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The game-changing impact of AI on the photo industry

Last week, Lightricks CEO Zeev Farbman candidly shared how AI is impacting Lightricks’ photo editing app business. For one, AI tech makes some of the work that used to require specialized software and expertise trivial, according to Farbman in last week’s interview with Axios

“It’s clearly a complete game-changer, meaning that we completely need to revisit our technological stack because it’s obsolete,” he said. “It’s true for us. It’s true for Adobe, Autodesk, any toolmaker.”

And if that’s not enough for a rude awakening when sipping your eggnog or glühwein, he foresees that Lightricks’ primary market — photo editing — will soon be a commodity.

Farbman: “Photos is almost like a solved domain, meaning pretty soon in the future, there’s not going to be a competitive advantage to anyone there.”


Any silver linings? Well, if there are any, he doesn’t offer much in this interview. Yes, over time, general purpose software could conceivably be replaced by software that’s created on the fly that would allow a specific person to do a particular task at a given moment. But that’s still way out there, albeit perhaps more doable than we might have thought, according to Farbman. And for the time being, there’s still work to be done to keep the current user base happy.

That’s it.

As someone who has been knee-deep emerged in previous major industry transformations (from film to electronic publishing, prepress, and printing; from digital to smartphone cameras; and from PC photo software to smartphone photo apps), I can only appreciate Farbman’s candor when rubbing in the level of disruption AI is bringing to the photo industry.

But let me add some context, perspectives, and recommendations.

I’ll zoom in on:

•The lessons we’ve learned from that other not so long-ago tech revolution that upended our photo industry: mobile photography

•Understanding how today’s AI tech revolution is different from when going mobile was all the rage

•One often useful model for developing a business strategy that leverages new opportunities triggered by AI 

1. Remember the mobile photography revolution? 

One message Farbman accentuates is that AI dramatically lowers the barriers to entry. Anyone with a creative idea and some programming resources can license or open-source generative AI or large language models and crank out innovative AI-powered apps. 

In that regard, today’s AI revolution is not that different from the low-barrier to entry days when the mobile app ecosystem was established 15 years ago. In those days, innovative mobile apps were able to upend desktop software, allowing nimble startups to gain market share by addressing new use cases or catering to existing use cases in more effective ways. 

These mobile-first startups put the onus on incumbents to rearchitect their tech so that they too could become part of this exciting new mobile world. The alternative being: not develop mobile solutions and simply assume this new computing platform was never going to be serious enough to matter to their customers. 

Got there too late and the space was taken…Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

So what happened in this new low-threshold mobile world? Innovative startups came to market with solutions that effectively catered to new (mostly younger) users, or to new use cases (say, social photo sharing) or existing use cases addressed in new ways (such as photobook creation on the go). What’s more, they were able to offer their apps for free or close to free (remember the days that a $2.99 perpetual license photo app was considered to be expensive)? And quite a few succeeded, were even acquired or became unicorns: they not only include Lightricks, but also Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Picsart, VSCO, and Perfect Corp. Many others thrived in profitable segments and became permanent fixtures in the photo ecosystem.

And finally, whether barely on time or simply too late, the incumbents did eventually come to the conclusion that they couldn’t stay on the sidelines and had to be part of this mobile world as well: take desktop photo editing software vendors like Adobe, various photo print product sellers, stock photography juggernauts, and even digital camera vendors (who finally mastered frictionless photo transfers with smartphones and the cloud).

But in most cases, coming late to the party came with a penalty when the newcomers had already carved out their stakes, resulting in a permanent market loss for the incumbents or – less obvious but often even more substantial – causing the incumbents to miss out on opportunities to expand their business when the mobile transformation was still in its infancy, and the landgrab was still going on.

2. How is today’s AI revolution different?

Fast forward to today’s AI revolution. We’re, of course, still super early, and the dust has certainly not settled yet, but what strikes me as dramatically different now is how fast photo industry incumbents have come to the realization that they need to incorporate AI tech to develop new features, new products, or simply to improve their existing solutions. 

While for many years after smartphone photography had already taken root, the chorus of naysayers in our photo industry was still loud and clear, most of today’s photo industry incumbents have already gotten the message – you’d better be part of this and do so fast, otherwise you’ll be a relic in no time. Take Adobe (Firefly), Google Photos (Magic Editor), Canva (Magic Edit), and visual-focused social media companies like Meta (Imagine with Meta AI), Snapchat, and TikTok. Add to that equation the stock photography players (see our recent Visual 1st The Future of Stock Photography panel), photo print-focused developers (Masterpiece AI,, PlanetArt), AI-powered photo enhancement solutions (Viesus, Let’s Enhance, EyeQ) and photo curation (Zenfolio, Mobius Labs, and the speakers in our AI Image Curation 2.0 panel at Visual 1st) – the list goes on…

What made today’s existing industry players react so fast while so many incumbents were so slow to act when smartphone photography first took off? 

For one, many of today’s players might actually still remember a thing or two from the smartphone platform shift that caused them to lose a big chunk of their business or to miss out on sizable opportunities. “This can’t happen to us again!” might be their thought.

Today’s barriers to adopting AI tech are quite low. Photo via Bria 2.0

Another factor (but again, it is still early to see it this is a long-term phenomenon), is that today’s AI-powered solutions can be offered within existing image creation, enhancing, curation, or printing products. Today’s incumbents don’t have to build new solutions for a completely new technology and sales & marketing platform, as was the case with the smartphone app platform. 

In addition, as mentioned earlier, today’s barriers to adopting AI tech are quite low. This doesn’t only provide opportunities for newcomers, but also for incumbents to relatively quickly adapt by incorporating AI into their products. 

Offering AI tech integrated inside existing products also gives incumbents a leg up to compete with emerging startups, who face the challenge of needing to attract users from scratch. In addition, the combo of generative AI with traditional photo editing features appears to get more user traction at this stage than “pure generative AI” apps that solely offer text-to-image or photo-to-image features. Examples galore: Adobe Firefly, Google Photos Magic Editor, Canva Magic Edit, Picsart Ignite, etc.

3. How to develop a successful biz strategy that leverages AI tech innovation?

As a photo product vendor, what’s the best way to develop a strategy that leverages the opportunities of AI and defends yourself from AI-powered competitors?

While there are many exercises possible to develop a forward-looking business strategy, in my executive workshops, I’ve found the good-old Ansoff matrix to be a very useful brainstorming model to come to data-driven decisions on the optimal strategies for growing your business:

The four quadrants to brainstorm on are:

•Market Penetration: focus on existing markets with more or less existing products (that might have more AI tech under the hood)

•Could you leverage AI platforms to make your products better, cheaper, more efficient, or could you product variations that add value for specific customers and warrant a higher price?

•Market Development: focus on new markets with more or less existing products (that might have more AI tech under the hood) 

•Could you leverage AI platforms to offer versions of your existing products to new markets that weren’t feasible to enter before AI?

•Product Development: focus on existing markets with new AI-powered products

•Could you leverage AI platforms to develop significantly different products to sell to your current users?

•Diversification: focus on new markets with new AI-powered products)

•Could you leverage AI platforms to expand into more lucrative markets with new products?

Obviously, each of these strategies has its pros and cons, the balance of which will differ depending on the markets you’re in, your customer’s use cases, your current or anticipated competitors, your team’s tech, your marketing, sales, and operations resources, your funding, your long-term goals – and a lot more.

But the bottom line is: The AI transformations in the tech industry at large, and our photo industry in particular, force us all to strategically think outside the box as to how to move forward with our businesses. Business as usual is not an option.


Main image generated via Adobe Firefly

Author: Hans Hartman

Hans Hartman is president of Suite 48 Analytics, the leading research and analysis firm for the mobile photography market and organizer of Mobile Visual 1st, a yearly industry conference about mobile photography.

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