Licensing Images For Free Usage: Why Thousands of Photographers Are Choosing Exposure Over Money

Licensing Images For Free Usage: Why Thousands of Photographers Are Choosing Exposure Over Money

Unsplash is a photo community site where users can upload high-res images, making them available for free, public use (including commercial use), with thousands of photographers now contributing. One user, whose most popular works on the site are reaching over 12 million views, explains why he’s ditching Instagram in favor of the licensing platform.

Let’s cut straight to the numbers. Unsplash, whose caption is "Beautiful Free Images", launched in 2013, first hitting one million total downloads a mere four months later. A year after launch, they were averaging one million downloads per month. As of writing, the site boasts 392,000 high resolution images, amassed from 65,000 contributing photographers. In the last month alone, 2,400 new users have signed up, sharing 25,000 images between them.

Samuel Zeller's top viewed photos on Unsplash

The photographer I spoke with, Samuel Zeller, tells me he now favors Unsplash to other social media platforms such as Instagram. His profile and images on Unsplash receive a collective 21 million views per month – that’s 677,000 per day. As for actual downloads, his photos amass some 93,000 each month. Zeller speaks of the direct result it has on his social media accounts, where he receives frequent @mentions and backlinks to his website. Regardless of your thoughts on free image licensing, these figures are seriously impressive, and undoubtedly generate a much higher reach than the average photographer’s Instagram account.

Zeller stresses that the majority of the images he uploads were otherwise redundant. By uploading them to Unsplash, he says he “chose to turn what was idle on my hard-drive into a useful resource for other creatives,” while gaining exposure in the process. He says that one of his most noteworthy paid jobs – for one of Switzerland’s biggest banks, which included four different projects – was initiated after the client found his work on Unsplash.

The question is, is this kind of exposure and risk worth sacrificing a hefty payday? Let's not forget the photographer who licensed his image for free commercial use and made $100,000 less than his peer. With individual images being downloaded thousands of times, are the photographers ever gaining back what they're potentially losing?

This articles draws on Photographer Samuel Zeller’s original write-up, where he discusses in greater depth the issue of social networks and why he ultimately prefers Unsplash. He has kindly granted permission for his images and screenshots to be used here.

This article is not a sponsored post and is in no way in conjunction with Unsplash.

[via Medium]

Jack Alexander's picture

A 28-year-old self-taught photographer, Jack Alexander specialises in intimate portraits with musicians, actors, and models.

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Wow, that's definitely a hard one.
I'm not sure I could really put my pictures out there for free.
On the other hand, people steal them anyway.
Maybe it's worth to try it with images that I anyway don't use otherwise.
We'll see! the numbers seem to be impressive though!

I'm really torn on it. I'm a portrait photographer but I know I have some landscape images sitting on my hard drive, taking up space and serving no purpose. If there's a chance some good could come from it, maybe it's worth uploading them. The numbers are definitely impressive!

Perhaps one option to consider would be to contribute to the Open Source Software community. For example, at the moment, the Fedora project has opened submissions for Supplemental Wallpapers ahead of the release of Fedora 28.

Yet another example of why our earning ability in this industry is declining.

I get that photography/video is changing and we likely haven't changed fast enough to continue taking advantage of the compensation pool that's still available. We aren't the only ones as end-users. Canon recently admitted not keeping up with the times...losing business to Sony, Panasonic etc.

However, giving away your quality work en mass...for free is a quick way to get your house foreclosed on and your vehicle and gear repossessed. Doctors don't give you free treatment for exposure. Lawyers don't give you free representation (generally) and even tho those industries have seen large changes most professionals in those lines of industry seem to be doing just fine. A doctor on my cottage lake recently told me something very interesting..."if you allow yourself to be devalued, you will never regain what your services are worth". He pays me full price for my work by the way.

The question that should be asked of your subject is...what revenue did he/she gain as a result of this so-called free exposure. Was it in excess of what the work given away was worth...I'm gonna guess not.

Photographer and author of this article here.

The "compensation" pool as you call it is still very much there. In fact, the need for professional photographers is higher than ever, as all big brands now have a social media presence they do need more visual content.

Giving a small fraction of your work for free is great advertising for your paid work. Think of a hairdresser doing free haircuts for homeless people (it happened before twice, and both got a TON amount of press) or a doctor giving free teaching every Friday for an hour to medical students.

But you probably didn't read the original article on Medium, so you probably didn't realized that I landed one of my biggest clients by so-called "giving away my quality work en mass".

Not only I get more referrals and visitors on my portfolio but I'm also finishing my first book (published by an editor in London), I'm doing exhibitions, talks and selling fine art prints nearly every month + I'm working for good clients as a full-time freelance photographer.

Unsplash is just another tool in how I market myself online, and it's way better than what I can do on Instagram (even if I got 16.6k followers on my main account and 52.4k on Fujifeed, another account that I'm running). So far, I've landed more jobs and gained more money because of the exposure I got on Unsplash than what I got on Instagram.

The reality is that there's a lot of ways for photographers to gather clients, sending printed promos, using social media, doing talks etc... It may seem that Unsplash is just what I use, but it's not the case. It's a bonus.

Still not there...I hear ya on the whole "giving away or giving back" thing. I often shoot portraits for people starting out etc and lot's of favours. My Doctor neighbour reset my shoulder when I dislocated it off the jet-ski...for free.

There is an entirely bigger difference between giving others access to your better work for free. I've been on both sides and art. If you give someone free work the chances of them hiring you for paid work is pretty slim. We are a "taking" culture, hence all the stolen photos on IG and other social media platforms...some of which is done by big brands who should know better.

The only way this thing would be worth it as something other than a personal ego stroke is if one free image got you an equal or greater paid assignment. Otherwise I would rather spend my efforts elsewhere...improving my craft, soliciting new business...spending time with loved ones etc.

If you are a guy I always this by your wife or mother. Chances are if it sounds like a waste of time to them, it probably is.

I made over 50% of my profit from last year due to a client who found me on Unsplash. Not so bad for a few minutes each week uploading new images. Not to mention I can now list that client on my website, and that it clearly improved my craft.

I'm not giving others access to my better work, my best work is a book (2.5 years of work), it's exhibitions, it's prints that I shipped pretty much everywhere (from Australia to Canada). I'm just sharing my day to day images (and sorry if they're not just snapshots but good photographs) on Unsplash and it's bringing me much more than sharing them on Instagram or Facebook.

Note, you should really read the orginal article and understand that one of the reason I do this is also to leave a mark for when I'm gone. My father wholeheartedly supported my project and the fact I used Unsplash long before he passed away.

You're thinking that photography must be related to money, but it's not. The reason why I'm a freelance photographer today and not a senior designer anymore (used to be, worked 7 years in the field) is because I have a passion for photography. And that's worth way more than anything that money could bring me.

Uploading on Unsplash isn't an effort for me, it's a pleasure.

I made 100% of my income from day one as a professional with direct bookings. Not by giving anything away for exposure.

It's nice that it works that way for you and I'll never come between anyone and their money-making. I'm just saying that it's a very slippery slope. Most people who need professional photography services are well aware that it costs us in terms of time, education and other resources. Someone who lives on free work will never be a reliable paying customer/client.

I started from day one working for Monocle magazine in january 2016, it was my first client (I landed them by sending them postcards). Today in january 2018 I'm still working for them, on even bigger projects. Unsplash is just another way to increase my reach to clients outside of Europe. It's not a slippery slope, it's just a different kind of marketing.

You started photography just 2 years ago and you are bragging about how successful you are? That's way too short of time to actually know if your business model is going to work for the long haul.

Unsplash isn't my business model. And yes after two years I've got enough clients to make a living in Switzerland. Of course it's not as good as when I was working as a designer but I'm definitely more happy.

Perhaps a better way to look at it is that people like doing stuff that feels meaningful to them. There's a great piece on this here -

Your comparison to charitable work is disgusting. Helping those in need is the point, not doing it as advertising. If you are so self-centered that you don't understand the purpose of doing good, I certainly can't respect you or see any merit as a person. It's clearly a,waste of time to discuss ethics with you.

Another explanation from the point of someone working in agency

"However, giving away your quality work en mass...for free is a quick way to get your house foreclosed on and your vehicle and gear repossessed."

Don't live above your means. If showing some works for free gets your gear repossessed, you deserved it. Don't pay for gear with a credit card, especially if you don't know how long it will take to make that money back. What are people doing on Instagram or Facebook? Its all about getting attention. If offering a few pieces of your content causes you to loose it all, you were not that great to begin with.

Hey I agree. I do not live on debt personally or professionally. The only thing on my liabilities column is a VERY small mortgage on a condo.

In these difficult times it would be hard to expect everyone to do the same. You don't need to finance or buy. You can rent, you can share. What does any of that have to do with devaluing the work we do by offering high quality images for free?

Putting aside the central question of free work, I find the site frustrating as a social network. There’s no official app (on iOS), and the unofficial one, made by one guy working alone, doesn’t allow a sign-in, so you can’t follow photographers whose work you like. Increasingly, the only reason I still USE Instagram is for inspiration, and while the quality of work on Unsplash seems generally good enough to inspire me, it’s not dead simple (or even easy) to make a feed of work you like. Maybe that’s just not their goal, and that’s fine. For a blogger, designer, creative director, etc., this looks like a great tool. And for a photographer looking to put their work into the world more often, likewise. But as an IG alternative, it doesn’t get me out of bed.

The team behind Unsplash is aware of that and working on it. They're actually really nice people and you can talk to them directly via their Slack group. They're very supportive of photographers, much more than Instagram. I'm still using Instagram but mainly for curating other photographers work on @Fujifeed (a personal project that I started in 2016)

Awesome thanks for the word! I'll give them a little more attention now. I've been trying out Ello, too, which is… well… promising, but lacking in other ways.

So the question to ask is .......Does this kind of exposure make the phone ring for paid quotes?

Author here. Yes it did, I received an email from a Swiss bank one day in 2016 and did a first project (visible here: and then another one, and another one etc... So far I worked four times for them and not only they pay very well but they also licensed a lot of my images and the resulting projects helped me land other clients. The reason why they got in touch is that they were using 4-5 of my Unsplash images on their global image database and wanted more of my style. It's one example among others. Truth is, I usually land clients from word of mouth and because there is a lot of creatives browsing Unsplash daily it is very often that my work get used for pitching agency clients. Before starting my photography career in 2016 I was working full-time as a senior designer, mostly for luxury brands like Rolex, Bvlgari, L'Oreal group and for interior design. In the agency I was working in, we used Unsplash very often (and also Behance) to find images for presentations to clients. If the client liked a specific photographer style we usually contacted the photographer and hired him. It's because of that logic that I decided to upload some of my images on Unsplash.

Every photographer is after exposure. I mean, it's why they use 30 hashtags on Instagram. If you're interested in getting more eyeballs on you and your photography, you go where the attention is at. Tell me where else you're going to find it right now? Alas, it's exhausting trying to convince the romantic photographers against such a disruptive technological change. If that's you, I don't care one bit if you choose to do something different. I'm not going to try and convince you. I'd much rather converse with the photographers that get it and make more connections within the community. I love hearing and seeing these people capitalize on the disruptive opportunities that can come from contributing to open source photography.

Well said my friend!

How come it's always the creatives who are expected to sacrifice and give their time/ content away for free in exchange for the possibility of future income? (Exposure).

I would get laughed at to my face if I tried to get a barber to cut my hair for free, or a plumber to fix my pipes for exposure. My accountant sure as hell isn't doing my taxes for free. I had the unfortunate need for legal services last year, and that shit was not cheap! I wouldn't have dreamt of disrespecting my attorney by asking to work for me free ( I am happy to say he was worth every penny I paid him).

What is it about the creative that screams " yes, by all means. Take advantage of me."

I think articles like these just increase the proliferation of the perception that being a creative is professional is a hobby, that we do this for "the love of the art" and therefore we should be flattered and honored when someone shows interest in our services but so much as to actually demand payment for our work.

There are simply too my ignorant clients in this world who think creative services should be cheap and too many "professionals" willing to oblige them.

By encouraging photographers to give their work for free, you're only spreading that dangerous ideology.

Your analogy is wrong.

I'm a photographer = people pay me to do tailor made images for them = on my free time I upload some images I've done during vacation

I'm a barber = people pay me to do tailor made cuts for them = on my free time I run a blog where I write about best practice for grooming your beard, I don't get anything in return (beside more clients in my salon) but I like helping people

There, I fixed your analogy!
I keep doing tailor-made images for clients, Unsplash or not.

Stop thinking that uploading a bunch of images is "working for free", it's not :)

Also, images have no value until someone put a value on them. So in a way I'm just choosing to give away a few images per month instead of putting them on a stock photography website where they would not have as much visibility (not to mention nobody ever cares about who's the photographer behind the images on stock sites). But most people who use my shots on Unsplash credit me. Recently I've had an article in Fast Company using my image as a header, and just below "photo by Samuel Zeller" with a link to my website. And guess what? I got visitors and my website will end up ranking a tiny bit higher.

Never ever I will work for someone for free, I'm not that crazy haha

Sorry but your analogy is wrong. A barber writing a hair blog isn't going to lose out on thousands of dollars in potential revenue because a haircut isn't intellectual property. Nobody is going to copyright a hightop fade.

A photographer who willingly gives the rights to his photos is going to be SOL if one of those shots ends up on a major campaign/publication. etc.
Even if the chances of your photos being abused in that way aren't aren't that high, it's high enough that it might happen ( I mean it already happens all the time anyway as every week it feels like there is a new article detailing how some major brand or celebrity stole a photographer's work and used without permission).

And it sets a bad example to promote the idea of choosing to value your work at 0.

Now you can do whatever you want with your photos, as can any other photographer. But I stand by my original point that this type of strategy only advances the current detrimental narrative that photography is a commodity and that one shouldn't pay too much for it.

In a time when photographers everywhere should be working together to enforce their intellectual property rights and educate the public on proper usage, this only encourages the " if it's on the internet it must be free" mentality runs rampant in the industry today.

There were never thousands of dollars in potential revenue to start with, even if I had put those 460 images on a stock photography website I would just barely make 200$ a month. You're over-estimating the current state of stock photography. On the other side, those 460 images are maybe 0.5% of my work and the rest is mine and I can license it to anyone I want (for a proper price). I never value my work at 0, those are personal images I choose to share deliberately. I don't really care what people are doing with those images, most of the time they do great things with them and even credit + backlink to my website (which in return increase my book and prints sales haha)

To give you a good example, those are the visitors on my portfolio during 2017. You can see that 30% of it comes from referrals. On average I received 145 visitors per day, with some days peaks at 1000 to 1500 (likely after having articles or interviews published online), that means every single day I got an average of 43 people who landed on my portfolio from clicking on a link on another website. A good deal of it is because of my Unsplash images being widespread.


Something that bothers me about sites like Unsplash and Pexels is that photo attribution/credit isn't required. Hard to get on-going, long-term exposure that way, especially when photos are reposted/reblogged from other sites.

All the time my images were used by serious publications or bloggers I had a proper credit and link back. The problem is, people aren't educated. They will take your work even the one on your portfolio and repost it without credit. It's in the internet culture and Tumblr/Instagram aren't helping in educating them. What's interesting is that I still have three year old Unsplash images that are used from time to time with credits, prooving that the value-in-time of an image is a thousand times higher on Unsplash than on other networks like Flickr, Instagram or Facebook. So yes in a way I'm getting long-term exposure, even if today I stop uploading new images on Unsplash I'll still get 30% of my portfolio traffic coming from referrals. It's the job of photographers to politely educate people who use their work why credit is important, if not take legal actions.

Comming from the software industry where free software (free as in libre but also as in beer) won and even the biggest fighters against it, like Microsoft, ebrace it now, I look at it differently.

At work we create a complete software platform for car manufacturers for their in car infotainment. We develop it in the free an just yesterday we released the first stable version We had two people working on it for half a year and many others helping out too. Now everybody can download the platform, including documentation on how to use and extend it. They can fork our work and do whatever they want with it basically.

Why? Because this way we can:

1. Reuse of our and others work
2. Show that we are the experts in this field, not many others can pull that off
3. We get our foot in with many car manufacturers which leads to big contracts to develop custom platforms with hundreds of people, this is where the money is

It would be interesting to see if people in the photography community could do a transition like this too.

I found these "happy" Unsplach stories hard to believe on both accounts of PR success and benefit to photographer. One might derive from this story that the Unsplash stint earned to Samuel a lot of attention. I checked out Samuel's website address at Moz and got pretty average results - where are backlinks from millions of grateful fans? 230 links from 59 domains, most of them unremarkable sites.