Is Unsplash really the Devil incarnate for Photographers?

Oct 21, 2021

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

Is Unsplash really the Devil incarnate for Photographers?

Oct 21, 2021

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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It seems like there isn’t a week that goes by that some photographer somewhere or other isn’t bitterly complaining about Unsplash, the stock image site that lets people use photographs for free. The arguments are always similar: Unsplash has ruined stock photography/photography in general, it’s impossible to sell images these days because of Unsplash, they have devalued photography…yada yada yada. Most recently an article by amateur photographer Marcus Platt caught my eye. Now this one was slightly different and had a very personal leaning to it.

Firstly I’d like to clarify that I’m not using the term ‘amateur’ in any kind of way to be disparaging. There are many wonderful photographers in the world who choose not to make a living from their images, and that’s great. We all need something we can be passionate about and enjoy doing. Now we’ve got that cleared up, back to his article.

I’m an amateur photographer. I take photos for fun. I’m thankful to have a full-time job that I don’t dread dragging myself to every day. However, many photographers are trying to earn a living from photography, and I now feel pretty rotten about using Unsplash. – Marcus Platt

Marcus gives a little back story and tells us how during the Covid-19 lockdown he posted some of his images onto Unsplash, mainly due to boredom and to get that little “fuzzy feeling of warmth” from having somebody like something you’ve done. We all need that, probably more so in the past two years than in the previous two decades to be honest.

Marcus, nobody is going to fault you for looking for outside validation. It would be lovely if we were all so self-confident that we didn’t care what anybody thought about us but this is human nature, and these sites, like social media, feed off this desire to get those little hits of dopamine when somebody likes something we’ve done.

He goes on to say how happy he was when one of his images was selected for the editorial feed. Massive hit of dopamine right there, I imagine any of us would be happy to get an image selected. But things began to unravel when he started digging around the internet looking for where his images were being used. Some were credited, some were not, and to his surprise, he even found one of his images being used by Conde Nast Traveller Magazine.

The question continued to gnaw away at me. Why would a large travel magazine website use free Unsplash photos? It felt uncomfortable to me…they have monetary resources to buy stock photography, unlike a small blog or Medium post, the audience I assumed Unsplash caters for most.

Why would a huge internationally renowned Travel magazine like Conde Nast Traveller need to use free stock images? Let’s have a think. Could it be because there’s a pandemic going on and nobody is travelling at the moment? This not only impacts the contributors but also the number of readers buying the magazine. Now Platt admits that it’s highly unlikely that his images appeared in the printed magazine, but one of them was used on the website. Printed magazines, in general, have seen a gradual decline in readership over the past several years, mainly due to the rise of smartphones, social media and internet publishing in general.

Even way back in 2014, Conde Nast Traveller opened itself up to become more of a platform with many contributors, moving away from the traditional publishing route. The then Editor-in-Chief Pilar Guzman said “We are in the business of producing these highly polished images. Social media has trained our eyes to be even more authentic. Our eye has become tired of that totally polished [look].” Added to that is the pressure to provide more reader numbers to sustain advertising profits and you have an online beast that needs feeding with constant content. It is similar to many online magazines and blogs, it’s basically a numbers game.

To be producing (and paying for) so much content including images is certainly possible, and here at DIYP we do try to use paid for stock images when possible, but I would forgive the occasional online use of a free image from Unsplash, as long as the main publication was being supplied by paid photographers on assignment.

Eventually, I recognised that I had effectively denied a sale to a professional photographer in some way. Whether it was a single stock photo sale or something more.

This is highly unlikely. If they weren’t going to pay to use an image they were never going to pay to use an image. Because the budget isn’t there, or they don’t value the work that goes into creating an image.

I’ve got no idea if my photo was used in the magazine print version or even a 30ft billboard somewhere in the world.

Probably not. Actually, I have far fewer qualms with a photographer posting their images onto a site that then get used for free with their consent, than an image that gets used or stolen without the photographer’s knowledge or consent. Or these so-called ‘competitions’ on social media where the ‘winner’ gets to have their photo used in an advertisement. That to me is taking advantage of photographers and people new to photography who don’t know any better. At least anyone posting images on Unsplash is consenting and knows exactly what they are getting into.

Professional Photographers work hard creating photos to sell to clients, and when someone like me (without malice) impacts their livelihood by giving away a possibly inferior image for free through Unsplash is wrong.

Yes, that is true, we do work hard. Extra hard often to over-deliver. It’s not an easy way to make a living, but neither are a lot of things in the creative industries, and I don’t think photography was ever an easy way to earn a living if you talk to professional photographers from years gone by. The bottom fell out of the stock world years ago, Unsplash came on the coattails of that. If you search for something specific on Unsplash you are very unlikely to find exactly what you’re looking for. Clients who hire photographers are generally not going to find what they need on a free site like Unsplash. Besides, what brand wants to risk using the same image as another brand? It’s pretty well known that using stock images reduces the trust factor from potential customers.

While I am no rockstar photographer, the past two years have probably been the busiest for me. I mostly serve local clients, and a mentorship group that I belong to with photographers from all over the world would probably agree with me. There is a thirst for content and images right now. It’s actually one of the best times to be a photographer because so many people need images and videos. There is no clear and easy career path, there is no overnight success. But there never has been. Most overnight successes generally take about 10 years, it’s just that we don’t hear about those years of striving and struggle.

No one should give away their photos for free if they are going to be used commercially.

I disagree with this statement as well. I actually do a lot of work for free, some of that work is used commercially, some of it isn’t. Generally, we need to be perpetually invigorating and updating our portfolios, and to do that you need to be doing personal work. Sometimes in order to gain access, you end up having to do that work as an exchange or for free. I don’t see anything wrong with this, although I’m sure I’ll get vilified for saying it! I even took photos in exchange for cake once for my portfolio. Actually, that was awesome. Forget money, photographing for cake is where it’s at. Funnily enough, it led on to actual paid work, strange how that can happen. And I got more free cake!

Platt says that he has now deleted his Unsplash account because he feels ashamed. I personally wish he hadn’t. Photography is not just a living for me, it’s a passion, and a large part of that enjoyment comes from sharing the images. I have terabytes of images sitting about on hard drives in a drawer, perfectly good images that will never see the light of day. I think that’s a pity, and if I can put those images on a site like Unsplash where they are going to get seen then that’s pretty great. I don’t post my portfolio images or any that could be stock worthy on the site, I’m very careful with what I’ll post. But I do believe in giving back in some small way as well. Last year I co-produced a music education video series with Sound Impact, a non-profit. Due to the tiny budget, we had to use images from free sites such as Unsplash. Although we commissioned an artist to make an original animation for the series I still felt guilty about how many images we had used for free. Adding some of my own images to Unsplash did help assuage that guilt somewhat.

So, to all photographers trying to earn an income of some kind through photography. I’m sorry I used Unsplash. Please forgive me?

Blaming Unsplash for the decline of photography is as outlandish as blaming YouTube and Itunes for the demise of the music industry. Perhaps they had a hand in it, but it was a perfect storm of conditions that all contributed. Blaming a single entity like this is playing the victim and making excuses for your own shortcomings. My advice to any photographer currently disgruntled with Unsplash is to get out of your own way, embrace change and evolve, and concentrate on what you CAN do not what you can’t do. Like Instagram, there’s little to no ROI from Unsplash, but if you accept that and don’t expect anything back then it’s ok. If Unsplash isn’t doing anything for you, then just don’t upload any images to it, nobody is making you!

And to Marcus, please don’t be silly. I think I’m probably speaking for a lot of other photographers when I say that we don’t blame you for using Unsplash! We forgive you ;)

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Alex Baker

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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2 responses to “Is Unsplash really the Devil incarnate for Photographers?”

  1. Arthur_P_Dent Avatar

    No one should give away their photos for free if they are going to be used commercially.

    To quote the great grammarian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Conde Nast Traveler was using the photo editorially, not commercially. A commercial use would be using the photo to illustrate an advertisement. If it’s illustrating a story, it’s not a commercial use, and would be well within an editorial license nor require a model release.

    And please, Wikilawyers, don’t even think about raising the argument that if the magazine or website also has ads on it that it magically transforms any photo on there into a commercial use. The photo is not part of the ad, so it is still being used editorially, not commercially. If that were the case, then every photo in a newspaper would be considered commercially used just because there might be an ad for underwear next to a picture of fighting in Afghanistan.

  2. Marcus Avatar

    Thanks Alex, as the author of the original article, your forgiveness means a lot. :)

    Your use of Unsplash as a professional seems to strike a good balance. With some luck, it could lead to more opportunities if a ‘brand’ really likes your work they find on Unsplash. They could then reach out with some paid work or cake for you!

    I guess they could also reach out to amateurs like myself, and if I were to decline, they’d continue their search for a creative professional anyway. So my ‘amateur’ impact might not be as significant as I first feared?

    I love the idea of Unsplash, with small blogs, nonprofits and small websites using free images. It’s just the thought of the more prominent brands potential cashing in on others generosity that makes me feel a little uncomfortable.