The Future of Stock Photography – How AI is Changing the Industry
Are you familiar with AI? It’s a fairly new concept where you can create an image just by typing in text. You can type into the algorithm something like “A cat wearing a helmet and riding a tank” and in a minute or so an image will be created. The nuts and bolts behind the technology essentially scours a database of similar images per your instructions and merges them together with various tweaks and quite frankly, the results are stunning. Absolutely stunning!
Right now it’s the wild west and as is the case with NFT’s, cryptocurrency, and Beanie Babies, there is huge potential and perhaps huge risk. Since AI technology relies on using existing images, despite the final product not having anything that can link back to the original, there already are pending lawsuits from photographers and artists who do not want their copyrighted work from being used to generate new images artificially.
Stock photography used to be a fairly lucrative endeavor but it’s getting to be impossible to make any real money for a single contributor. Tens of millions of images are being uploaded monthly between all the agencies which makes it virtually impossible for a buyer to find your images. It takes a lot of work to upload a mere 100 images in a month and compare that to upwards of 10 million images uploaded by everyone else in the same month. You could be the best photographer on the planet but you can still drown in a sea that keeps growing larger.
With AI, all you need is a computer and no skill as an artist or creator. You don’t need a camera, brush, paint, or pen. Just type in the image you want and POOF your image is created and it’s professional grade and commercial ready. If you’ve experimented with AI, you will find that the images generated rival high end artists.
Many Dreamstime contributors have been here for over 10 years and have only a few thousand images in their portfolio. With AI you can generate thousands of images in a single month. It won’t be long before the potential is realized and there is a mad rush to generate huge portfolios in a short period of time. The patient photographer and artist may be squeezed right out of the industry as a result.
However, not all is gloom and doom. AI, for the most part, creates images with an art-ish look and feel. You can tell the algorithm to make an image highly detailed and photo realistic but the result does not look like a photograph. At least not for now. Also, AI images currently render at a smaller pixel size. A popular AI engine is Midjourney and their maximum image is 2048 x 2048 pixels. You can increase that by using an enlarging application but doubling the image is still a relatively small image in the commercial world.
The good news for photographers is AI is a long way off from creating conference rooms filled with business people. If you can focus on generating stock images that can’t be done with AI then the stampede of images that are coming will have little impact on your portfolio. Illustrators and makers of fantasy art may get hit hard with this new technology.
Another problem with AI is they are difficult to use. Of the several services available, Midjourney is the only one that doesn’t take too much effort to get started. Alkaid.art has a free Photoshop plugin and I have yet to figure out how to install it. I will try again when I have more time. The others I’ve seen have little or no documentation or you need to pay to use the software without being able to use a trial version to see how it works.
It’s only a matter of time before AI services become more user friendly. The applications being difficult to use is actually a good thing as it can discourage many from getting started. Look at it this way, if you jump into AI now, generate 10,000 images over several months, then you will be ahead of the curve. Midjourney costs almost $600 for a one year subscription for the professional level of service. If you are exclusive with Dreamstime and can upload 10,000 images in that year, the upload bonus will get you $2,000. You might need to eat, sleep, and breath AI to generate 10,000 images but you can see how it makes good business sense. The only unforeseen variable is what kind of income those images will generate for you. But compare that with purchasing a $600 camera, software, and then spending all your time shooting to upload 50 images each month. And you’re still not guaranteed to generate any sales.
Then there is the catch where AI becomes so prevalent, buyers will just go and generate their own images for whatever project they’re working on. Then no one makes money. Good for the buyer, bad for the creator.
The bottom line is this: Stock photography was an opportunity for amateurs to get started in professional photography. With the industry glutted with images as it is and the technology making it easier and faster to generate commercial grade artwork, you need to become a good photographer or artist real quick. Below average contributors are not going to get the occasional sale to keep them motivated. Even for the skilled photographers and graphic artists, only the best of the best are going to rise above in a sea with hundreds of millions of images to choose from. Throw AI into the mix and it’s just going to get that much tougher.
Or will AI become the next Beanie Baby or cryptocurrency?
AI is the new gold rush. Those who get in now and crank out good images are going to cash in but even they will see sales and profits decline over time. Just take the money and run. Over time AI is going to become more user friendly, will be able to generate larger size images, will be able to be more photo realistic, and cut a wide path through the traditional media of photography and artwork. Making money in the world of art is going to require a new strategy, and those that figure it out will earn very good incomes. That’s what scares me, will I be able to figure out how to rise up with the coming changes?