Are Free Images Destroying the Professional Photographer?

Are Free Images Destroying the Professional Photographer?




A recent article in PDN noted that Unsplash is a big business now giving away the work of many great photographers for free. There is absolutely no licensing needed when you download in image from Unsplash.

Their prognosis is that Unsplash and sites like them are wrecking the business for photographers who want to be paid for their work. This is of course a valid concern and it needs to be considered.

I am a bit on the fence here. I do not think it is destroying photography as a business, but it most definitely presents some moral and ethical challenges for all of us in the creative business.

Unsplash is owned by CREW – a design and digital production house that most definitely does NOT give their work away. They are a high end house, and get good money for their work. They are also not giving away design, illustration, music, written word, podcast content, digital art, logos, fonts, or business graphics.

Only Photography.

To me this is disturbing for several reasons (which I will cover), and yet I can also understand that it is merely a symptom of what we as a society value. And the wide traverse between top level photography and the mass of imagery that is available out in the digital world.

Apple touts the camera in their iPhone as being a professional piece of gear.

Many photographers are of course outraged. And many are all on board with the Unsplash model of community.

Let’s look at some of the reasons given by both sides.

After we allow Apple – one of the largest brands in the world – show us why they don’t think professionals are needed for every kind of gig.

Those who know me know that I am always looking at ways to market photography. My sole goal is to make photographers successful and I have done a pretty good job with Project 52 Pro and Find Photo Clients Now. I have dozens and dozens of photographers who have passed through my programs and are now working.

You may also know that (currently) I do not hate Unsplash. I also do not contribute to Unsplash.

At this point, I do not think it is killing the business and here are three reasons why.

  1. The images, while very good, are generic. Stock in a way. Not specific to a brand or shot in such a way that reinforces a brand. Although it is possible to grab and image that already fits a brand – or tweak an image that sorta-kinda works.
  2. The images come with no release, and no ‘paperwork’ so it may be buyer beware as to model and location releases. Yes, I do believe they ask up front when the photographers upload. And I also know that photographers, being mostly people, lie. We are all too aware of that to think it doesn’t happen. Any major company may be risking a lot since Unsplash covered their ass by asking, and the photographers may not have much in assets… sue the money guy!
  3. The images that I notice on there range from something it may take a few minutes to create (backlit flower, sunset) to images that would be super expensive to assign. (“I want you to go the Himalayas and get a sunset shot of a model doing yoga in silhouette for my local Omaha yoga blog. Can I get that for $200?”) Is it killing the assignment photography business? I am not persuaded, but it may be damaging the stock business. Oh wait… already mostly dead thanks to big corporations and stock agency power grabs back in the 90’s.

However, I am very troubled by the perceived value that is being attached to some of these wonderful images. While many of them are not that spectacularly special, some of them are indeed awesome. And yet those images get lumped into the ‘free is free’ valuation.

Nothing that is free is valued. It just isn’t. Nothing that is free will ever carry much value. Nothing that is easy and free will be of any worth at all.

Where photographers will keep their niche is in providing excellent work, on call, on point, on brand, and deliver far more than someone with an iPhone can deliver. Although that barber shop kid was pretty good.

Does giving away a few of your photographs hurt the business? (We can ask if putting your work on iStock for $12 did much for it, or the thousands of images Getty gives away for a subscription of a few bucks a month. Yeah, it is money, but the incredible drop in value was stunning and what – really – did we expect was going to happen?)

I am not sure it does. I have to look at it from the value you receive. Some would say not much, others use it as a long term marketing system designed to build awareness. A few seem to be doing well. (Kind of like life, eh?)

The problem with that approach is that it is way difficult and most people do nothing with the opportunity. To have awareness work, you have to work a system designed to magnify that awareness. And it is hard, and it takes time.

But some manage to do it just fine.

The biggest problem that I have with Unsplash is their manifesto claiming some sort of god-mandated right for photography to be free. Design isn’t free. Code isn’t free. CREW isn’t free.

However, when I was speaking to Rosh Sillars about this article, he and I agreed it may be a bit generational. Lots of young people see the ‘free’ thing as simply a way of life and they seem to be working around it. I also spoke with LaRae Lobdell and her feeling was that the manifesto was so poorly articulated from the perspective of a creative that she was immediately turned off.

Getting people to see your work is hard. Even online where hit counts for photographers websites are simply not high enough to even rank most of the time. If Unsplash can deliver hits, that not only ups the SEO PR, but it may deliver clients and interested buyers.

So we have the tradeoff. Photographers can indeed be very successful with gaining a ton of traffic from these sort of freebie sites, and that can turn into real assignment work with real money down the road.

My worry is that the value of the work will be baselined at ‘free’, so even a hugely discounted rate for a professional shoot would seem premium when all they had to do was download an image before.

On the other hand, I also see the immense value in creating more visibility and community. My feelings on the value of the image aside, the value of visibility, access, and virality cannot be ignored.

So many questions… But – just as in contemporary politics – those who align on either side do so with a commitment to principle. So changing anyone’s mind ain’t gonna happen.



“Unsplash isn’t helping the photographers sell the photos or even promote their work. To me it seems like they’re on a path to make everyone believe they don’t have to pay for photography anymore. Every day I see Unsplash photos being used and abused literally everywhere.”


“Yes, it’s finally happened. A “photo community” is asking contributors to go ahead and give up all rights to their images, including for commercial use. Unsplash, which aggregates photos “gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers,” has written truly jaw-dropping Terms that encourage photographers to let anyone use their images for no fee.”

Samuel Zeller

“My photography keep improving, more people stumble on my work and I’ve got more contacts, more projects, and clients than before.”


Linkedin Article by Kevin Chong

“To succeed, you not only have to be good at what you do, you need to know how to market your work too. And here, I have a top tip for Ms Boguslawska. It’s not a bad thing to give away something of value. That is marketing. And it’s actually quite good marketing, if you do it right.”

Mitchel Linsink

“As a creative in the digital world, you are constantly cautious about where you post your work and what happens with it. It’s very easy to just take somebodies work and neglect the rights of the creator. I am not saying you should stop caring about people stealing your work, but Unsplash provided me with a very important realization: I am not selling my work, I am selling my skills. The photos I put up on Unsplash is not the work I feel doesn’t ‘deserve’ to be sold but rather photos I actually consider to be one of my best.”


“Out of the gate, as a professional photographer, this totally bums me out. I don’t need any more photographers offering up their services for FREE!”

“I am very upset at the self-serving way the manifesto is written. It is not something I would want to be involved with.” LaRae Lobdell

Photographer, LaRae Lobdell Photography

The only way a photographer is going to keep ahead of the technology is to focus on his/her brand and create images within that brand. Rosh Sillars

Photographer, Rosh Sillars Photography

Freelancer? Available to hire? Tell people! — Add that to your profile. We’ve heard from photographers who have received paid work as a direct result of their Unsplash profile (I’ve had approaches myself through mine). Annie Spratt

Community Builder, Unsplash

This post isn’t really about Unsplash. It’s about any good opportunity for a something that helps you’re site rank in a way that doesn’t steal your soul. I like Unsplash a lot, so I was excited to look at the data. Mathew Deal

Author, Mathew Deal


“Some thoughts on free.

I think the question of whether it devalues photography is largely irrelevant today. When I first joined an online photography community – – back in 2001 or so, one of the frequent discussions then was the devaluation of imagery as the royalty free stock model came into play. Discussions were always that photographers should only do rights managed because RF devalues the image. License fees under RM might be hundreds or thousands or more per image. With RF, they’d generally be under $100. Then microstock came along, and the discussion of devaluing continued as microstock offered 50 cent images. That was more than a decade ago. Add on Flickr with the Creative Commons model, and I think things were pretty much set years ago. The current free discussion is not really any different, it’s just that buyers have had years of access to extremely cheap stock photography now, whereas when RF, microstock etc were starting cheap digital stock was new. Now it’s not. All the discussion in the world is not going to change that.

I recently tagged a local startup run by a brother and sister team. I’ve met the sister briefly, and like what they do. She asked me if they could use one of the photos and I said yes. At the same time, I’d been discussing a collaborative personal shoot with her which we’ll do in a couple of weeks. Now it’s extremely unlikely that this company will ever be a big enough company to need a lot of imagery. They can probably make enough to make a living but they’re too niche to really grow in the market and location they’re in. So I don’t mind letting them have shots that are 100% my creative ideas because I can turn around and use that as my own marketing to offer ideas to the larger market throughout SE Asia. That’s a win-win in my book.

So much of what I’m hired to shoot is someone else’s idea. Editorial gives some leeway for my own creativity but I often have no control over location or subject. But letting select people have free images when the creative is completely my idea benefits me. Now, it’s not just my website and social followers that will see them, it’s everyone connected to the people I’m giving imagery to. The key is that I’m shooting what I want to shoot. I’m not going and shooting someone else’s creative ideas unless it’s a true collaboration where we’re brainstorming ideas together.”


Craig was recently profiled on Lighting Essentials. You can read his interview here.


What do photographers think about


“I’m not a professional photographer, but I’ve shared some of my photos hoping to be noticed. For photographers, I think, is a good platform to show some examples of their own work, but obviously not the right place to get a direct income.”


What is Unsplash and Why You Might Like It


“What makes Unsplash a particularly attractive sharing platform is the lack of incentives for gaming the system. The design of the traditional photo sharing services invites users to exploit the system to get more attention and followers.”


Why Unslplash is Hurting Photographers


“I don’t mind a utopian world where everything is free and everyone loves what they do. Our world is far from that and photographers, as well as designers, painters, web developers etc. have to earn money with their creativity, often striving with demanding and stingy clients.”


Is it safe to use unsplash images?


“Yes, it’s possible someone uploads a stolen photo to Unsplash. Just as it’s possible they upload a photo without a proper model release or property release. Or a forged release. “



Musicians make little to no money with recorded and archived music (library).

“An independent label with a Spotify deal like Mode’s wouldn’t even earn a penny from someone streaming a movement of that symphony. Less than a penny, because it’s $0.006 for a stream! In fact, it’s $0.024 for the entire symphony. But with downloads you would have to buy the entire album for a relatively fair price. The ones profiting from all this, aside from the consumers, are those who offer these platforms for accessing music for cheap. And people don’t think about that, they don’t see anything wrong with it. These huge companies get a free pass from the general public, they appear beyond reproach.”

— Brian Brandt, discussing the real challenge of streaming music: the fact that the musicians do not get enough money to make more music. Read the article here; Cannibalization.

So modern musicians have had to find other ways to make their money. Concerts, teaching, creating music for film, indie recordings, playing live.

Alternative channels.

The recorded music is now basically given away in order to build an audience willing to shell out $75 for a live venue show.

Youtube artists know and understand this so well. YT celebrities like Peter Hollens, Lindsey Stirling, and Nick Pitera know that building an audience is more important than signing with a label. So they focus on the giving away of their music in hopes that a portion of their fans will indeed purchase the music from them.

“Violinist extraordinaire Lindsey Stirling is YouTube’s top-earning musician, raking in an estimated $6 million in the 12 months ending in June, according to a Forbes list of the video site’s highest paid stars.”
Billboard (2015 – she is worth even more now)

Stirling doesn’t have a label. Stirling doesn’t have recordings in music stores. She makes music on Youtube and then sells it independently to those who enjoy the work.

Would photographers be able to copy this trend?

Yes. Possibly.

While there are indeed similarities in the creative / product, the main difference is in the use. Usage of the image after it is created is the only way a photographer can monetize that specific image. But if there were a way to monetize the aggregate, then it would be possible to create a new and different business model based on the visibility of the images and how they can drive non-generic commissions.

In other words, a beach is a beach is a beach – until you make it a specific beach with specific qualities set to expand the reach of a specific brand. And that brand may know you are the best beach shooter for them because you have engaged them for the past year with your awesome beach shots.


In the old model, a small group of photographers had to fight to get through the gatekeepers (institutional and literal) to show their work to the small group of clients who would be in a position to hire them. There were only a few ways to do it; show up in person, send direct mail (expensive), purchase a page in a workbook (very expensive). Getting through the assistants, and secretaries, and phone messages meant that only a few of the photographers ever finally made it to the pristine office of the great buyer.

In the new model, photographers create work that draws clients to them. There is no gateway going out, so art directors, art buyers, designers, and marketers can go in search of photography and photographers that inspire them. The key for the photographer now is to make sure their photographs are in the same places the art directors are looking.

Instagram, Behance, Unsplash and more. Art directors go to those places – they do. You know they do.

And perhaps the photographers with some visual authority there carry more weight with those viewing the work.

At least I would think so.

People like Chris Burkard, Casey Neistat, and Gary Vaynerchuk know the power of being visible and being in front of as many people as possible. It translates into commissions, notoriety, and channels of income not able to be monetized without that visibility.

So in the end, I don’t know if it works to give stuff away. I can say that there are some pretty big players in the game doing just that. And I also know there are no Clint Eastwood films on Netflix. So both sides have a valid argument.

But the truth – as I see it – is that if you are not going to play the visibility game, you are sure as hell going to have to do the hard work of outreach marketing (3-5 calls a day, due diligence with mailers, email campaigns, contest involvement – whatever) because you are still dealing with those same gatekeepers as above.

it is a choice, and there is no easy answer. Choose wisely.

Have you wanted to take a look at the Project 52 workshop without committing for a year?

Well here is your chance. An 8 Week Project 52 Pro Membership is ready for you to get into - NOW. And it is the full deal. All of the resources, assignments, reviews, webinars and more are there for you to work with. This is NOT a truncated offer, but a full opportunity for you to take advantage of the most unique photographic workshop on the internet.

Real-world assignments, with art direction, layouts, brand ID info and more. This is shooting just like a commercial photographer in any city shoots. And it is an introduction to a lot of different genres, styles, challenges, and subject matter.


Three Ideas Thursday: June 8

Three Ideas Thursday: June 8

1. Partner with an up and coming graphic designer or PR firm. Connect at meetups for creatives and see if there is any synergy there. Find someone who has a similar vision and create a double hit agency to allow you to sell the graphics and them to sell the photography. Keep the partnership very loose – you can continue to shoot for anyone and they can design and use anyone – but together you may have a possible power partnership which allows for both of you to double your reach.
Six contacts per day… heh.
2. Calendar in your portfolio shoots. If it is not on the calendar it is not real. If it is not on the calendar it is easy to forget. Schedule it in because it is as important as anything else you do.
And honestly, not working on your portfolio is one of the most dangerous things we photographers can do. It stunts us, demoralizes us, and can create a sort of ‘depression’. Many of the times I have a creative block is right at the end of a time when I wasn’t able to shoot as much as I wanted.
So create a little savings account – or a coffee tin, whatever – and stash some money aside for props, travel or what is needed and shoot for your portfolio. Not having some cash saved for the shoot is just another form of resistance.
3. Challenge yourself to a one hour “creative” shoot that is constrained by that limitation. For instance, if you are a landscape shooter, choose a place and time and head on out. You have one hour to make images that rock. ONE HOUR.
Still life shooters can pick up a stack of rocks or sea shells or flowers – get the lights on stands if you are using them – and then go. ONE HOUR.
This can work with portrait photographers, architectural shooters… really anyone.
The key is the One Hour time period. It seems like a long time but it really isn’t. And watching that clock ticking down can really put the stress on you.
Now edit the photographs to see how many “keepers” you got. Hopefully more than one – but one is a win.
Do this once per month. Have your spouse or kids choose the subject. Put subjects in a bag and pull them out randomly. Have fun with it.
For 60 minutes…
Charge What It’s Worth… Or Shoot it For Free

Charge What It’s Worth… Or Shoot it For Free

A gift is a gift. If you want to gift your photography, I have nothing to say about it. Your right and good for you for gifting your gift.

When you pull the plug on pricing, you bring everyone else down as well, and mostly you hurt yourself worse than anyone. If you lowball the hell out of something, you will never get what it is worth… ever. Because you already set your price for that work. And clients don’t like it when your price goes up.

Best of Project 52: May 14th, 2017 Edition

Best of Project 52: May 14th, 2017 Edition

A new ongoing feature on Lighting Essentials; Best of Project 52.

Project 52 has so many wonderful images posted each week and I want to feature the best of the best here for you to enjoy. Whether it is portraiture, product, still life, food or conceptual imagery, the photographers of Project 52 continue to impress me with a high technical expertise and spot on acumen for the genres they have chosen.

For more information, see the Project 52 Pro home page.

Te keep up with all of the new videos being created for you guys, check out my Youtube channel here… and hit that subscribe button please.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Eight; “Photography is Jazz With a Camera”

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Eight; “Photography is Jazz With a Camera”

[ REPOST FROM 2014. ]

JAZZ… with a camera.

Let’s start out by saying I love jazz. I love the swing, the blues, the instruments and most of all the improvisation of jazz. I listen to all kinds of music as well, from Opera to Country, but jazz is where I return to get my juices going.

Artists like Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Pharoah Sanders, Cannonball Adderly, Miles, ‘Trane, Monk, and Duke are mixed in with more modern players and some rather obscure tunes from the “free jazz” movement.

At the basis of jazz is improvisation. This is where one of the players is featured playing a melody over the rest of the band who may be playing a simple background. In most situations, this melodic tune is improvised… made up on the spot. The player may be reacting to something that was happening in the rhythm section, or responding to the chord changes with a free flowing melodic interpretation of the original tune.

There is usually an original tune. The whole band will play that in a practiced, orchestrated manner… then the “jazz” takes over when the soloist goes out to play his lines.

I think that is just what happens when we make photographs. The photographer is the soloist once the base (background/ambience) has been established.

A few rules apply to being able to know how to solo.

The first of which is you must know your instrument so well, that you are not thinking about how to play it, you are only thinking about the music coming forth from it. The actual operation of the instrument is now so second nature that you are hearing the music around you, and simply adding your voice.

Being a photographer means knowing that camera so well, that the operational struggles are far behind you and all that is being thought about is the image. What you need to do to make that image should come nearly second nature to you.

Aperture / shutter speed / ISO – it is all related to the creation of what you see in your head, and it simply should flow from fingers to camera to vision.

When I meet photographers who do not know the reciprocals, or how to light for beauty or which lenses do what, I know they are not ready to solo yet.

A Quick Test

You should be able to answer these questions instantly:

1. ISO 100 is how many stops different from ISO 650?

2. If the ambient light is f5.6 @ 1/250th, what would the strobe have to be giving to be one stop brighter than the ambient?

3. In a dark studio with a flash, which shutter speed will freeze the hair more? A=1/200 / B=1/60 / C=Not Applicable

4. What is the Sunny 16 Rule?

5. According to the Inverse Square Law, would we get twice as much light when placed at half the distance to the subject or 4 times as much light?

6. If you have an exposure reading of f5.6 @1/500 at ISO 400 – which of the following is a reciprocal value of that reading? A – f11 @ 1/60 at ISO 400? B – f4 @ 1/500 at ISO 200? C – f8 @ 1/2000 at ISO 800?

In a dark and noisy room, can you quickly – without looking – make these changes to your setting? 1. Change ISO? 2. Change Shutter Speed? 3. Change Aperture? 4. Format a card? 5. Change from Aperture Value to Manual?

Quick… does your lens turn counter clockwise or clockwise to focus from close to infinity? There are more… but you get the idea.


1. 2 2/3 stops faster.

2. f8

3. C Not Applicable. The hair will be lit by the strobe duration which is much faster than either of the shutter speeds.

4. Sunny 16 rule is F16 at 1/ISO for shutter speed. Side light open one stop – f11 Back lit open two stops – f8 – f5.6 depending on bounce from ambient.

5. 4 Times more light (two stops)

6. B – f4 @ 1/250 ISO 200

Thanks for playing… heh.

And soloing is where it is at, friends.

Being so confident in your gear that you forget all the operational buttons and switches and thinking about this or that or somethign else… you just create. Making the images you love because you are totally focused on that instead of being distracted by trying to figure out what ISO you should be using (reciprocals will help with that).

Imagine how difficult it would be to start to make up something in your head to play right now, while trying to remember the fingering for the GMajor scale… impossible.

Now imagine you are shooting a location shot and the shadows are coming up too deep. Do you know how deep they are coming up? Do you know how to fix them – fast? Will a shiny board be too much, or a white board be too little? Would a second flash create more highlights than you want or is there another solution? There are many solutions, you know.

Knowing what each one does, quickly, is jazz with lighting.

Improvising. It is one of the most important traits of a commercial photographer. Why – because things rarely go as planned.

We all know about backups and backups for the backups… you don’t go out with only four extra AA’s, right? We have backups that backup the backups on some gigs.

Extra lights, extra flashtubes, extra stands*, extra sandbags… everything in mutliples.

But the most important thing we have for backup is between our ears – the talent we have with a camera, the knowledge we have of the craft we work in, and the ability to spin on a dime and give change. THAT is what multiple backups are about.

Thinking of possibilities, seeing challenges instantly, and starting to work on how to fix them before anyone else even thinks about them. Keeping a crew motivated in 115 degree heat, while shooting under a dark cloth, and having the background slowly move to shadow because the AD couldn’t make up their mind in time for the shoot to be done in the frame you had… dancing like a fool to keep it all together.

That’s jazz, man.

Shooting a headshot and changing the angle of the light because it brings out the subjects eyes more, or creates a wonderful shine on the side of her hair, while instantly knowing that now you need more fill from the bottom pull up the card, and bring in the shiny board for some more bounce from behind… and all of this happening while you are working with the model, giving directions to both her and the crew and finding those moments where she looks great… click… click…

That’s jazz, baby!

And when the shoot is wrapped, and the AD is ecstatic, you ask for another chorus… just a bit more time to loosen up, slide outside of the chords and play in some registers that don’t get much attention. Move the light, swing in the boom… a chorus of changes happening right before your eyes… experimenting with the light, pushing the boundaries of composition, MAKING something new and so outside of the box that there ain’t no box… I don’t see no box… shut up about the box.

Yeah… that’s jazz too.

So how are you going to prepare to get to that solo? Some tips:

  1. LEARN to use that camera and KNOW how to do it with your eyes closed.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Experiment. Once you KNOW you have the shot, try new and wild things… or even new and mild things. But step out and try something different… and if it works, you now have what jazz cats call a ‘riff’ you can spring when you need it.
  4. Work on your visual style with every shoot you do.
  5. If you do not have a visual style, ask yourself why not and look back at your work to see if one is beginning to appear.
  6. Push everyone around you to be the best they can be. Push yourself twice as hard.
  7. Improvise on a theme. Using a model friend, a bud, or some great props, play with the light. Build upon your knowledge… this is improvisation in the practice room. Safe.
  8. USE what you find is useful. Never remain inside the box others have built for you.
  9. “Stretch out”… what we call it when the soloist takes more than a couple of choruses… similar to improvising on a theme, this is more long form… a subject, story, journal.
  10. Inspire yourself with art you may not see or listen to often. Do not become encapsulated in one thing. Listen to all kinds of music, view all kinds of art and photography – EVEN, no ESPECIALLY if you don’t like it or understand it. Inspiration comes from such explorations… it really does.

Some of my faves include:

I listen to this when I am editing… Love this album.
The music you hear is totally and completely improvised on the spot.

And this classic Miles tune… it set the tone for a decade of new jazz

Music is one of the main inspirations I have in photography. I hope you will think of music and photography in a new way now as well.

*I should note that there is no such term as “too many stands”. One will always need one more stand than one has at any given time on any given set. It’s science, don’t argue.

One Image: One Vision

One Image: One Vision

Here is our first “One Image / One Vision” online sharing meet.

Each photographer has chosen a favorite image and will have a few minutes to discuss it. Helpful and positive feedback is encouraged.

Our photographs: