Why I stopped giving my photos away for free

Image for post
Image for post
Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash

UPDATE: October 15, 2018

Kudos to the Unsplash team for listening to the community — that’s the Unsplash I signed up for, love, and respect the most.

As many of you know I have been an active contributing member of Unsplash — the entirely free photo site that features gifted beautiful photos from the world’s best photographers, for over 3 years.

Throughout my tenure on the platform I have hosted a Toronto event, written about my love for the platform, and have met incredible people within the Unsplash community. I’ve been part of quite a few top lists for downloads, views, and contributions, and throughout all the numerous targeted attacks over the years at the community by skeptics and detractors I have defended them to my core.

Until today.

Image for post
Image for post
Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash

As I reflect back on since I first uploaded I am reminded of a simpler time — a time where the promise was simple. Free photos that you could do whatever you wanted with. The photographer could gift a photo to help the community and in turn it could be seen and used by millions of people. This simple premise is the core of why I stuck by Unsplash through all these years. It was a premise that was easy for me to align to — I firmly and strongly believe in a free and open internet. One that isn’t throttled, curated, or costly. An internet where creative integrity is the goal, not page views. Unfortunately I feel like the rug has been ripped out from under me. Allow me to breakdown the features and changes I have become aware of that have put me on a hiatus from uploading any further work to Unsplash.

Image for post
Image for post
Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash

Monetization //

Image for post
Image for post

For context, please read the above linked article. I will not be deep diving into the various sponsorship deals or ad units here. It’s a pretty simple and basic native advertising strategy.

Overall, while I think the implementation of advertising is fine, for me where it fundamentally breaks down is in the lack of respect given back to the photographers and community. It’s a rushed solution to a long simmering problem. How the hell does Unsplash make money? I don’t know the ins and outs of Unsplash’s operation but I can make an educated assumption that after receiving over 7 million in seed funding you’re going to have investors politely asking “Where are the ads?” When a product is free, you are the product. This is true on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. It’s also an argument the Unsplash team has used for their current monetization strategy.

YouTube didn’t always have ads, and it took them a while to implement a strategy that provided a revenue model to the creators. I understand YouTube’s position. YouTube was originally just a site meant for people to share videos — for entertainment and personal reasons, much like Instagram in the early days. When YouTube became a content creation platform that’s when the game changed and when creators wanted more. Unsplash was ‘creators-first’ from the start.

Let’s go back in time and pretend that YouTube started as a video hosting site where everything you uploaded was commercially available to be used by anyone and everyone. Royalty free. For free. Now imagine after a few years of this and the sale to Google they started implementing native advertising with no transparency or public plans to give anything back to the incredibly generous community that gifted their work to millions. There would be an uproar. This, in my opinion, is exactly what Unsplash has done with this monetization strategy.

I don’t care if they need to run ads. I could talk about how I don’t want my free work benefiting random companies I may or may not endorse but that’s my former advertising career getting the best of me. I know full well that it’s not the platform’s fault online-ads suck. It’s the advertiser’s fault that ads suck. I care about the disrespect to the millions of contributors who are currently in the dark wondering why there’s a minimum $10k sponsorship spend for 3 months for brands to partner with Unsplash, not to mention the display ads.

Anchor is a great example of a platform that understands it’s core selling feature — their creative community. By introducing listener support they have put the monetization in the hands of the listeners and creators. Do you want to make money on Anchor? Produce amazing content and ask your audience to support you. Anchor is a distribution platform, and so is Unsplash. I’m not asking to put the entire burden of monetization on Unsplash. I’m asking for it to be shared. To me, it’s funny that Anchor and Unsplash just recently partnered too. Hopefully the Unsplash team can learn from their monetization strategy moving forward.

Income is not the point here. I’m not expecting anyone to get rich off of Unsplash — even if it’s as little as one penny given back to a creator for every million views. I just want to be respected as a contributor. And Unsplash running ads without even a nod to the lifeblood of the community is very disappointing. Random tweets saying “we’re working on monetization plans,” is not enough. Unsplash is prioritizing their operation needs ahead of the community that makes their platform what it is. These strategies need to happen in tandem.

There are murmurs that a pilot project with certain contributors is in the works in an attempt at alternate monetization concepts. I cannot substantiate any of these claims. Ultimately, until anything official is released this is my opinion on the current state. If anything comes out I will do my best to update this regularly.

Image for post
Image for post

Curation //

Below is my original reservations and I will leave it up to you to decide for yourself if the changes are enough or not. I will continue uploading in light of these new changes. Good stuff.


I want to start this off with an analogy.

You walk into a clothing donation store with a bag of clothes you want to donate. You don’t want to sell them online because the effort it would take to do so is not worth the reward. It’s more beneficial to just give them away because you know full well they will help someone else less fortunate or in need. You start putting your clothes in the donation bin and someone says “Thanks. We’re just going to leave them in the back. Not in the store where everyone can see them.” You wonder to yourself, “That’s odd — these clothes are great! I would still wear them to be honest but I just want to give back! Why don’t they want my clothes!? I’ll just put them up for free on my own then!”

This is what’s happening on Unsplash right now. You may or may not be aware of this, but not long ago Unsplash started revealing some of the 5 states of a submitted photo.

These are taken directly from Unsplash’s FAQ:

In Review — This is an automatic state. This will show while the photos are being processed by the system before receiving a subsequent state.

Flagged — This is an automatic state. Photos that do not meet our guidelines will be removed and an email will be sent out to explain why.

Approved — This is an automatic state. All photos uploaded that meet our guidelines are automatically made available on your Unsplash profile.

Searchable — This is a manual state. To maintain the quality of search results, our Editorial Team chooses the best photos to feature based on utility and engagement.

Promoted — This is a manual state. Our Editorial Team features a selection of their choice of best quality photos on Unsplash to highlight to the Unsplash Community. These photos will be discoverable and also highlighted in our homepage Editorial Feed.

You can now visit the “Manage Photos” tab on Unsplash and see the status of your submissions.

Image for post
Image for post

The important one to focus on here is “Searchable” — If your photo is searchable that means if you have a photo of a pineapple and you tagged it “pineapple” when someone searches “pineapple” they will see your photo amongst the results. If it’s not searchable it will not appear here even if you tagged it “pineapple”. It seems that since the beginning Unsplash has been curating ALL submissions. Not just for editorial/the home page. In theory, this makes sense. They want a beautiful user experience and don’t want search to be flooded with selfies and poorly composed or blurry images. That would imply a curation system that is based on “usefulness” and some clear criteria for what makes a “good photo.” Unfortunately in practice it’s much more arbitrary than that. To go back to our thrift store donation analogy, this isn’t denying clothing because it’s ripped. It’s denying it because perhaps the team doesn’t like yellow and you have a bunch of yellow shirts.

Take a look at Jp Valery’s collection he put together of photos that are not searchable or discoverable by the community unless they visit JP’s profile:

78 photos Unsplash deemed “not useful” to the Unsplash community. 78 beautiful photos JP worked hard on to create and share. 78 photos that JP has to look at and wonder, “Why weren’t these good enough?” 78 photos that will instil a doubt in his own ability as a photographer. That’s not okay.

“But they are still on his profile!”

So what?

I have over 20k followers on Unsplash. With over 20k followers if my photo doesn’t end up in search on average that submission gets less than 20 likes and less than 2k downloads. When my photo is in search it amounts to hundreds of thousands of downloads and millions of views. That’s a massive difference in reach. In fact every photo I’ve used in this article is a photo I have on Unsplash that is not searchable. My profile is essentially useless — it’s basically an imgur account with a nicer UI.

The creative curation of free work is very tasteless and disrespectful to the wonderful community of amateur, hobbyist, and professional creators. I am particularly worried about budding and young creators being discouraged by the denial of their submission. You’re asking a lot of someone to donate their best work to just say, “its not good enough.”(!) — I understand censoring profanity, nudity, and poor technical image quality — but what is it about this photo that is not worth sharing with the community? I flew my drone in Manhattan at the perfect golden hour to get this shot and then gave it away for free. However, what’s the point if nobody can find it? Why did I even bother?

I don’t need Unsplash to tell me I’m good at what I do. I do however, at the very least, expect them to respect me as someone that knows how to create beautiful images that will support the community.

Image for post
Image for post
Another one of my photos that is not searchable on Unsplash

I encourage you to check your photos and see which are searchable or not. I guarantee you will be surprised. I’ve had numerous conversations with other contributors and the consensus is the same. This is not cool.

Where this gets extra slippery is the focus on your stats. Contributor loyalty to Unsplash is developed by slick and happy reminders of how many people are viewing and downloading your photos. Everyone is chasing bigger and bigger numbers. You get a nice tingly feeling when you’re told your photo was viewed 100 million times. Wow!

As someone who has said ‘the numbers matter’ in the past — let me now be the first to tell you they absolutely do not. My story and any others you may have read about are insanely rare. So much so that there’s only 3 examples in Unsplash’s official FAQ for any tangible benefits to high engagement. Why is this problematic? Because it further demonstrates the facade. If numbers are the way to keep you uploading the only way to get those numbers is to have your photo in search and up until what seems like the last 2 weeks you never even knew if your photo was in search or not. You just assumed the photo wasn’t resonating because the stats were low. That is not the case. You weren’t getting numbers because nobody could find your work.

What’s the solution? I worry any amendments now will be too little too late. If this was transparent from the beginning I wouldn’t feel so duped. I wouldn’t feel so stupid for blindly going along with a concept that everyone always told me was, “too good to be true.” Perhaps I am now realizing that’s the case.

Myself and the other users that have shared similar concerns would absolutely love more transparency around why photos are omitted from search. We would love to be told, even broadly, if we’re on the radar for shared compensation.

The bottom line?

We would just loved to be listened to. We gave away our best work, transparency seems like a fair thing to ask for.

This whole development has made me wonder if Unsplash only worked simply as a lead generating product for CREW. A funnel to a sustainable already proven revenue machine. Much like how your Unsplash content works best as a lead generating service for your other work or business. This falls apart if nobody can discover you — and from a platform standpoint, perhaps Unsplash just doesn’t work as its own entity. I hope I am wrong about the latter. I hope this can be fixed. The world needs more open and free services. We have to stop ruining the internet. We have to make it better.

Although I feel disrespected as a contributor and promoter of Unsplash I must state that I do have a lot of respect for the Unsplash team. I completely realize and understand the magnitude of the beast they’ve created with this community. I know that it’s no easy task to make sense of where to go with this. If I didn’t care so deeply about this platform and community I wouldn’t even bother spending the time to write this. This is me expressing concerns in hopes that we can all work together. The spirit of Unsplash has always been creativity and collaboration. This is just one more way I want to give back to Unsplash. I just hope it’s not the last thing.

Thanks for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please feel free to leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter. I’d like to keep all the discussions open and public for everyone to see. I will be launching a companion episode of my podcast Top Comment sometime this week to have an open floor discussion with some other users and perhaps even some of the Unsplash team.


Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store