Should Fstoppers Use Free Stock Photography?

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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Previous comments
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

Leigh Miller'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.

Leigh Miller's picture


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.

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.

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 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!

Tim N's picture

Stay at home moms don’t need to sacrifice their kids lunch to do portrait seasons there are many ways of financing photography equipment such as using a credit card, etc.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Same thing, if it turns into failure, which most really do.

Patrick Hall's picture

I’m not sure I understand your point here.

Any sponsored post we do most certainly has original photography and/or videography. The only content that might have a micro stock image or Unsplash image is more editorial in nature.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

No, I get that, just a little sarcasm for Tim. "the haters" has no place in a reply, never will.

Leigh Miller's picture

Fro Knows Photo is a top photographer?

Lot's of professionals make a good living as photographers. I bought three houses and paid for retirement fund, groove capital etc.

Good business practices don't change with the times. It's still good.

Pretty sure working for free when photography is your profession isn't good business practice. Personally I don't care if FS or Unsplash take advantage in the way they do either...but stop claiming to support us.

Can't have it both ways.

Tim N's picture

Fro Know Photo is one of the top photographers to many of us. Not only does he take pictures but he also teaches the community tips and tricks to better improve their photography. I’m not sure if anyone can buy three houses / cars etc by charging $3,000 for weddings nowadays. I’m sure many in the industry do well but I’m guessing over 99% of photographers can’t make that much.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

The answer is in one of your replies above. You can't generate money as easily when you can't shoot when needed because your priority is your day job. Most good clients do business when you are at your day job because that's their job 8-5. You can't get big paying assignments when you are not available when needed and don't sound reliable. It would be nice to know what you do for a living at this point. May be I can ask you for free stuff when I know what you do. I can tell you would not have a problem with it at all.

Tim N's picture

Benoit I agree a lot of the big events happen during 8-5 and perhaps that’s why many of us miss out on those opportunities. Getting to the topic of the article The whole free stock photo trend is a problem that I see in the photography community but at the same time there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop it or prevent it. I appreciate those who do photography full time but it’s not the same environment as it was 20 years ago.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

We are flooded with generic but very pretty pictures from stock that I think don't affect people as much anymore because the effect has become so obvious, it turns into an annoyance, attention grabbing to no end. So I don't see stock is as destructive as people think. Honestly, to me, paid $.25 for a photo or zero is exactly the same.

Leigh Miller's picture

Are you talking about the guy with the hair?

Anyway you are making a lot of assumptions with this reply so let me be more clear myself: Weddings aren't the only form of photography work.

"Benoit I agree a lot of the big events happen during 8-5 and perhaps that’s why many of us miss out on those opportunities."

Very telling sentence...if you are working another job from 8AM to 5PM then you are not a professional photographer.

You are correct. It's not the same environment as it was 20 years ago. The internet was a new thing..instagram and the other social media platforms were not in the mix to a large extent. Very few businesses remained exactly the same.

Adapting/Change doesn't mean giving up on good business practices.

FS and sites like it are taking advantage of the current situation by availing themselves of free/cheap imagery and video because of the current doom and gloom climate.

In business there are two ways to make more money...sell more or lower expenses. Buying cheap stock images I assume is the goto method right now. Then we can show off the luxury houses and thousands of dollars in equipment...loaned or bought...fancy travel to exotic locations etc.

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