Giving my images for free

I’m a professional full-time photographer and I choose to let people download and use most of my images (even commercially), here’s why.

About me

My name is Samuel Zeller, I’m a freelance Photographer based in Geneva, Switzerland, an ambassador for Fujifilm and the editor of Fujifeed.

How it all started

I began my career as a designer, working in agencies doing retail design, graphic design, 3D rendering and various other tasks for brands.

In most of the projects I was using other people work (fonts, photographs, 3D models, vector illustrations) as a base to build new content for clients.

For years I’ve been using other people work without really giving anything back. I felt like I needed to do something.

Then I discovered Unsplash

About two years ago I stumbled on Unsplash, a website with free (do whatever you want) high resolution photos. I loved the concept instantly, people could just upload their images and give them away for free under a similar license than the Creative Commons CC0.

So far, I uploaded 252 images on my Unsplash profile, they’ve been viewed over 137'000'000 times and downloaded over 1'157'000 times…

Just insane numbers.

It’s not just numbers

People from all over the world are creating things with my images, websites, album covers, iPhone Apps, book covers… Here’s just a few examples.

Polarr used one of my image for their online photo editor
Leo Nocta “Atoms” used another one for his first album — Listen to it here

Even Apple used an image I took on their website to promote their new iPad Pro. This is actually the 6th most downloaded photo on Unsplash with almost 100k downloads, no wonder why it ended up here…

The amount of traffic Unsplash generate to my portfolio is huge. The number of referrers I have is constantly growing, many websites and blogs use my images and give a link back. My website is no longer just a small island in the sea that nobody see, it’s more like a lighthouse.

My biggest client found me because of Unsplash, in fact I never really searched for clients, they found me in the first place thanks to both Instagram and Unsplash.

Recently, Unsplash created the world’s first fully open, crowdsourced book featuring contributions from 100 creatives including myself.

You can get the Unsplash book here
Today, over 650 million photos a month are viewed on Unsplash and featured photos on Unsplash are seen more times than if they were published on the largest Instagram account, the front page of the New York Times, or the cover of Time Magazine.

Am I losing money ?

It is a matter of perspective. If I put all my images on a stock photography website I could make some money out of it.

But stock photography is dying, people pay less and less for images. I know, I worked for years in a design agency were we regularly had to buy images for clients, and our clients budgets were always getting smaller.

Why should I need to sell images if I have clients paying me to shoot specific images ? To me working for a client face to face is rewarding, way more than making money on digital sales to people I will never interact with.

Does my work lose value ?

This is something people asked me before and the answer is: no.

My photography keep improving, more people stumble on my work and I’ve got more contacts, more projects and clients than before.

An image has value because someone has an use for it. It has absolutely no value if it’s sitting uselessly in my hard-drive or if it’s just on social media waiting to get liked. Sure it has emotional value but don’t get me wrong, I need money to live and pay the bills.

The images I give away for free are like a teaser of what I can do. Think of it as a “try before you buy” option.

What makes you happy is worth all the money in the world, and it makes me happy to give my images for free to those who need them.

I smile when I receive an email like this:

I just wanted to say thank you for your generosity in sharing your work and that I think your appreciation of the beauty to be found in the details of our world is inspiring.

And it happens often.

Exposure or talent ?

We live in an ever connected world dominated by social networks and there’s never been so many photographers around. After you reach a certain quality threshold then all that matters is exposure and most importantly: being a nice person.

Clients will not land on your portfolio randomly. There’s no magic, you need to have your work published, visible, commented, shared, talked about.

There’s no point in being talented if nobody can see what you do.

Thank you very much for reading. I’m a photographer based in Geneva, Switzerland, some of my work is visible on my website and on Instagram.