Why I Like Free Photos

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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Copyright info for using or linking to the pictures.

14 Comments on “Why I Like Free Photos”

  1. Jim Goldstein Says:

    Interesting perspective Gary. I can certainly understand & respect your rational. One thing though… I’m not so sure that everyone using Creative Commons knows 100% what they’re giving up. Should that sway your logic? I don’t think so. Microstock or CC photographers in time will learn that their images have value. How much value they perceive their work to have will certainly depend on how much they rely on that income to survive and on various market forces as the industry shakes out. Truly fascinating to hear your take on the subject from the other side of the editors table/computer.

  2. enlightphoto Says:


    Interestingly enough, I had a line in there about “I didn’t know whether they (the CC Photogs) were fully aware of the ramifications of their choice, and how their photos might later be used. In some cases I assumed maybe not, and others maybe so. Still, like a royalty free license, a Creative Commons License in irrevocable. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, and there’s no going back.

    I never said it was the right choice, but compared to Microstock, it was the “Respectable” choice. πŸ™‚


  3. Patrick Smith Says:

    haha… April 1st…
    I thought it was too late in the season for a certain place to freeze over! But yet it has.

    Yes, we live in the world of ‘good enough’ and I bet the photos you chose, (like the one above) are perfectly fine. And what that does is lower the market price for all photos priced above it. Nothing wrong with it. Just supply and demand.



  4. Richard Wong Says:

    Though both are less than ideal “licensing” methods, I do agree with that paying someone $10 for an image is probably worse than using someone’s CC image because giving the money is a form of positive reinforcement of undesirable behavior.

    I’m sure you’ll get a lot of comments for this post, Gary. πŸ˜‰

  5. Doug Says:

    Hi. I followed a link here from Patrick Smith’s Twitter stream. I am not a professional photographer, but I have enormous respect for professional photographers, many of whom have enriched my life in countless ways. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was thrilled to find myself standing where this amazing photo was taken:

    I license most of my photos under a Creative Commons license, and while I’m sure you’re right that most who do so don’t know what they’re giving up, I think that I do know. But I also wonder if those who USE CC photos know what they’re giving up. The CC license I use has a Share Alike requirement, which states “If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.”

    IOW, if your creation is enriched by building upon the work of others, you pay it forward by allowing others to use your work in the same way. This is the “fee” I charge for the use of my photos. (BTW, it doesn’t preclude you from making money off your new creation.)

    I have sold (for money) a photo that was already available under the CC license, because the author using it didn’t want to be subject to the same terms.

  6. enlightphoto Says:


    Thanks for your visit and comment. I’m glad you took the time.

    I’m sorry, but you may have a mis-guided interpretation of the Share-Alike Principal. I don’t forefit my copyright by including a Share-Alike photo in a book. It simply means that I cannot claim copyright to that PORTION of the work that contains a CC element. IOW, If someone finds and uses the CC photo from my book, and uses it in something else, that’s all well and good; that’s “Share-alike.” In the same vein, if someone finds and uses one of the old 1880 photos that’s public domain in my book, that’s well and good also. Including a Public Domain photo doesn’t make my book public domain – only that PORTION of the work remains open to other people. However, if someone copys my photos or text, even though a CC Licensed image is included in the book.

    Finally, to offer a specific correction, “to alter, build upon, or transform the work specifically relates to Adding to or Changing the photo, i.e. the work itself, i.e. a composite or derivative work. That doesn’t have to do with simply using a photo “as is.”

    Hope that helps clarify.

    Cheers & thanks again for your thoughts and taking the time to comment. It’s much appreciated.

  7. Ron Niebrugge Says:

    Hi Gary,

    That is an interesting perspective. Personally, I would have lumped free in with micro stock which is essentially free. I still think the only ones making significant money off of micro stock are the agencies that introduced the model, so for that reason alone I could see preferring free photos so that I’m not lining the agencies pockets.

  8. Travel Stock Photos Says:

    Hi Gary,
    that’s a very interesting position you have…and I really have to agree with you. Actually I never though abt CC License from this point of view. Now you made me think of it. Very interesting paradox however – free is better than cheap πŸ™‚

  9. QT Luong Says:

    I also think that “free” doesn’t hurt the industry as much as $1. People do all sort of things as volunteers. This does not set a market price. If a photo buyer uses a free image from an amateur, they know that they may get commensurate service. When you start licensing for $1, you send the signal that the market value of a professionally licensed image is $1. Big difference.

  10. Russ Bishop Says:

    I agree with Gary and QT. Free says you are buying the work of an amateur and if that work qualifies for your project then fine. As soon as you charge even $1, you are a professional selling a product and simply trying to undercut every photographer who has upheld the true value of photography over the years.

  11. David Richter Says:

    Thanks for making my day, Gary. This is one well written piece of amusing rambling and I couldn’t agree more. Giving someone, who gives his or her work away under a creative commons license, well deserved credit and exposure for a photograph outranks any $.10 microstock image in every imaginable aspect. Thinking about it brought back memories from a recent tale of licensing request I received which kinda illustrates what the idea of microstock markets changed the thinking of design agencies and the like … I can’t spill the beans, but let’s just say this, more than 500,000 copies with my image used in a composite would have been produced and $100 seem fair, don’t they?

  12. Patrick Smith Says:

    I’ve carefully read every post and though I agree on a psychological level with what most people are saying here, I can not ignore the basic law of supply and demand. As more buyers get photos for free (or for 1 cent), the market price drops. The buyers do not care where they get the image. They only care about their immediate needs.

    Two years ago, the average price of a house in Detroit was over $120,000, now it is less than $10,000. That’s right $10,000!!! Some sellers dropped the asking price until it was under $10,000 while others walked away, giving it away for free. Many can not even be given away for free and are abandoned, like 4 billion Flickr photos. Every house that sold for $0 (or $10K) dropped the market price by almost the same amount from that original $120K. It hardly matters in the whole scheme of things whether or not the sellers gave them away or not.

    Bottom line: If more people wish to give away their work in order to have the thrill of seeing their photo on the cover of a big magazine or ad campaign, prices will drop just as much as if they decided to charge 1 cent!



  13. Patrick Smith Says:

    I should add to my preceding comments that every day I get one or two requests from web designers asking if they can use my images for free on a commercial website in exchange for a link. I just got another one 5 minutes ago which is prompting me to write this. And I was thinking; “Would I be more insulted if he had offered to pay me $1?”

    My answer would be “Yes!” This is probably why the comments above seem to favor $0 over $1.

    But I will say that regardless if I accepted $0 or $1, the effect on the market for photography would still be dragged down by the same amount in practical terms.



  14. Creative Commons a Hobbyist Photographer Perspective » Unified Photography Says:

    […] I’ve seen some interesting blog posts regarding CC licensing.Β Gary Crabbe’s “Why I Like Free Photos” post was the one that caught my attention. I found the post to be very informative and […]

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