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

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Benoit Pigeon's picture

I've been depending 100% on my photography for 20 years. No it's not a waste for your dentist, but then I very highly doubt he opens his basement door to any one to come and play or let anyone play with his guns. Or may be he does? who knows. Can you ask him to send me a gun for free so I can pay him with credit. Thanks in advance.

You are getting silly. Dentist is example of cost of hobby. You are not stupid, you understand that. But I will send you a gun for free if you are famous nationally recognized photographer and will give me a link from your website to my. If you are at Annie Leibowitz level, I will send you two guns. 😁😁

Kenneth Wajda's picture

It’s never going to happen by trying to go after the amateurs giving it away. The only way to get it to change is to equate asking for free, whether from artists, writers, photographers, musicians, etc. — by asking for free, you are essentially begging and the word beggar is attached to you for asking, because most people will not beg.

Most people won’t even ask for a discount at a yard sale. That’s beneath them. We have to change the stigma of asking for it for free as being something that’s perfectly OK to something that’s terribly shameful. Then we don’t have to worry about anybody giving it away because nobody is asking.

I had an idea for a group called Artists United years ago, and the idea was only to support venues that pay their musicians and other businesses that pay artists. Kind of like a SAG signatory kind of agreement. It works for them, it could work for photographers.

But we have to go after the askers, the beggars. Make it shameful to ask for free, to take advantage of artists. Right now there’s no stigma against it, but if it were publicized the people who asked, would the publicity be something that they wouldn’t want?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Good point. Here is an idea:
Say you find 30 photographers giving away their work for free and invite them to a well known photographer seminar. The photographer ask in the middle of the seminar who in the audience gives his/her images for credit.
Now you place 29 photographers giving away their work for free together in a room but they don't know that the 30th is there just to mention that he often gives his work for credit.

How many in each group will admit practicing for credit? How many will stay quiet in each group and why would they not admit? Not to shame people, but I can see a lot of double standard.

Kenneth Wajda's picture

You're probably right about a group mentality, and if hobbyist Dad doesn't know he's taking food off his professional photographer Son's dinner table by giving it away, it won't change. That's why we have to work on making it shameful to ask for it from the buyer, the one who needs art. Especially when they're making money with that art.

I was in a unique situation photographing the flood of 2013 in Lyons Colorado. No one else had any access as the whole town's roads were destroyed and no one could get in or out. But I lived there, so I had an exclusive and sold photos to AP and the Denver and Boulder newspapers for a day and a half.

Then the CBS affiliate in Denver contacted me saying they saw I 'shared' my photos with the papers and AP and asked me to 'share' my photos with them. I said I 'sold' them to the papers and AP, and I would 'sell' them to them, too--reminding them they are running ads during their broadcast. They said never mind, we'll wait for someone to send in a phone shot. (I wish there were a way that viewers could know they didn't put quality first.)

Then a month later, Boulder Magazine asked for photos. I asked their budget. They said they didn't have one unfortunately. I said it's not some unfortunate thing that befell hem, the only reason they didn't have a budget it because they didn't set a budget. But they run pricey luxury car and jewelry ads, and I said when you are a magazine, your only commodity is words and pictures. Why wouldn't you have a budget for them? They said because people always give them for free or they can get them from local chambers of commerce.

I even offered to trade for ad space, and they said they'd give me space in a lesser read Home and Garden magazine, but not the main mag. I said no deal.

We have to make that person asking ashamed to be asking. Right now, it's not unusual. Ask them to go into a grocery store and ask for anything for free. Or into a restaurant and ask. They won't. It's beneath them. We have to make asking for art beneath them. Make them uncomfortable.

Make art cost and create an expectation to pay artists what they're worth.

Then it won't matter how many "hobbyist photographers" would give it away, because no one will be asking.

If there were a very public place where 'art beggars' were listed, like this stolen photo site does [https://stopstealingphotos.com/], would it change the environment for artists? Essentially a Yelp for violators with screen shots and links.

Hey, ArtBeggars.com is available. ;-)

You don't differentiate between beggars and people who don't value your work for as much as you want. In a mind of the people who offer you credit in exchange for your image they offer you more than enough. It is up to you to except or decline. If I was trying to build successful business in photography I would be thrilled to get a link from major brand. I would not only give them image for free but most likely would pay them to do so. In my retail business new link from major manufacturer brings substantial increase to the traffic to my website and to my bottom line. If major brand asked me for free picture I would not hesitate a second and would immediately add their logo to my website as a client.

Kenneth Wajda's picture

If you were building a successful business, those links would do nothing. You could list a hundred Fortune 500 companies right now--no one is checking--but if no one knows you, no one finds you and hires you. Having those names on your site is worthless without the experience and the references and leads to well-paid work. It might be an ego stroke, but you better have another job or savings if you think that's going to support you. I know from experience--I have major corporations in my client list. That's not where the jobs come from, they come from my connections and references, and freebies don't refer.

Kjell Vikestad's picture

This discussion is like sailing up against the wind. The world is organized around power and money, called capitalism. There are two single rules. 1. Getting as much as possible for as little as possible. 2. Giving as little as possible for as much as possible.

In an ideal world all people would get the same pay for the same work, to ensure a good life. The iPad I’m writing on now, is not made and put together in my country. With normal salary, this would mean the iPad would be 2-3 times more expensive.
My camera, lenses, flashes, computer made in my country would be all to expensive for me to buy, so it’s very convenient that they are made in a low cost country where people have low salary and poor living conditions.
I’m only an amateur, but i guess this also applies for most professional photographers. Most of the gear is probably made in low cost country. So the same rule applies. Pay as little as possible for the equipment, although this means workers in low cost countries with poor living conditions. So why should this be any different when people want to buy services from a photographer.
If it was practically possible, a lot of clients would import a low cost photographer from a low cost country with low cost salary and poor living conditions, to save their own expenses.

We are all in the same ecosystem called capitalism. Buy stuffs and services as cheap as possible, and sell our own stuff and services for as high as possible.

An alternative is to divide all the wealth in the world more fairly, but we all know that won’t happen.

Stock image profit??? Now you're learning. There's no profit in stocking your pics with such shysters. Wiser now, ate you?