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.