You can find them all over the Web. Publishers want photos. They want them for a wide range of different subjects. They want them for a bunch of different uses. They want them now.
And in return, they’re prepared to offer… an impressive portfolio. Well, that’s more valuable than money, isn’t it?
Tell that to a professional photographer and he’s likely to demonstrate a novel use for his longest lens. Tell that to an enthusiast though, and there’s a good chance that he’ll be so thrilled at the idea of having an image published that he’s prepared to accept it.
That’s why Flickr has around 81 million images covered by some sort of Creative Commons license.
But Flickr isn’t the only place that publishers can turn to pick up free images easily. Some stock sites offer freebies as a way of bringing in buyers and a quick search of Google turns up all sorts of sites that just can’t wait to give away photos.
Morguefile is one of them, even if it doesn’t quite intend to be.
An Online Picture Cabinet
Created in 2001 by Michael Connors, a New York-based multimedia artist, the site aims to function as a reference center for creatives looking for inspiring images. The service is named after the file cabinet used by newspapers to store paste-up flats and the pile of material used by comic book artists for inspiration.
“If you had to draw a picture of a super hero foiling a robbery in a supermarket, you might need a photo of the supermarket — from top of the shelves, from the store room, a picture of someone holding a gun, the cash register, etc.,” Michael explained. “Stock photos never really concerned themselves with that type of concept and that’s where a morgue file comes in.”
Currently the site has around 2,500 creatives who have contributed about 197,000 images. Those figures are likely to grow though following a revamp which has added two new services. In addition to offering free photos, contributors can now create portfolios complete with copyright protection, and use online storage centers.
According to Michael, people who make their images available for free on the site can enjoy a number of benefits. Photographers with images that haven’t sold can find that their pictures have uses beyond the stock site. (Shots rejected by sellers can sometimes be a photographer’s most popular images on morgueFile.) And of course, you can get a nice portfolio.
“The biggest benefit comes from the amateur photographer early in their career who needs to build a portfolio,” Michael says. “After the beginning steps of posting to the morgueFile they can be up and running with a published piece.”
More hopefully, linking free images to similar but higher quality copyrighted images in a portfolio might just turn a free search into a purchase. That’s because Michael doesn’t see the free images available on the site as an alternative to paid photography but as an adjunct to it. Many of the images are not as polished as typical stock photos, and that might be exactly what a designer needs for inspiration, he explains.
A designer working on a project, for example, might begin by downloading images from morgueFile to generate ideas then move on to stock sites, image libraries and even the major stock companies.
“Usually for any project one of the first steps is to download photos from various different sites and then place the folder of images on the project’s server for the rest of the creative team to work from,” Michael says. “I would be surprised if we were the only photo source used on any project but I am sure many times morgueFile is included as one of them.”
That might perhaps be a little naïve though. While the most popular subject submitted by photographers is “flowers,” the most sought images are shots tagged “people,” “business,” “beach” and “computer,” exactly the sort that buyers are looking for.
Not All Creatives are Creative
The problem is that while Michael might have been inspired by a tool used by creatives, today’s creative workers aren’t just trained graphic designers and professional editors. They’re also bloggers who need images for their websites, mom and pop businesses who want a photo to use in an ad, and even small companies who’d rather keep their money for paid advertising when they can see that it’s possible to pick up photos for newsletters and brochures for free.
Large companies with dedicated creative teams then might well function exactly as Michael describes – using the free images for inspiration and planning before heading to the paid sites to do some shopping – but it’s unlikely that the morgueFile doesn’t also have plenty of small freeloaders who might well have been willing to pay a few bucks for the right photo.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that a photographer should steer clear of morgueFile though. As Michael points out, the kind of images that do well on the site are often those that can’t sell somewhere else. All photographers have a giant stack of images that they know they can’t sell and while they might want to think twice about publicizing their misses, if they can use them as bait to lead a professional creative to their hits then they might pick up a valuable new client.
And perhaps there is something to be said for giving back. Michael Connors’ vision of morgueFile is as a service that creative types provide for each other. They might not want to donate valuable photos that they can license for a fee but they might be willing to help designers with images that have few other uses beyond inspiration especially when it gives them an excuse to shoot the sort of images that they wouldn’t normally take.
“People who delve in and become enamored with the concept at first become overwhelmed,” says Michael. “We’ll get pictures of everything from what is in their backyard to what is in the fridge, most likely their pets, you name it. It’s an understanding that a great image is easy to find because it is everywhere. It really is a great way to fall in love with photography for the first time or all over again.”
That certainly could be more valuable than money and more valuable than a rich portfolio. But go for those first.