Picture: Shelter on Mount Whitney’s summit, Sierra Nevada, California; Photo by Justin Johnsen
I know it must sound crazy at first; why would a professional photographer be happy about other photographers giving away their work for free? Given the dire warnings about how microstock was driving the stock photography industry in a race to the bottom regarding prices, what could be lower or worse than free? People that have known me over the years have heard me speak repeatedly regarding my thoughts on photographers valuing their work. In fact, when people ask me what is the one best piece of take away advice I could give them, I always say “Value your work.”
But yes, I’ll admit it. I’ve discovered I like free photos. When I was working on my latest book project, there were some modern subjects where I wanted photos, but could not practically get them myself. Given that I was already doing a massive amount of research for the historical photos, I started searching around to see what viable stock photo options I could find. Many stock agencies had usable shots, spanning the pricing spectrum from Rights-Managed to Microstock. Although the publisher had a budget for the historical photos, any money spent for modern photos would come out of my pocket. This put me in the same role so many other photo buyer finds themselves, namely deciding what will work, and what will it cost me? As someone who has made a living off selling stock photography, I found it awkward walking the razor’s edge between my moralistic values from a photographer standpoint, versus the budget factors and a tight economy from a buyer perspective.
Picture: The 94th 2008 Tournament of Roses Rose Bowl football game against the USC Trojans and Illinois. Photo by jblackburn
It turns out that I found about eight modern photos taken by other photographers for use in my book, and it didn’t cost me a dime. Why? Each of the photographers in question had put their images out into the world, wrapped in a blanket known as the Creative Commons License. In essence, the photos were absolutely free to use, with the sole provision that I needed to properly attribute who took the photo. Was this a bit like taking candy from a baby? You bet. Did I mind doing that? Not at all.
So how did I resolve that discrepancy and contradiction in my own mind? It’s simple really. For budgetary considerations, it was obvious that I take a look at images available in various microstock agencies. However, when it came right down to it, I’d just couldn’t bring myself to buy a microstock photo. In the end, I felt better about the photographers who chose to give their work freely under a Creative Commons License. I saw that as a personal choice akin to giving something with open hands, or in more modern technological terms, Open Source. I had to assume that they did so based on a personal philosophical choice, and that was something I could easily respect.
On the other hand, what I couldn’t bring myself to respect about the microstock photographers was their choice and assigning away the unlimited royalty-free commercial usage rights to one of their photos for as little as $10. That type of commoditization and devaluation on a philosophical level just doesn’t sit right with me.
I’d rather give the photographer who put his workout under a Creative Commons license the ‘thrill’ of being published, then to put a few pennies in the pocket of photographers who think their images are only worth a few dollars.
(PS: The were about four other images I was planning on buying from several Rights Managed or traditional Royalty Free sources, and I perfectly was fine with that. Unfortunately those images didn’t get included in the book for editorial, not monetary reasons.)
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