Towards a Classification of Midjourney’s Uncanny Valley

July 4, 2023 Generative AI Photography Aesthetics Midjourney Hyperrealism

I get lots of ads from the British fashion brand Sheep Inc., which makes colorful but otherwise minimalist unisex clothing1. That’s why I couldn’t help but notice that the company’s just-launched summer campaign is styled like the results of a Midjourney prompt:

Image courtesy of Sheep Inc.Image courtesy of Sheep Inc.

Image courtesy of Sheep Inc.Image courtesy of Sheep Inc.

All the hallmarks are there: Slightly oversaturated colors and perfect shadow details, hyperreal people with somewhat plastic-y skin, hair that falls just so. I’m not sure if these images are in fact AI generated (my hunch is that they are and that the advertised clothing was added in post), but the style is bang-on. If someone did style these, they went straight for the uncanny valley that makes AI-generated photos so compelling and so, so odd.

Image courtesy of Sheep Inc.Image courtesy of Sheep Inc.

I believe what we’re seeing is the mainstreaming of that particular AI aesthetic, which is a remarkable thing: Just half a year ago, generators like Dall-E barely managed to create credible images, these days, they generate viral bits of pop culture. Meanwhile, the aesthetic has become so familiar that it resonates; to a degree that fashion brands are jumping on the bandwagon..

Of course, there’s still something deeply weird here: It’s all so real that it registers as fake. The technology has shed many of the problems that made early2 image obviously wrong, such as twisted limbs and warped fingers, but there are still marquee signs that we’re looking at piece of AI generated art.

I thought it would be useful to keep a list. Here’s my WIP record of telltale signs that an image is AI-generated—or styled to look as such.

  1. Overly Perfect Skin: AI-generated people often have skin that looks like a glazed donut”, or at least perfectly uniform and unblemished.
  2. Puffy Lips: Maybe lips are the new fingers, but there’s a real sense that AI overemphasizes the fullness of lips.
  3. Hyperrealism: Nothing’s that perfect, from the pastel-colored fireworks to the reflective balloons, to fireflies that aesthetically blink in the background.
  4. Shadow Details: AI images almost never have dramatic midday lighting, more often than not each pixel is perfectly lit and reveals some kind of details.
  5. Uniform Grain.
  6. Objects, objects, objects: AI loves populating the background of an image with an overwhelming surplus of props, from the above-mentioned balloons to sparkly lights, but also flowers, animals, and other repeating objects. This is often because the prompt featured a specific item, which the AI then repeats.
  7. Absurd Juxtapositions: People or objects in strange places is where AI excels—because it doesn’t have to deal with the limits of a regular photo shoot. Think models inside bodies of water, on icy plains, or mountains.
  8. Bulging Fabrics: Clothing and fabrics look silky smooth, perfectly ironed, almost like they’re glowing from the inside.

I keep thinking that this list—as incomplete as it may be—could just as well serve as instruction manual for creating photography in the style of AI. If that’s truly what the art directors of Sheep Inc have done, then I’m definitely impressed.

  1. What can I say, the algorithm knows me well. 🤷🏼‍♂️↩︎

  2. And by that I mean half a year ago.↩︎

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