If you weren’t already concerned enough about AI image generators and watermark erasers, you might want to sit down to read this. The first AI food image generator has just launched online, aiming at the restaurant market to ease the friction of photographing their menu offerings.
Ai.lunchbox.io is now open to the public and restaurant market and is entirely free to use. The kneejerk reaction is one of alarm. Is this yet another attack on the working photographer’s income revenue? I thought it was worth examining this closer and really considering all aspects before you start posting your camera gear on eBay.
Statistics show that online, good photographs increase sales by around 65 to 70%. But of course, we know this, we’re photographers. CEO of Lunchbox, Nabeel Alamgir, also knows this. He told QSR Magazine that there is another problem involved, one that, as photographers, we are well aware of.
That problem is the time and money investment involved in finding a good photographer, setting up a shoot, photographing the dishes, and getting the images back swiftly. Alamgir says it took just a weekend to “fix the problem,” and create the food imaging platform.
I tried Lunchbox, out of curiosity. It’s pretty basic at the moment. I typed in ‘cheese burger’, chose the background of ‘gastro bar’, and went with ‘hipster’ for style, not really knowing what they meant by style. I’m a bit partial to a hipster-reclaimed-wood bar myself!
You can see from the results that these images probably wouldn’t quite cut it yet if we saw these on a menu. The quality is low, the resolution too low, there are some strange artifacts, and to me, the salad elements don’t look real. And is that something blue inside one of the burgers? In all, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing at the moment.
Changing up the prompt to “Cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato on a wood board” with the style “photography” did improve things a little. However, not enough that I’d actually want to eat any of these. Most of these images look like places in town I’d do my best to avoid eating at!
But we all know how quickly this technology moves forward. Give it two months, and we will most likely be seeing a huge improvement in the image quality and realism. And that perhaps could give us pause for thought.
OpenAI is going to read more and more of the internet while we’re going to condense more and more of what we think is great. That’s the thing about AI. Everyone said AI was going to go after the blue-collar jobs first, then the white collar. It’s doing the exact opposite.
– Nabeel Alamgir, CEO Lunchbox
As working photographers, we do need to be realistic. These image generators will inevitably pick away at the bottom ends of the market, particularly when it comes to commercial jobs. These are the restaurants that are using Deliveroo or Uber Eats and are required to provide images of every menu item.
These are not great gigs for photographers generally. They are poorly paid, usually involve a middle-man such as Ocus or Kodakit (when that was around), and are quite time-consuming. For the restaurants, they are a nuisance because they need to make a large quantity of food for each platform they subscribe to. They don’t own or control the images. Inevitably, a lot of time and money is wasted for both restaurant and photographer.
Award-winning food and restaurant photographer Scott Near agrees that the higher end of the market likely won’t be affected. “I don’t think it will have any impact on restaurants where the menu has been designed in-house due to the individual creativity of the chef,” he explains. “A good chef will design each dish to look as good as it tastes, with personal touches and an individual style which cannot be replicated through AI ‘guesswork’,” Scott adds.
This is a great point and one that is worth remembering. As photographers, we largely collaborate with other creative people. Chefs are artists too, and it’s that collaborative spirit that cannot be replaced by using AI-generated images.
Issues with AI food images
There is another huge problem with using AI-generated images for menus, however, and that is the food doesn’t actually exist! If we can’t trust that the food is real, are we actually going to want to eat there? Personally, I am put off by poor-quality food images, I would prefer there to be none.
And then there is the law. Yes, that pesky thing that always spoils the fun. In food advertising, at least in many countries such as the USA, you are required to actually use a real representation of the item you are selling in the image. There have already been a few instances of people launching class action lawsuits against Burger King and Macdonald’s for misrepresentation of their food in the advertisements. But of course where AI and the law is concerned, there is very little precedent. It’s very much of a Wild West grey area right now.
How to future-proof your work
So how can we future-proof our work as best we can? I would suggest going back to problem-solving mode. If you’re a restaurant shooter, target the high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants, for example. These places typically take a lot of care over their menus, they don’t change them up so frequently and so are far more likely to want to invest in fewer, higher-quality images. If a chef is offended by the idea of adding salt to a dish, they probably want custom one-of-a-kind images of their work too.
Then you need to think carefully about how you can deliver a better product faster. Is there a way you can streamline your workflow that makes the whole process more efficient? Can you shoot in such a way that you can eliminate the need for post-processing, for example?
Or perhaps you can start targeting a different type of client altogether. Go full tilt into commercial food photography, and market to ad agencies and brands that will actually still put time and budget into high-quality images.
I predict that the low end of the market will suffer with time, particularly stock images. It’s quite telling that stock image sites are already setting up AI image generators within their own stock sites. It’s obviously far quicker to tell the stock site exactly what you want than to trawl through a search hoping that somebody somewhere once took a photo that aligns with your needs.
Once again, I can only say that we are entering a time of huge shake-ups in the creative industries. However, we should remember that it’s not all doom and gloom. We shouldn’t be aiming for such low-hanging fruit. This is yet another reminder to keep being as professional as possible and keep producing as high-quality images as we can. At least for the next 6 months while the AI gets its act together 😉
What do you think? Is this yet another nail in the coffin for working photographers?