Photographs Don’t Want to Be Free

Stewart Brand famously declared that information wants to be free. Newspapers have been cursing him ever since. But what about images? If words are crying for freedom, are pictures also aching to be used for no fee and without royalties? Should photographers ever give away their work, and how can they be sure that their generosity will eventually make them money and not cost them valuable time and effort?

For professional photographers, the question of whether photographs are eyeing a free escape route looks moot. Of the billions of pictures posted on Flickr, about 137 million of them have been added with some sort of Creative Commons license. By way of comparison, even iStockPhoto’s royalty-free but commercial inventory “only” contains 6.7 million photos. Many of Flickr’s Creative Commons images will appear on blogs and websites (including this one) without costing the publisher a dime.

And to buyers, the costs of microstock itself have long been considered “close enough to round down to zero,” as Chris Anderson puts it in Free, his hymn to the cashless economy. It may appear then that images aren’t aching to be free; they’ve already made their break for it and are being picked up in the wild by publishers ready to take advantage of some innocent photography hobbyists.

Microstock Has Become More Expensive

Look a little closer though and that spurning of money may be a little more complex. Flickr might have a giant pile of images that are free to use, but most of those are also unusable pictures of mad cats and vacation snaps. When Flickr’s photos are used, it’s often on blogs whose low income and frequent posts don’t give them a budget for regular image purchases.  Even the trajectory of microstock shows a move away from images for nothing (the original price on iStockPhoto) through a buck an image (the price often quoted in regard to microstock) towards $10 for a photo in a size usable in any format other than the Web.

It might be better to say then that having lots of images available means that buyers can demand that they’re cheap — or at least cheaper than they used to be — but to get good images in a usable format for a publication that can afford to pay for them, editors have reach into their pockets. Free isn’t as cheap as it used to be.

But it is still useful to photographers. Most of the Creative Commons images on Flickr might be unusable, and those that are usable tend to appear on pages with no budgets but that’s not always the case. The Economist’s blogs, for example, combine Flickr-sourced Creative Commons images with stock photos, microstock photos and images from wire agencies. Graham Douglas, The Economist’s Head of Graphics, explained that Flickr “has been a useful fallback when we need images not typically served by the photo services we subscribe to” but admits that cost has been a factor too in the choice of free photos.

If some big users with budgets are searching Flickr for usable images then, photographers who want to make sales on the site need to make sure that their photos are seen. On Flickr, that means offering lower-grade versions with Creative Commons licenses that show up in search results, but using the image description to indicate that a better version is available for a higher fee. The free images then become bait to bring in buyers in the same way that supermarkets offer staple food items like bread and Corn Flakes below cost then pitch higher-priced luxury goods with larger profit margins to make money.

Posting images that you’ve already shot with Creative Commons licenses won’t cost a great deal. The photos will only take a few minutes to upload and if you’re using versions that are unlikely to sell, then you won’t be giving away anything with a high value. Many photographers though begin their careers by being asked to give away something that is valuable: their time.

New wedding photographers in particular, may be asked to shoot a friend’s wedding as a favor, giving them an opportunity to help someone with a small budget while building their own portfolio and gaining experience.

Free Shoots Don’t Benefit Anyone

Jobs like these though aren’t entirely free either. The shoot is often considered the photographer’s wedding present, saving the cost of writing a check or buying a gift. While that won’t come close to the amount the couple would have paid for images, it does mean that the photographer is receiving a measurable saving in return for the shoot. Nonetheless, it’s still something that photographers taking their first step in professional photography rarely do more than once.

Some photographers however do continue giving away their photos even after they’re established. Will Smith, a professional photographer working in New York and Texas, runs a referral program that delivers free image editing and shoots in return for recommendations. The idea of motivating former clients to pass on his name is understandable and it’s easy to see how a free shoot in return for a fifth new client should pay its way. But it misses the point. Clients rarely pass on their photographer’s name because they want to benefit themselves. They do it because they want to benefit their friends. Other photographers give a discount to the new client and reward the old client with a thank you call or a small gift. The gift might be free but the photos aren’t, and the benefit makes the recommendation even more valuable.

Photographers have been seeing their prices put under a huge amount of pressure over the last few years. Many of the images used on the Web, and even some used in advertising and traditional publishing, have been picked up for nothing. But most images that are used commercially are still paid for and even professional photographers who start with a freebie rarely provide them twice. Newspaper owners may feel that they have a reason for cursing Stewart Brand but he was wrong and so was their decision to make their publications available for nothing. Photographers don’t have to make the same mistake.

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