stopped following several photographers and called them out for using AI in their work, often without disclosing the fact, and later letting it be known in BTS videos they post of how the composition actually came to be.

I have seen that too. Earlier this year, I actually asked a photographer if the work was done in AI and that person said "no" right away and this was in a private message. Six month later that person said it was resuming playing with AI.

"Photographers who dip their toe in the water of A.I. will never again have any of their work trusted as real." But will it matter? Are you describing an instance where the finished image was created by keywords and therefore not authentically captured with a real object and camera? But what if the object of the photo in that case is rendered accurately? Does it matter how the image was created? On the other hand, you might be referring to fake or highly altered subjects that don't exist, created purely by AI technology, although Photoshop popularized that argument 30 years ago. Is that sunset real? Does it matter? The answer probably depends on whom you're asking the question. Photographers might not be trusted if they've defined their skill set by a camera. Content creators will have plenty of work.

But returning to the question of reality... how many portrait/headshot clients want 100% honesty in their image and likeness? How many people say: "Show every last wrinkle, blemish, age spot, bloodshot eyes, big nose and double chin that you can find in my face?" I've done just enough of these jobs to realize that hardly anyone wants to be photographed entirely truthfully. It's a matter of tweaking the truth a hair or two while pleasing the client. The operator of a camera seeks truth, at least until the honest image is boring... the landscape photographers saturate colors, replace skies, etc. Portrait photographers reshape the face and hide every element perceived as ugly. It's only a matter of time before AI gets the task done more accurately and efficiently. As a matter of full disclosure, I do not build images from scratch using AI keywords. I don't like it; I don't support it. However, my career has been decimated by technology at least three times in the past forty years so I recognize the handwriting on the wall.

I can also say that honesty, trust, and reality don't mean near as much as they used to. I have no crystal ball, but I can look back in history and see a progression. Walter Cronkite, broadcast journalist in the 1960-70s, was revered as "The Most Trusted Man in America." Truth mattered. Name one person who fits that category today? In today's world, truth is simply a matter of what one chooses to hear and believe. Politicians lie, advertisers exaggerate, news media sources distort and twist while catering to the biased views of their audience, religions kill each other, inexplicable mass shootings. And there's supposed to be a universal reality underlying all of that? Of course not, but that's why I think it's important to raise the question of integrity and what that means in today's world. Why emphasize truth and reality if those particular values are roadkill of the 21st century? You can't really criticize AI until you ask whether the results are good or bad, or useful for your own particular needs. Just criticizing it as a different way of creating an image, or as some huge immoral beast, isn't gonna slow it down.

Has photography replaced painting? No. We should not allow ourselves to be unsettled, but rather make AI our friend.

Painting has a place in fine art (landscape, still-life), but yes, photography has virtually replaced painting in portraiture. At least I am not aware of any portrait painters in my area. In the context of headshots (the primary subject of this article) it's all done with photography and no painting.