Can I have your photos for free?
On an almost daily basis I receive requests to use my images. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these requests are variations of the following – ‘We love your photos, but can’t pay for them. Can we have them for free, or in exchange for a link or credit?’ In my opinion, these requests reflect a pervasive belief in the media business that photographers, and the work they produce, are now seen as somehow less worthy of a company’s money. Companies will budget for office rent, electricity and salaries, and domain names and server space will be paid for – but then expect to source content for free. And if a photographer says, ‘Nope, you have to pay for my work’, then the company can simply move on until eventually they find someone that is willing to allow use of an image for free.
The incredible glut of images available on the internet and such things as micro-stock licensing have to be partly responsible for this belief. Images – and perhaps other forms of creative content – have become cheap commodities. And as such, fair game for ruthless negotiation, the end point of which is free image use. A simple summary of this situation would be that media outlets now have content-providers over a barrel. Competition amongst photographers means that many are willing to undercut to the point that they are happy with just a credit or link. And without some form of common platform, some sort of bottom line that all can adhere to, then there is little chance that this will change.
But this pervasive belief may also reflect problems with photographer’s own business models, including mine perhaps. For decades, the photographers’ staple income was through sales to media outlets that in turn relied on the sale of advertising space to pay for content. But competition, economic downturns and the internet have produced dramatic cuts in advertising budgets, and as a result these traditional sources of income from image sales have gone the way of the dodo. In response, we perhaps aim for the scattershot approach, shooting whatever we can, whenever we can, in an effort to scramble around for some sort of income. We opt for quantity rather than quality, and flood the market with images, put up as much as possible in our blogs and archives, and throw the rest into big online stock agencies – all in the hope of picking up some sales. We are clinging to the old way of doing business and by doing so, photographers may themselves be responsible for their own demise. Because ultimately we are the ones responsible for that glut of images on the market, and it could be argued we ourselves are responsible for cheapening photography as a profession.
So where exactly am I going with this? To be honest I am not quite sure. Yesterday, this post started as something completely different when I put up emails I received from a company requesting free image use. However, last night I decided to remove those emails and change the entire post for a number of reasons:
- Firstly, to be honest it was pretty unprofessional, and I think the person in question felt ridiculed and hurt. Whilst you could argue that I shouldn’t care about their feelings, it was never my intention to hurt or ridicule anyone. The idea behind posting those emails was so that other photographers could see that they don’t have to say yes to free image use, and should instead try and get companies to change their minds about the value of content and the people that produce that content. I was hoping other photographers might learn from my experience. However, getting angry was probably not the best approach, especially since I was hoping that the company might change their mind about paying for images from contributors!
- Secondly, I overreacted. Again, not very professional. But after going down the same email thread once too many times – all along the lines of, ‘We love your photos, but don’t want to pay’ – then I suppose it is safe to say that the emails I posted yesterday were the straws that broke the camel’s back. I probably get 3-4 requests a week from commercial organisations requesting use of my images. They all have budgets for other parts of their businesses, but none when it comes to paying for professionally-created images. More than a little frustrating…
- Thirdly, I think the focus of the original post was wrong. Rather than calling people out, I should instead try to explain why I think we as photographers get so many requests for free image use, and I have tried to do that above. There may still be a time and place for naming-and-shaming, but it won’t be here.
- And lastly, in my email response to the company that I posted here yesterday, I wrote, ‘The failure of your company’s business model to turn a profit should not be passed on to your contributors. And like any professional, I expect to be reimbursed for my services. The fact that I am passionate about science and conservation does not mean my work should come for free.’ Whilst I still think this is correct, I also realise that I should take a long, hard look at my own business model. However loud I rant and rave, the business of photography has changed dramatically and my own battles to survive as a business perhaps reflect that I may not have responded to these changes myself. The need to reinvent what I do, and look at novel ways to generate income has never been greater. I can kick and scream all I like, but if budgets in more traditional markets no longer exist, then I am not going to get very far.
So I will finish this rather rambling, much edited post with a few points:
- I will continue to say no to requests for free use of images from commercial organisations, and will in future be pointing any such requests to a site I am in the process of creating with another photographer. There we will explain why the answer is no. But I am also going to start asking these companies to suggest other ways of reimbursing me. If the don’t have a cash budget, what else can they offer? The company that prompted this post yesterday suggested they promote my facebook page and tweets, which in hindsight, could well be a reasonable offer. I am acutely aware that links and tweets don’t pay my bills and I am still trying to work out exactly how social media can work for my particular business. But with a little refinement, perhaps this may be one way of working with a company.
- I will continue to say to companies that if they want to use high-quality content, they have to have a budget for it. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys, or more peanuts – or whatever the saying is. In light of the above, that budget may not have to be hard cash – but they still have to have something in place to reimburse content providers.
- I will strive towards professional standards at all times. Continue to build up my reputation for delivering quality images, on time and ideally, under budget. I will work hard, and work happy. And maybe stop ranting and raving about business in such a personal way. This site has slowly changed from a personal one, to a business site, so maybe I ought to reduce the personal content a little – or at least tone it down.
- I will strive for quality, not quantity. Aim to produce and show the best work I possibly can, and avoid filling this site and archive with whatever I happen to have been shooting.
I would love to see a commercial media organisation step up and say ‘We have a budget for our content and we will pay contributors a rate that truly reflects the effort that they have put in whilst creating their work. And to cover this budget, we will have increased our advertising rates. We are going against the tide, and are creating something new.’ But thats never going to happen. So what I need to do is continue trying to work on how I can create a suitable income from what I love to do. In the meantime, I am going to go and shoot some images. I am on a plane on a few hours, heading to Sulawesi once again on an exciting commission. And I will be working hard, and very happy.