Everyone Is Using Lensa's AI Photo App — Here's Why... And Why It's Contentious

Many artists worry it will undercut their livelihood.

MTL Blog, Associate Editor
​A colourful paint-style portrait. Right: Someone with futuristic designs on their face.

A colourful paint-style portrait. Right: Someone with futuristic designs on their face.

AI-generated portraits are flooding social media in Canada. If you've logged onto Instagram or Twitter lately, you've likely been hit with a deluge of fantastical photos of celebs (and plebs) in space, reimagined as fairies or posing like the Mona Lisa. Those images all stem from the Lensa app and the hype surrounding it has pushed the photo editor viral.

Lensa skyrocketed to the #1 spot on the Canadian Google Play and the App Store on December 5, advancing hundreds of places in popularity rankings in just a matter of days.

If you haven't jumped on the "magic avatar" trend yourself, you might be wondering how it works, why it's so popular, or how to get your own batch of pics. You may also want to know about the app's privacy policy or why artists are questioning the ethics of AI-made art.

Here's what you need to know about the Lensa app:

Which app is everyone using for AI portraits?

The Lensa app is a phone-based photo editor with a "magic avatar" feature that feeds user selfies into an AI generator, which in turn spits out custom images based on a user's likeness. The app has been around for a while, but the "magic avatar" feature rolled out on November 21. Since then, Lensa has surged in popularity.

Do you have to pay for Lensa avatars?

The Lensa app is free to download, but if you want your own batch of unique AI-made portraits then you have to pay up (or get a seven-day free trial).

The price for each photo batch varies, depending on how many images you want. Fifty unique avatars with five variations of ten styles cost $5.49, one hundred avatars with ten variations of ten styles cost $7.99 and 200 avatars with 20 variations of 10 styles cost $10.99.

The app attributes the price point to the "tremendous computation power" required to produce magic avatars.

How does the Lensa "magic avatar" work?

In order to get your own AI-generated portraits, you have to download the Lensa app and upload between 10 and 20 photographs. The app specifies that photos should be individual shots of the same person. Close-up selfies that show facial features, a variety of backgrounds, facial expressions and head tilts are ideal.

Users are asked to specify gender — female, male or other — which impacts what kind of prompts the AI generator is fed and which archived images it pulls from its own database to create all-new versions of your likeness.

The process takes 40 minutes on average to produce initial images, but depending on how many people are using the app, it can take a lot longer. The app does track how long you have to wait and notifies you when your photos are ready.

Why is the Lensa app so popular?

Aside from the fun (and mystery) involved in creating one-of-a-kind selfies with AI, the Lensa app's "magic avatar" feature marks a milestone in AI digital art.

Popular AI art platforms, like DALL-E and Midjourney, allow users to turn text prompts into fully-realized images, but faces are usually based on an amalgamation of facial features pulled from an online database. Most artificial intelligence generators create faces that don't actually exist, whereas the Lensa app bases its AI output on photographs of real people.

Lensa also offers a more accessible way of engaging with artificial intelligence and may be many users' first time interacting with the tech.

What is Lensa's privacy policy?

The Lensa app admits to "us[ing] your photos to train our algorithms to perform better and show you better results… we do our best to minimise the data that we receive and not to override the rights and freedoms of the users in this regard."

Some legal experts advise contacting Lensa by email (privacy@prisma-ai.com) to ensure "access to, modification, correction, update, erasure or deletion" of any personal data.

What AI does Lensa use?

The Lensa app relies on Stable Diffusion (SD), an open-source AI tool that transforms text input into new graphics. SD was trained to associate words and graphics by being fed billions of captioned images, including a lot of copyrighted material used without prior permission.

Illustrations from DeviantArt, stock images from Getty, graphics from Pinterest and photographs from Flickr, among other online sources, were referenced to power Lensa's AI tool. Creators weren't given the option about whether their work would be used for AI training and they aren't credited when AI-made digital art references their original art.

In fact, until an SD update on November 23, users could use the AI tool to mimic any artist’s style and generate entirely new art without that artist's consent.

What controversy surrounds the Lensa AI app?

Many artists have called AI-based art tools "invasive" and worry that they will undercut their livelihoods. The value of an artist's visual style could diminish with a higher art supply and faster output of their style than is humanly possible to produce.

In addition to cool portraits, the Lensa app has generated questions about how to preserve artistic integrity and ensure the future of non-AI art.

Many artists are reminding Lensa users that if you're going to enjoy AI-based tech, you should also be making a point of financially supporting your favourite artists — especially freelancers, independent creators and up-and-comers.

Sofia Misenheimer
MTL Blog, Associate Editor
Sofia Misenheimer is an award-winning writer, editor and former radio journalist with a passion for finding hidden gems in the city.
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