Are Photographs Losing Their Value

February 21st 2018 | Peter Stewart

Let me preface this by saying, f**k  Unsplash!

Whew. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, time to have a little rant about the current state of the photography world. I'll start by saying I'm no old timer stuck in my ways, completely unwilling to adapt to change. I never had to make the switch from film to digital, or learn to adapt to the internet. I started out fully engrained within the digital realm. 10 years ago we had all the same types of social media tools we have today, yet it was the way we used them to gain an audience that I find vastly different from todays online world. We shifted largely from desktop to mobile consumption, with continuing evolutions in technology enabling virtually everyone to become a "photographer" simply through the use of a smartphone. We document every facet of our daily lives, influenced by others and in turn trying to influence ourselves. All the while covered in a nice Instagram filter. 

This is what I feel has changed rapidly in the past decade. There has been a huge monumental shift in the way we view photography as a medium, and the values and worth we place upon it. In short...

Today. Everybody is a photographer

Before Instagram became the go-to platform for image sharing, the sites I mostly used to gain traction were Flickr and the then-upcoming 500px. Flickr, in particular, I found to be an excellent platform as many people looking to license images found me through searching there. 500px then introduced its own Marketplace to sell your images and offered a very generous split for every sale. I used to have sales on almost on a weekly basis through their marketplace. Facebook had it's own 'Pages', which made it easy to build an organic audience and allowed you to separate yourself from your other personal account. The reach back then was incredible, as there was very little of the monetisation we see now. Business was pretty good!

Then one day that little Instagram app suddenly exploded in popularity. 

I recall somewhere around 2013, more professional photographers started to adopt the platform as another means to share their portfolio. Indeed I did too and slowly built up an audience. Almost everything I saw on the platform was fresh, new and exciting. I was seeing images I had never encountered on other photo-sharing sites. Discovering a new wave of talent armed purely with smartphones. It was also great to be a part of a community that valued interaction amongst photographers. Indeed I have made many friends over the years solely due to Instagram.

Obviously, the younger generation understood how to better shape the platform and now we have the worlds biggest photography collective, and arguably the most used app in the modern world.  

Yet, I’ve witnessed its rapid transformation as no doubt most regular users have too. Morphing from humble days as a simple photo sharing app to one now dominated by paid ads in disguise, and an endless supply of unoriginality amongst its users. We seem to have gone from recognizing and rewarding original talent to giving way to the new breed of fad chasing trendsetters hooked on likes as a means to feed their narcissistic tendencies. One look at the 'Explore' page touts countless numbers of copycats all posting exactly the same images as if they’re ticking off a list or collecting Pokémon (an analogy I’ve seen actually Instagrammers use). Visual styles, exact angles and/or locations unashamedly copy/pasted from one Instagrammer to another. 

Indeed, the world of photography is now so intertwined with the platform that the word “gram” can suitably be used as a replacement for the word “photo”.

Fast forward to 2018 and it seems like just about everyone is a “photographer”. We are so completely oversaturated and overstimulated with stunning imagery on a daily basis now through social media that it's hard to be completely wowed anymore. Our increased exposure to photography also seems to have had a knock-on effect with non-photographers. I notice more people nowadays putting extra thought into their snapshots and selfies than before. Aided by repeated exposure to perfect images no doubt in their social media feeds. And It’s not like the camera companies and travel companies haven’t taken note either. Many now produce adverts and web articles promoting tourism that focus solely on aspect of where to go to get the perfect Instagram shots. It seems we can’t get enough of it, with little-known photography locations perhaps visited by a mere few only a couple of years ago, now suddenly exploding in popularity.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful too for all the tools and technology that have advanced to a point where photography is made more accessible for the masses, but it begs the question going into the future:

Are Photographs losing their value?

Untitled photo
Untitled photo

...And this is what brings me finally to Unsplash.

For those unaware, Unsplash is a photography sharing website not too dissimilar to say 500px or Flickr. You create a profile, upload your images, get likes. All pretty normal right?

The difference here is that everything you upload, you knowingly and willingly give away for free.

These are the license terms as listed on their website:

"All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible. More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service."

High-resolution images. Completely free to download and use for commercial use 

Just thinking about such a service makes me laugh. I mean who in their right mind would want to give away the rights to their pictures for nothing? With that I mind I naively assumed the site would simply be full of poorly executed and otherwise dull amateur snapshots. I was wrong.

Unsplash actually has some pretty darn good stuff on there. In fact, I'm shocked at the level of quality imagery available. Did I mention that it's ALL FOR FREE!

So yeah, where is all this heading? Are websites like Unsplash the future? Are we really willing to accept so-called exposure as the new currency for photography? 

Zach Arias recently commented on this issue, amongst some other issues with Unsplash concerning copyright and liability. Well worth a watch to see an old-school professionals take on all of this. 

I have to say I totally side with Zach on this issue. 

I implore all artists to VALUE their work. Take pride in what you produce and don't just give it away for free. I can guarantee you that views and likes will not make you famous let alone net you a single cent. The instant you place a dollar mark of zero on your name and your portfolio, it will stick with your forever.

Why would anyone want to pay you anything tomorrow when they got it for free yesterday?

  • Untitled photo
  • Untitled photo

On the left, a free image from Unsplash (By Alexandr Bormotin).  On the right, my image "Rainbow Hoops"

I've been thinking about these issues for a while now. The whole shift in attitudes towards photography, and the monetary values we place upon it. As an artist who predominantly makes a living through image licensing and physical prints, I've had to accept that the fishbowl is getting bigger each and every year, and it's getting harder to promote one's work and justify the high values placed upon it. We can't all be Peter Lik!

Recently these thoughts all came to a head when I received a fairly typical e-mail in my inbox. A potential customer requesting a quote to buy a popular image of mine. They wanted to use it commercially for advertising a tourism service. I provided them with my fee and later got back this response:

"That's too expensive for us. We'll just search Unsplash for a similar photo to yours and use that instead"

I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Having someone say that to me was far more insulting than hearing the old classic "We can't pay you, but just think of the exposure" line.

Just to try and put things in perspective, here is a breakdown of how I place a value on my work. 

I'm currently a full-time location independent photographer. I self-fund my travel and make a living almost entirely through photography. Other than the odd commissioned shoot, magazine article or paid client job (I also do interiors for hotels), the bulk of my income derives from image licensing and print sales. 

My pricing is based off Getty's own tool for calculating image licensing, and for prints, is a mixture of the value I place on the image as a piece of art, minus production costs and profit splits with supplier/galleries. In short, I value my work at a premium and others view it as such. I choose to place a high value on what I produce, and so should you if you wish to make money from your images!

With that said, there are a number of other factors that determine why I place a high value on images in general (and not just my own work).

Professional grade camera equipment is extremely expensive. 

• The sheer costs involved in reaching destinations to photograph. Flights, taxis,   accommodation, food, local guides, translators, insurance, bribes (occasionally). 

• Days spent location scouting, shooting, then countless hours of editing and finally promoting.

• Website hosting costs

• Print production costs (paper ain’t cheap!)

• Third party profits cuts e.g Smugmug, PayPal, art galleries, stock licensing

Adding up all the thousands and thousands of dollars that need to be spent before even getting to press the shutter, and putting aside the fact that I too need to eat and sleep, why the hell would I then turn around and give away all my work for free?

Would you?

What direction do you see the world of photography taking in the next 10 years? Please leave a comment below and add to the discussion.

  • Brian Scantlebury

    on August 13, 2018

    The market has certainly changed, with "the everyone's a photographer" society we now find our selves in. However,photographic art is finding a bigger and bigger market. Images are everywhere, on walls like never before, on sides of trucks, buses etc, in the increasing volume of adverts produced to meet the digital media demands and so on. BUT, the price of our product is falling rapidly, except perhaps for those who have or will make to the very top of the tree.
    It's up to us to place a value on our art, and find new ways to get it out there. Comments about the likes of Unslpash are a concern, I've found my images from Flickr in unlikely places, taken for free. About to leave Flickr behind too.
    So where to from here. May some more common views about successful strategies, and avoiding the negative issue that are all around us, like those referred to here.

  • Guest

    on May 24, 2018

    Hi Emanuele,
    Thanks for taking the time to provide your response. It's refreshing to see the other side of the argument, so your comments are appreciated.

    You are absolutely right. No-one is forcing me to do what I do. I completely self-fund my travels through photography, but I would counter and say that this is neither a long term holiday nor a hobby for me. I only desire to be successful as does anyone, which is why sites like Unsplash bother me. I can see your point however, that my arguments could seem favoured solely to apply to myself and my unique situation.

    The general point I wanted to get across to people is simply to respect your work and to place a value upon it. Of course, who am I to tell people what to do with their pictures, I realise that's none of my business. I'm just trying to understand why so many others who take their photography seriously (either professionally or as a hobby), are so willing to give away their work for free on a service like Unsplash? Browsing through that site reveals images taken with equipment far more expensive than my own, images taken in far flung destinations like Patagonia, Iceland and Everest. Given the amount of money that likely went into taking the picture, regardless of whether you're a hobbyist or not...why so willingly give that away?

  • Emanuele Kniepinger

    on May 23, 2018

    Oh and by the way ...

    "I'm a full-time location independent photographer. I self-fund my travel and make a living entirely from photography. Other than the odd commissioned shoot, magazine article or paid client job (I also do interiors for hotels), the bulk of my income derives from image licensing and print sales."


    "• Camera equipment and lenses cost money. A LOT of money.
    • The sheer costs involved in simply reaching destinations to photograph. Flights, taxis, accommodation, food, local guides, translators, insurance, bribes (occasionally).
    • Days spent location scouting, shooting, then countless hours of editing and finally promoting.
    • Website hosting costs
    • Print production costs (paper ain’t cheap!)
    • Third party profits cuts e.g Smugmug, PayPal, art galleries, stock licensing"

    Do you realize that these arguments are quite snobbish and worthless? No one ever asked you for doing this. No one asked you to become a photographer and to travel everywhere in the first place. It's your own decision and I don't know but traveling is still traveling right? No matter how "hard you work for that picture". It is all your decision. And in the end "selling some photos" is just what we tell to ourselves to justify our expensive Hobby. I repeat: No one asked you or us to become a photographer. They didn't put a gun to our head and told us "Buy the most expensive camera you can afford and travel to south east asia and take that picture for me, or ...!" It is all your own decision. If you're unhappy that no one wants to pay you for your trip and the pictures you took there, then you just stay at home and don't go there. But I guess you didn't just go there to be paid for the picture. Maybe there is also fun involved ...
    Your arguments are invalid, because they only apply for yourself and totally keep the competition out.
    If I as a graphic designer have to layout some product and I have to choose between two pictures with the absolutely same content, of course I would go for the cheaper one. Maybe the cheaper one is taken by a local who just lives there with his smartphone and then edited with Gimp. No one will see the difference if it's a small print, maybe even with some text above it. And then even if they notice, maybe they don't care at all! If that local guy, who took that picture with his smartphone one day just because out of boredom puts that picture to Unsplash. Hell yeah, I would get it! Absolutely. Maybe that guy is working as an engineer and he doesn't care about photography at all. And then that's fair. That's just how the market works. Deal with it or leave it.
    Just imagine you go to a car dealer to buy your dream car. You find your dream car, but not only one - you even see that the dealer has two times exactly the same car. And you want it badly. But then he tells you one car sells for 5000$ but the other one sells for 7500$. He explains "The other car comes from a place far away and the guy who drove it spend a lot of money on his driver licence and he put a lot of effort in to earn the money to buy that car." would you opt for the second, more expensive choice, even if it's the same car? Hell no! You wouldn't!

  • Emanuele Kniepinger

    on May 22, 2018

    That's exactly one of the reasons why I said goodbye to be a "professional photographer". The business is just dying with cheaper equipment, better automatic cameras, even AI framing shots and more and more high quality software. Now I'm going back to what I learnt, being a graphic designer, but with a business twist. Ever heard of service design? That's the way to go in Asia in the coming years. Blessed are those who are able to adapt.
    I sold all my Canon FF equipment, which was worth 8k Euro or so and bought a small and lightweight, yet professional quality Olympus setup for all the "jobs" that are still about to come. I have never been happier and it feels right to move on to the next chapter. I cannot imagine being a photographer in an ever growing competition with a shrinking market capitalization with the age of 60+.

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