Some Artists Rake in Money with Midjourney, But is it Justified?
Certain artists are already using Midjourney to make money in some pretty creative ways, but what does this mean for photographers?
A video recently posted to YouTube by the photo tutorial channel Mango Street describes how some artists are using Midjourney to create “photorealistic” images of famous figures and all kinds of people or objects in eye-catching visual settings.
As the narrator describes, so-called “prompt engineers” use the Midjourney AI, through one of its low-cost monthly account packages, to create text prompts that deliver visually stunning imagery which they later sell online as high-priced prints.
The main argument of the video is that these prompt engineers make their work seem much more difficult than it really is.
Obviously, as the video points out, the AI art creators do this to justify their sale prices and make what they do seem uniquely professional.
Mango Street’s narrator then goes on to show viewers just the opposite, that prompt engineering on Midjourney is actually pretty easy. With a quick demo, she claims that almost anyone can create many of the impressive visuals being sold by others for high prices.
She closes her video by pointing out that Midjourney art sellers try to create an illusion of how hard the platform is to use. They do this because if they showed you their actual prompts, you’d see how easy it is to create your own “art” just by paying a few bucks a month.
The logic with that is that if more people knew this, fewer of them would buy these AI-generated prints in the first place, especially at prices of up to $1,500 or more.
According to the video narrator, Mango Street’s own tutorials for real photographers are on the other hand openly described and freely shared.
She argues that Mango Channel isn’t giving away its business by sharing these because the training courses really depend on each photographer’s completely unique human skills as a result of their learning process and creative work.
AI artists on the other hand rely almost entirely on tools and text creation whose ease they try to keep secret while portraying their work as uniquely difficult.
These are some interesting points… but, here are a few other observations I’d like to toss on top…
Some Points to Keep in Mind
Is Prompting Really That Easy?
First of all, if you watch the video yourself, you might notice one key thing, which is that she shows you an edited version of how her own prompts produce results.
In other words, you’re likely seeing the best work being shown on the screen as if it appeared that quickly after a few detailed text prompts. It’s hard to be sure if she really pulled off her sample creations this quickly, but probably not.
As other Midjourney users have pointed out, good images can still take a fair bit of effort (despite what Mango Channel’s video claims) and only become really easy to create with some practice.
This applies even with Midjourney 5.0, the latest, most precise and most user-friendly version of the AI software. Basically, interesting creations aren’t always or for everyone as easy as the video paints them to be.
On the other hand, no, Midjourney prompting isn’t rocket science either, and it’s certainly easier to learn than working to be a consistently good photographer with a real camera in the field or studio.
On that count, Mango Channel is absolutely right about Midjourney “photo” art depending more on the tools than the human talent, as opposed to skilled photography.
Art and Art Pricing
Another possibly bigger question is whether these artists are then justified in selling prints of their work for up to $1500, or possibly more. After all, almost anyone can learn to do the same fairly quickly with a $10 monthly Midjourney subscription and some free time.
Well, while it’s easy to get frustrated as a photographer with the idea of someone pulling in decent money for something they made in minutes, it’s like Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with”.
The same applies to selling it. He certainly knew a fair bit about both of those things, and he was right.
The art world (and this includes the fine art photography world) is full of sellers who manage to market themselves into a position from which they sell their work for incredible amounts of money. These are completely divorced from the effort or skill it took to make that art, and that’s been the case for centuries.
Art of any kind has always been more about clever marketing, luck, and self-promotion skills than mere, humble artistic ability. Ever seen work by Cy Twombly? Or Yoko Ono? Sometimes, the artistic skill component need not apply at all.
This tendency is older than AI or even computers, and anyone who goes into an artistic profession, -including photography- just has to deal with it.
That some artists are taking advantage of Midjourney to quickly make visuals and sell them for hundreds of dollars is one thing.
What this means for you as a real photographer is a completely different thing.
The Photographer’s Unique Touch
One big question that you might be asking is: How much can I keep charging if an AI platform can do things similar to my work in just minutes at nearly zero cost?
The answer is that you shouldn’t focus on what the AI does, but on what you as a creator can do uniquely in your market.
If you take a close look at Midjourney’s imagery as it stands now with version 5.0 at least, you’ll notice that almost all of it has a similar sort of look, even if the prompts given to the AI specify all kinds of different styles and settings.
A real photographer, doing professional work with their own creator’s eye and hardware, isn’t bound by this digital limitation at all.
Many potential clients and buyers will know this, and appreciate it for the unique, real-world touch it can give to what they want from you.
This alone makes AI speed and visual aesthetics largely irrelevant to many photo projects. For this reason if no other, yes, you as a photographer can charge the prices you think are fair for your work and still happily find paying clients.
This applies even more to your work if your clients want you to capture specific events and situations in their lives, with real people as the subjects in that context.
Will AI art like Midjourney’s make things harder for certain types of generic photography? Very likely it will. However, specialized, contextualized photographic work continues to command premium prices and this situation won’t go anywhere any time soon.
Quite simply, Aside from whatever AI art is or does, real photography is still a skill, and for the many people who want that skill in situations where the real thing is important, paying for it won’t disappear.
Just consider: if people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for AI art that they could make themselves at zero cost and no special tools at all, how likely is it that high-quality, skill-dependent, well-paid photography work vanishes too?
An interesting, unintentional parallel to AI-rendered art appears right in the same Mango Studio video above. The creators of the channel are sponsored by Squarespace and advertise it as their sponsor right in the video.
For those who don’t know about it, this service sells simplified, software-powered DIY website-building tools that let anyone make their own site in “just minutes”.
Squarespace has been around since way back in 2004, and in the last few years has expanded to include tools for cheaply DIYing all kinds of websites easily and with no programming skills or special tools.
It’s also far from the only such service on the market, with alternatives like Wix, Weebly and other even more niche-oriented platforms being available too.
Remind you of anything?
Despite these tools, the industry for professional web programmers is as robust as ever. In the last few years salaries in it have grown by 12% and new job openings have increased steadily year over year.
So much for software making professional practitioners redundant…
So what’s the bottom line here? Well, before you worry about Midjourney, AI-rendered photo sales and losing your prospects of a pro photography career, remember this:
AI-rendered visuals work well for certain specific contexts, and terribly for many, many others. And even in contexts where they deliver strong results, many customers still want a human touch for all kinds of reasons that are still as important as ever.
The photographic industry isn’t going anywhere, and you should absolutely keep adapting, networking and charging what you think your work, time and output are worth on the market.