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Is Unsplash Really an Issue for Photographers?

Image: Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

Unsplash is killing photography! I am sure you will have read this somewhere? After all, photography blogs have been full of articles like this. You may agree – you may hate Unsplash. You may want to educate every photographer you meet on why they should not upload their photos to the platform. However, despite photographers and websites rallying against it, the platform continues to thrive. But is Unsplash really wrecking the photography industry? 

A little history

Unsplash started back in 2013 by Mikael Cho. Cho was the founder of the company Crew – a company designed as a marketplace for freelancers. Cho needed images for the home page of his business website but was unable to find the type of images he wanted online and within his price range. To get the images he wanted, he hired a photographer to create the imagery for the brand.

After the shoot, there were several leftover images. So Cho decided to post them on his Tumblr, allowing others to download them for free and use as they wished. Cho uploaded ten free images every ten days. The blog (which also directed people to Crew) was launched on Hacker News and instantly became the top story.

It took off.

Soon millions of people were searching for the images, and thousands were redirected to Crew.

Unsplash launched in May 2013, and by September it had hit one million downloads. In the first 12 months, it reached ten million downloads. This is when Unsplash moved away from Tumblr and launched an independent website.

Since then, it has continued to grow at an alarming rate. I checked the latest Unsplash stats whilst preparing for this article and the numbers are mind-blowing. 21 photos are downloaded from the platform every second!

Unsplash has a community of over 121,000 photographers whose photos have been downloaded heading for one billion times. A partnership with Squarespace allows users to place Unsplash images into their site directly from one of the most popular website builders. Like it or not, Unsplash has changed the photography industry.

Image: Built into Squarespace. It is simple and easy to get copyright-free images.

Built into Squarespace. It is simple and easy to get copyright-free images.

How is Unsplash affecting photographers?

It is pretty easy to see how Unsplash is affecting the world of commercial photography. The Squarespace/Unsplash partnership is the perfect example of this. As the screenshot below shows, I can go into Unsplash, search for anything and usually find an image. Not just an image, though – a really good quality image. It is easy to see why photographers might be upset about this.

Why pay for a photographer, when I can get something similar to what I want? Want a photo of a beautiful shoreline for an article on the World’s best beaches? Unsplash has the answer. Want a magazine cover for an issue about coffee? They have that too. It is simple to get photographs of pretty much anything – on demand, and for free. Perfect for an editor, but not so much for a photographer.

The issue with Unsplash is that it devalues photography.

High-quality photography is now literally free.

You do not need to budget for it, which is great for small companies who cannot afford bespoke photography. It also means, in the age of good enough is good enough, the bigger companies who can afford great photography, simply don’t see the need.

For every blogger out there who makes no money from their blogs, but wants to be ethical and use images legally, there is also a large media company who simply want to maximize profits.

This problem isn’t new though. In case you have forgotten, the disruption started with the introduction of microstock.

Image: Ryan Holloway on Unsplash

Ryan Holloway on Unsplash


Remember when microstock burst onto the scene? There was an uproar by so many photographers about how it destroyed the stock industry. When researching this article, I found several rants on websites about how microstock was destroying the photography industry. I found stories of people who made a good living in stock photography having their livelihood ruined by the likes of sites like iStock photo. As one photographer wrote about microstock in 2009 “they came in like a drunk bull in a china shop with careless regard for the devastation of the existing market”.

The rise of microstock and the rise of affordable, high-quality digital cameras are easily linked. Technology changed the game – especially the stock photography game – and many didn’t adapt.

The industry changed, rapidly, and many got left behind. When we look at Unsplash, it is hard not to look at microstock. As many photographers use Adobe products, I looked at Adobe stock to see what was happening in the microstock world.

In terms of quality, there is some great stuff on Adobe stock. But whilst it is not free, the pricing structure is hardly enough to make a business out of it.

Looking on their site now, Adobe can purchase 10 images a month for £19.99 (roughly £2.00 per image) or 40 for £47.99 (roughly £1.20 per image). In the UK, the minimum wage is £8.21 per hour meaning that even if the photographer got 100% of the £1.20 per image, they would need to sell roughly 260 images per week to make the UK minimum wage.

I know that if you want to use the image commercially to sell products, the license fee is larger. But still, it is not enough to live off without selling a huge volume.

Yet when was the last time we saw the major photo websites writing hate-filled articles about Adobe ruining photography? Okay, I stand corrected. It all kicked off when it looked like they would increase the photography subscription fee.

But seriously, almost all photographers use Adobe. Even though you can make a little pocket money, Adobe has a business that is strikingly similar to Unsplash, yet nobody mentions it.

The question is though, do we not mention it because we agree with this model, or do we see it as normal now?

I think it is because we see it as normal.

The outrage, the rallying cry of photographers, was drowned out by market forces. This is what is happening with Unsplash. One billion downloads prove that despite the passionate reasoning, arguing, and pleading, once again the market has spoken. They don’t care about your business model; they care about their bottom line.

It appears that the main market that will be affected by Unsplash is microstock. As I said before, microstock was not a way to make a living before Unsplash, so effectively nothing has changed.

Image: Charles ?? on Unsplash

Charles ?? on Unsplash

Are photographers hypocrites?

This is the point that tends to make hypocrites of photographers (and the websites) rallying against Unsplash. Many photographers do the exact same thing.

How many photography videos do you see with free-use music in them? Who has used Fiverr for a logo rather than pay a professional designer? Why do we use templates for web design rather than pay a professional web designer to create a bespoke site for us? Photographers do this with other services frequently. What is the difference between free photographs and free music?

Unfortunately, the answer lies in ourselves. We only tend to see the impact of changing business models affecting our own industry. We happily use free music (or the microstock equivalent) without thinking about it, because that’s how it is. Unsplash is now how it is for us. As I said earlier, we adapt, or we die.

My favorite example of hypocrisy was when one of the biggest photography blogs wrote an article about the damage Unsplash is doing to photography. However, in the same article, they admitted that their site had used images from Unsplash for their articles. If that isn’t the perfect description of irony, I don’t know what is.

Education (or ranting at people who couldn’t care less)

I have heard many terms like, ‘we need to educate people about this,’ ‘people need to stop being so stupid,’ ‘how can people let their photography be exploited?’

Whilst this is a noble cause, there are huge issues here.

The biggest is the fact that rather than educate, people tend to rant and belittle. Calling people stupid does not help educate them. The fact is, many of them are educated on the facts and choose to do it regardless. They don’t need your approval and trying to tell them they are wrong will achieve nothing but make an enemy of them.

Many people do not want photography careers. Many love the fact that people appreciate their imagery, and that is enough for them.

Photography for many is a passion and an art. Charging for their work takes away their reasons for doing it. Uploading to Unsplash, Pexels or to Flickr with a Creative Commons zero license is a way to get more peoples eyes on their work. And the feedback and likes are their rewards.

This is not wrong. Some people have to accept that others live their lives by different rules, with their own set of morals and they can do whatever they want with their photos. You might not agree, but that is life.

Finally, even if you are right (in your opinion), you cannot educate everybody. It is the equivalent of trying to push water uphill. Many will admire your determination, but unfortunately, in the end, it is futile.

Image: Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Should I upload to Unsplash?

Rather than give a yes or no answer to this (I will leave that to you guys in the comments), I thought the best way to conclude this article was to look at what you need to be aware of when uploading to Unsplash. Things that you might not know that could help you make informed choices.

Exposure doesn’t pay the bills

Lots of photographers will have heard some variation of the following phrase: “We can’t afford to pay you, but it will be great exposure.”

The problem is, exposure doesn’t pay the bills. I can’t pay for my electricity with a photo credit. And, I can’t pay for my food with exposure either.

However, I have done work for exposure, to get in with the right people, that has lead to paid work. I wrote about this in a previous blog post.

There is no doubt that Unsplash provides photographers with great exposure. Unsplash is used by influential people every day. Being on the platform is a great way to get your work seen by these people. There are stories of people out there who, through their work on Unsplash, have been offered high-paid jobs with major clients. However, this is not the norm.

Unsplash, will more than likely not make you any money. Microstock may make you a small amount of money, but without a huge library, this is not an income you can use to start saving for a Ferrari. In fact, you will probably struggle to buy a toy Ferrari.

It is important to go into this with this in mind.

You will not get the respect you deserve

People who use your images will generally not bother to credit you. Most of them will not even care about you. You may end up on the cover of a high-end magazine and never even know about it. For better or worse, this is how Unsplash works. Your photos are free, and they will be treated as such. Your work (and by extension you) will generally be given zero respect.

Zack Arias summed this up best in one of his videos on the subject of Unsplash. He tells the story of a woman whose photo was used on a gift guide for a major UK bridal publication. The photographer was not informed about this or offered a copy of the magazine for her portfolio. Instead, she simply happened to stumble across it when browsing magazines in a coffee shop. This magazine’s full-page ad rate is £10,000, and she did not even get a photo credit or an email to thank her. This shows you the value placed on your work.

The thrill of getting featured can lose a little shine when you look at it like this.

Image: Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

The people problem

This is the educational part. The Unsplash license does not cover the use of an identifiable person in a commercial setting. You, as the photographer, are liable. If a photo ends up being used commercially via Unsplash and you do not have a model release, then you had better have deep pockets (and a good legal team), because if the subject in the photo objects, you are in big trouble.

A model release should be completed by anyone whose photo you plan to upload to Unsplash, even family members or partners. A partner can soon become an angry ex-partner with a grudge. If a photo of them you uploaded to Unsplash gets used commercially, you may end up in a world of pain.

A simple Google search will help you find an appropriate model release. There are also many model release apps. This allows you to digitally store the release and allow the model to sign it on your phone. Simply put, there is no excuse for not using a model release; you need to protect yourself. This should be something you always do when photographing models, Unsplash or not.

Is Unsplash really ruining photography?

Is Unsplash ruining photography? No. It’s changing it.

Photography, like many industries, is in constant flux. It is disrupting traditional income models, but I think microstock was much more disruptive.

Is Unsplash taking advantage of people? Again, it depends on your point of view.

The people who upload to Unsplash know what they are doing. Some may be naive in thinking this is the easy way to photography stardom. However, I bet that for some of them, it will be the start of a great career. Just because it is different, doesn’t always make it wrong.

What do you think? Share with us in the comments below.


Is Unsplash Really an Issue for Photographers?

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Carl Spring
Carl Spring

Carl is a Lincolnshire living, skateboard-riding, Rock N’ Roll listening, pet-loving, trainer-addicted photographer.
Along with his wife Lisa, they photograph weddings and portraits under the name 166 Photography
Carl has also spent many years photographing musicians and extreme sports. You can see more of this work on his website

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