I have been freelancing as a photographer for less than a year and my first paid job was my first wedding last December. I was winging it then and I’m still winging it now but I have learnt the hard way when it comes to giving away my work for free. I’d love to give other photographers a heads up and for them to consider the negative impacts on themselves and the industry before they make the same mistakes as I did.
Unsplash is a platform for photographers to share their work and for others to download those images free of charge and with the rights to use them in whatever way they wish. The incentive for photographers is that we gain exposure, with this potentially leading to paid work and collaborations for us.
I signed up in February and after 6 months of diligently uploading and sharing my work, I didn’t get a single paid job from it. I got plenty of emails about potential work and brands asking for my rates to shoot for them, to which I always replied but not once did anybody come back to me or follow up. So are they just not interested in my work now that they have to pay for it? My images were downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and were being used by brands and blogs to promote their products and content. I was very rarely credited as the photographer and believe that I gained nothing from it besides more admin and emails to deal with.
Mislead by the high views and download numbers I continued to upload in the hope that it would lead to something good for me. Something good never came, but when brands started to take my work seriously outside of Unsplash I realised how damaging it was to have been giving away my images for free. I decided to delete my account after 6 months of uploads and with trouble as my only reward.
In one case my images were being used by a woman in the States selling presets, ( for those of you who don’t know, presets are a kind of image editing software.) She was claiming to have taken the images herself and to have edited them with her own presets, this was untrue on both counts and in my mind this constitutes false advertising. The sales figures on her Etsy gave away that she was making hundreds of thousands of dollars selling these presets using my images. When a friend was also affected by this confronted her about it, she threatened him with lawyers. This is the kind of drama that I don’t need in my life and so I simply let it slide.
There also seems to be nothing in the Unsplash licence to stop other stock photo and photo print websites from taking our images and selling them on as digital files or physical prints. They didn’t pay for the image and it wasn’t uploaded to their website initially yet they still have the right to sell it?! This is insane to me.
If we continue to allow brands and companies to think that they don’t have to pay for our work how are we ever supposed to make a living at this? It is really hard to get started as a photographer, I understand that fully. I’ve been there, and I am still there trying to make a name for myself and gain clients. We all do things for the sake of our portfolio but collaborations should benefit everyone involved. Ultimately allowing brands to use our images for free is bad for the industry. I feel awful for all of the talented upcoming photographers that are being exploited due to naivety and believing that it will lead to good things for them.
If you haven’t visited the website, I urge you to. The level of talent and high quality imagery is astounding, it is easy to use and to find exactly the type of images you’re looking for. It is great for brands and website builders who don’t want to pay for high quality free content but there is very little gain in it for the photographers who created the images.
Its hard to explain to people who don’t take photos the work and thought that goes into creating an image. I love what I do and that I get to call this my job, I travel to beautiful places and take photos of people on the happiest day of their lives but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work. It is endless days and long drives, followed by weeks of editing and admin. It’s emails about potential jobs, and the disappointment in not hearing back. It isn’t the hardest career by any means but when your work involves your creativity and your passion you really end up putting your whole life and soul into making it work. I feel like photography is my life now, and I love that, but when people question whether I work hard or its even real job its frustrating – this isn’t just a hobby. The knocks hurt more because its personal, if someone doesn’t like your images or understand the value of them then you take that to heart.
Putting a price on an image is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a photographer, there are different kinds of licence and all sort of stuff that confuses me but we have to sell our images in a way that reflects the intended use by the person buying it. If an image is going to be used to market a product then it needs to be priced to reflect that. On top of this taking that images cost us money and time. Photography equipment and travel is expensive and this also needs to be reflected when we price our work. As a community of photographers I think we need to work together to ensure that we are being paid fairly for our work and not undercutting each other. I feel that Unsplash have failed on their responsibly to protect the work of the photographers who provide them with everything that the website is built upon. They should be ensuring that brands respect the artist and credit the work that they are kindly being given, but this has been disregarded entirely.
I’m sure a bunch of you think I’m dumb for ever uploading my work in the first place but I was drawn in by the promise of “exposure,” I felt like I was a part of something and when you see your work reaching millions of people theres a bit of an ego boost in that. I hope that if that many people liked my work when it was free then there might be a few good guys out there who will still like it when it has a price tag. Like with most things in life, I learnt my lesson the hard way. Hopefully this post will save someone else from the feeling of your work not being valued, or from seeing huge corporations profiting on your art.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so get in touch if you have anything to add or if you disagree with me at all? Feel free to share this post, but just remember to tag me yeah? My friend and talented photographer Ryan also shared his thoughts on the subject after a similar experience. Take a look at his blog and work here.