Find your people, band together, make cool shit, have fun
A year into writing TBTP, thoughts on AI "photos", and a new group
It’s the first anniversary of Take Better Toy Photos, a publication I started writing to help myself and other toy photographers disconnect from social media, reconnect with why we do this, and find new ways of playing in our fun, little hobby.
The essay that started this all, Is it art or is it content?, set the tone for this year. It asks you to ask yourself if you are a photographer or an Instagrammer.
How can you quickly tell? If the most important thing to you is engagement on Instagram, your hobby is Instagram, not photography.
So when a new app feature or a trend emerges, Instagrammers jump on them right away while photographers tend to view them as attention grabs.
Fast forward a few months and Instagrammers-not-photographers are flooding the feed with the latest trend, AI-generated images.
Artificial Intelligence meets superficial intention
I created these four images with the prompt “a lego minifigure in a cyberpunk city with pink and purple lights” on Bing’s Image Creator in under 2 minutes. For free.
The experience was extremely simple, low-effort, and generated easily understood images: perfect for posting on Instagram.
Plus I got 4 images for just 1 credit! I have 15 free credits for signing up so that’s at least 60 pieces of content— a jackpot for a hustling Instagrammer. So it’s hardly a surprise that AI-generated images are everywhere now.
What does kind of surprise me though is that Instagrammers are trying to pass off these images as photos that they took by tagging their posts with #toyphotography, #legophoto, and other photography-related terms.
At first, I thought it might be a case of lazy copypasta or hashtag spam or both, but the creators doubled down on the deceit in the comments.
Unsurprisingly, some people have left “great photo” and “nice shot” comments under these posts because it can be hard to tell the difference. Especially when they’re looking at a thumbnail and are nudged to scroll rather than explore.
But instead of replying that they aren’t photos or shots at all, Instagrammers tacitly accept those words as accurate descriptions of their AI-generated images with a “thanks”.
In other words, they lie.
One AI creator admitted:
“I feel like I’m cheating but cheating engages more than my real pic.”
Facts. These AI images engage more people on Instagram than real photos do. So why not just say it’s an AI image in the first place? Why lie?
To be clear, I don’t have a problem with AI-generated images. I have a problem with lying about AI-generated images, particularly trying to pass them off as photos because I’m a photographer.
I can even see the merit in AI-generated images. It’s concept art that can be created in any style in a way that’s fun and easy. It’s useful for inspiration, planning, or even as a final result (hello, blog post featured images).
More importantly, being able to generate images with AI tools gets people excited about art. It can also be used to teach them to be more discerning.
My kid was thrilled to see the images generated from his sentences, but he also peered deeply at them to point out inconsistencies and failures of logic. I really can’t hate that.
(I still have deep concerns about how the AI is trained though, make no mistake.)
But claiming or implying that an AI-generated image is a photo dilutes what a photograph means.
For clarity, here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
A photograph is an image created by light falling on a photosensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic image sensor, such as a CCD or a CMOS chip.
It has nothing to do with text inputs on a computer. The processes for making a photo and generating an AI image couldn’t be more different even if the results are similar.
As if Instagram hasn’t diminished photography enough by throttling reach on photos, now we have to keep defining what a photo even is for everyone else because some people deeply need validation from strangers and are willing to disinform the public to get it.
Even the platform knows that AI-generated images need to be properly labeled to keep the peace and prevent disinformation.
Instagram is working on labels for AI-generated content but it might only work for images created with Meta AI, not Bing’s AI tool popular among LEGO image creators. Notably, only Meta or the creator can make that call.
I have as much faith in Meta correctly labeling AI images as I do in their AI comment moderation:
But the fact that such a tool is necessary signals just how big this problem of AI deception is, especially on apps like Instagram where your brain has little time to decide if something is real or not.
Ultimately, it might have to be up to AI creators to do the right thing and not intentionally trick anyone. But for as long as moral compasses are aligned with metrics, I don’t have much faith in that either.
The best solution is something we already see happening: the community raising their voices. It’s in the comment callouts and even takedowns of features on erring toy photography groups’ accounts.
So I hope that when Instagram finally rolls out the AI labeling tool, they allow a third option: “The community said that this content was created or edited by AI.”
In the community, I have faith.
Old school to the rescue again
In my introductory TBTP essay, I said I was old school: this newsletter and my blog are evidence. Over the past year, I’ve found that these two outlets have been the most enjoyable ones for my LEGO photography hobby that I’ve had in years.
It turns out, I’m not the only one either. Most of TBTP’s subscribers are reading the actual email in their inbox. Email!
Many more people read these essays directly on the web— less old-school than email, but still not on social media. (In fact, my lowest referrals come from where I have my biggest following, lol Instagram.)
Getting people to read emails and blogs is quite a feat these days when everyone seems to want nothing more than bite-sized graphics in a carousel post or watch a 30-second walk-and-talk video with write-on text effects on social media. And then promptly forget it.
So for you fellow old-schoolers who like to retain information, I have another outlet you might enjoy, but this time as a participant if you wish.
I’m taking a cue from Thomas J Bevan’s enlightening essay The Internet is Boring:
Find your people, band together, make cool shit, have fun.
So me and a few friends have banded together and started a new Flickr group where we’re going to make cool shit and have fun hosting tertulias— a Spanish word for social gatherings to discuss artistic work. Those sprung up in the 17th century if you’re wondering just how old school we’re going.
For our tertulias, think group show-and-tell with marked-up photos and commentary rather than workshops or how-tos.
I know people really like to read or watch people explain why a photo is deemed interesting and successful— I do. It's a fantastic learning tool. I’ve learned a lot from photographers breaking down their creative and technical choices, but also pointing out why they like another photographer’s work.
So that’s what we’re going to do.
We’ll bring our own photos and source other photos (with permission) to talk about from the group pool, then host the tertulias on the discussion forum, all on Flickr.
If you’re not very familiar with Flickr, here are some cool things about it:
One side effect of being on Flickr is you tend not to care about metrics. The only numbers that anybody ever cares about are in the EXIF. It’s all about the photo and you can see that with how they are presented without distraction.
You don’t have to follow anyone or get anyone to follow you. That’s not the game. Just join a group, add your photos and the whole group sees them.
Favoriting a photo doubles as a bookmark saved in your Faves tab.
There are group rules. Our group doesn’t allow any AI-generated images, for example. If someone posts them, we can remove them.
I could probably list a few more reasons why Flickr works for us but this thing is running long, and frankly, if you’re my people then you should just join.
It’s not all great though: the app truly sucks so I suggest you use the website to have a better experience.
And some people feel the free plan is too limiting at 1000 photos. Look, it took me several years to get to 800+ photos, so I think you’ll be fine. Just be more discerning and curate your photostream if you’re a prolific photographer.
These toy photographers create great work but also share fantastic insights about art, creativity, and techniques in photography.
I’ve had Shannon, John, and Ryan on as guests on YouTube and Tumblr Live to discuss their photography and walk me through their processes. Lynn’s enthusiasm for LEGO photography spills over into other people’s work. You’ll no doubt find her in lots of comment sections.
The group is called MiniPics and isn’t just for LEGO photography— Shannon shoots other toys— but it is for miniatures only. Your subjects must be 1:18 scale and under to enter. In more familiar measurements, that’s less than 4 inches or 10 centimeters.
Hope to see you there and in our first tertulia which should be in a couple of weeks!
Until then, opine about AI-generated images with the group on the forum or leave your thoughts about it for TBTP readers here.
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