The Problem with Giving Your Photos Away for Free

why should you not work for free photography

“Hi! Can we use your photo? We’ll give you a credit in our publication, but we have no budget to pay for photos.”

This kind of request has become commonplace in the email inboxes of photographers around the world. They come from journalists, TV companies, magazine editors – you name it. Remember that photo of the weasel riding a woodpecker? It was a once in a lifetime shot and went viral worldwide – and rightly so! Wildlife photographers everywhere went green with envy. Just think how much money the photographer Martin Le-May would have got – easily a dream holiday or a new car. But he didn’t.

Martin posted the picture to Twitter and it was soon picked up by countless press entities. And I mean countless, it was ridiculous. Here’s just one exchange:

Spotted the mistake? He gave it away for nothing. Martin admits he is an amateur photographer and was thrilled to have so much attention for his photo. It’s completely his choice to give it away for free, I understand that. But this is just one example of many that is causing huge damage to the industry and destroying the livelihood of photographers.

Newspapers don’t work for free. They sell their issues and generate massive revenue with each issue, especially the nationals. Think of all those adverts in them too; do you think you’d get very far if you asked for a free issue, let alone a free advert? The “we have no budget” argument is complete rubbish. They know full well what the reality is for photographers, but they take advantage of amateur photographers who just want to see their pictures in print. The thing is, if they’re willing to print your photos for free, chances are they’ll pay for them too – you just have to know how to stand your ground. Offering to give you credit for “exposure to a big audience” is not them trying to help you out, in fact they’re doing completely the opposite.

Just because a photo is on the internet, it doesn't mean it's free to use. Understand copyright! Click to Tweet

The photography stock industry has been hugely depleted thanks to the rise of micro-stock websites, putting many people out of business or forcing them to exploit different revenue streams. It’s now happening to the publishing industry, at least from a photographer’s point of view. Publications are laughing and rubbing their hands together as images are donated to them by photographers, inadvertently increasing the profit margins of their newspaper or magazine.

And that credit line that you’ve been promised? It does NOTHING. How many people do you know that have ever looked at the minuscule credit line next to a photo in a paper and proceeded to buy something from the photographer. It just doesn’t happen, even on the scale of large publications. I sell pictures to publications and I still get my credit line – but not once has this generated a sale. It’s a completely false economy.

why not to work for free
I sold this photo to Three Mobile for £2,500. It was printed and displayed in 360 stores all over the country.

Look at this seal photo. I was originally approached on Flickr by a company asking to use it for a mobile company’s advertising campaign in all 360 of their UK stores. Amazingly, they offered me payment upfront – that’s relatively unheard of nowadays, even from people who intend to pay anyway. They offered me £300 – tempting if you don’t really know about the value of photography, sure. But that £300 offer was relatively insulting, considering they ended up paying £2,500 for the use when I told them I meant business.

Further Reading: “What is Copyright? Understanding Your Rights

What about working with charities?

This is something that I know photographers disagree with each other about. After all, charities are there (mostly) to do good work. Charities contacting wildlife photographers are usually environmental, looking to promote and protect the natural environment that we take our photos within.

Personally, I choose one charity or cause that I work alongside. I do allow my images to be used for free by them, but that’s because I don’t want to take money away from what I know is already a very strapped-for-cash cause. For me this is red squirrel conservation in the UK. I have had a lot of success from photographing red squirrels, and they’re really on the brink of extinction. It’s effectively my donation to the charity.

On the other hand, I charge other charities for use of my photos. Perhaps I’ll be more flexible with the cost here, especially if it is a cause I believe in. It’s possible that some professionals reading this will disagree with this part of the article, but this is how I choose to work. Even so, working with charities is not the main problem as they aren’t big spenders by nature. It’s working with the media for free that is the problem.

As a photographer, you have a responsibility

The message here is don’t work for free. If you’re asked for free images, just say no and ask for payment. You’re not being greedy by asking, and there’s absolutely no reason why someone else should profit from your hard work. Every time someone gives a photo away for free, it’s a potential sale lost by the professional photography community. Why would publications go to someone who charges for their photos if they can get them for free elsewhere? Obviously there’s no law against giving photos away for free, but next time you’re offered a credit line in exchange for your photo please think about what this means for the industry.

 

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • Mark Bochiardy

    I deal with this all the time. Too many want to be able to say they were published. I was replaced as a freelancer for several motorsports magazines because they could get free images from others. They were willing to sacrifice some quality, to get free. I also had multi-million dollar operations that have asked for free use…. and They will get my work in front of millions of followers. All over a $25 discounted photo.

    • Sorry to hear that Mark. It’s a real shame what has happened to the industry. I am pretty sure I have seen a difference even in my 8 or so years of selling my work.

  • Julian Taylor

    Good article Will. The problem that a lot of people don’t know is the amount to start charging. Looking at places such as iStock/ Getty websites should give an indication of what the publishers would have to pay. As for charging charities, the old saying goes, “charity begins at home”. Most charities that I’ve been involved with over the years have always behaved like businesses.

    • Thanks Julian. I definitely agree there – in fact I think that charities are probably the most reasonable entities I’ve done business with, fully understanding that photos cost and not putting up a fuss.

  • Martin Le-May

    Will a good article that is well written. I think some of the issue that I faced was I didn’t believe that the photo was good enough to sell and by the time I realised it was good enough it was a little late. I like the balance in your article especially the acknowledgement of charity.

    Martin Le-May

    • Hi Martin. I hope you don’t mind me using you as an example here. Your case is a great example though and I think others can learn from it. Now you need to top a weasel riding a woodpecker! Perhaps a badger and a swan for your next shot!?

  • Keith Gypps

    Great article Will well written and a nicely balanced article. It’s interesting you mention the Weasel and Woodpecker photo as a friend and I discussed that many tines at length not believeing it was given away for free. That’s a classic case of oh how I wish it were mine. .

    • Thanks Keith. Yes – and like Martin has commented below here, it’s a case of not realising the potential of an image. But if they seek out your photo, they want it and they’ll pay for it. You just have to be tough.

  • Tom Dullage

    Interesting article, Will. I volunteer for my local wildlife trust, both for physical work and some photography, so I am guilty! The WLT is always strapped for cash and neither the pictures or the work would, under current circumstances, get done without volunteers, but I do worry that, ultimately, I am costing someone paid employment. The problem is really the same in both areas, the work is not valued as it should be. I believe conservation should be given a much higher priority than it is and conservation workers should be better paid and have more support, but it just isn’t going to happen any time soon, so I volunteer. The same goes for taking pictures for the local reserves (we have set up a Facebook page, to encourage visitors), until they are properly funded, there just isn’t any spare cash for this. I hope, one day, that will change.

    • Great point Tom. I agree, and that’s why I say in the article that I don’t condemn working with charities. They aren’t the real problem, and helping out charities can be a great thing to do. 🙂

  • Photo competitions that many enter are another example of image ripoff. You actually upload your photos without receiving any form of payment, and additionally, give away your rights to the photo in perpetuity! Probably the worst offender is National Geographic, which if you read their Terms and Conditions, clearly state:” National Geographic may use Your Content, WITHOUT COMPENSATION to you, in any NG Products.”
    All this on the chance you may get published, with a credit line. Only the first place winners get a prize, which is usually a funded photo excursion. No one is going to contact you after you have, by chance, become a lucky winner, or had your your photo published, because NG now owns the rights!

    And about giving your photos away to charities for a credit or promotional use, be very careful on this one. Many charities, though deemed non-profit, pay exorbitant fees to their Director, or to outside companies to do fundraising for them. Check their financial statements on-line, and ask, how much of the donations received from the public, actually go to the causes they purport to support. I’ve seen some “charities” where more than 50% went to “administrative” costs, from high-priced offices to bloated executive salaries.

    I know we all want to promote our photos and get noticed. Use Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, and limit the size of your images to 800 pixels wide at 72ppi. I’ve actually been uploading image at 56ppi, to keep the resolution lower, to lessen the chance of image theft. And don’t forget to put your copyright info right on the photo, so everyone knows it’s yours!

    Hope this helps!
    Frederic in Montréal
    RemarkableImages.ca

    • Hi Frederic. That’s a great point about watching the terms and conditions with competitions. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about actually.

      • Hi Will,
        I omitted expressing my gratitude to your well written essay, which was what motivated me to respond in the first place!

        You mentioned Flikr and how you were approached by a client there. (I looked for your profile, but as there are several Will Nicholls, was not sure which one was yours) I don’t know if you read the T&C there, but they have something similar to NG where they write, “you grant Yahoo the following worldwide, royalty-free, transferable and non-exclusive license(s), as applicable:”

        In Paragraph 9, CONTENT SUBMITTED OR MADE AVAILABLE FOR INCLUSION ON THE SERVICE, read subsection “c” for details about submitted photos and sublicenses. The full text is here:

        https://policies.yahoo.com/sg/en/yahoo/terms/utos/index.htm?soc_src=mail&soc_trk=ma

        I’ve seen Flikr member photos used for promos and advertising on the B&H Photo website in New York for example. I’ve only posted a few on Flikr, the result of a photo competition run by a newspaper which required entrants to link their Flikr site to the newspapers “camera club.” I haven’t added any since, due to the sites T&C, and the dubious benefits of entrusting photos with them.

        Thank you once again for your article Will.

        Frederic in Montréal

        • Thanks for the heads up Frederic. I’ll check out those T&Cs ASAP!

    • Mark

      The PPI doesn’t matter for uploads to social media. If you upload 800 pixels, then it is 800 pixels…

      DPI/PPI only is an issue for printing (simplification of meaning).

      • Mark

        Maybe went too general in my simplification – PPI relates to the density of pixels for the output/screen display and DPI the same but relating to printers.

        …just before someone corrects my first posting…

      • Sorry, but you are wrong – the resolution setting you apply to a photo does make a difference for social media, be it 56ppi, 72ppi or 300ppi. While you are correct to say it is the pixel density that matters for printing, the fact is, if you upload high resolution images at 240, 300 or more ppi (pixels per inch) onto social media, then you are inviting image theft and reproduction by others. The higher resolution will also create a larger image file.

        Test it yourself! Take an image 800 pixels wide with a resolution of 56 ppi saved at quality level 8 (in Photoshop) then compare the same 800 pixel wide image with a resolution at 300ppi saved at quality level 12, and you will see there’s a huge difference in quality and file size! You’re asking to have your images ripped off and reproduced by others!

        There was a case recently of “digital artist” Richard Prince who copied low resolution images from Instagram, to create poster-sized prints that he displayed and sold at the Frieze Gallery in New York. None of the original creators of the images were asked, nor gave permission for their images to be resold at profit, by Prince. More here:

        http://www.diyphotography.net/how-richard-prince-sells-other-peoples-instagram-photos-for-100000/

        In summary, use the lowest resolution setting possible, to minimize images you upload to social media, from being stolen and used by others! And place your copyright directly on the image! It won’t necessarily stop a determined criminal who can use a software like Genuine Fractals 6 to up-res images, but at least you can make their job more difficult.

        Frederic Hore,
        Montréal, Canada.

  • Madeleine

    Great article. Thankyou. As someone who is just beginning may I ask what you advice you would give to someone who is looking to sell their pictures? At the moment I am signed up to Istock and have sold a few photos but they pay very little and was wondering if this was the best way to go?

    • Hi Madeleine. Stock photography is very hard to make money with – especially on sites like iStock which are microstock websites. You will be better trying somewhere like Alamy.com. We’ll be releasing an eBook about business for photographers in the near future. Make sure you are signed up to our newsletter so that you know when it will be available! http://www.naturettl.com/subscribe/

      • Madeleine

        Thankyou very much 🙂
        Already signed up!

  • Andy Carson

    had it before off ITV wanting to use shots on thier website, asked how much and got told no budget, told em to bugger off then……

  • Harold Cook

    What a great read ,and some very good advice , i have a friend who is a pro photographer and he to advised me not to give away my photographs , i use to give some to a free paper for there wildlife section till he made me aware that photographers need to make a living ,and the equipment is very expensive ,as i can now appreciate having built up my equipment ,

  • Sergey Aleseevich Ffracoon

    It’s really good article showing whats going on in our business and im totally agree withe every word written here! Im doing extreme sports photography, skydiving, and there a lot of people want to take advantage too. I get requested from the media often to use my pictures for the credits, in the begining of my career i was very excited of getting printed here and there but then i felt like im putting so much work so much money in the equipment and in my skills to do the best i can and i start giving negative answers. Now days its still a bit of hustle sometimes to negotiate with those kind of “media” but we all grow up from that.
    Thanks to the Author and have more awesome shots!

    And on the picture is world known Red Bull Team showing cool sign for that media who want to take advantage on our comunity!

  • Phil

    I have built up a pretty good reputation with my photographic skills but nobody ever wants to pay. A lot of this is my fault, I wanted to expand my knowledge and experience and did a lot of free jobs. Now I am stuck, all the talent in the world and no one wants to pay for it. Are photographer agents worthwhile to try to get on with? Thx

    • Yes, press agents are definitely the way forward if you want to get your pictures into publications. I’m writing an eBook about business for photographers at the moment. Make sure you’re on our newsletter so you know when it’ll be available 🙂 http://www.naturettl.com/subscribe/

  • Simon

    Thanks for the article. You mention that £300 is insulting for an image, I was wondering if you have any formula or recommendations for pricing images. For example what is a respectable amount to request for an image that won’t drive the publisher away?

  • Jonathan

    Will, maybe we should petition the BBC ? They use viewer images every night on the weather section.
    I propose they give a donation to a charity in liue of the fees they should be paying. . because as good as your article is we will never stop completely amateurs wanting to see their work published so much they regularly give them for free.

    • I see little point in petitioning just one media entity to be honest, Jonathan. And I can’t see any circumstances where a company will take on a massive expensive if they make it their policy to pay for all images, sadly.

  • Kent

    Love it when they give it away.. ahhahah They say.. but we get all kinds of FREE advertising, we get noticed.. Then up set cause they cant make a profit.. so when they charge.. they can’t sell it because another instant photographer that hasn’t done their home work on business. will give their work away for free…. Try placing an ad in a paper,…bet they give those away for free!

  • Alessandro Pelosi

    There is a big problem in the photography work: to have beginners to determine the value of their work. Why Experts are so unkeen to tell newbies how much should they charge for a service or a photo? Why there is no reasonable price list available on internet to take inspiration from other than advises like “make your business plan by yourself”? Obviously that with no benchmark people tell to undersell their work in order to have a way to start their business in a competitive market and that allowed clients to press down on prices up to free.

  • The biggest problem is “We have no budget” whether it’s from a big publisher or an impoverished charity. Why do you have no budget for photography? I assume you have a budget for your rent, the heat, the gas and electricity? Is your Chairman or CEO being paid? Are YOU (the person on the phone making the request for free photos) being paid?
    Why oh why has photography become so devalued that even organisations with the money to pay for it think it’s OK to ask for it free?
    In the UK you can google the Charity Commissioners web site, and look at the accounts of the charity claiming to have ‘no budget.’
    I’ve done this while on the phone to people requesting ‘free photos because we have no budget and we’re a charity.’ When I tell them their latest surplus figures, and the amount their CEO is being paid, they normally put the phone down.

    • PaulL

      Budget is irrelevant. People will find money for it if it’s important to them

  • Markus

    Photography is a profession where hobby photographers have the chance to develop a level of skill that allows for them to compete with professionals and that is part of the problem. At the same time I believe that this is something that professionals simply have to live with.

    Professionals still have the advantage of being more flexible though as they tend to be self employed,thereby sparing themselves from the need to coordinate two jobs at the same time. Also, THAT is an advantage that even those who have no idea about photography can understand. I mean, most customers won’t understand a word when you talk about AP-C vs. full frame sensors, or “dynamic range”, but they do understand that a professional is much more reliable (time-wise) than an amateur. Also, they should be able to understand the advantage of a second professional backup camera that many skilled amateurs do not have.

    As for skilled amateurs, well, as I said, professionals simply have to live with them. They exist and they won’t go away either, because why should they? If you believe that they threaten the market value of your own work, then explain what good work is worth. Explain this to either these skilled amateurs and/or explain this to your customers. There is no other way.

  • J

    If there is no discernible difference between someone that’s professional and someone that’s amateur, then you’re going to be hard pressed charging for it.
    The exception to this is if you have a reputation, in which case you aren’t going to be effected by people giving away free content.

  • Lancaster

    I disagree with your assertion that

    “But this is just one example of many that is causing huge damage to the industry and destroying the livelihood of photographers.”

    Record companies, media rights holders etc sit there crying about their industry being destroyed by piracy, put in restrictions on content (DRM, DVD regions etc), put lawsuits all to maintain a revenue stream from an outdated business model.
    Meanwhile Netflix is printing money, people pay for HBO and other such on-demand streaming services.
    The wants and needs of the consumer have changed and so the business model needs to adapt.

    If an amateur is able to produce content that businesses want it and potentially pay for it, over those professionals who rely on said pay for their income – you need to change. Or you will be stuck.

    I see it everywhere, newspapers cutting down on professional photographers, give a reporter an iPhone 6 “just take some snaps”.
    If the quality drops so much that it affects the bottom line (read: $$) then they will start hiring said photographers back. If the poor quality of the photos don’t affect the bottom line, and the news papers / news outlets / TV shows / websites can make do with the lower quality that amateurs bring to the table – you have to change your business model or you will be left without a revenue stream.

    Kodak did not embrace digital photography, where is Kodak now?
    The market changes.
    Fair call – value your work appropriately, don’t work for free – great advice for anyone (I work IT support, ‘oh it was an easy fix don’t worry about it’ doesn’t put dinner on the table). If you’re looking to make money as a side business or move into full time employment, definitely learn how to value your skills and time – charge accordingly. For my line of work, there’s nothing stopping a small business owner asking their nephew / neighbour for help or advice,and sometimes hey it works.
    There used to be money in building PC’s for people – now there is not – we order a box from dell or Lenovo

    But don’t tell me an amateur giving away their pictures for free just to see it go viral is ruining your industry.
    That to me, is your industry that has to change, not the person being taking happy snaps and uploading them to twitter.

  • Absolutely spot on Will, I get these requests with increasing frequency to a point where I’ve stopped responding to them. That silence then invariably leads to insinuations of me being the ignorant one? On the last request where I did respond I attached a photo of my 4yo son and asked the recipient for suggestions as to how I could otherwise raise, feed, educate and offer a solid grounding for him if I couldn’t do that through the sale of my imagery. Needless to say they never replied.

    It really pickles my plums when I hear this constant bleating by perceived ‘respectable’ media brands who increasingly feel they are within any boundaries of professional etiquette by suggesting ‘credit’ for a base commodity that forms the foundation for their very success. A credit is a given unless removed by contractual agreement.

    • It’s totally nuts. I’ve found that a number of requests do end up paying out if politely asked. I make a point never to reply sarcastically, however tempting it can be! I also see the temptation to not initially offer payment, something I can sympathise with as an editor here, and just wait for the photographer to either ask for payment or not. Having said that, I always offer payment up front – even if it is modest because of our budget.

  • Desmond Downs

    I understand the thoughts here but it’s a losing battle – more people with cameras than ever before hoping to achieve their ’30 seconds of fame’ and lower standards of what people are prepared to print – we’re not going to turn the tide.

    • I totally agree with you, but something I feel is worth writing about still.

  • PaulL

    There are free newspapers.
    I’m reading your article and it’s free.
    In my profession I compete against free all the time. The trick is to be better than free and only deal with people who see the difference and are willing to pay for it.

    The problem with so many professional photographers is that they see themselves are photographers first (I’m ignoring the self aggrandising idiots who describe themselves are ‘artists’

    You’re a Marketer first, a salesperson second and a photographer third.

    You sell to feed your photography habit.

    • Our articles are free, but we still pay our photographers. But I know what you mean, and it’s something that isn’t going to change. Stepping up the game is what is needed and that is why the industry is changing.

  • Stephen Power

    Just got an email…

    “Hi Stephen could you do a few shots of my B&B, I’m just around the corner from you.” I replied…”yes, my minimum rate is €150 for 2 hours, if it takes longer (including post processing), I’ll need to adjust the fee accordingly”. They came back with…”Oh, I expected you to be around €25″. I answered “My hourly rate was €12 an hour in 1980. My experience and professionalism has increased it somewhat since then”.

    The big issue here is that not all “professional” photographers reply on it for their sole income. I do, so my fees not only reflect my experience but they have to pay my rent and buy my food. Those “weekend warriors” charging a third of what I do are not only (sometimes) flooding the industry with poor quality work; giving us all a bad name, but they are also allowing for the devaluation of the product, which results in those who can do good work finding it much harder to get for a conmensurate fee.

    • Yep – for some reason people expect photographers to work for minimum wage, yet come armed with thousands of pounds worth of equipment and experience. Ummm?

  • dotman

    must say that this is by far the most impactful article I’ve come across on NatureTTL. Read many insightful comments in the Disqus section as well.
    I am particularly inspired by the story of your fat profit for a really outstanding photograph.
    Realizing how much skill, energy and cost I have incurred for a photograph and photography equipment would surely deter me from being the Santa-photographer I’ve been in the past when I was starting out. LOL
    For now, I’ll just stick to taking great, sellable photos. Thanks for the tips Will!

    Regards from Nigeria.

    • Thanks for your comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and sounds like a good move away from Santa photos!

  • Mark Coxon

    My daughter Jade is the one that took the photo of the seagull photobombing the red arrow display. Fortunately I kenew enough so when the first newspaper rang I refused to let them use it for free but almost rightaway a press agent got in touch and asked to be the one to look after the photo for a commission. He took care of everything and Jade got paid for every newspaper and tv show her photo was in.

    • Good job she had you to cover her back! Agencies are the best way to sell to the press.

  • Andy Deitsch

    A couple of years ago I was contacted by the BBC Natural History department for one of my photos. They too wanted it for free and offered me credit in exchange. I stood my ground but they told me they didn’t have a budget. They cited another photographer who was well known who was donating a photo. I ended up not giving them the image even though it would have been nice to have BBC on my CV. I was surprised that the BBC played this game.

    • It is surprising but there are different departments across the BBC that work in different ways. Some will try to grab photos too, it seems!

  • Caryl Smith

    I only use my own photos. Don’t like anyone to use them. Had one person who used mine. I told them not too, haven’t had another problem again. I think it’s in bad taste using someone else photos. Different if you ARE allowed to share it. Guess its hard to stop it. I’m on Instagram. Some people have so many photos of different places, I know when it’s not there photography. I’m still loving my passion though, it’s such a great hobby👍🏼🇿🇦

  • Allan Potts

    And if your image gets used/abused don’t let them get away with it. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2513735/Photographer-wins-legal-battle-clothing-giant-Next-stole-image-stunt-bike-rider-printed-childrens-T-shirts.html <<< I'm the photographer in the article,

    • Hi Allan. Great to hear from you – I remember reading about your situation years ago. I never read about the outcome though, so it’s great to see that you had success in the end. A fantastic example of being able to stand up against big commercial companies!

  • Priscilla Van Andel

    Good article! However it is already 1 year old, this is a very actual problem… And yes photographers like me keep making these mistakes. I love to share my photos of wildlife/passion for wildlife I come across, not necessarily great photos. I post on social media FB, Instagram, Flickr, sometimes people share my posts on their pages.. it is a very grey area.
    And… now I have shared your article about this on my FB, and not even sure if I am supposed to do that even mentioning the source…? Is this illegal as I will immediately delete it if so. ^_^ Am I allowed to share your article(s)?

    • Thanks for your comment Priscilla. Sharing our article is fine, of course, and encouraged!

      • Priscilla Van Andel

        oke great, thank you! 🙂

  • Jim Currie

    I pretty much agree with what you say. I have performed as a professional magician and was often approached to perform for free. As you indicate, I supported some chosen charities, but ensured that everyone else paid.
    I think though you need to draw a distinction between photographers and people who just get lucky.

    I am not a professional photographer, I’m not even an amateur photographer, I just own a camera which I point at things for fun. I was fortunate enough to take a photograph that a newspaper wanted to use. Had I tried to ask for a fee, they would simply have used one of a number of slightly older pictures of the same subject taken by their own photographers.

    In my case, having a photograph published in a newspaper was actually suitable reward for my efforts. i’m pretty sure that it had no impact on circulation.

    Jim