Read This Before You Use Lensa, the AI Portrait App Everyone’s Talking About

Cartoon portraits of Katie Couric created by Lensa app


Those cool portraits might not actually be worth it when you read the fine print.

Ever wondered what you would look like as a cartoon character? What about if you were painted by Monet? Or Van Gogh?

Now you can get all of those portraits and many, many more, all for less than $10 — that is, if you’re willing to ignore some pretty major ethical red flags and privacy concerns.

Those images of Katie at the top? They weren’t painted by a portrait artist. In fact, they were computer-generated in minutes along with dozens of others, via an app that’s causing a tremendous amount of buzz. Lensa is the photo app taking the world by storm with a new AI feature that creates portraits of a person’s face in a wide range of artistic styles. But before you download this wildly popular app, read our breakdown to understand what you’re getting yourself into — and what you’re giving away permanently in exchange for a few cool pictures.

What is the Lensa app?

Lensa first launched as a photo-editing app in 2018, but only broke into the mainstream earlier this year when it released a new “magic avatars” feature. Yes, that’s what is responsible for all those cool-looking portraits of your friends and family members that you might see circulating on social media.

At the outset, the magic avatar feature offers a simple (and pretty compelling) promise: In exchange for 10 photographs of your face, it will use its neural network, called Stable Diffusion, to create a series of portraits of your face across various artistic styles. You can see what you might look like in a Warhol-esque print, or through a more abstract, impressionist lens.

Here’s an example:

For a mere $7.99 you’ll receive a whopping 50 portraits from Lensa — but there’s a pretty big catch. In fact, there are several.

Why Lensa is problematic

If you’re not a software engineer or some kind of data scientist, you probably don’t know exactly how artificial intelligence works. And truthfully, you don’t have to — all you need to know are a few simple facts in order to understand why apps like Lensa are so controversial.

Like this fact: Lensa is able to generate dozens of artistic portraits of you at the drop of a hat because of the open-source AI model that it runs upon, which generates those images because it has already analyzed (and has ongoing access to) billions of images on the internet.

Which means, simply, that Lensa can only give you those 50 authentic and original portraits because it processed — and in some ways, stole — from other visual artists.

A number of artists have spoken out against Lensa. Jon Lam, a senior storyboard artist at RIOT Games, wrote on Instagram, “Lensa uses Stable Diffusion which is still using Datasets from stolen data and ART all over the internet. This is how it knows how to mimic art styles. It’s unethical, and Big tech is behind this ripping off artists everywhere for $8 a pop.”

Lam went on, “This is what normalizing data/art thievery looks like. It’s malicious apps disguised as fun trends. If you are an artist, or truly appreciate us, Stop messing with this.”

Some people have even pointed out that you can see the mangled leftovers of actual artists’ signatures in the corners of Lensa portraits. Of course, artists aren’t receiving any payment from Lensa for this theft — and if people become increasingly accustomed to paying so little for so many portraits, it doesn’t spell good news for visual artists who try to make an actual living off of doing the same.

How Lensa could infringe upon your privacy

If you’re not convinced enough that Lensa is built upon some ethically dubious business practices, then consider this: You sign away some pretty significant rights when you accept the terms and conditions necessary to using the app.

Put as simply as possible, you are giving away the rights to your own face when you use Lensa.

That might sound alarmist, but here’s what the user agreement says: “You grant us a perpetual, revocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable, sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, create derivative works from and transfer your User content, without any additional compensation to you and always subject to your additional explicity consent for such use where required by applicable law and as stated in our privacy policy.”

What does that type of consent look like in practice, though?

For Hyper Allergic, Rhea Nayyar summarized the situation pretty efficiently: “You’re spending money to give up the rights to your face, and there doesn’t seem to be much you can do if your AI-generated selfie is incorporated into a digital advertisement for a scammy cartoon porn site or something.”

Oh, and you might want to make sure your young relatives aren’t using the app, because there are numerous reports of over-sexualization in the portraits. Women in particular claim to have submitted standard headshots to the app, only to receive actual nude images in return, or versions of themselves in seductive poses with massive breasts.

Beyond all of that weirdness, there’s something else you’re doing when you give your portrait to Lensa: You’re helping train the AI to make it smarter, faster, more efficient, and better at scanning images across the internet. Some argue that this is a kind of complicity you should seriously consider before using the app. Others would argue that plenty of companies steal our data already — and this new photo app isn’t all that different from the social media networks you’re currently using.

At the very least, you now have the info necessary to make an informed decision — and maybe next time you pass an artist’s booth at your local farmer’s market, you can ask them to whip up a portrait of you instead.