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An industry colleague told me recently that they were building a new website. "Great," I said. "Are you using stock images, or are you hiring a photographer?"
"Neither," they said. "We're using Unsplash."
Curious, I took a look at the site, searched around to get a feel for the "service", and was appalled at the Terms and Conditions (Yep; I read them). Not only are people using these images for free, but photographers are willingly uploading their images without any expectation of compensation.
It reminded me of a long-ago argument I had in a Flickr forum with someone who stated emphatically, "If I find an image online, it's OK to use it for whatever I want. It's free." After calmly explaining copyright law and ownership of art, they refuted everything and replied with what amounted to "whatever lol".
Where do I begin: anger or education? I'll start with education.
When someone creates a piece of art -- illustration, copywriting, music, photography, painting -- they own the copyright to that. They can license it to someone else for a set period of time, or they can sell it as a work for hire. In the case of photography, the image belongs to the creator of that photograph. They can sell the copyright if they choose, but short of that, they own it.
If the photographer puts it in their website's portfolio or posts it on social media, they still own the copyright to that image. Sure, it might become popular and make the rounds, but they still own it. No one can use it for commercial purposes without a license and especially their permission. That's the law.
In addition, if the image contains a person or a building, the law requires a model or property release if that image is to be used commercially. That's also the law.
But Unsplash dispenses with all of those pesky legal requirements and instead encourages photographers to upload their images for free, without even requiring a model release for adults, children, or property. Are they aware of the immense liability to which they've exposed their company? I can't wait to see the first big lawsuit from someone whose child or portrait was used without permission by a startup that didn't know better.
If you or your creative team is using Unsplash images without model releases and without compensating photographers, you are hurting the creative industry, and you should stop. If you are a creative and using Unsplash for anything other than mood boards, you need to stop as well.
A Message for Photographers
Now, I'll move to the anger part. In this case, I'm more incredulous and shaking my head.
If you're a photographer -- freelance or full-time, amateur or pro -- giving away your images for free is doing a disservice to other photographers and creatives. You are not only taking food out of our mouths -- almost literally -- but you are preventing yourself from making a living at this craft. It's already difficult to convince clients that your years of training and experience are worth paying for.
Sure, as an aspiring pro, you might start off creating assignments for free to build your portfolio. That's part of the process. But if not, you're at the same level of wrong as photographers who charge $75 to shoot a wedding. You are killing the industry and leaving nothing left for anyone. Most of all, you're hurting yourself.
For those of us who make all or part of our living in this field, it's already tough to convince an overly thrifty client (I'm being polite) that you can do a better job with 20 years of experience than their nephew who just bought "a very expensive camera". (Also: I can't count the number of times a prospective client has asked, "What gear do you use?" Answer: It doesn't matter as long as the images are great.) Now you have to compete against free? That's not a market; it's a slaughter.
Photographer Zack Arias has expressed his surprise at the "race to the bottom of Free" in the market overall, especially as it relates to Unsplash. He's right.
I see it more as a long plummet to the bottom of the perceived "sharing economy". Although, it this case, it's not sharing; it's just stealing from hard-working creatives.
Don Lupo is a freelance photographer with over 30 years of experience in photojournalism, corporate photography, and photography education on the college level. He shoots both high-resolution digital cameras and vintage film cameras, whichever will create the desired results.
I'm posting this to help not only the general public that wants to hire photographer but also to help aspiring photographers.
There is a trend online where people are looking to hire photographers for extensive commercial or product photography work, full crew shoots, full weddings, and event corporate photography but list their budget at "$150-$200". There's a problem with that. If I went to a Porsche dealer and said, "I want your top-of-the-line model, but I only have $150", they'd laugh and forcibly remove me from the premises.
No one says to an architect, "I want you to build my dream home, but I only have $200". Anyone who is a professional is their field does it not just because it's what they love or what they're good at; they do it to make a living. And, the more experience a professional has in their field, the more they can charge for that experience.
But how should people with limited budgets hire photographers? Easy. Tell the photographer what your budget is, and understand that if they are more experienced, they might pass on the job. However, ask if they could refer you to a less experienced photographer who is getting started and could use the work, the portfolio piece, and a little money, too. Just don't expect Porsche-level service (with a full crew) for lower fees.
This is not meant to sound elitist; it's the reality of business. I do this work to put food on my family's table (though I also love the work). While newer photographers are trying to build their portfolios and get experience, there is an entire audience for whom their experience level is perfect.
That said, there also exists in this industry the overzealous amateur who hurts the industry and customers at the same time. Many industries have them: the wannabe professional who won't put in the time or effort to become skilled but wants the success and recognition without the hard work. There's the "designer" who just bought Photoshop; the "fitness guru" who only bought the workout clothes; the "photographer" who bought an expensive camera and doesn't know the first thing about lighting, exposure, or composition.
This last person hurts clients and fellow photographers at the same time. Customers think they're getting a deal for $75 headshots but are then deeply disappointed when the images come back. Similarly, this "photographer" thinks "Hey, I'm getting paid!" but they don't realize that they are hurting the industry by making people think that all headshots should be $75. Instead, be honest that you are starting out and are charging a lower-than-usual rate because of that. Later, when you're more experienced, you can gradually raise your rates commensurate with your dedication and effort. Everyone wins.
In the end, I want everyone to get what they want, but I also want us all to make a living. Being honest with each other -- and ourselves -- will go a long way toward making sure everyone can win.