Should Fstoppers Use Free Stock Photography?

I've been meaning to make this video/post for a long time but I kept putting it off because it's probably the most polarizing subject in the photography world. Is microstock, and now free stock photography, ruining the industry? Is Fstoppers promoting this? 

Stock photography has been around for 100 years and it's been a controversial subject from the very beginning. Highly paid photographers who license their photographs have always seen stock photos as a lost potential job. Why would a client pay for a custom shoot when they can find the perfect photo and buy it for a fraction of the cost? And, just as these professionals warned, stock photography kept getting cheaper and cheaper and even if it didn't destroy the industry, it has certainly changed it. 

Years ago, rights managed stock photography was the norm. This means that the price of a photo was based on how you planned to use the image. Nike would have to pay exponentially more to use an image in a worldwide ad campaign versus a small shoe store printing that image on local mailers. Rights managed images got cheaper and cheaper until royalty free images started taking over. These images sold for a flat rate and could be used in perpetuity for any purpose. If you thought royalty free stock photography was bad, microstock was far worse.  Microstock websites sold royalty free images for just a few dollars or cents. Some of them charged a monthly fee for unlimited photos. For years, photographers couldn't imagine anything worse for the industry than microstock, but recently, websites like Unsplash have popped up that are filled with 100% free stock photos donated by photographers all over the planet. 

Rarely do we use stock photos on Fstoppers but we may need a generic image to headline a post from time to time. In the past we've paid for microstock but recently, some writers, including myself, have used images from Unsplash to fill this need. Mike Kelley messaged me one day when two articles on Fstoppers contradicted each other. One said that Unsplash was bad for the industry while the very next post used an Unsplash image. I invited Mike over to talk about it on camera. 

We ended up talking for over an hour, but due to a dead video camera battery, and tons of editing, the majority of our talk was cut out and of course in hindsight, I feel like I didn't do a very good job of stating my case. If you're interested, my full thoughts are below. 

My Thoughts on Free Stock Images

I believe that all industries will change, and I think our energy would be better spent trying to change with the times rather than fighting to keep everything as it currently is. 

As I mentioned in the video, when I got my first DSLR, I started putting my work on stock photography websites. I started with more expensive rights managed websites and my work was either rejected (because it wasn't very good) or it simply wouldn't sell. I ended up finding success with microstock, selling my images for $.25 to $.50 each. I was thrilled to make a few hundred dollars a month doing something that I loved. I remember asking to assist a photographer (for free) and he told me that he would only allow me to work for him if I stopped selling stock images because I was destroying the industry. I felt like that was easy for him to say as an ultra successful photographer, but this was the only way at the time that I could make money with photography.  

Since then, I have constantly been told that I am destroying the industry. I was told that I shouldn't assist a photographer for free even though I was eager to learn, because I was taking a paid job from someone else. I was told that I shouldn't shoot for a local magazine because they paid photographers too little. I've been attacked for giving my wedding photography clients the the rights to print their images. I've had to listen to photographers complain about cheap "Craigslist" photographers who are undercutting the market. I've been sent nasty emails from extremely successful photographers for releasing "industry secrets" for free on Fstoppers. 

I get it, if you've spent a lifetime building a specific business, you're not going to want someone to take that away from you. But I'm not sure any amount of complaining, regulating, or educating the market will do to stop the inevitable. 

Photography used to be an extremely specialized profession. It's not anymore. Literally every single person owns a digital camera at this point. The market is saturated with great photography and therefore the value for generic stock images has gone down. This is what happens when everyone is a photographer. 

When Mike Kelley speaks out against Unsplash I know that he only wants the best for young photographers. Mike has made a ton of money by licensing his photos and he sees Unsplash as the antithesis of that. I do too. But I also remember what it was like wanting so badly to be a professional photographer but not being good enough to actually book any jobs. I remember how much I learned by photographing my friends and family members for free. I remember undercutting the art market by selling my art prints for $20 in an attempt to just break even on my photography show. I remember how I first broke into the wedding photography world by photographing someones wedding for $250. I honestly attribute a lot of my success today to shooting microstock almost 20 years ago. I learned how to light and edit my photos but more importantly I learned what the market was willing to pay for. When I started booking real jobs, I stopped shooting weddings for $250 and I stopped shooting stock altogether. I didn't have to be told to stop, it was a natural progression. But I honestly believe that if I was convinced I couldn't shoot any of those original jobs for free or extremely low rates, I wouldn't have ever become a professional photographer. 

It's easy now that we've made it as professionals to look down on beginner photographers and complain that they are ruining the industry because they are willing to work for lower rates than we are, but they might be doing all they can. And what exactly is ruing in the industry?  30 years ago, many photographers would have said that stock photography in general was bad for the industry. 20 years ago royalty free images were bad for the industry. 10 years ago microstock was bad for the industry. But today, because images are now free, microstock is suddenly great for the industry?

This was inevitable. And just like every other industry that has recently been disrupted, you can try to fight it, but you can't stop it. Cab drivers have tried to fight Uber and explain that they are destroying the industry and that their wages are too low, but consumers have gotten a taste of better service at a lower price. The market itself will dictate the price and will shape the industry. 

The photography industry is constantly being disrupted. Remember when film shooters said that the industry was dead because everyone had a digital camera? What about when professional photographers started shooting paid gigs with their cell phones? Do you remember when 500px started selling royalty free stock? The photo community was outraged for about 3 months, and now it's the norm. 

I think Mike drew a very clear line in the sand when he said that any amount of money paid for an image is better than no money, and I'm totally happy to do that. Even if the money isn't substantial, maybe this symbolic gesture is worth something to those of you who feel as strongly about this as Mike. But I find it ironic that the one of the first photographers I ever contacted wouldn't allow me to work for him for free while I was shooting microstock, and today, 15 years later, I am being encouraged to buy it as the ethical choice. 

Perhaps the most important thing that we failed to discuss is that both Mike and I believe that it is ok to work for free if you're benefiting from it. Mike's core belief is that putting your images on Unsplash will not help you grow as a photographer, or book clients. In fact, it might do the opposite. I probably agree with that. I don't mind if someone wants to give their images away but, if you want to do this professionally, giving away your work without attribution probably is not the best use of your time. 

All that being said, I don't believe that photography as a profession is dying. I actually believe there is more money to be made than ever before, it's just spread out among many more photographers. 20 years ago, if you happened to be one of the only professional photographers in a small town, you might be able to make a great living without producing great photos. Those days are gone. Clients now know what good photography is and your going to have to produce images that they can't to get their business. Commercial photography budgets in the 80s and 90s were much higher than they are today, but there are many more jobs to be had and I know many photographers who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Don't let the value of generic stock get you down, custom, unique photography is, and will always be, a thriving business.

Sites like Unsplash don't keep me up at night and I'm not sure I'll ever feel very strongly about it. But I owe so much of my life to photography and the Fstoppers community, and if I can pay a few bucks each month to send a positive message, I'm more than happy to do that.

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65 Comments

michaeljin's picture

Every single writer on here is a purported photographer. Take your own damned photos... Unlike your average blog writer who doesn't know the first thing about taking a photo, you really don't have an excuse. I would say the exception to the rule would be if you're showing an example of something that you literally don't have the equipment for in which case try to find someone in the community that has an example and would be willing to contribute. That way you'd at least be crediting someone within your own community.

Deleted Account's picture

This This This

It just seems kinda strange that a photographer/writer isn't taking the time to take photos for their own articles. It's obviously going to be more work but helps add authority to the content the author is writing about. Every time I see stock photos used for an article written by a photographer I cringe.

There will always be exceptions but whenever possible it just seems more legit. Quality of content > Quantity of content.

Patrick Hall's picture

It really just depends on what the image is. What if you need an image of Donald Trump? Or an image of a swarm of drones? Or a Huawei phone and no one you know owns one?

I understand for 90% of your articles you can create an image yourself but there are lots of times where it would be near impossible to do that regardless of how much time and talent you have.

Deleted Account's picture

"There will always be exceptions but whenever possible"

LA M's picture

Oh Lee...your not seeing the big picture then.

It's not just about the industry changing. Of course it has to change as all things do. The issue is how do we retain fair compensation for the work we do. The people who use our industry have all kinds of cute ways of "lowering the budgets" well below what they were in the 80's and 90's. It's by telling us exactly what you just did...They will get it for free from someplace like Unsplash or buy it for pennies on the dollar elsewhere..

I seem to recall the promo video for that ill-fated Fyre Festival was done with stock images/video.

You think lawyers, doctors..accountants etc didn't go through something similar?

If weekend warriors or enthusiast want to give away their work for free...that's fine. Websites like yours and others of the like should be a little more aware of what it does to the bottom line of the people you claim to support. You know better how mortgages/rent are paid...as evidenced by a number of articles on here about "why you should be charging more".

Can't have it both ways...go out and shoot the content you want for these articles or pay others fairly to do it. How hard is that?

And BTW it isn't just FS's...quite a number of Youtube Content Creators are touting sponsorship by Squarespace...a company that partners with services like Unsplash. Imagine that... They don't give away their website products/services for free or pennies on the dollar do they?

Deleted Account's picture

Running a business based on photography and then dipping into the free image banks.
I'd not go there, no.

Tony Clark's picture

Free Stock images do nothing good for the Industry. Hell, I assisted, bartended and waited tables until I had a couple clients instead of shooting "for exposure".

Eric Salas's picture

No photographer should be writing for your page and not displaying their work within the articles.

A lot of people on this site claim to be photographers but only shoot stuffed animals or “candid portraits” because they aren’t actually photographers. Someone writing for your page and digging into stock photos seems to be in the same category to me.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

“...we may need a generic image to headline a post from time to time.”

Lee, I don’t think you realize the extent to which Fstoppers writers are using Unsplash. It’s not from time to time, it’s nearly every time.

It’s gotten so bad at times that more than one person has wondered aloud if there was some Fstoppers requirement that Unsplash be used and that’s why so many writers are doing it.

Fstoppers has been using Unsplash for images that any supposed photographer could easily produce. If you need a photo of a smartphone or a construction sign, put forth a modicum of effort to create it rather than reaching for the Unsplash button by default.

Whether Unsplash should exist can be debated. Whether it should be used all day every day by professional photographers writing for a photography website doesn’t even seem like something we should have to discuss.

What is the state of photography when photography writers can’t even produce their own images?

michael andrew's picture

Lets all blame Unsplashed for finding over 35 minutes of time not working to watch 2 other photographers not working to pass the time. Get to work and stop blaming anyone other than the person staring back in the mirror for your successes and failures.

Mike Kelley's picture

I'd argue with you but unfortunately already emptied my pocket full 'o treats

Christopher Smith's picture

Mike Kelley rails, in my mind rightly, against Unsplash and yet uses a photo freely from Flickr for a Petapixel article not four days ago? Mind you, he uses the proper credit as requested by the photographer, but that seems to be threading a very fine needle...

https://www.flickr.com/photos/101332430@N03/9677860245

https://petapixel.com/2019/06/18/you-cant-fight-as-a-photographer-withou...

Mike Kelley's picture

I did not choose the image to accompany the article. Where the article originally appears:

https://apalmanac.com/business/cant-fight-without-f-fund-2552

I use original photography that I created solely for my website. PetaPixel, with permission, reposted the article but did not consult me on their image choice. I would have asked them to use the original image I created - that took no more than 30 seconds using some collected bills from traveling and an iPhone.

Michael Orlosky's picture

[comment removed by author]

davidlovephotog's picture

Maybe this is why I stopped reading many of the articles here on getting better at photography when the image used in the articles are not good.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

So, any one started a successful photography carrier from free stock? What is the % of successful stories?

Probably 90% of my income is not from the kind of photography anyone would find attractive on Unsplash or other similar fakes. I don't feel bad for people who give it all away and one day turn their back to photography. These are not short cut sites, for most it's probably a dead end. We get a lot of new technology from this huge photography interest. Probably a large % of the photography equipment sold ends up on a shelf, unpacked or what ever, so this kind of stock has some good sides. I know people who have an arsenal of lenses, they never use, but for me, if I don't have a reason to buy new equipment, if I can't get a shoot that would pay for it and have repeat, I don't spend it. I stopped giving tips, helping people too. I often feel bad about it, but I feel like their is no longer any respect, so I don't bother.

Jeff Walsh's picture

Yes. While this is a photography website, it's also a blog style website. Many of the photos are either of a person's work, or about some general topic where a stock image is perfectly acceptable. No one in the right mind is going to go set up a shoot to get some plain stock image for the header. Sure there are exceptions to these but at the same time I have a feeling the pay for an article (if there is any) would never warrant the time to set up a shoot for a 1500 word article on marketing on Instagram or some weird topic.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

When the writers are filmmakers, commercial portrait or wedding photographers, landscape photographers, family photographers, glamour photographers, the last thing they have in their portfolio is a suitcase full of fake money for an article about pricing.

It would be more pathetic if a writer writes a tutorial about lighting and uses a stock image instead, not something that's simply not in our portfolios, because we don't have the time to stage and photograph that. We don't even need it in our portfolio.

Lee Morris's picture

I've been trying not to comment on all these troll posts but I'll jump in to back you up. I don't know any writer who uses other photographer's work when they themselves already have that genre in their portfolio.

If there is a story about a photographer getting in trouble for shooting photos of the White House, It would be nice to have a photo of the White House or someone photographing it as a featured image. Obviously this is exactly what stock photography is for.

Only an insane person would suggest that a photographer must fly to Washington DC to take this image themselves... But this is the internet

Lee Morris's picture

How much?

Lee Morris's picture

Now I can’t tell if you’re joking or not

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

We used free images, because we could and it is perfectly legal with the clear photographers' consent. We also use each other's images without paying each other which is almost the same.

And just FYI: We're paying for stock images as well.

Simon Patterson's picture

Free market guy or not, if an Fstoppers writer doesn't have their own photos suitable to support their article, then their credibility to write the article is sadly lacking.

Patrick Hall's picture

Um....okay. So a photographer can’t write about how a helicopter photo tour crashed in NYC without himself having a photo of NYC with a helicopter in the sky....

Simon Patterson's picture

😂 all those stock images in the helicopter story were great eh! Oh hang on...

Rob Davis's picture

No!

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

I just watched the video and something came to my mind. What about pictures we put here on Fstoppers for the Critique the community videos?

davidlovephotog's picture

Well they already post our images on instagram, etc to boost likes. Sounds like they are backing away more and more and wanting this site to be on auto pilot. Grab free stock, throw up an article or just post a youtube video someone else took the time to create or just copy articles off other sites like petapixel. Where is the "earn this" factor? For me this site is basically a one stop shop so I don't have to surf the web. Is that what it wants to be?

Patrick Hall's picture

In our terms and conditions we are granted rights to post community photos for critique the community and other references to Fstoppers.com. We rarely if ever have actually used that right (except when you see a scroll of the site at the end of many of our YouTube videos) and it’s never felt right to Lee and I to use community images without explicit permission or compensation even though legally we have the right to.

As for the Instagram page, those images are submitted to the photographer for use on the IG page and their accounts are linked to the image directly. I’ve yet to find out how IG can be monitized and despite having a good following, IG is kind of useless to us from a business perspective. Our goal with IG has always been to help promote photographers just like we do in our Community on FS. We’ve never made money off the images submitted to our community.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Honest question, don't you monetize CTC Youtube videos? But my point wasn't to go against you for that, I think it's totally fair, I mean we are the people who submit the pictures willingly. Mike's point is from the perspective of a well known professional, but as an amateur photographer that has no intention to become a professional, just to be in one of your videos or in one of your articles is enough of a compensation. I brought up the CTC videos because Mike was in some of them but never complained about you using our pictures to produce content. Again I don't want to attack him for that, I understand his perspective and I think is very humble of him to feel on the same boat of people that make content for Unsplash.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Have you guys considered turning these into audio podcasts? It would be easier for those of us who spend most of our day away from wifi to enjoy the content.

Secondly, as much as I enjoyed the discussion, you guys really should really do something to improve the structure of arguments and retorts throughout the video. There was a little too much arguing in circles, which is fine in conversation, but doesn’t make for super thrilling content.

Also, one more nitpick, the argument that embedding a YouTube video is the same as using a free stock photo doesn’t hold any water. When you use a stock photo, that’s usually where it ends. When you embed a video, people click on it, which drives up views, which boosts it up YouTube’s suggested video page, which leads to more views and traffic, which increases the odds of more viewers and activity on the video, which could result in more subscribers, which could eventually lead to monetization.

Either way, it was an interesting discussion.

Julian Ray's picture

Sorry Lee but Mike is spot on.
You can try to find fault with his defense but in the end he is arguing about the principal of value for the photographer's work and you are just not wanting to make a policy that will cost you more time and money for each writer's submission. Your defense of using free images seems to be based on the cost to you of not doing so while Mike's passionate position is based on the principal of loss of revenue that affects all of us working photographers.
Yes most starting photogs give away their work in the beginning, I did, Mike did, you apparently still do, but as soon as we come to understand that there is value for our work that usually stops.
Like Mike said about your flooded house video that you GAVE away "what if you you knew you were missing out on fifty grand?" it is about the potential for value that free images degrade for us all.
The thing is, Lee, you really don't put any value in photography.
In your discussion you state "I don't care if the photographer (meaning writer) gets the image from..." Your "free market" policy is the same one that drives whole industries to lay off their photographers and give writers iPhones.
By not placing value on actual content imagery you are saying.... an article that features content crafted images has the same value as click bate lead, one paragraph fill and link to some youtubers video.
Your lack of policy on image origination is a defacto policy on not valuing images at all.
Gives a whole new meaning to Fstoppers. ;-D
I love the debate and the way you two dug into it and would love to have more content like this here.
Thanks Lee and Mike for being willing to dive into such an important issue.

Ted Mercede's picture

I have a personal rule, "never shoot for free". Does this mean that I always get paid, or paid full price? No, but I always view it on what my work is worth or would charge, and what am I getting from it in return. It has to be of what my perceived value of return for my work is worth or I don't do it. I also never regret my decision either way.

Jonathan Brady's picture

To me the issue comes down to FStoppers providing reciprocal support for their community. Photographers come to this site and support it directly or indirectly and that support makes money for FStoppers. There's no reciprocal community support when an Unsplash image is used.
FStoppers can do this (obviously) and get away with it (obviously) and even try to justify it internally (obviously) but that doesn't mean it's the RIGHT THING TO DO. It's incredibly selfish and self-serving and your community hates it (read the comments) and it stokes the flames of disloyalty.

Matthias Dengler's picture

Lee has a point with where to draw the line. Mike certainly has a point with "we compensate you with exposure", because it definitely is total bullocks!
A marketing agency promoting sub-brands of Daimler, one of the biggest car producers in Europe, reached out to me, asking me to shoot a series of 6 pictures for their worldwide commercial instagram feed and ADDITIONALY give them a perpetual global license. Guess what they are willing to pay? 0€. Bagel!

I told them that I'm a professional photographer who makes a living from that and that I don't support freebooting and that the model and I should get paid.
What did they reply? "You will get professional exposure." LMFAO! This company is so rich that they could throw 50k after you.

Long story short. Charge for your work! Don't use Unsplash, don't give out your work for free / "exposure". It's nonsense. Photographer definitely get mislead and consider it a foot in the door.
There's no door, though.

Mike Kelley's picture

Sadly, it's because they'll get someone to do it for free and they know it

LA M's picture

I have a novel idea....

Much like "influencers" are required in some countries to declare sponsored posts...companies should be required to declare when they have paid for creative services with "EXPOSURE".

Then some of the work-for-free nuts can see just how much money some of these entities generate while artificially keeping budgets low.

None of their staff are giving up paycheques or bonuses...

Patrick Hall's picture

I think this argument fails to acknowledge the people who are simply posting their “Snapshots” on Unsplash because they like photography and want to share their art or a particular scene. They aren’t professional photographers, and they are more akin to those who had free Flickr accounts.

I have a very hard time believing the large majority of contributors on unsplash are doing it for exposure, free marketing, or as leverage for some big jump to professional photography.

I bet the majority of people are parents, novices photographers, travelers, professionals with a hobby in photography, and 1) don’t know you can get paid for photography and 2) don’t care to make it a business at all.

I tend to agree with Lee’s position that if someone wants to create an art or service and give it away for free, they should have the right to do that. If you want to give away education for free on YouTube or if Google wants to give away a free gmail account, I don’t think people should be blamed for using those resources for free.

Paying someone $0 or $1 for stock photography seems nearly the same to me. If someone is truly trying to become a professional photographer, I cannot imagine someone who has the drive and talent to become successful ruining their career because of Unsplash. Unsplash doesn’t seem like a vehicle for professional or aspiring photographers and feels more like a photo club where people want to share their work just because they want people to engage in their creation.

LA M's picture

Patrick....

Have you read “Unsplash’ About Us page?

Matthias Dengler's picture

Yes Mike, that was the exact behaviour I could anticipate in a call with them.
"Well, if you don't want it, someone else will do it." That's why every photographer should charge something, no matter which level of work. It cannot be for free.

g coll's picture

Lee and Patrick. Change your policy. Ban Unsplash. Go on! You know you want to. Once you’ve done it we can all forget about it, move on, and drink some beer! Mike’s shout ;)

Patrick Hall's picture

I mean, we already did that as said in the video. I don’t think ethically it changes a whole lot moving from an occasional free image to one we sourced for $1 but we have moved the site over to normal stock photography. Keep in mind, 90% of the images on FS are already original photos taken from our writers so this isn’t so massive part of the site.

g coll's picture

I agree mate. Kinda just a tongue n cheek comment from moi ;)

Deacon Blues's picture

It's easy: If you want to use free stock, you can do so. But if you do, you forever forfeit the right to bitch about "working for free" and related topics.

Tim N's picture

There are two main types of photographers: those who rely on photography to make a living and those who only take pictures for fun regardless of receiving compensation or not. Unless if you’re a top photographer like Dani Diamond or Fro Knows Photo you should consider pursuing another profession because like taxi drivers it’s almost impossible to make a living taking pictures. I agree with a lot of the things that Lee said professional photographers from the 70s and 80s need to adapt to the new standard because people nowadays don’t want to pay for photography. It’s more of a hobby now. Lee, Patrick and Mike if you’re reading this comment please continue what you’re doing and don’t let the haters stop you. Many others and I appreciate all the work you put in to help better spread the knowledge of photography.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Should they take any money form any sponsor? I think they do this as a hobby and should not be compensated. Just following your logic of course.

Tim N's picture

Well they need money to pay for the backend servers running Fstoppers.com and for other purposes like creating new tutorials. It’s a business (on their part) and they need to have sponsors. But for most photography enthusiasts that’s not the case for us.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Isn't it the exact same as free photography. Don't photographers need cameras, lenses, strobes and expenses for trips? Why do you see it as different?

Tim N's picture

Yes photographers do need money for all those things but they use money from their other job as a software developer, nurse, etc to fund their photography hobby.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

So stay home moms who start with photography should use their kids lunch money to pay for cameras. I get it, makes sense now!

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