You Should Pay For Your Photos — Right?
How much did your stories make this month? $120, $1.300, $16? We all know that headlines combined with a strong photo make readers click to read our stories.
Isn’t it fair that the photographers make some money as well? You are using their service for free — Making money.
Stock sites with free content are fairly new (Unsplash was launched in 2013, but didn’t blow up until a few years ago)
For 20 years we have been running around with pitchforks screaming “designers and photographers won't work for exposure!”. A few years later, exposure seems to play an important part in marketing our skills anyway.
Is exposure alone worth putting your photos on a site like Unsplash or Pexels? Can these sites work as a marketing platform for you as a hobby photographer looking for a side hustle?
Exposure as a traffic driver
According to the Unsplash stats (as of December 2020), they have reached 464 billion views and 2.5 billion downloads. Close to 240.000 photographers share their photos on the site and this month 90.000 photos were uploaded.
Is exposure driving more sales for the photographers and how much exposure can you expect?
In October 2019, Dominik Vanyi wrote an article where he explained why he pulled his images from the site. Despite a massive view- and download count, he did not land a single gig from his exposure on Unsplash.
From what I have read online and by talking to my photographer friends, some photographers are able to monetize from having their photos available, while others think it is a disaster that images are there for free.
In January 2018, Samuel Zeller told us the story of how he landed a few jobs after the client saw his photos on Unsplash.
Imagine getting millions of eyes on your work just by posting it on a site. If you pull a random image from Unsplash and check their stats, chances are it has been viewed and downloaded thousands of times, maybe millions.
Can you use the photos without feeling guilty?
Photographers willingly put their photos up on these sites. They know how they work and they decided that they want to be a part of it.
Maybe they just had photos on their drives not going anywhere. Maybe they want to test if their style gets any traction.
No matter what their reason is, the service is free for you to use.
But what if you decide that you would like to compensate for the usage of these photos? You don’t have to, but if you decide you want to, you have to figure out how to pay them.
It might not be as easy as you thought.
How do you pay the photographers?
When I reached out to some of the photographers via Unsplash or Pexels, it felt really awkward. For those without a donate option, I had to go to their site and find their contact information.
Surrounding the contact information was a collection of professional wedding photos or other photos which costs thousands of dollars to buy.
It felt rude to say something along the lines of “Hey, I used one of your images. I see you are a professional photographer charging thousands of dollars for photos normally. Can I send you $5 for a coffee?”
The longer the message got, the more awkward it became. Trying to explain that I used a photo in a story and how a small donation wasn’t going to make an impact, but I wanted to do it anyway…
I decided to change the strategy and target the ones that actively make it easy for you to donate money to them.
I feel like there is a separation between the photographers who just want their work out there and those who have a tiny hope that some money will come their way. Professional photographers don’t seem to be seeking payment from people using their material for free from these sites.
I wasn’t able to find a donate button on any profiles on Unsplash. Some photographers have a donate link in their profile. Pexels have a donate button option so you are able to donate directly via PayPal.
I went through my top-performing stories and looked for a way to donate.
After browsing through 15 stories, I found two photographers I could donate to — Kaique Rocha and Andrea Piacquadio. The photographer for this story, Lucas Souza also had a donate button.
How much do you pay the photographers?
When you manage to find a way to donate, you have to ask yourself how much you want to donate. Do you go for a percentage, do you go for a predefined amount?
In the end, you just have to make up your mind. Anything will do. I ended up donating $7 to each of them.
There are no rules when it comes to the amount to pay. This is totally up to you. If you order a custom photo from a professional photographer, prepare to pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the photo.
I assume people on Pexels don’t expect much from donations.
It would be great if there was a message field so you could write a message while donating though.
When I started this short journey, I was expecting it to be easy.
The farther I got, the more I realized that most of the photographers posting on these sites didn’t even use the donate option. I still believe Unsplash doesn’t even have one.
It was also interesting to witness the feeling of awkwardness when you try to contact a professional to buy them a coffee.
It is a sign of appreciation, but it felt weird.
What did not feel weird was to donate to those who had the donate button active. This way we both know that you are most likely not going to donate a huge amount of money, but a token of appreciation is nice to wake up to.
For some photographers, these sites are about posting some of those photos that would just die on the harddrive. For others, it is to get the exposure that markets them as photographers. Some get jobs, others not.
Should you pay for the images you use then?
This is up to you. You don’t have to feel pressured into this. I haven’t paid for a single photo I used in 2020 so far.
I will look for the donate button in the future though so I know that if I use a photo and the article blows up, I can send a coffee or two to the photographer.