Asking for 'Free' Social Media Photos Is a Poor Practice

I take a trip to White Castle once a year, against my better judgment usually. This time, I tried (and Instagrammed) their new “Impossible Slider” which is a burger that isn’t made from animals, but tastes and looks like it came from something that mooed.

White Castle noticed the post pretty quick, giving me an emoji high-five. But then it came: they asked for free photography.

In the cheery, corporate way that companies ask, someone from White Castle wrote: "Hey there! We love this picture so much. We would like to repost it to our social pages for advertising purposes, but need you permission to do so. Just reply to us with a simple “yes” or even a “👍” to give us your approval! Thanks a bun! (Plz excuse the puns)"

Some misspellings were thrown in there to make it look genuine, even. But clearly, they don’t love the photo enough to pay for it. I replied with (and messaged): “@whitecastle I am a photographer, and so much like selling these tasty burgers are your livelihood, photography is mine - I’m happy to discuss purchasing the photo at a reasonable rate for advertising, would you let me know if you are interested in that! Thank you!”

The response was less than cheery: “Hey there! Unfortunately we are no longer interested. Thank you!”

The company didn't even bother to ask me about a price. They know that if I say no, the next Instagrammer will say yes. Just take a look at their Instagram feed, where plenty of people who don’t make their livelihood off of photography have obliged.

Confusing Usage Rights

I'm singling out White Castle as it's the most recent example of this happening to me, but this scenario is far from uncommon on social media. In the last few years, I've had Mazda, Newsday, Krispy Kreme, Canon, and Syracuse University all approach me for photos, and they're not always clear about how they will be used.

Sometimes I've said yes, and sometimes I said no. If it was a cute photograph of my son, or a photograph that showed pride in my alma mater, I agreed to the request. But if the requester treated me poorly, as did White Castle and Newsday, I said that they couldn't use my photo without paying me. At that point, the interest in the photos disappeared.

At times, the companies really overreach - Newsday wanted to use my photo on their social media and print editions of the newspaper. I've been paid for photos that have appeared in their newspaper in the past. I've been paid for words I've written for them. Why should I be treated any differently if the photo came from social media? Oh, right, because they got plenty of other folks to give them free photos with their #dayinthelifeli hashtag.

With Mazda, what seemed to be an agreement to only feature my photo on the official Mazda USA social pages spiraled out of control as many regional and international Mazda dealers started using my photo. They all apologized and took the photos down whenever I asked, though.

I was OK with Syracuse using my photo for social media, but I should have been more careful when their request added the "various media" bit - my son ended up on the school's alumni calendar and I didn't know until I got one!

Universities generally build up a lot of school pride, and so it's one thing for an alma mater to request a photo. It's another thing for a corporation to do the same.

The biggest problem demonstrated here is that there is no uniform way companies are requesting and using photos on social media. They all make the request that appears as if it's only to repost on social media, but in reality, some companies are looking to get a lot more mileage out of these photos, and in my case, my inattention to detail led to it happening unexpectedly.

Token Gestures

In all of these cases, I'm always taken aback at how brusque the conversation quickly turns when I suggest any form of compensation. While I allowed Krispy Kreme to use my photo on their social media, I did ask for a small token, even a coupon for free doughnuts which could easily be emailed. The answer was no.

Many of the people taking these photos aren't photographers, and so perhaps it doesn't make sense to compensate people monetarily. But wouldn't it be a nice gesture if Canon offered a voucher for 20 percent off a purchase at their online store for every photo they used on their Instagram page? How about a digital coupon from White Castle for a free Impossible Slider? It's only $2, and it would at least make me feel like I didn't pay to be featured on their Instagram page. I didn't get my Impossible Slider for free, so it's only breaking even.

It's not even about the money here. It's about giving a small bit back to your customers who are loyal enough to create a social media post to promote your brand, rather than pushing them away with a negative response. It's still not a freelance photography rate or anything, but anything is always better than nothing.

White Castle's comments on my Instagram page, and their cold response to my request for payment.

I let White Castle know that I was going to write about this response. I'm still hoping they, or their Impossible Burger partner, will perhaps make it right, but that's probably wishful thinking.

What's abundantly clear though from the whole experience, is that the system of compensation on social media is broken. Many, many companies mine social media for their promotional materials, and every photo they get free further breaks the system for photographers trying to make an honest living.

Share Your Strategies

Do you have your own strategies when dealing with requests for photos from your social media? Share them in the comments below!

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72 Comments

Todd Boyer's picture

Thank you for writing this. I've had similar experiences, with similar outcomes.

Hugh Dom's picture

As a hobbyist photographer I understand both sides; that a pro should be paid for their work but the PR at those companies would always like to spend as little of their budget as possible, as well. Yes, a coupon or two would be the nice thing to do but their Accounting will probably start asking questions if the "freebies" add up, plus now corporate will have to pay back their franchises on those which would cost them more on accounting now than what is really worth. In the end, I feel both side are just doing their jobs.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

It's hard for me to agree with your last sentence. The way I see such scenario is photographer asking for fair deal while company is coloquially speaking, trying to rob an individual. So unless given company perceives deception of customers as a key point of their business model I would say they are simply not dping their job.They may think they do (as you've noticed) but they do not.

Hugh Dom's picture

We are talking about the burger case where they were only inquiring about usage and didn't actually use right ?? So there was no robbing or deception nor intend unless you think they shouldn't even inquire in the first place ? However, how would they know if a photo is done by a pro or a reg folk, who may just happened to have taken a very good shot that time ?

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Hugh, indeed no harm was done in this case. As for intentions I would say lack of response after mere suggestion of compensation is a clear indicator this company wanted something for free.
And does it make any difference if picture author is a pro or not? If a high school kid is mowing a lawn for his neighbours does it mean he should do it for free becuse he is not a professional landscaper? Clearly he will not take professional fee but his work has to be worth somethibg. It's really all about decency.

Hugh Dom's picture

There is no doubt they want it for free, that was already well established in the article. I'm just saying I see the other side of the story to which you don't agree and that is fair. The decency here is they at least asked, as said in the article and comments, many these days don't even and to equate both in the same league is not only far from being fair but downplays the real sin of the bigger issue.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Hugh, it seems we agree in a very general sense but perhaps I am expecting companies to be more accountable in such situations. I just believe they should represent a higher moral ground considering the influence they have on society.

One more thought. Let's for a moment reverse the scenario. Imagine me walking into White Castle and telling associate their Impossible Slider looks really delicious on those posters and if I could have had one of them for free. I would make it clear that while I'm not going to pay for it, I would be very happy to tell all my friends and associates how good this slider is and give White Castle more exposure.

Awkward? Certainly. Indecent? Perhaps. Would WC collapse if they gave me this slider for free? Certainly not but why should they oblige, especially when other customers in the line are there to pay for their food.

Sean Gibson's picture

Ever hear of Market Value? If they can find similar photos for free, then no, your photo isn't worth anything. It may be harsh, but it's reality. "Don't hate the player, hate the game".

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Sean, I'm sorry but I feel this logic is flaved.
Companies obtain free photos because some people do not know potential value of their work. Marketing departments of those companies scouting for free material know however that there is actual value in those images. They know that using those free photos in ad campaign will potentially generate X amount of profit. It's a perfect example of "one man's trash is another man's treasure" situation.

The photos are not wortless on it's own in terms of market value if someone is trying to obtain them for commercial purposes. It's more of a question whenever the owner cares or knows he can make profit off of them.
I'm not hating neither players nor the game but in this case the game becomes ruthless only because the players are.

A mechanic will disassemble old car and sell the parts. Many people however will donate their old car to charity for free because they lack time, knowledge and other resources to maximize profit out of it. But is this car worthless if charity is able to monetize it?
I'm not hating neither players nor the game but in this case game is ruthless only because some players are.

Sean Gibson's picture

What logic... Market Value is a Fact of life. I never said it wasn't wrong or shitty of companies, or that there isn't a different "personal value" to a photograph either, but it is what it is. When you sell a house, car etc., nobody cares what you think it's worth, or how much sweat you put into it - only someone's willingness to pay for it will truly determine what it is worth in the "real world".

Perhaps you need to look at it this way; If they can get a similar photograph for free, maybe it's because it didn't take much effort for the other person to create it. This means your work may not be as good/unique as you think, and you should spend more effort trying to separate yourself from those other people. Easier said than done sometimes I know, but it's the reality of the situation.

I hesitated getting into sports photography for 3 years because everyone kept saying that all parents now have good digital cameras, and people like MaxPreps were at every High School game already. Then I finally realized that all they were doing was trying to capture the catch, hit, etc., and none of them were looking at it from a creative perspective. I decided to try and capture images that people would want to frame and hang on a wall as decor, as opposed to just another photo of their kid catching a ball to keep on their phone. I'm still in my first full year in sports, but I'm now confidant that not a single person at a game will come away with their best shot looking better than my top 20. I still have a way to go to be where I want to in my head, but stepping back to see how I could be different than my competition in an overly saturated market, was a huge step for me. Just thinking everyone should do that on a regular basis, and maybe it would have a similar affect.

r wr's picture

No matter who took the picture, doesn't it have some value? In downplaying photos perceived to be taken by "reg folk," as you say, you're inherently devaluing the work of professionals.

Hugh Dom's picture

Not disagreeing but just stating the fact that many are already and very willing, which is why the PR people seek them out.

the former lacky's picture

HAHAHAH I take a lot of pictures of graffitti artists and I have started photoshoping the name off the cans when I remember or when you can see them clearly . but this weekend I am bringing Ducttape and covering the cans with it so no names are visable, HAHAHAH I reached out to all of them and never got a response so no more free advertising with me , now its game on. Sooner or later someone will reach out to me and ask why and we will see what happens. I dont have a large following at all on IG but the spray paint companys are like high school girls and sooner or later it will get back to them and they will ask why am I so mean and nasty about it all HAHAHAHA what ever man gives me practice retouching for the real gigs when I get them .

Sean Gibson's picture

ha, that's funny. Maybe take a photograph with/without the names showing, just so you have it if they ever do want to pay for one.

the former lacky's picture

I do , but in the area and nitch photography I been playing in, photos with the names showing are a dime a dozen. So i rather NOT GIVE ANY thing away unless they pay and at that point they should send me stuff to work with . I already shoot things for a few small street gear companys and they dont have money to pay so they let me keep what they send and that is cool with me at least they are trying to pay. Those little companys know what its like to struggle. Hopefully they will remember me when they get bigger and then we will talk about greenbacks for payment but for now I am fine with what they give me.

Matthew Saville's picture

I've had business entities use my imagery on Instagram without my permission, and they think it's "all good" as long as they give credit. I message them directly, to inform them that I have a commercial license fee for usage, even in low-resolution web / social media usage.

Their response, inevitably, is something like "Oh, usually photographers are happy to let us share their work, we always give credit!" (Meanwhile, half their posts don't have credit lol)

The crazy thing is, I don't even have that many followers / likes on IG, and yet some of these companies have LESS following than I do.

My response to their response, of course, is always "Fortunately, I am well past that point in my career, which may be part of the reason you liked my photo so much that you wanted to use it to promote your own business. You are literally using my business produced, to increase the profits of your business. Please consider budgeting for image licensing in the future when attempting to use social media to promote your own product or service."

Matthew Saville's picture

Also, a recent video by Zack Arias about a certain "100% free" commercial licensing website is very, very eye-opening on this subject.

Sure, many small startup companies may not have a budget to throw every single photographer $100 for a one-time Instagram post. HOWEVER, Zack points out at least one instance in which an advertising campaign with a FORTY THOUSAND DOLLAR BUDGET....went and used /free/ stock images, with no credit given, of course.

So yeah, "free exposure" might be nice once or twice if you've got nothing to lose and you actually DO gain something from it. However 75-90% of the time you're just getting cheated out of a nice licensing fee, and most of the rest of the time you're still harming the status quo in general, by not atl east ASKING for a license fee.

Brian Schmittgens's picture

I've been contacted by the same winery on four separate occasions to use images I've taken there. I don't know if they are paying so little attention that they don't realize they've asked before, but it always goes down pretty much the same way: They say how much they love the photo and would love to use it on their website, social media, etc. I respond letting them know I'd be more than happy to license the photo to them for an industry standard rate. They say they were hoping I'd just let them use it because they have no marketing budget and it would be great exposure for me. $30/bottle for wine, $250+/night to stay in a villa, $40+ entrees at their restaurant, and they have no marketing budget.

No sense in getting worked up, though.

Todd Boyer's picture

Would be fun to find an ad for them, and respond back about "no advertising budget".

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Just write them that you love their winery and would love to stay there for a week with all inclusive and you'll tell all your friends about it.

Lee Christiansen's picture

How do companies want to market themselves, but have no marketing budget?

I wonder if they want to have light in their rooms, but have no electricity budget. Or need to do their tax returns, but have no accountancy budget...

Problem is that there enough people out there with a camera who will accomodate this greed to retain profits - because that is what it is... There is always money, but companies would prefer to keep their money, whilst unthinking dimwits fund them.

lawrence King's picture

Odd that so many companies appear to have no marketing budget!

Rob Davis's picture

In this situation the request honestly doesn't really bother me. Other times they usually do. It's their product, their designs and even their location that you used to make the photo. While there are plenty of egregious examples of corporate mooches, this doesn't seem to be one. You paid the personal-use rate for the burger, but you're using it to promote your business.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I was posting the photo more in amazement of how the Impossible Slider actually tasted like a burger, on my personal page. I'm not sure how that's promoting my business?

Rob Davis's picture

As a photographer, any image is promotional to a certain extent. I'm sure it's not your best work though. :)

The Beyond Meat burger is also pretty great. I'm not wild about the faux blood in the Impossible Burger. That's great for a steak, but not a burger.

If you ever find yourself in a town with a Veggie Grill, check it out. It's amazing what they're doing and I say that as a meat eater.

stir photos's picture

"... great for a steak" how dare you sir! hahaha... sometimes a good high quality steak is so great tho... haha http://www.tzr.io/yarn-clip/99913ad1-8b12-4914-9a28-58354c035f0b

Rob Davis's picture

Medium Rare is usually pink to reddish. Mmmm....

I am trying to cut down on my meat consumption though.

John MacLean's picture

I started going to the Veggie Grill in El Segundo, CA when they opened. I got to know the 2 partner/owners T.K. and Kevin quite well. I moved away from CA in 2012 and I miss them dearly. Been eating plant-based since 1991 and their menu just keeps looking better. Hopefully they'll get to the East Coast sooner than late. But I digress...

Sean Gibson's picture

ha, good point. Different if he actually took the photos at home in his studio.

Garrett Nelson's picture

As others have pointed out, I too see both sides. But let’s not kid ourselves: companies hire savvy social media people to harvest free advertising for themselves.

Give you another (aggregious) example:

Here in Las Vegas, the El Cortez Hotel and Casino has crafted this incredible narrative on Instagram (and Twitter to some degree) using photography that tells a story or creates a feeling or a vibe. It’s a great pro-Vegas feed... not always about the El Cortez itself. Problem is: unless it’s a photo of some payout in a machine or occasionally a drink shot, almost every picture was someone else’s!

The problem (or benefit) to Instagram is that they don’t allow retweeting or reposting. So if you want to share someone’s pic, you screenshot it and then repost it. This is what they do. They put your original account name in the comments but they never ask for permission and because your account name appears in the comments you are never notified they did this. They did this to me and I’m not sure how I found out but I sent them a message telling them to ask next time, and they never replied.

On twitter, they’re worse. They’ll post the “stolen” image with no credit.

They have built up this image on social media on the backs of others and instagram makes it damn near impossible to stop them. I can fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork to have them take mine down but I cannot ask for others.

A couple of us made an issue of it publicAlly on Twitter and they merely said they would review their social media policies. But nothing has been removed.

This is a worse example of the author of this articles premise.

Yes, I didn’t have it removed (yet) because as I’m not a paid photographer I was just flattered (idiot) I just shot an interesting pic downtown and their hotel was in the reflection of my car.

Funny stat: they got several hundred likes on my image. My original post got a couple dozen. Haha

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I've seen so many Instagram feeds that build insane followings just by reposting other photographers' content without asking. It's a sad state of affairs.

lawrence King's picture

The part thats sad is that most of the time they bean count posting others photos. The value in the use of the photo vs the chance that someone will take it through the courts x the cost of each settlement.

Dave F's picture

For a while I was getting local businesses asking to repost my Instagram photos, to which I would give a similar reply to those mentioned above (about charging for my work). It was a little annoying, sure, but recently it's gotten much worse: a lot of businesses are just reposting without even asking first (though they still give "credit"). I don't have that many followers (about 3k) but the "exposure" argument goes right out the window when most of them have fewer followers than I do (not that it's a valid argument, but it makes their intentions even more transparent). Best case they don't know any better, but I'm wondering how many went the 1st route already and decided to just start banking on the fact that it's exasperating to chase down everyone that steals a picture. Plus I'm mostly posting cityscapes so it's not like my pictures even have anything to do with their business or product, other than that we live in the same city.

Unfortunately, I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt when contacting them, otherwise you're the bad guy. So I've started copying/pasting the following reply and sending it as a direct message:

"​Hi! I appreciate your interest in my work, however in the future it's best to check with the content owner prior to reposting something. While I grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, I generally charge for business use because it's considered advertising. I realize Instagram seems like a gray area but the platform isn't a stock site, so reposting anything is technically copyright infringement unless prior consent is given.

Just something to be aware of since a lot of professionals are using social media for their work, just like your business does. Thanks!"

Some apologize, some try to justify it, some just never respond (even though it gets marked as "seen"). But I've yet to find anybody who actually offers to rectify the situation monetarily.

lawrence King's picture

As has been mentioned before if you say no they will move on to the next persons until they get a yes. As a result of smartphones and social media there are millions of images of the same thing and you only need 1% to be decent or lucky shots to have a big enough pool to go fishing of free images. And when I say 1% that assumes that they even know what a quality images is or whether they settle for above average, in which case thats about 50% pool to go fishing. The result is that the pros are being squeezed out of certain areas and hence having to find niches that previously didn't exist.

Billy Walker's picture

The reality is photographers have no one to blame but themselves as so many photographers are more than willing to give away their images, including the writer of this article as he mentions this very fact as part of the story.

The moral of the story? Stop giving away images period! Sad to say, and the story delves into this as well, White Castle will absolutely find some other photographer to give away their images free of charge. And, White Castle knows this as well. In fact, most of the world knows how many photographers are willing to give away their images. There are probably way more that will give away their work free of charge than those that will only sell their work.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

You are correct. I feel like an idiot to have given away the photos to Mazda and Krispy Kreme. The one I actually don't mind is my alma mater, but that's the only one.

lawrence King's picture

It's cyclic though. Take Weddings as a prime example. You get a hobbyist who buys a £300 camera does a wedding produces mediocre images and gets away with not having to price all the elements of a true business (insurance, second bodies, lenses, batteries etc) charges £500 for the wedding (prob still overpriced). Goes on to insta filters the S**t out of all the photo. Everyone makes comments as to how awesome the photos are (because they often don't know the difference being bombarded with so many photos on a daily basis from social media). All their friends and family see them a coo over them (because of who is in them and not due to the IQ). Then the next person comes to have a wedding and believes the true market price of a Wedding photographer is £500 so when a pro-pro comes a long with a £1500 price the perception is that the pro is ripping them off, or ask for some discount because another photographer is charging £500. And when the £1500 photographer won't budge the couple go on social media and slate the photographer for asking £1500. And of couse there is no recource because they have not said anything un true ie they were quoted £1500....

Douglas Turney's picture

To all who are posting here that say they have found people using their photos without permission, you do have some recourse as YOU OWN THE RIGHTS! We still have copyright law. Get a copy of "The Copyright Zone". We don't have to be a-holes when someone uses our photos, because lots of people simply don't know they are doing anything wrong, but we do need to stand up for our rights. I've had a few cases where the people truly didn't know they couldn't repost my images. I asked them nicely to take them down and they were very nice and complied with my request. I know of photographers who have had their entire IG reposted by other IG users as their own work.

lawrence King's picture

I don't think anyone is in disagreement. The problem is the time and effort required to chase all these instances of copyright against individuals vs actually receiving any remuneration. With the ease of being able to copy and repost photos on social media about 2 seconds? you could end up retiring from photography and spend all your time chasing copyright.

Douglas Turney's picture

With patents that is a business model, sue and sue some more, one that is getting out of hand for other reasons. However if at least some people start forcing their copyrights, the word might get out on the street that there is a risk you might get caught. Remember Napster? Of course that was on a huge scale, but once people started to get sued it put the fear in others. Yes you can still steal music today just like you could decades ago but it isn't like the golden years of Napster.

Perhaps it's time social media like IG start taking copyright violations seriously for their users.

Taz Rahman's picture

Buzzfeed asked to use some photos I took at a rally a couple of years ago, I said let's discuss money and it didn't go anywhere. I was actually at the rally with the purpose of taking photos that would be uploaded to news stock, for publicising later. Personally, I have never had anyone through social media wanting to pay for photos so have concluded that it is not going to happen.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Funny how after all this went down last week (7 days ago) White Castle posted a call for free photos from Instagram users of the Impossible Slider. I wonder if it was in response to my comments to them?

David Dufourq's picture

Sounds like it! Where's there honour? Don't they any self-respect... really.

Anonymous's picture

The sad truth is that many non-photographers on social media don't care enough to pay for a photo they saw on Instagram. I usually just let businesses repost for advertising purposes, but only as long as they give me proper credit, and yes I'm a professional photographer but I just chose to do that because there are benefits.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

They know that there is enough decent usable free stuff out there so why pay for it? I have done trades if it is something that has enough value and I want it (or can sell LoL). I know an art buyer who sometimes has to look on flickr or IG or other sites for stuff for big time ads. She said sometimes it's hard to pay people, they don;t want money just having their photo used in enough satisfaction. Usually she convinced them to take $$$.

Just don't bent out of shape by it - it's the new economy.

Martin Peterdamm's picture

In the latest past I heard from some of my friends, they are doing social media photos cheaper, because it is just instagram and facebook. This is total nuts, this shitty social media is nowadays more important than any shitty adv. on dead trees, much more people see it - there is no reason, besides masochism to do this any cheaper

Dominic Deacon's picture

Genuinely curious: if you post an image publicly on social media isn't anyone allowed to repost that within the bounds of that social media site? Don't we sign over those rights when we sign up and that's what the "share" button is all about? If that's not the case then every second image on those sites is a breach of copyright which I strongly doubt is the case.

There's a huge difference to me between reposting an image on instagram and, say, asking to use it on a billboard. You didn't take the image as a commercial undertaking. It was just a quick snap to show you'd been to Whitecastle, which you then taggged Whitecastle in on because that gives your post greater reach. They don't want that image because it's amazing. They want to show that coming to whitecastle is a social media worthy experience and foster a sense of community.

It's not a dig at your professionalism. They probably didn't know you were a pro when they contacted you. 99% of people they ask will just say "yeah!" because it will be a bit of fun for them being noticed by a restuarant they like.

Steve White's picture

So I'm curious: I'm an amateur photographer. I can generate some reasonably decent images. In no way shape or form am I a professional. But I do get the argument that 1) if a business wants to use an image for commercial purposes then they should pay for it and 2) photographers have to make a living. With that in mind, my question --

-- why would professional photographers post anything on Instagram or Twitter?

You KNOW your images are going to be mis-used. You KNOW people are going to steal them, use them, perhaps even use them commercially. You KNOW you're not going to get paid.

I'm an amateur. You couldn't possibly persuade me to put my images on Instagram, and I'm convinced that I have very few that would be worth anything commercially. So why would a pro who DOES generate high quality images put said images in social media so that they can be stolen?

I'm curious -- seriously. I don't see the appeal of putting images into media where they can be stolen so easily.

Dominic Deacon's picture

I guess because if you're making stuff you do it because you want people to see it. Social media lets you work be seen, helps build your brand and I'd say the drawbacks are limited.

I don't think there is a lot of theft from social media. I'm not sure reposting an image even is theft. I suspect that's covered by terms of use and ultimately it just brings more eyeballs to my page. As far as theft for commercial brands websites etc I've had that happen a couple times but it's never been from social media. The images are too small and compressed. They get those from google and taking them from my website. Which is not great practice on their part but is not something I can't get too worked about. Ultimately I haven't lost anything after all.

Usman Dawood's picture

A scene from Goodfellas comes to mind...

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