The Anti-Hero Photo

Matt Schellhas
6 min readJun 23


15 minute self portrait

My last article did well! It made it to second on Hacker News! It set a new daily high with slightly over 10k views!

It’s not exactly the flood of traffic that my peers enjoy, or the sort of success that the hypesters would have you believe. Even after it was picked up by a big publication and boosted it dropped under 100 views per day a week after publication and has stayed there.

Still, I consider it a solid win.

But that’s not exactly why we’re here today. We’re here today because I broke the Cardinal Rule of the Internet: I read the comments. Honestly, most of them were good! Folks agreeing. Folks having reasonable disagreements. Folks having wildly pedantic tangents about the definition of “natural key”. It was the sort of discussion that forums would love to have in every post.

One comment in particular got me thinking though, from chefandy:

I hate to throw OT shade, but as a commercial artist, I’m gonna– the hero photo in this article shows the importance of my profession. Creating images is a lot easier than deciding how best to visually communicate an idea and conceptually manipulate the most relevant components. I probably could have made a vector drawing in 10 minutes, or a photorealistic image in photoshop in about 15 that would have done the job a million times better, and considering how much cheaper artists and designers are than developers, it probably would have been about the same labor cost if money was involved. I get it… It’s a blog post… But it’s seriously like the clipart revolution all over again, just without the guard rails provided by pre-made imagery.

Even this criticism is pretty great! It is well written. They’re self-aware enough to know that it is off-topic. There’s some solid arguments, and most importantly, those arguments are right. So why won’t I pay (visual) artists while my day job is working for a company whose mission is to get (musical) artists paid?


chefandy was right here. At time of writing, I am a Director of Engineering. I make $162k a year. This is wildly underpaid for my job, but still a ton more than most professional artists. Instead of sorting out the art myself (at $80/hr) I could send that money to a professional artist and get more hours of higher quality work. Completely reasonable argument.

The problem is that I am not making $80/hr as a writer. How much did those 10,000 views make me? About $10 that first week. It turns out, a whole lot of incognito views don’t matter much to Medium. Even though the overall views are down two orders of magnitude after publication and boosting, Medium subscriber views are up. That means the overall income of the story over the last month (as I write this on June 22) is $38.76 (before tax).

If I paid a professional artist to do my hero image, how much would that increase? It’s not one-to-one, but this research indicates about a 26% increase in engagement for their image optimization. That seems a little high, but doesn’t seem too unreasonable, so let’s go with it.

26% of $38.76 is $10.07 (before tax). That is how much a great hero image is worth to me, even though I could afford much more. After all, why would I spend $50 to make $10? Can I find a professional artist for under $10? Probably not.

Note: You could argue that the non-financial compensation for my writing (eg. the notoriety that I can use for better jobs or other opportunities) is worth a lot more than $10. Good luck with that.


Unnatural Keys didn’t take very long to write. I thought about the piece off and on for about a month. Sorting through DALL-E prompts to generate the image and get it into Medium took about 15 minutes. That is a little longer than normal, mostly because the whole “meat key” idea has a lot of opportunity for badness. Actually writing and editing and shipping the thing took another six hours over the course of a single day.

A scaled down version of the original image.

chefandy was right here too. It wouldn’t have taken me 15 minutes to describe what I wanted to a professional artist. I could have saved myself some time that could be better spent elsewhere by outsourcing the artistry to someone better. And if they had 15 minutes, they’d probably have done a better job than I did even with AI assistance.

There’s two problems with this one though.

One is that making the art and communicating requirements aren’t the only two steps in the process. I have to find an artist. We need to negotiate and agree on a price. We need to sort out licensing. We need to figure out how to actually transfer money and pay appropriate taxes. I have to approve the work. All of that takes time. Time that I can avoid by making something good enough using the free tool with acceptable licensing terms.

The other problem is that duration is only one aspect of time. The time between me deciding that I wanted a meat key for my article and it being published to the world was about 8 hours. Yes, a professional artist could make something better in 15 minutes, but could they do it in 15 minutes on May 26th with an hour or two of advance notice? I’m sure there’s some sites somewhere to facilitate such things, but the timing does limit my options significantly.


Time isn’t the only price when it comes to finding an artist, negotiating a price, sorting out licensing, and doing all of the other stuff needed. The more important cost is the motivation it takes to do all of that stuff. I have tons of money. I have a lot of time. I do not have a lot of motivation.

Writing is hard. I don’t have a lot of difficulty coming up with the right words or phrases. Unlike others, I don’t have a lot of trouble thinking of stuff to write. There’s no debilitating perfectionism that leads me to edit things without ever shipping them. My demon is simply summoning the motivation to do it.

Making writing frictionless is the primary reason why I use Medium. I don’t have to faff about with hosting or CSS or subscriptions or anything. They take care of it. All I have to do is take the idea and express it as best I can. That alone is so daunting that I only manage to do it once a month (give or take). Integrating a professional artist into the flow might produce better results, but it also might make the motivation bar too high for me to reach.

Maybe a product exists to make this whole thing fictionless and I am unaware of it (no, Fiverr and Upwork aren’t enough). Someone’s marketing department has an opportunity here. Maybe the product does not exist yet, and this is an opportunity for some startup to fill that need.

But more likely, there’s simply not the market for such a service. There aren’t enough professional artists to do the low-$$$, on-demand work and/or there aren’t enough potential customers like me who might pay for easy on-demand hand-crafted images over free, good-enough generated imagery.

Either way chefandy, I hope you found this informative and thank you for your thought provoking criticism.



Matt Schellhas

Dour, opinionated leader of software engineers.