Unsplash is (Still) Bad for Photography

Unsplash is (Still) Bad for Photography

According to their mythology, the creative services company Crew only had a few months of operating cash left. They needed to do something to keep the lights on, and with the leftover images from a commissioned photo shoot, they put up 10 images for anyone to use for free. That website, Unsplash, became a massive repository of free stock images, and more importantly, it became the top referral mechanism for new business for Crew. A side bet turned into the most potent marketing mechanism for the company and literally kept them in business.

Unsurprisingly, building a platform of free photos rubbed many professional photographers the wrong way. So much so, that co-founder Mikael Cho recently penned a defense of the business. I don’t believe that Cho has any malicious intent to harm the photographic industry, but I think the unplanned success of Unsplash has helped him to justify some untenable positions. Let me challenge some of Cho’s claims.

“New platforms don’t kill industries. They change the distribution.”

There have been inherent benefits to the direct-to-consumer platforms that have sprung from the Internet and app landscape. But platforms disproportionately benefit the platform owner, usually at the expense of content creators. 

In a previous life, I was a founding employee of hotjobs.com. We built a job board that moved jobs classifieds online. This shifted the revenue from newspapers to an internet company. It was devastating to the newspaper industry, but it also brought a host of new efficiencies. Jobs were now searchable. Resumes could be stored online. Applications could be made electronically.

Unsplash isn’t so much a new platform. It’s the same platform that has existed at Getty Images, Shutterstock and the like. Except you don’t have to pay for anything. The distribution channel didn’t change – they simply removed a barrier from the distribution, namely price.

“When two-time #1 New York Times best-selling author Tim Ferriss was blocked from distributing his book in Barnes & Noble, he uploaded excerpts from his book for free on BitTorrent to get distribution.”

Besides Ferris, Cho also mentions writer Leo Baubata and Chance the Rapper. In other words, his justification for “free” rests with outliers. In any system, outliers are, by definition, not representative of the average. Cho could build a compelling argument if he had statistics showing that the majority of photographers had increases in business after displaying images on Unsplash, but of course, this isn’t true. Nor does Unsplash have an incentive to track this information in the first place.

One of Cho’s other examples is designer Jeff Sheldon. He’s not a photographer by profession. He sells merchandise, and his oft-visited Unsplash profile features images of the products he’s selling. It’s a brilliant marketing move, but it’s also one that shows what the photography industry is up against. Photography isn’t his business, but it helps support his business – and he’s skilled enough to do it himself, which perhaps helps justify “free” in his mind.

“Before the internet, holding on to copyright for photos was more beneficial because the value in licensing a photo was high. The issue today is a licensed photo is losing its value…At the same time, the cost to produce a photo is going down…While professional photography gear is still expensive, mobile cameras are improving at a rate that will eventually put a professional-level camera in everyone’s pocket.”

If photos had no value, then others wouldn’t seek to use them. The cost of simply pushing the shutter button has gone down. But the cost of being in the right place and the right time and possessing the skill to take a great shot is the same as it ever has been. Yes, the value of a photo has decreased with digital photography, but the value of a good photo is not zero.

Unsplash likes to point out everyone from bloggers to Apple have used their images. It’s tragically ironic for Cho to boast about this. A photographer who spends $800 on an iPhone directly helps Apple’s bottom line, but she receives no such benefit when her image is used from Unsplash by Apple.

“Before the internet, holding on to copyright for photos was more beneficial because the value in licensing a photo was high.”

In the internet-enabled world, we’ve come to expect a frictionless system for commerce. To some, copyright is seen as a clunky, outmoded mechanism. But protecting a creator’s rights through copyright isn’t the problem. In many cases, it’s that licensing mechanisms haven’t been developed to work at internet speed. I know, I’ve been trying to receive a license to use a song from a copyright holder for 9 months.

For every high profile copyright infringement case you hear about, there are probably a dozen cases that are settled out of court. The US Copyright Code allows for statutory damages of $150,000 per image per willful infringement. The threat of penalty prevents business from stealing this form of intellectual property.

Giving up your copyright to a photo seems extreme but it’s this extreme level of giving that produces the unprecedented level of connection.”

Photographers submitting their images agree to allow Unsplash to extend a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual license to anyone for any use. The notion that giving away something for free creates an “unprecedented” level of connection is an incredibly dubious claim. A housekeeper at the last hotel I stayed at gave me a few extra cookies for free when I passed her in the hallway. It didn’t create an unprecedented connection. I didn’t even get her name.

“If someone needs a photo for a presentation that will only be seen by a few co-workers, they don’t have a budget for photography. If they can’t use a free photo for that, they are not hiring someone. And there is no relationship created. But by finding a photo on Unsplash, a relationship begins. When they need to hire a photographer for a shoot, they’re more likely to go back to the place that fulfills that need.”

This is such a load of crap that I don’t know where to begin. If the presentation is only going to be seen by a few people, then why does it need photography? To make it more interesting? To create visual interest? If so, then we’ve just proven the value of photography. Should an internal presentation require a $1000 photo budget? Of course not, but paid licensing mechanisms already exist for small usage at a modest price.

Further, Unsplash’s license doesn’t even require crediting the photographer. The platform can’t even stand behind the thin marketing exposure argument

Some other nitty gritty details to consider:

  • Their terms include  an indemnity clause for photographers. If Unsplash is sued for your photo (e.g. trademark infringement), you’re liable.
  • You agree to arbitration. Arbitration isn’t inherently bad, but if you’re sued by a big corporation in the court system, your only recourse with Unsplash is through arbitration.
  • Model released image have no guarantee. This is actually true with any platform. But established companies like Getty Images – whose revenue is built around image licensing – have a financial incentive to double check this detail. Caveat emptor.

Cho concludes with:

“Every industry evolves. Things will change. We can’t be resistant to change no matter how much today’s world benefits us. We face the same fact that every artist and business must face: what we offer today will eventually be obsolete. We can choose to be upset with this fact or understand it is inevitable and continue to adapt.”

This is so generic to the point of being worthless. Who can dispute that things will change and you can either adapt or die? Another aphorism to throw on a t-shirt. But it lacks any nuance of the real world.

Free isn’t the answer. It’s not sustainable. If you value any craft, then you need to pay for it. There are costs associated with any craft, and even a hobbyist needs to figure out how to justify a series of on-going expenses.

Unsplash created a platform. They didn’t force anyone to use it. Creatives who use Unsplash bear an enormous responsibility for assuming that the sharing economy will somehow magically work for photography when it hasn’t worked for any other creative field. 

But Unsplash does bear responsibility for arguing a position filled with unsubstantiated claims and conflations. As a fellow entrepreneur, I know how hard it is to build and stay in business. I don’t begrudge Cho’s success at all. But Cho’s support of the industry – especially insofar as professional photographers are concerned – is a mirage. Photography is a means to an end for his company. He has no incentive to declare that photography has any monetary value. The very success of his company depends on photography being worthless.

And that’s why Unsplash is bad for photography.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 63 comments for this article
  1. Aaron Dodson at 10:09 am

    The very success of his company [Unsplash] depends on photography being worthless? Now speaking of unsubstantiated claims and conflations…

    The rise of Unsplash is due to many things, but chief among them is the greater desire placed on the industry for quality photography. Second is the apathy (read lack of creativity) and entitlement displayed among some of the industry-leading stock sites.

    Now how do we monetize the industry desire for quality photography? That would make a great blog post. Another post on “How Free Photos Hurt Our Industry” is not really helpful.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 4:20 pm

      If they were charging for photography, do you think they would have attained even a modicum of the success they have reached? They would be undifferentiated from Shutterstock, etc.

      The notion that “quality” photography didn’t exist before Unsplash is fiction. Maybe you like their curation better than other sites. But then why not make curation the differentiator instead of “free”?

    • Cristian at 3:31 am

      “The rise of Unsplash is due to many things, but chief among them is the greater desire placed on the industry for quality photography”

      Well, that is really a weak argument of yours. There is a lot of quality to be found in any of the known stock agencies images and for sure much more diversity of styles than the desaturated “Instagram look” of Unsplash, but the difference is that to license those comes at a cost. That is not the case in Unsplash. As it was already pointed out if they begin charging a dime let’s see if they would be so succesful……

      This venture might make their owners press headlines as a new disruptor in the 2.0 tech/media business which they will know how to monetize. Photographers for sure won’t.

      I know my expenses when I engage in a shoot, and for me as most photographers the car stops if you don’t pump fuel in the tank. Where is the fuel in this “revolutionary company”

      • Nicolas at 3:05 pm

        The fuel is the same as social medial, including this blog. People like to discuss share, be recognized and so on. The amateur photographer out there out number pro photographer by a huge margin. Even if we are to count the one using a DSLR thisi is in the 50:1 or 100:1 ratio. If we count smartphone users this is what ? 10000:1 ? Even if only 10% of the users with DSLR and 1% of users with a smartphone can take decent photos and only 10% of theses agree to give it for free, that already a bigger workforce than all the profesionnals in the world.

    • mike at 11:23 pm

      Apathy and entitlement from industry leaders; bang on.

      My job as a designer at a small agency requires me to use stock photography quite frequently.

      Try searching for anything on iStock or Shutterstock and compare the results to the same search on Unsplash.

      The stock I am served 9 out of 10 times is *soul destroying*, I can’t wade through that junk all day, it’s depressing, it’s a vast abyss of photographic trash.

      Is there an alternative to unsplash where people can get paid?

      The only alternative I’m aware of is Stocksy which is excellent.

  2. Tod Grubbs at 1:59 pm

    It is sad they have reduced photography to no value to prop up their company. shame on them! I hope the creatives that have their images there pull out and starve them of profits.

  3. Anne Mouse at 8:12 pm

    If hobbyists with cameras are a threat to an industry, what does that say about the industry? If volunteer Wikipedia editors help create a product that puts 30 million dollars into the pockets of employees of Wikipedia each year, how different is that? Should people speak out again unpaid editors? Have any of you complaining about this used Uber or Lyft rather than a taxi service or Amazon rather than a local store to save money? Have you used a free service that was “good enough” rather than a paid service that was better but that charged? If so, how can you complain about others wanting to save money where they can when they can?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 8:51 pm

      The Wikipedia example is a good one. I’m not sure how Uber/Lyft is a relevant analogy. You can contend that the driver’s are getting a raw end of the deal, but they are still being compensated in actual money.

    • Lauren Anderson at 1:31 am

      Very well said. If you want to pay for (hopefully better quality) stock photography, you can do that. Or simply use one for free from Unsplash that’s good enough. Your choice. Isn’t it great to have more choices? I think so.

  4. marty at 9:35 pm

    A photgrapher can just download images and resell to those who do not know about site? Plus if you want something original it probably won’t be there.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:38 pm

      Technically speaking, resale of the images is prohibited by the Terms of Use. I’m not sure how vigilant Unsplash is in policing this activity.

      • marty at 11:09 pm

        Yeah, i would think it would be hard to inforce. plus you can also alter the images. i think any photo with a recognizable person would be risky to use though.

      • Shelley at 11:29 pm

        Hey Allen, thanks for writing about this. I’ve been doing some research of my own on the subject.

        In regards to resale of the images being prohibited by the Terms of Use, I don’t think they actually care at all if the image is resold. I recently came across an Etsy seller who was asking Unsplash via Twitter if a photo could be sold commercially without giving credit. Unsplash responded with, “It is technically legal to sell the photos posted on Unsplash but it’s frowned upon by both the CC community and ours.”

        I have seen countless completely unaltered Unsplash photos being sold on Etsy which is unfortunate for both the contributing photographers and for other Etsy sellers like myself who actually put the work in and sell photos that they took themselves. Also unfortunate for consumers of these resold photos as they are being duped into buying a photo they could have gotten for free. I guess those who don’t sell photography for a living would have a hard time understanding any of this but yes, I agree with you that Unsplash is bad for photography.

    • Nicolas at 10:08 am

      Flickr let you choose the licence, by default is that all right are reserved to the initial author. But yes you can put creative common and flickr search engine would return such photos if one is interrested.

  5. Robert Collins at 11:21 pm

    ‘Free isn’t the answer. It’s not sustainable’

    With so many people happy to ‘share’ I think all Unsplash has done is take an on-going trend to its logical conclusion. It really doesnt matter if it is good or bad for photography.

    Still I think we will find that free is very sustainable here.

  6. Steve at 1:42 am

    “If you value any craft, then you need to pay for it”

    This blog itself is powered by software which was given away for free. WordPress, jQuery, Apache traffic server and probably a lot more were all used to make this blog happen. How much did you pay for these things?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:49 am

      It’s an interesting and valid argument that I need to contemplate a little more.

      But my visceral reaction is that I think the difference is nuanced. Many of the open source companies have built paid services around their software (e.g. WordPress hosting, consulting, Jetpack, etc), and support ecosystems (e.g. themes, plugins, etc) that provide a monetization mechanism for contributors within the ecosystem.

      Unsplash is trying to build a case for their platform (e.g. unprecedented generosity leads to unprecedented connections), many of which don’t pass my BS test. Not only are they taking content for free, they’re asking for photographers to indemnify them.
      They’ve hit a critical mass of supply and demand. Why not build a monetization layer like YouTube so that content creators have a financial reward/incentive?

      I think the answer is because it’s an unnecessary allocation of resource for THEIR business success. And because supporting photographers financially isn’t on their radar, this is why I think they are bad for photography – more specifically professional photographers.

      • Les Taylor at 4:32 pm

        I think that last paragraph hits the nail on the head for the difference here. In the case of say, Wikipedia: yes, people give away content for free, but (a) the content is not all-inclusive and (b) there was never a concern for profit on either side. The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit, and they get the majority of their income from donations. Additionally, Wikipedia at least requires attribution since it uses CC-BY-SA and GFDL, so if you were to quote text from Wikipedia without citation, that would be plagiarism and against their license, as far as I understand it. That’s not the case with Unsplash, who is by their own admission doing this as a business interest and using CC0. They are riding on the backs of their content creators to the fullest extent possible. The creators give everything away to boost a business from which they get nothing. It certainly appears Unsplash is intentionally taking advantage of people, under the guise that they will give them connections and exposure that will produce real income, without proof to support the claim. The similarities really break down as you consider these differences.

        Given that distinction, I’d say this isn’t just bad for photographers – it strikes me as immoral on the part of Unsplash. Of course, they’re unlikely to be concerned about this criticism. They probably like it in fact, because it’s free publicity. However, I hope photographers will grasp this criticism, because I agree the model can’t be good in the long term for anyone on the creator side, from the hobbyists to the professional. I have to believe the market will eventually correct this though, as more creators realize they are giving everything and getting nothing. Without incentive to create, the talent and diversity in content will go elsewhere or just get bored of creating.

      • Nicolas at 10:28 am

        @Allen Murabayashi, you want to reassure yourself toward free software but I am not sure you understand it.

        Open source doesn’t exist first and foremost as a business model. It exist as an ideal, a phylosophy of freedom, sharing and giving to humanity. This quite like what wikipedia editors do when adding articles or many people do when they share they photo or whatever else freely.

        Now, most business around the world use as much as they can of the open source software because it reduce cost for them, not caring one bit nof the philosophy behind it and quite a few business do provide support for such kind of software even through they are not the one that written it to begin with.

        A few companies have this as a business model and it work for them because making the thing readily available provide for great advertisement while on purpose they remove (or do not add) some key feature that many people will pay for. A good share of theses company also make it in the licence that any derivated work has to be open source too… Expect if you pay for the closed source licence. This is a bit similar to some photographers or creative that would not make association to pay but would ask payment for commercial use.

        In all cases, open source is also the work of many volunteers that do it in their free time and do not get anything more in return than the satisfaction of a work well done.

        Related to employement, there also the recent tendency that if you are a good developper, you have to prove yourself, and there nothing better than a github account with nice open source software of your own on it to show how great of a developper you are… Working on an existing open source product work well too and I know friend that have been hired because they worked freely on the open source code of some business company.

        For both photography and software, many people give without any intent to get anything back. For both photography and software some corporation will make some money out of that. For both photography and software, some will try to make you work for free and explain that may lend you to a nice job, maybe.

        The key difference is that in software industry, it doesn’t matter: there more demand for software engineer than there are available and so almost everybody get a well paid job.

        But it isn’t the one that contribute the most to the open source communities that end up getting the best jobs. There lot of student, amateurs and alike that do this activity completely separately of what they do for a living and they are not getting a job or being paid because they contrbute to open source software at all.

        • Colin at 1:59 pm

          In open-source the author still has the total freedom of choosing their licensing scheme, in particular to control attribution and copyright which is not the case with unsplash. This is IMO the crux of the problem.

    • Fullcircle at 2:47 pm

      Matter of semantics, perhaps?
      If I may be so presumptious as to paraphrase Allen:
      “If you value content, then you need to pay for it”.
      Would that render your allusion to WordPress etc. moot?

  7. Misko at 10:12 am

    Your criticism is misdirected.

    The site is only a conduit; if they didn’t do it, somebody else would. You can expect one person in some special position to refrain from acting against your interest, but you can not expect the same from everyone with interest in photography and ability to run a web-site.

    On the other hand urging those find pleasure in some activity without expectation of any monetary compensation to cease and desist is a lost cause.

  8. Lee Hawkins at 11:11 am

    Open source software is a poor analog for free licenses to photos…software always requires support, updates, changes, enhancements…and that can be billed. One custom software job can pay for many years to come.

    Photography needs no support—it doesn’t break, and most people don’t even know how to enhance it, nor do they care to. It may need updated, but if you’ve got a stream of more free stuff coming, then that will be free for the end user. It’s ridiculous to make the claim that giving photos away will lead to any work at all. Displaying them for free might work, but allowing use—yeah, no!

    As for Wikipedia—I don’t really have an answer on that. I realize that’s hurt encyclopedia makers, but what are the logistics of creating and updating those? It’s an industry that would be worth studying a bit, but I highly doubt that the publishers hired armies of creatives that approach even 1% of the size of the photography industry. A free encyclopedia which may or may not have been well-edited and researched is not analog to a quality photograph.

    • Nicolas at 10:38 am

      So what ? You say a photo in stock photography transform itself instantly into a nice website design, a great ad on a magazine or a nice poster on a wall ? Most of the time, if something of professional quality is made out of it, a professsional did make money on it, for sure.

      It may not be the initial photographer exactly like in open source it isn’t necessarily the geek or student in his basement that will make money by fixing a bug.

  9. C at 5:23 pm

    Lots of people want something for free
    Generally it doesn’t matter that free photos generally aren’t that great
    But people who want free photos don’t seem to care
    That says a lot about Unsplash’s “customers”

    Purchasing a license for a small photo from a stock agency for a presentation will probably cost pennies and will look much better than what this company offers

    Do not know any good photographers who give away their photos to this company
    And their terms should turn away people with any common sense
    Look at their website – nothing much there to say anything good about
    most of them look like crappy cell phone photos
    It is indeed a sad business model

  10. Michael Confer at 9:47 am

    Cho’s has been watching to much political news. What a bunch of hog-wash.

    “Giving up your copyright to a photo seems extreme but it’s this extreme level of giving that produces the unprecedented level of connection.”

    I have a connection with Apple and they have never given me anything. When my new $850 iPhone is given to me by Apple, I may change my mind.

    This idea is like free College Education.

    All the times my images have been used without permission has never created one connection for me! This platform only perpetuates the idea of free.

    Disney is pulling out of Netflix, Tesla will stream music against Apple, Photobucket now wants $400 a year to link an image to a third party site. Everything is so free on the internet.

    Shame on any Photographer who supports Unsplash!!!

  11. Nicolas at 2:58 pm

    “But the cost of being in the right place and the right time and possessing the skill to take a great shot is the same as it ever has been. Yes, the value of a photo has decreased with digital photography, but the value of a good photo is not zero.”

    The cost of getting a journalist or photographer to a place maybe didn’t go down that much. But who care? There no law that say you have to hire a journalist or a photographer. You can just get the photos of people that where there.

    And theses guy are many more than before and each take many more photo. If there any event hapening outside of a desert area, you’ll get thousand or more pictures of it. If the event is well known or if it a nice place. There likely hundred thousand photos of it, if not million with like thousand high quality available.

    Most of them from amateurs… That would be happy to give it to you for free or a very low price.

    • T at 3:14 pm

      Yeah, sure, the guy who just happens to be there and got the killer shots you’d want to lay your grubby hands on for free may just be happy to part with it for free. But that isn’t the same guy who’d be religiously uploading his photos on Unsplash on the false hope of making a living from some future connection. The guy who’d be uploading on Unsplash for those “connections” will surely incur costs EVERYtime to be where he wants to snap away.

  12. Robbster at 12:07 am

    Anyone who creates for a living has to be sure their creative output is worth paying for to someone somewhere. All unsplash has done is create a mechanism for setting the bar on value, i.e., a creator of photographs who wishes to earn money from their photos must create something that a customer values more than the free alternatives. In the biggest scheme of things, it has always been thus.

    Now, I personally would not contribute to unsplash under the indemnity clause, poor risk reward balance in my view, but others should be and are free to do so. And I do continue to pay for professional content as needed in my work, including photography.

    Industries do indeed get damaged all the time by other industries, that is also the way of the world over longer periods of time. It’s called competition. For example, black smiths were not protected from the coming of mechanized manufacturing. Societies have laws and legal systems for setting the rules under which this competition takes place, hence things like copyright laws and the procedures to enforce them, but otherwise, there are no guarantees that professions that once existed will continue to exist.

    unsplash is a logical outcome of pervasive digital photography equipment combined with ubiquitous digital content distribution capability. That this would disrupt the current value equation for professional photography is expected. But it does not preclude anyone from taking photographs and attempting to make money from them.

    Net, I agree with the modified premise that unsplash is bad for (some professional) photography in the sense that some professional photographers may not be able to compete effectively with the free offering, but not that unsplash is bad for photography as a whole.

  13. Peter Gallagher at 4:36 pm

    I see your point, and I agree that his mystical justification for the growth and existence of unsplash is over-reaching. I don’t do a lot of creative work, but need to from time to time and so I have some unsplash photos on my hard drive. That said, I’ve rarely found that the image I want or need is found on unsplash.

    I think there are two forces that have driven the popularity of the site/service. First, everyone enjoys getting something for nothing. Second, good curation. On the opposite site the stock and micro-stock sites are the affordable alternative they used to be. iStock started out with .99 cent photos, but good luck finding one today. The continued popularity of blogs and the need to post images with your Facebook updates and Tweets drive the need for images but the slim budgets or no-budget marketing plans drive the popularity of free photo sites.

    Don’t let the popularity of unsplash get you pro photographers down. It will have its day in the sun and the industry will adjust. As the old saying goes…you get what you pay for.

  14. Jore Puusa at 4:49 am

    This is a question of morality…which is nonexistent in the modern world. If one can steal, he steals. Everybody steals in internet, especially pictures. And if they cannot steal – they get angry and use places like this Unsplash.
    So photography as a profession is dead. I am 65 years old photojournalist retired but listen to my frineds still in the industry. Editors take their own pictures and my mates are out of job.
    Those pictures taken by the editors look terrible, but nobody cares cause they come for free. Morality?
    Many sites tell amateurs how to shoot and make a terrible mistake.. When they learn a little they start to make pictures for free or very little cause they have another job to get money from —-morality?
    The pictures all over the world look terrible, they are much like kitschsunsets are needed more than real life. But as I said – nobody cares.
    Everybody who gives his pictures for free sits in the breakfast table of a pro and eats his cereals. ( and causes sorrow, depression and even suicides, but then who cares – this is the time of narcisim – me me me me me me me and me, I want it all and I want it now…for free )

  15. Shellee at 9:59 pm

    I was a hobbyist from childhood. I wanted to go to photography school after I graduated in ’74 from high school, but my parents would not let me. Not until 9 years ago did I go professional (full-time free lance) and now maintain a living as a corporate photographer. I understand and feel this conversation on ‘free photography’ and my feelings are:

    We do not need a degree to create a photography business. We have to be skillful and know a little about business to sustain. I do not feel that we can be totally replaced. Business will get slim out there but there will always be a need for someone with our eye and expertise (at least I am banking on it! ).

    My biggest competitor is the person in charge not having an appreciation for imagery. You can write all day about something, but the true feeling of an emotion and understanding about the breath of a situation is portrayed through the image. A bad image will evoke a little emotion but the image that is professional, intended, clear, detailed, being in the right spot, at the right time, will always have a more intense reaction.

    The image is our asset and we have to treat it with respect and value (even if no one else does). It should be our choice if we give it away or not. I know that if I give one of my images away to a friend or even a stranger, it has value. The recipient would have never had ‘that pic’ if it wasn’t for me having the aptitude on how to use my camera in the lighting situation and KNOW the value of the shot.

    Those who chose to give away all their images to Unsplash hopefully have a survival plan. I feel we, as Professional Photographers, still have great opportunities for a healthy business future. We are still very much needed to capture that perfect image. As Professional Photographer’s, let’s keep trying to elevate the trade.

    • Richard Barker at 8:56 pm

      This is terrific! I couldn’t agree more. The market places the value on our work…we don’t. In order to upgrade our value in the market it’s up to us as practitioners to continually intrigue, engage and excite that market.

      I just wrote a blog in reaction to Mr. Cho’s that might be of interest. http://barkerology.com/

  16. Rob at 7:15 am

    While it’s become trivially easy to take a photo and actually GET an image, it’s still as difficult as it ever was to get a GOOD image. 99.999% of the stuff on Unsplash is unadulterated crap. It’s unlikely that it will ever pose a real threat to professional photographers. Their true business model is probably to be acquired for a couple million to go away.

  17. Julia at 2:23 pm


    I have discovered splash awhile ago while in school for Graphic Design. Coming from a background in photography with a BFA, I was shocked to see millions of photos uploaded for “FREE”.

    I was bewildered. I felt that it really put the craft down. With the use of these images, how does sharing them create any pocket money for the creator? It simply doesn’t. I have peers who used images from this website and they’ve never visited the photographers website or furthered any monetary interest.

    I’m sad to see this exists because if there is demand for a service, there should be a price to pay.
    On the other note, I am happy to see that finally, people out there are recognizing a false mythology deep in play. There is hope.

  18. Charr at 2:50 pm

    Fascinating to consider and so many great points made in article and comments. I’m a pro photographer and even teach others to use their iPhone to capture their own photos and videos for marketing. But I also council them to HIRE professionals for important stuff and not settle for good enough when it matters. I’m not concerned about Unsplash. Maybe because I don’t believe (entirely) in competition except in a sporting match. :). That said this online paradigm of access to pictures and the whole copyright question is a very big deal. Don’t use anything without permission. Capture your own images when you can. Focus on integrity in all things. The value of good visuals is more important today than ever– obviously!– since it’s a global marketplace now. Even creators at all levels and in all genres have opportunity to see and be seen by countless eyes. Artists are using sites like Unsplash as vital inspiration for their works. If a photographer is good they’ll get the jobs. I know this from personal experience over decades as a pro. A photo job isn’t always just about the photograph. It’s about communicating a story or an idea effectively and that takes brains and insight from a creative perspective. It’s also about technical expertise and experience in the field. It’s also about service to the client and communication skills as a professional on a mission. Talented, skilled photographers and visual communicators are necessary and important and not ever going out of business because of free photos online.

  19. Daniel OBrien at 4:29 pm

    Really awesome post! I don’t think I’d heard of Unsplash before, but the whole topic is (apparently) quite a conversation starter! (Why, why, why did I read the comments?!?! Now I’m totally sucked in! Ugh!)

    I think there’s some pretty good/valid arguments others have posted here. Do I have junk photos that are just going to sit on my hard drive that I could contribute to Unsplash for use on their site? Of course…but why would I ever want the world to see them? And more importantly, how does doing so benefit me and my business in the slightest? Doesn’t sound like it does–at all–based on what I’ve read about the website in this post. I could justify putting images that aren’t saleable on there if it was at least a mechanism for getting my name out there (but I’d still have to weigh whether I’d want my name associated with images that don’t necessarily give the first impression I want.)

    But I think even more importantly than how the existence of this site impacts or slights me is how it impacts the increasing struggle we all face as photographers. Justification of our trade, skills, and very existence. I don’t need to go into THAT whole struggle…it’s been hashed out so many times before. However, Unsplash DOES somewhat help to perpetuate the public’s opinion that hiring a professional photographer or buying his/her images is either not necessary or is extremely overpriced. Yes, we can fight this public opinion by continuously providing high quality products that are better than the cheap/free alternatives, but in the end it contributes toward the devaluing of our craft and services.

    I think it’s very similar to how the “Uncle Bobs with their fancy new DSLR” impacted the wedding photography industry. People began questioning the price point, wondering just how much more they were getting from an experienced professional versus a cheaper/free option. Yes, a good wedding photographer can still get business…but Uncle Bob made the sale harder, the available market smaller, and a constant need to justify the costs of services rendered. If you want to survive in that market, you’d better be good!

    The posts is actually entitled “Unsplash is (Still) Bad for Photography”…not is it bad for me, bad for you, or bad for the general population. In that spirit, yes, Unsplash is most definitely bad for photography, in general. It contributes to the growing culture that quality photography is over-priced and is actually a sort of insult to all of us who pour our hearts and souls into this industry. Like with Uncle Bob, we can overcome that attitude by making sure that our work is far superior to the free/cheaper options out there…but it only makes our jobs that much harder.

    In the end, I suspect that Unsplash will force photographers who only have mediocre imagery to close up shop, leaving only the folks who have truly unique images that you simply can’t find anywhere else. Blessing? Curse? I suppose that depends if you’re one of the photographers who can ride out the storm.

  20. Peter Glaser at 4:37 pm

    Here in the UK a major newspaper publisher concentrating on just regional news through many hundreds of local papers, has just issued, in July, a directive to all it’s editors to get all freelance photographer suppliers, regular or occasional, to sign a contract agreeing for all work undertaken at their request to have copyright transferred to the publisher, allow the publisher to syndicate photos via their new photo agency agreement thus removing any control on how or where a photo might appear, nationally or internationally, and in support of what story, and the photographer has to indemnify the publisher against any problems ensuing. 2 weeks notice to sign was given, and from the beginning of August they stated they were no longer able to accept any photograph supply from an unsigned freelancer. However they have offered to pay a payment per photo used, £8.00 which has been the fee paid for the last couple of years but never includes any expenses – this payment does not cover the basic costs of attending an event, let alone investing in photographic equipment and transport to carry out this work and most freelancers have other jobs/income to support their ability to supply in a role they enjoy, often supporting their communities. The publisher infers for any successfully syndicated image a further payment will ensue but no specific monetary details are given – in practice, unless you are aware that your photo is being syndicated and check all UK media regularly to chase a publisher if seen published, you rarely receive payment as a matter of course. In our region of the UK, of the freelancers regularly supplying this publisher’s papers, two thirds have agreed to the contract on the advice of the editors involved that “nothing will change” in how their regular supply will be treated. If “nothing will change”, why is there a “contract”. A third of the photographers have declined and, after many years of supply each, are no longer able to supply this publisher on any news story, by direction of the publisher.

    Now this perhaps isn’t quite free supply as this blog thread is highlighting, but the copyright, image control and indemnity issues are clearly the same highlighted issues, particularly when associated where a loss making fee is offered. The UK based newspaper publishers have periodically over the last 10 years been trying to gain photographers copyright I believe in their quest to find alternative income for their struggling papers. Of course a freelancer has the right to accept or decline such a contract but where a contract is so onerous in it’s detail it becomes shameful that it appears to be acceptable to “professionals” who are put into a corner with a gun against their heads! Photographs do have a value, whether created by “professionals” or “amateurs”. However the concern has to be the rapidly growing perception in business, and by the public at large, that there is absolutely no monetary value attached to something creative, even though there is a perceived value by way of their desire to use that image.

  21. Geoff Bartlett at 9:00 pm

    Within the space of 30 minutes I follow an “images by UNSPLASH” link on a website and discover Unsplash, and in a completely unrelated action, open this blogpost through a Photoshelter news e-mail. Something was meant to be.

    I am new to the photography industry, and am struggling to find client who will pay. That might be because they just don’t like what I am offering, or that organisations don’t see high quality images as worth paying for since they can get OK-ish images for free. Everyone has a camera these days.

    I see a lot of articles like this one, complaining about photographers doing jobs for free, or in this case giving away their photos for free. I think it is worth pointing out that in most cases if you give something away for free it won’t be valued, but otherwise the articles are just a complaint and won’t change anything. Unsplash-like companies will do what Unsplash has done precisely because it works for them. In our market-dominated society, what else could you expect? If people give photos to Unsplash, well good luck to them, but the house always wins.

    The fact is that as the production of digital images becomes every cheaper and simpler, OK-ish imagery is pretty good, and likely good enough for the end-user’s needs. It’s called fit for purpose. The high-end product delivered by dedicated professional photographers might not be as needed as we might like. Maybe it is only dedicated photographers who can really appreciate the difference.

    I can’t see myself going back to my previous career, but I am wondering if I entered photography too late. It’s a field that is exploding with possibility, thoroughly democratised, and that leaves less and less room for professional photographers.

  22. Carl Seibert at 5:37 pm

    Hmmm. Interesting discussion.

    A few points/ observations pop to mind.

    Unsplash is yet another internet business that is based on getting chumps to donate content to a platform and, in one way or another, marking it up and selling it on at an infinite profit. (One may, or may not, provide value for the chumps. That’s as irrelevant as they are.) It’s the modern way to create wealth. It’s morally not so good, but nobody much cares. Less risk than organized crime, I guess. It’s just kind of the way of the world nowadays.

    Photography as a business has always been plagued by amateurs and dilatants who are willing to work for free. That’s not news, even though every generation of photographers has been under the impression that they’ve just discovered a new and horrible truth.

    Unsplash wouldn’t “work” (and we must remember that its purpose is to only to provide low-cost advertising to a sister business) without a steady supply of people willing to give it content, both in the form of photos and curation, and people who perceive some need or use for its product.

    Judging from the work available on the site, I’m assuming that most of their contributors are students or beginners. I’m sure they’re all hoping for some tiny return on the form of exposure or advertising value. And indeed, that’s what they get – a tiny return.

    On the other hand, the contributors aren’t investing much. Nobody’s pounding down their doors to buy their student portfolios. And the reality is that income from stock houses for surplus shots of well-poured cups of latte is between trivial and non-existent. The contributors aren’t getting much, but they’re not investing much. Other than the opportunity cost of not doing something better with their time. The commercial value of those photos actually is pretty close to zero.

    Nobody is going to fret terribly about what harm they may be doing to a market that, for them, doesn’t exist. So, contributors donate pictures to Unsplash. And they don’t much worry about it.

    Then there are the people who are downloading – in fantastical quantity – Unsplash pictures. What on earth are they all doing with mountains of unidentified generic stock photos? What value might they be adding to their products with these pictures?

    (In full disclosure – I’m one of those customers. I use dozens and dozens of their pictures. I do workflow demonstrations that need great piles of pictures. And I need teaching examples where pictures need to be pretty, but not compelling enough to distract from the decidedly non-visual subject matter. And I like not having to worry about accidentally letting copyrighted work slip into the hands of infringers.)

    WordPress theme designers need copyright-free generic pictures of well-poured cups of latte to be placeholders in their templates.

    So there. Between me and the WordPressers, there’s two niches of users for whom Unsplash provides value. That’s enough legit consumers to at least fill the coach section on an average airliner. But I truly don’t think that there are many users who are actually gaining value and who might otherwise have contributed to the photography economy.

    What about all the mythic people who are using giveaway stock photos in award winning campaigns and the like? Well, I guess they might otherwise be using low-end stock that wouldn’t be really helping anybody make a decent living anyway.

    In general, stock photography is used to decorate and fill space, not to deliver specific meaning. Which is to say, stock tends not to add value. It’s value to the user’s product is often low, if not actually negative. Here we have somebody placing its value at zero. That might not be that far off.

    Stock today is like fishing a dying fishery. Volume goes up. Prices and revenue go down. So more goods are dumped on the market. Rinse and repeat until the thing collapses totally. If the chart in Mikael Cho’s post is to be believed, revenues to photographers from stock have plunged 60% in the last three years and the decline is accelerating. That sounds like collapse to me. Unsplash is more likely a symptom than the disease.

    And all that “sharing economy” talk about how people are going to magically live without compensation for their work? Or with pennies of compensation? Who talks that trash? Business people who are extremely well compensated for exploiting those willing, or desperate enough to work for nothing, that’s who. Consider the source. ’nuff said.

    So, Allen, I guess I more or less agree with your premise that Unsplash is hurting photography, but not in a solid, tangible way. I don’t think it’s siphoning away good-paying business, or that it has much economic impact. I agree that it doesn’t seem to be of malicious intent. Mr Cho’s blog post seems good natured enough. You called him on filling it with self-justifying BS…. but don’t we all…

    I do think Unsplash is bad for photography in that it contributes one more molecule to a tsunami of negative perception of the value of photography that has all but destroyed it as a business.

  23. Pamela Kelso at 7:53 pm

    Thank you Allen.

    In the late 1980’s Texas law prohibited massage therapy students from charging for their work until they had a license. Some students went all out promoting themselves and our teacher told us that it would be very, very rare for a free client to come back when they had to pay. She was right, none of mine ever did.

    Professionals who use professional photography are used to paying and know the difference in quality in what they get for free.

    Obviously this hurts the industry, obviously they don’t get it that they should just keep it on the commune and let the capitalists be capitalists.

  24. Laurens at 2:37 am

    Be a fucking man and stop whining about reasons why shitty photographers will be victims of new concepts. If you’re good at what you do, you’ll make a living. If you’re not, find something else. If Unsplash is that big of a thread to your photography, then you are probably shit.

    I’m getting so fed up with all these so called photographers that claim to know what photography is all about, yet completely miss the point (and value for that matter). Photography is a creative field. And just like any other field, if you’re good at it, you’ll make money of of it, but that’s not the main goal of photography itself. That’s your personal goal, where photography is the means to get there.

    Photography isn’t a sacred business model. It wasn’t made for people like you, who have a god complex and need to put a price on every image that pops out of their camera. It’s a creative tool to express, and again, if you’re good enough, a way of possibly making a living if you’re creative enough make decent pictures and then to use the cards that have been dealt.

    One could as easily argue that stock photography is bad for photography. It lacks depth, it lacks effort, it lacks integrity and price / value it’s mostly a scam, in my opinion. It has nothing to do with photography that comes from the heart, from passion, from experiment. It’s a means to a financial end. It’s a glorified snapshot database.

    Unsplash, on the other hand, has B-shots of professionals that didn’t have stock images in mind when making their photographs. It might not be their best work, but that’s why they don’t put a price on it in the first place. The pictures have more value overall and again… if those B-shots ruin your business? Maybe it’s time for you to do a reality check on where you are with your work. (which I barely found, btw, but with the portfolio I did find, I’d be scared too if I were you).

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  26. Colin Surprenant at 2:35 pm

    So what makes unsplash different is their license-less or “royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual license” model. This is what makes it different from flickr for example, where all pictures are also “free”. They will probably also promote their curation as a differentiator but the real selling point is really all about the licensing.

    I think this model is totally unavoidable and as long as photographers are willing to contribute to that model then it will exist. I would like to know more about the “real” return for those who contribute on unsplash. My educated guess is that it lies probably closer to “warm fuzzy feeling” of seeing X likes and Y downloads than anything substantial or any actionable exposure for your work.

    But my real problem with unsplash is really about the motivation which is really just about their own interest in self promotion. That’s it. They are the only ones who really benefit their platform. Everything else is horse shit really.

  27. Walid Azami at 11:16 pm

    I loved reading this article and couldn’t agree more. Unsplash is the result of everything that is wrong with the photography industry. Unsplash had the chance to grow because photographers don’t respect each other, the art or the business of it. Don’t believe me? We’re the only industry that fights and undercuts each other, just for the honor of working for free. No other industry would behave in such a way. Therefor until we decided to stick together and defend what’s right, gross entities like Unsplash will come to rise as it has… it’s our job to put pressure on companies like this, to educate fellow photographers about unity and teamwork. I wrote something on it tonight https://howtophotograph.net/news/is-unsplash-legit if you want my thoughts on it. I come at it from the angle of exposure.

  28. Van at 11:41 pm

    Initially I was all onboard with this article and the video of Zack Arias making similar points. However I have dug a little deeper since then, and now I am torn. In one way I see this whole thing as a “Chicken Little” scenario that has played out before: “Oh no cheap 35mm cameras are available to the general public, this is bad for real photographers who shoot 4×5/8×10!” “Oh no cheap digital cameras are available to the general public this will kill real film photographers!” “Oh no iPhones and cheap digital editing software is available to the general public this will kill real digital photographers!” And on and on and on ad nauseam. I am seeing parallels to this now with Unsplash. Is this natural evolution perhaps? Perhaps. But, at the same time this does have the potential to be very destructive to professional artists that rely on their craft to pay the bills. Only time will tell…

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  30. Billy Suratt at 7:00 am

    Photographers who sell royalty-free are bad for photography.

    The photographer originally commissioned by Crew who apparently gave up all rights (thereby permitting them to give away his/her work on what would eventually grow to become Unsplash) was bad for photography.

    Unsplash itself isn’t bad for photography, it’s just a platform. Platforms come and platforms go. Digital Railroad had a business model with significant revenue and they went poof virtually overnight, so I won’t lose any sleep over hobbyists giving away free photos.

    I also won’t give away my photos.

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