Your Photography Is Worthless: This Is Why!

Your Photography Is Worthless: This Is Why!

The concept of working for “credit” is not a new one, nor is it unique to photography. Yet, it is one of the few industries that everyone thinks should work for free.

Does the title of this article upset you? If it doesn’t, it really should. At some point in a photographer’s career, the inevitable request to pay in "credit" will happen. You know the line: “we will credit your name with the work.” It is something that happens all too often, and it will continue to happen as long as we allow it.

The concept of working for “credit” is not a new one, nor is it unique to photography. However, it is more prevalent in creative industries. You can go back as far as you want in history and find that people have always asked for work to be done free of charge. The root of the problem starts and ends with the almighty dollar. As much as you want to earn a dollar, the person hiring you wants to save two.

I thought long and hard about writing this article. The catalyst for it was a rather upsetting interaction with a very large brand. I know this topic has been discussed before; however, I think the approach here is far more bold than others.

For obvious reasons, no names will be used in this article, but I promise you know these companies. The image above is the image that was requested.

Earlier this year, I was direct-messaged by a brand with an inquiry for using one of my images. They asked to use it on social media. Pretty standard practice online — in fact, this same brand asked once before in the past, and at the time, I agreed. However, this time was different. They asked me to reach out to their marketing department and provided direct emails for the contacts. “Finally,” I thought. "I am going to get a chance to license a shot with a huge brand that I have wanted to work with for as long as I can remember. Why else would I need to speak with their marketing team?" Well, turns out I was wrong.

I contacted their team and received a very quick reply outlining their interest. As it turns out, they didn’t want to pay for the use, they only wanted to provide “credit.” At this point, I was still considering it. I mean, the account has almost a million followers on the gram alone, plus millions of customers worldwide. Without giving too much away, this brand is worth billions — yes with a "B," billions. I asked to see the contract/agreement, and I’m glad I did. Regardless of if you choose to give your work out for free or not, make sure you read every word in a licensing agreement. In reading the contract they sent, I found out that they were not only using the image for social, but they also left the door wide open for advertising, marketing, print, film, television. They were looking for full use of the image worldwide perpetually with or without “credit.” That stopped me dead in my tracks.

After the initial feeling of rage passed, I replied to their email and declined the use of my image. This was a very hard decision, as I’ve wanted to work this this brand since starting in photography. But I felt betrayed. They followed up with a revised copy of the contract that now kept usage to only social media, but at this point, the damage was done. I did not respond to the follow-up email.

Now that you have the story behind this article, I want to talk about working for “credit” and knowing your worth as a photographer. This is where the article is going to get tough, so hold onto your seats.

Everyone is part of this problem. Yes, everyone, from professional photographers to the weekend shooters, students, and even that one cousin with a camera. From small mom and pop shops to the giants of industry, everyone is part of this problem. Let me explain. As long as there is another photographer out there willing to give their work away for free, no one will ever be paid properly. That is, of course, unless you are a famous world-renowned photographer with enough connections. The second you say no, companies will turn to the next person, and when they say yes, that immediately devalues everyone’s work. This is where your work becomes worthless; there is no value to something that can be obtained for free.

Let’s take a look at what “credit” earns you. In my experience “credit” is a hard metric to track. You can never fully see what credit turns into. That being said, this is what I can say. I’ve had my work displayed on many social media platforms, news outlets, websites, and blogs. Not one of them has earned me any new clients, new workshop attendees, new prints sales, or other paying gigs. In the case of Instagram, I’ve had my work on some of the biggest hubs, and at best, I gain a couple hundred followers. This did not put food on my table, and this did not pay any of my bills.

We are often fooled into thinking we have to work for “credit” first to build a name and portfolio. This outdated idea is what crippled many creatives, not just photographers. In today’s world, there are simply too many places that companies can get free content from, and until we all demand to be paid, those of us who are trying to make a living will struggle. It would take changing the entire system and everyone in it to make things improve.

Now, I don’t have all the answers, and some of you may think there is nothing wrong working for “credit.” I felt that way in the past as well. However, wait until you want to  work with big brands/businesses and move from an amateur photographer to professional. Then, you will understand. Perhaps think about your current job. Could you consistently give away your product and still make a living, hoping that one day, all this “credit” will pay off?

Ironically, as I was writing this article, I received another request, this time by one of the world's largest production and news companies. They too asked for usage for credit. I responded with an open-ended email saying I would license the image for a fee. I have not heard back from them.

It won’t take one article or one photographer to change this mindset. It will require everyone. Knowing that your images do have worth is the first step. If companies are going to make money from your image, then you should as well, bottom line. There are a number of ways to look up pricing. There are websites dedicated to showing what brands have paid in the past and others like Getty Images that help you calculate fees based on usage.

I have been using quotations around the word “credit” this entire article, because I feel like this word has been turned into a made-up payment method. Brands somehow think it is enough to compensate you for the hard work, years of honing your craft, thousands in gear, and other bills.

Here is my final thought I wish to leave you with. What was the last thing you bought? Where did you see it advertised? Where did you look for examples of it? I bet it wasn’t on TV or in a store. I’m betting most of you found it on the internet. There are over one billion users on Instagram. Do you think brands should be offering “credit” to use your work to sell to that many people, or should they be paying?

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129 Comments

Previous comments

In other words, you can't think of a reasoned reply and still have the urge to make noise.

Also - isn't this a real names only site? Is your surname really "F"?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Enjoying having a picture displayed in a magazine for free and enjoying having your pictures used for free by parties that benefit from it and never asked you permission in any form and collected your image with no right to do so, that's two totally different worlds. I mean if you are really a lawyer may be you do pro bono in the form of if you lose the case you don't get paid, but I very highly doubt you would not collect anything if your client won a case and pocketed $10 million. How much is an hour of service for you $400? Yes, I can see why collecting $25 bucks from a magazine has zero value to you. You clearly can't make a living from a $25 picture from a small magazine, but if they do pay, there is still a level of respect, especially to the amateur who does not make a living out of it. If I ask you as my lawyer for a short cease and desist letter, it's going to cost me $400 or you will feel abused. Real world, to me you sound like you take a lot from one hand in your industry and let go peanut to find your self gratification with your hobby.

> If I ask you as my lawyer for a short cease and desist letter, it's going to cost me $400 or you will feel abused.

And the stupidity here is that if you could find someone who would write the letter for free, you'd do so. But no one will, because doing so isn't easy and fun.

And in fact you could write such a letter yourself - it's just as valid as one from a lawyer, and a lawyer isn't going to come around and whine at you for doing so. You probably wouldn't, however, because you seem to doubt your skills to do a good job. Which is the point: people get paid for doing difficult and boring things, not easy and fun ones.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Not sure if your comment is about how easy and fun photography is. But if any one wants to deal with some very demanding CEOs and crazy deadlines, this is my typical work environment as a photographer. Some days are more fun, most are less fun. You look for new clients all the time, pay your bills, hire assistants for a shoot that's moved to another date last minute... and then hope the client of a big project does not file chapter 11 before you get paid. I'll stop here, there is plenty more the amateur does not want to hear in the real world of photography.

> But if any one wants to deal with some very demanding CEOs and crazy deadlines, this is my typical work environment as a photographer.

Yes. And that's the sort of photography you can get paid for: the stuff that isn't easy and/or isn't fun. Like I said. Lowest common denominator snaps, no. If you want to make a living in photography, you need to do something people won't or can't do for free, instead of whining at people to stop giving away pictures of sunsets.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

No that's the same, if the free photos were snaps, no one would care, do you care about someone else's snap? Really? Some spend a week chasing the right spot at the right time of the year, of the day and have to come back because of rain or what ever. It's a much greater investment than you certainly seem to understand. Do you understand how involved scooting locations is? Do you work for free?
What do you do for a living?

> No that's the same, if the free photos were snaps, no one would care, do you care about someone else's snap? Really? Some spend a week chasing the right spot at the right time of the year, of the day and have to come back because of rain or what ever.<

But so what? If the result is one that the client is willing to replace with a free shot, then the effort is irrelevant. No one pays for effort: only results.

>Do you understand how involved scooting locations is? <

I understand that it's not my problem or the potential client's problem. Again, you're acting entitled: how much effort you want to put into something is your business. If the client prefers to take a freebie and you don't get paid, you just took a bad business risk. That's your problem and doesn't mean anyone else did anything wrong. You. Are. Not. Owed. A. Living.

> Do you work for free? <

Sometimes, yes. Millions of people use free software I've contributed to.

...But, except to a stupid person, that's irrelevant. No one is telling you to work for free. The problem is that you're resentful because the work you want to get paid for is easy enough that other people are willing to do it as a hobby. But no one is telling you to continue as a photographer: that's your choice.

To dumb this down to (hopefully) idiot-proof levels: imagine you want to work as a gigolo. You're probably going to go broke. Now imagine you deal with the situation by claiming that every man in the world who has sex with a woman without getting paid in undermining your business. Is this going to work? No. Should anyone feel guilty? No. Are people going to point and laugh at you? Yes.

..What other people do with their equipment - photographic or otherwise - is simply none of your business. Full stop.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Yeah, no I get it that free will always win. Free software, they all come with some catch, limitations or advertisement. I don't call that free, but that's just me, others may, I don't know, but free they all say.
These past ten years have been greet with cheaper prices on equipment and more options, so I don't come here to tell people who have paid for equipment they underuse what to do. Technically in the end, I profit from it. My only issue is when pros are contacted to work for free. Why do they get contacted in the first place is a mystery when people such as you tell us how much free stuff there is to grab. Surely it does not add up. Still don't know what you do, 100% of my income is from photography. What type of credit work does your income come from?

> Yeah, no I get it that free will always win

No, that's not what I said. After all, I make a living as a programmer. What I said what if you're doing something so easy and little work to do that people will do it for free, then free will win. For most programming jobs, for legal work, medicine, construction, etc, you don't have to worry. And if you're a good enough photographer producing work that people actually need, you'll be fine too.

But if you're a loser, producing easily replaced images, no it's not immoral for people to offer free images as good or better than yours. And you won't fix things by whining. If you can't survive free competition doing what you want, then you're going to have to do something else.

Jason Flynn's picture

You don’t have to pay $400 for a cease and desist letter, you’re welcome to pay a tenth of that to get an attorney on Upwork (outsourcing website) to do one for you. It’s up to you if the job is important enough to hire someone in demand for a few hundred dollars or to just use a struggling attorney. The same is true with photography, but with a wider gulf because photography has an extremely low bar of entry.

The reality is that travel and lifestyle photography is really easy for just about anyone to do, plus it’s fun and an artistic outlet, so countless people are happy to share their work for free. The same is now becoming true for electronic music which is why you can get beats and background music for cheap to free now.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Cost of the lawyer will clearly depend on what you need specifically. $400 was just a number but it is actually average and nowhere close to the highest. Low ball pricing to me is just like having my own printed document stamped and returned to me. Personally I would check who I use for maximum impact and no, not all attorneys are struggling, but I see how you shape this into one specific direction and it's quite interesting.

Regarding travel and lifestyle, I personally don't care. I would not submit for free because really who cares who shot the thing. May be the mother or grand mother but that's about it. There is nothing to gain apart for bragging. There is a difference between sharing with friends on social media and letting go in the hands of businesses. May be your friends will appreciate it, the business is just glad you have something valuable for free and goes to the next picture.

Jason Flynn's picture

I think you have misunderstood me

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Explain. I'm interested.

David Wilder's picture

Andrew I appreciate your point of view and the article is not implying people like yourself should feel bad. It is to explain that people should realize what giving away their work does to the industry.

To be frank, yes amateur photographers giving away their work for nothing is what hurts the industry as a whole, because that exact action is what “floods” the “market”.

There is a difference between competition and giving things away. I’m saying that regardless of where the images are being used or regardless of being a pro or not you should be properly paid for your craft and ask for proper compensation. If everyone asked for proper pay then it would be mean photographers could actually sustain a living because the expectations of “I can get this free somewhere else” would be gone.

I don’t know what you do for a living but let’s just play out a scenario. Let’s say you have a family and bills to cover. Let’s say Andrew that you own a mechanic shop. Now you charge for an oil change and tire rotation, break change etc. But then there is a shop in your city that decides they will do the same for free. How long will it be until you can’t pay your bills?

I don’t think it is to much to ask that creators of any kind get paid what is fair and that everyone can pitch in to help that happen.

Again thank you for your point of view, that’s why this article is about starting a conversation. I felt that way at one point in my life too. The difference is now I am trying to feed my family.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

David, this guy just admitted to being a lawyer, enough said...

The IRONY is that the Lawyer is protected from competition by laws and regulations that prevent the layman from practicing his profession (not that I'd recommend it - but that's not the point I'm making here). What's good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander...

> The IRONY is that the Lawyer is protected from competition by laws and regulations that prevent the layman from practicing his profession

No: you're being stupid. Anything a lawyer can do, you or a friend can do for free. Read contracts, make a case in court - anything. Which is what we're talking about here, yes?

Now, what an amateur can't do is charge for his services in court - which would be the equivalent of all photographers having to be qualified before they can charge.

I think that part of the disconnect is that photography can be a recreational activity. I'm doing it because it's fun. I like to get up at 4am to catch the sunrise from the mountainside. I like to take 100 photos of jumping fish to catch the one that is just right. I enjoy figuring out the perfect lighting on my focus-stacked abstract macro shot, even if it takes a couple of nights.

And I enjoy the validation of having other people appreciate the end result, when all the stars align. Why wouldn't I want to share that?

Money just doesn't factor into it. Think about hunters and fishermen. They get up at 4am to get out and hunt or fish. They aren't getting paid, and they're doing it because they love it. Would you say that a grandpa who bags a big buck shouldn't be allowed to give away the meat, because it hurts the beef industry?

What about golfers? Like me, they spend thousands of dollars on equipment, and hundreds or thousands of hours honing their craft. They take classes, read websites, and work hard to be the best golfer they can be. Would you tell them that they can't do it unless someone pays them, because it hurts the salaries of professional golfers?

What about people who contribute to open source software? Are they hurting "real" programmers? I've never found that to be the case, and the fact is that in many cases they ARE professional coders, working at night and on the weekends for thousands and thousands of hours on projects that they love or find important, all for free. Are they wrong too?

I've heard this argument before, and I just don't think it holds water. There will always be jobs for photographers to take portraits, do product photography, fashion photography, and so on. Those jobs pay because people don't want to do them for free. But I don't think it's fair to tell other people "don't do that thing you love to do for free, because I love it too and I want to get paid for it."

David Wilder's picture

The examples you have provided don’t compare because the article is not telling people they can’t take photos or share them. It’s about millions of people being able to impact the financial well being of someone trying to be a professional.

Fundamentally it is question of ethics for the brands asking for free content when they stand to profit from it and it is a question of community for the people that give away images to those brands. We have seen examples of this through history and still today in other forms. Exploiting economically crippled countries for cheap labour comes to mind.

I think I have proven my point enough. Again there are many ways to view this topic and I am simply showing the impact it has on my life and countless others I know trying to make a living.

I’m glad this article was able to get people to talk about it. I wish people could only see the other splint of view.

> . It’s about millions of people being able to impact the financial well being of someone trying to be a professional.

Yes. But the same is true for virtually anything people do for free. Cooking, cleaning, looking after a friend's kids. Should a chef throw a tantrum every time someone holds a dinner party? By your logic, yes. By sane person logic, no.

Then there's free fanfiction on the web. Has it killed sales of books by real writers? No. Because writing is vastly difficult and the amateurs work is inferior to the professionals. Anyone could take the picture in this article with a couple of hours tuition: good luck learning to write a readable thriller in that time...

You need to take Grow Up pills: if you're not significantly better than someone doing something for fun, you're foolish to expect to get paid and hyper-entitled when you blame the rest of the world.

The way I see it photography is heading in the direction of no longer being a profession simply because everyone can do it. Everybody is walking around with a camera in their pocket. In the past photography was more mysterious to the person on the street. Darkroom, chemicals, so many film types but now it's just whip out the phone apply a filter and there you go. And all of this content is just sitting there on the internet for anybody to see use but in the past it would have in a photo album or hanging on a wall.
I agree in a way with Andrew Russell, things like weddings etc still offer a job for the professional but other things like stock photos are losing value because there's so much out there and it's so easy to produce and find. There's just no way competing with it.

> Let’s say Andrew that you own a mechanic shop. Now you charge for an oil change and tire rotation, break change etc. But then there is a shop in your city that decides they will do the same for free. How long will it be until you can’t pay your bills? <

But the point is that doing those things is hard work and not fun. So you need to pay someone to do them. But if a friend offers to do them for free, you'd probably take him up on the offer. Or if technology changed and make oil changes obsolete, you'd use it.

Again, if you want to get paid for something easy and fun, and think that whining at other people will enable you to achieve this, you're just being a colossal man baby. It's never going to happen.

Edited to add:
Most of Internet is hosted on free software - linux. You're using the Internet now. And there's more demand for programmers than ever - because programming is massively harder than taking by-the-numbers pictures of sunsets.

“I'm an amateur photographer. I post my best stuff online using a Creative Commons attribution-only license, because I'm not in it for money.”

Alternatively, you could always license your images and donate the entire fees to one of many worthy groups. When you receive a free photo request (for exposure/attribution), you can explain that you and Lauren have selected a special not-for-profit group that is endearing to both of you.

Timothy Gasper's picture

LOL. I can relate. "We will credit your name with the work." Yeah...heard that before. In the beginning of my career I did accept this a few times to get myself 'out there", but that changed shortly after. Looking back now, I am now retired, when I would hear that statement again...the first thought that came to my head was, 'well then why don't you do it yourself? What do you need me for?" Ironically, now that I am retired, I DO submit work just for credit. Ah, but there's a reason for that.

Getty images and more. There are lot of stock photos sites that one can license millions of images for close to nothing. Why some big companies offer nothing? Because people who ask for your image have nothing for a budget. We are talking about PA's who work for $15 per hour and have no authority at all. And even if they are given authority to buy pictures, the have to get them from stock pictures sites that company has a subscription to. If they don't see a stock picture they like, they try to get your picture for free and if you don't agree they will chose one of the stock pictures and use it.
That is a reality you are facing. I clicked on your pragser wildsee picture on Google image search and came up with 20 stock photos that look about a same. Some are free, some cost few dollars. How poor PA girl would know that you consider your picture a work of art?

I also searched "pragser wildsee"; I'll offer a friendly amendment -- David's image above is better than what I see in the first 30 images presented on a google search. His is more dramatic, the composition is better, the color is better.

But poor PA girl, even if she recognizes that difference and sees that David's image is indeed better (a work of art, perhaps?) won't be able to do anything about it. She has no budget and can't consider paying the couple hundred dollars David correctly would want for his image, so if she can't persuade David to give it up for credit then she will go with an inferior image that will cost her nothing (or pennies at Infamous Stock Photos, Inc.).

Last I checked, Getty Images still licenses photos for hundreds of dollars a pop, even just for social use. So, that's certainly not an argument in your favor. Second, just because somebody with no authority and no budget asks you for something, it doesn't mean you have to say yes. I don't know why your self esteem would be so low that you'd care whether or not your images appear on a brand's social media feed, but if they're not willing to pay for it and you give it to them just to see it there, you should probably reconsider why you're a photographer in the first place.

People always use this "I'm not in it for the money" argument when they rationalize giving their work away for free, and I call BS. This isn't about being in it for the money, it's about whether or not you're an attention whore. You can easily not be in it for the money and also keep your images to yourself, or share them within the channels you control (your social media, your website, etc). The false sense of recognition you get by having a brand pilfer your images is just that, and nothing more. It's not even a participation trophy.

You say "poor PA girl", but at least she's smart enough to get paid for what she's doing.

Getty images does charge a lot for some images, much less per image if it is used by big subscriber and out of 200 million images they offer 35 million for free. iStock Getty subsidiary charge $11 per image or less than 50 cents for subscribers. I use depositphotos that has 140 million images and pay $190 for 360 images and i pay $200 a year for unlimited on envato elements that has 50 million images. All royalty free. I use these images for website development and I can always find acceptable image for close to nothing. I do understand desire of pro photographers to make a living by pressing a shutter, but you are competing with millions of very talented people who do it for fun. Just go to Gurushots.com and compare your photos with others or better yet join and try to get to even elite level.
This site gets 6 billion monthly votes, so you get evaluated by people who don't have a stake in a game. Perhaps it will show you how stiff a competition is and will explain why people are reluctant to pay for your work. I'm not advocating to give away what you consider worth some money, but be realistic about competition and market forces.

Tom Reichner's picture

A friend of mine sells through Getty. He receives an average commission of just over one U.S. dollar for each of his images that are licensed. The gap between macrostock and microstock, between rights managed and royalty free, has closed to the point where there is often little difference at all.

David Wilder's picture

Sam you’re right in regards to stock sights being a source of the problem too. It is something creators have to deal with all the time.

It is a constant worry that if you quote to high that they will just turn to a stock image or other source.

It doesn’t matter who is contacting you for the image, it is with what the person in charge sees as the value.

It it is not ethical to sell millions of dollars worth of a product off of the advertisement of an image that was not paid for. That is a large reason it bothers so many photographers.

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