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

It may be not ethical and not fair, but it is a reality of free market. According to whoever made a decision not to pay you for your work, your work can be replaced with somebody else work who will do it for free. Some people do freelance writing for free just to get published. Some people pay to put their work into gallery. And I'm even not talking about all these college students getting into huge loans on a (most of the time) false promise of the good job. If you need to build a portfolio to show future clients that you are real pro, then go ahead and do it for free. But if you are already established, then advertise your work and knock on the doors trying to sell your craft. Good website will be a good start. Winning some competitions would be even better.

> 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.

This is moral stupidity and practical stupidity.

First of all, if someone gives you something, of course you can use it any way that you like. That a third party has fantasies about getting rich supplying the same thing is irrelevant. The creator of the thing is happy: that's all that morally matters.

Secondly, no one was ever going to sell millions of dollars of products based on your image. An intern wanted it for social media where individual pictures matter damn all mailed you. You were never on the verge of a big break, you never had the attention of anyone with authority to pay for images. You're living a fantasy where your work - which is very standard iphoneography - is much important than it actually is.

David Wilder's picture

I’m not entirely sure why you are so aggressive in tone. If you actually read the article you would see the part where I mention I am told to contact their marketing department. Not just their intern via “the dm’s”. Obviously I did some researcher before contacting them and it turns out one of the largest marketing firms in North America with a list of employees and positions. I also have a very well known photographer friend who was contacted by the same people for licensing his work for years. He speaks for them at several conferences a year. Trust me when I say it was the right people to talk to.

Look if this was just about a social media feature then I would not have wrote the article. But you must have skipped over the part where I explain the first contract that was sent was complete full rights to use the image. They wanted the option/freedom to use it in any ad or marketing materials they wanted. Worldwide, perpetually, non exclusively with no payment and the option to not add credit. For example a magazine add without my name. They wanted full commercial freedom and when I turned that down they turned around and sent a very precise social media contract.

The point is this marketing was not an intern, they knew what they were asking. It was a bait and switch. Tell me it was for social, hope I don’t read or understand the contract and get an image for free and sell very expensive product off it for however long they want.

Short of posting the emails and contracts this is what I can provide, without the risk of being sued.

Finally I’m not sure why you feel the need to attack my work. If you actually take a look at my work you would see it’s not possible to get the results I do from smart phones.

So please I am curious why do you have such a huge chip on your shoulder?

If it was "very standard iphonography", no one would take even half a second to contact the photographer for permission. You seem to think all photography is, is clicking a damn button. If it was, professional photographers wouldn't exist.
Your entire argument (littered with disrespect for someone's craft and hardwork) is based on the assumption that this article is about snapshots that anyone with a camera could capture with a click.
Hint: It's not.

This article is about professionals who create images worth being contacted about, giving away their work for free. It's NOT about amateurs or smartphone snapshots. Nobody in their right mind contacts anyone for usage of those images. Do you understand the difference between the two scenarios?

This entire discussion has nothing to do with "everyone is a photographer" masses. If you think professional photographers are expecting or demanding a fee for snapshots that anyone with a camera and a spare finger could produce, then you seem to be entirely deluded and missing the point.

Have some respect for talent and understand that these people, who have invested extraordinary amounts of time and effort and have the talent, are not so stupid to think they deserve a fee for creating "smartphone snapshot" grade images.

If you aren't a professional photographer or artist, that people and/or businesses have ever contacted about using your product, then this article wasn't meant for you. Your juvenile assumptions don't make it a valid argument.

> If it was "very standard iphonography", no one would take even half a second to contact the photographer for permission

This is idiotic. We're talking about an intern who'll post thousands of images a year.

Huh, what? That intern is NEVER going to contact anyone for a smartphone snapshot. Get it? It's an intern, not a doorknob.

After I became "woke" to this issue (I just had to appropriate the lingo, sorry)... I quickly distanced myself from the narcissistic behavior of giving away my images for "ego strokes." I'm not a professional photographer in that it's not my primary source of income, but I do sell images, and I do get my ego satisfied by volunteering photographic work at non-profits, shelters, civic theaters, etc.
A heads-up to all here: Many on-line or magazine "competitions" also appropriate your submissions... read the contest rules and fine print. Often it is a means for these companies or organizations to build a royalty-free database of images they can and will use in their for-profit endeavors. Sleazy...

David Wilder's picture

Hey y’all

I appreciate everyone’s point of view and passion over this topic. That’s why I wrote it, but
Let’s be civilized and speak to one another respectfully. We can disagree gracefully.

I disagree gracefully. Your assertion is that amateurs who either give away their photos literally free or figuratively free are the problem. Because the photos have financial value to someone else, the photog should sell those photos. If they don't, then they are causing harm to all the pros and that's the problem *every* photog should be concerned about.

I get that Fstoppers is a focus on the pro and hope to be pro audience. Your solution to your problem is for everyone else to behave a different way. Specifically, hobbyists or amateurs who make quality work should turn professional or at least say no to all requests for (free) redistribution. Seriously? I think you have misjudged the audience. (Yes, I have read all the other threads up to this point, yes I have read your assertion about other professions, yes I am clear how hobbyists/amateurs cut into clientele/profits, and yes I still think you misjudged the audience.)

I get that you had a "make it to the pinnacle" moment and the whole thing didn't turn out how you expected. The resolution to your "betrayal" is *not* to tell others what is appropriate behavior.

Out of curiosity. How much you would consider is fair for royalty free use of your image on social media? How much do you want for extended use (generally means anything)? How much money we are talking about? For example on depositphotos.com even if you buy individual photo, extended use is $89 (you get right to resell it, any commercial use and right to print more than 500000 copies). In my opinion they have some great images and extended use allows you to Photoshop them any way you want.

Joe Svelnys's picture

It's a good discussion to have, and has plagued the digital arts since they have been around. Though I'm new to photography itself, I was constantly asked to do graphic design, website building, animation, or 3d modeling.. ect... ect.. ect.. for free, or better put, "for credit"... and I did for a little while; but roughly ten years ago it clicked in my head and I stopped, and started asking for some actual compensation. I will still do free work form time to time, but it is on my terms only. This last Fall I did some soccer photography for a local children's nonprofit, for nothing more then a "Thank You"...

Nick Rains's picture

There is another angle here, not mentioned. If you date back to pre-internet days, as I do, it was very hard to get (magazine) assignment work without being already published, and you could not show published work if no-one gave you a chance in the first place. Classic Catch-22 and a very typical experience for photographers starting off in the 70s and 80s.

This is where the 'giving away images' can be actually useful even if there is no direct link to bookings etc. You can show what we used to call 'tear sheets' and this gives you at least some potential leverage. If I show images that I can demonstrate have been used by Apple, Microsoft, insert major brand here; that might be impressive to a new client. They won't ask how much I got paid!

If your website shows images tagged with big brand names, and linking to the use, that can add to your own branding too. You can even list them as clients because you do have an actual agreement with them.

Further to comments above, non-professional photographers have always given their work away for nothing - it's obviously an ego-stroke to see one's work in print - even if it annoys people who make their living that way. Nothing will change, just be better and/or different.

Same happened to me earlier this year. I was contacted by perhaps same brand, asked to give away a photo to be used for a certain national day event, they sent me a document that would give away pretty much all possible rights for the photo in exchange for being credited. I asked them to come back with a better offer, that doesn't give away all photo rigjts for nothing in such a one sided deal, they came back with a revised document that would only grant social media rights, still only for credit. I suggested to them that they could either also give me one of their products and I would grant them manufacturer credit when I will use it, or I could alternatively upload the photo to 500px and they can acquire the license type that fits their purpose. Never heard back from them.

Terry Poe's picture

I had a similar interaction with DHL. They asked for the image of DHL boat that I took in Venice (https://domainmarketresearch.com/7pl-org-domain-name-for-sale/) for use on social media. When I sent them the link to payment cart they lost any interest.

I don't even consider requests for images in exchange for credit line, like ever. No free ride is a rule of thumb in these situations. Credit line does not pay the bills.

Hi David, thanks for this post.

This is a true confirmation of what most creatives go through when they give out their work for free. Every photographer holds the camera again and again out of love. I cannot deny the good feeling one gets every time you see unique images on your camera after hard work and sacrifice which goes hidden beneath your portfolio. (Its only a photographer who knows what is under while the viewer just enjoys the view)

I will share something brief of my past experience,
Back in the days when I used to be a graphic Designer, most clients just enjoyed the view of what I did for them without paying for Designs. This drained me completely, I ended up hating the job. Lucky enough I used to take photos while I design as a side hustle. I used to pick my camera go shooting often to ease Graphic Design stress.

Finally I left Design completely.

Got into photography knowing very well that all work I do goes for a Price. Nothing is for free. What is beneath its only the photographer who knows. Those who don't realize it end up hurting themselves.

Any client who needs that amazing image you have captured, let them pay the price of what is beneath it.

(this will save you depression)

Kjell Vikestad's picture

A big problem is the amount of amateur photographers that are more than willing to let someone use their photo for free, just to get their picture on display. And many amateurs are really good photographers, but they don’t see the hole “picture”. It´s very easy to be flattered when someone wants to use your picture, and don’t see that this is only a way to save their own expenses and not really appreciate your picture som much that they are willing to pay for the use.

Deleted Account's picture

Sad fact of the matter is so many are trying to make a living with photography and the barriers to entry are so low. It doesn't take too too long to be reasonably competent in using the equipment and post processing software. Especially with so many people trying to make a living by training amateurs to use more sophisticated photography techniques and software. I've been an amateur photographer for over a decade, and I'd probably allow free use of some of my images but a fee would be better. I'm glad I'm not trying to make money off of photography. It looks tough for most except the small few that break through.

If I allowed use of an image for credit I'm not going to feel bad about the full time photographer trying to make a living at this. If you love photography and want to make it a career I think you have to accept the fact that lots of amateur/semi-amateurs can compete with you with images that can be just as compelling as yours. And they may do so for free to try to make the transition to professional photography. dog eat dog. Are the professional photographers in the room saying they never did it for credit when they were starting out?

"If I allowed use of an image for credit I'm not going to feel bad about the full time photographer trying to make a living at this. If you love photography and want to make it a career I think you have to accept the fact that lots of amateur/semi-amateurs can compete with you with images that can be just as compelling as yours."

This seems to be a common theme among amateurs who allow their images to be used for free, but it's the wrong argument because it misses the point. This isn't about taking work away from other photographers. It's about why you seem so oblivious to the fact that businesses are using your images to make money for themselves, and why you're so content to do that for free. It's not about valuing the work of professionals, it's about placing some value on yourself. Most of the benefits that amateurs think they're getting by letting their work be used for free are figments of your imagination. The more people realize this, the less willing they'd be to give it up so easily. This isn't an issue of amateur vs. professional, it's about ignorance and a false sense of accomplishment.

It's one thing to be oblivious and give away images for free because you haven't yet been told it's a bad idea; it's another thing entirely to stick your head in the sand once you're confronted with the reality of the situation.

Deleted Account's picture

I've actually never significantly bothered with even posting photos to social media let alone allowed use for free by others. I take my photos for me, but if a landscape photography mag or similar online entity wanted to use one of my images for free I'd be more interested in getting my "hobby" image onto something like that. If it was some big company it makes sense that you should expect to be compensated. I wouldn't say it's a false sense of accomplishment to an amateur, as you say, depending on the circumstances of who uses the image and in what way...that's just your opinion.

Personally I have no interest in moving towards being a professional photographer. It looks like a downright difficult way to make a living. As far as being a point of taking work away from other photographers, that was first made by someone else above not me. If it's not about that why should you or anyone else care if I allow free use of my images? I'm not really in this for the money. Not that I wouldn't take it if offered.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Free for access, that, I have done, but it does lead to selling prints or usage. However, it's not stuff I could make serious money with unless I was to dedicate more time and effort. As a commercial photographer, my clientele is mostly 8-5. I work weekends, evenings, holidays and so on as needed and 16 hours is not uncommon but it's all work for those 8-5 clients.
I must say, I really don't care if amateurs don't get paid for their work, it's their problem, they are decision makers. There is a big turn around of free photographers in that free image industry. I do enjoy the benefits and as we are turning to the next decade, I don't think I could have benefited with more advanced technology if it wasn't for the massive amount amateur have spend this past 10 years. I get access to the entire Adobe collection of software now for a fraction of what it would have cost me 15 years ago for example. Some Godox stuff shows up on ebay for 1/3 of new, etc, however my clients couldn't care less as they hire me for a service they know I'll provide each time on time and the way they want it.
But notice how the camera industry sales is going down. I don't know if that mean we are going back to a more professional industry or what, but the pros will buy equipment when needed, that I know.

Deleted Account's picture

I've thought about your last paragraph before, but I think there will always be amateurs buying professional level equipment. On the flip side I think in 10-20 years smartphones may very well take images on par with some of today's high end cameras altho professional level equipment will obviously push further.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

When they do, they won't be phones anymore, but cameras with integrated phones. My clients will still want the same service and still won't care what camera was used and still will be at the office 8-5.

Deleted Account's picture

I think anything that automates the capturing of high quality images will chip away at least at the low end of professional photography and smart phones will only continue to do that with the computational things they are doing even with the small cell phone form factor.

I do agree that there will always be a place for professional photographers, especially for studio type work but also in other particular cases.

Tom Reichner's picture

David,

I hope you were paid, and paid fairly, for this article. Writers are struggling to make a living because so many people are willing to write, and give their work away for nothing ..... well, okay, they actually give their writing away for "credit".

I sincerely hope that you are not a part of the huge problem that writers are facing. Things are never going to improve for these creatives until everyone refuses to give their writing away for nothing. I hope that you are giving writers the same respect that you seek as a photographer.

Spike S's picture

This article, like so many others on this topic, ignores one simple, fundamental fact that is driving it all: the *value* of photography has changed, As photography usage moved from print to web, as technical skill became less important except for studio-type work, as usage became temporal - photos could be replace in a minute with the web rather than dealing with a new print run, as "casual" became the rule (look at exec photos for startups), as low cost stock libraries became available (anyone remember expensive stock books?), and so on. The result is that photos are worth less, especially photos that are just purchased over the web.

It's not going to change. Photos and photographers are not going to become more valuable than they are now, but it's certainly possible, maybe likely, that the value of photographs will decline further.

Ian J's picture

I think your comment hits the nail on the head. What is a photo worth, really? I guess that depends on who will be using it, how, and what value you place on it as the creator at the same time. If both parties don't value it financially, then I suppose it's fair to say that yes it's worthless.

Also agree, that the value of an image will continue to decline, especially online, if people continue to use social media currency as a monetary replacement, which is essentially brand "credit", as opposed to financial gain for providing it free of charge.

But then again, to each his/her own, maybe that is enough "pay" for the younger generation, albeit it does damage people who have a family to feed, etc who can't accept social media likes for food and bills. I'm kind of conflicted here, I don't think it's a completely black and white issue, as photography in itself is both a hobby and a profession.

As an amateur photographer, I enjoy posting images and getting acknowledgement from others that they "like" the image. That's what photography contest, blogs, instagram, flickr etc are useful for. I can even see providing free images to a newspaper or magazine to compliment an article.
But, when it comes to a company wanting to use your image for free for a revenue generating purpose, I think we need to reconsider. If it is a company you just want to support (local company, charity etc) then go right ahead. But if it is a profitable company, re-think that freebie. First, why would a profitable company not want to recognize the value of your work by compensating you for it? Second what real validation do you receive by giving your image away to a company that does not recognize its value? How long does that feeling of recognition and accomplishment last? If income is not the issue for you then consider donating the compensation to your favorite charity. Wouldn't that provide a greater since of accomplishment? Company X used my photo in an ad campaign and I was able to use the proceeds to donate to a charity?

David Wilder's picture

The difference between price fixing and asking people not to give images away to brands for free is that we are not trying to inflate a market or price out the anyone. It is about being properly paid for services rendered and exploited just because a company wants to protect their bottom dollar.

Think of why unions exist, not to screw over companies but to protect the workers from exploitation.

They two are not mutually the same but the idea is there. I’m simply saying weather you do this on the weekends or you earn a living everyone shouldn’t let billion dollar companies make millions of dollars from a photo and not get paid.

Nearly all the articles I read about this topic point the finger at the brands being in the wrong. But now one looks in the mirror. This article is supposed to be that mirror.

Seems to be working since people are on edge.

That’s easy enough to answer: These rules apply to businesses. An amateur photographer giving their work away for free, even if to a business, is not a business themselves.

An established business giving away a free service is not the same thing as a private individual giving something away for free, nor is it the same thing as encouraging a private individual to perhaps go into business.

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