Free Photos and Artistic Vision

In a continuation of my recent themes of artistic vision and photo industry changes , this month’s Wired (and column over at, editor Chris Anderson is ranting about the topic of his new book: FREE.

The entire article is well worth the read, but there’s one thing in particular worth noting if you’re a photographer or a musician, and that’s his little diddy about “Zero Marginal Cost”. That is, the cost of digital things that are easy to copy and distribute go to zero [read photos, music, etc]:

What’s free [in a zero marginal cost model]?: things that can be distributed without an appreciable cost to anyone. Free to whom?: everyone.

This describes nothing so well as online music. Between digital reproduction and peer-to-peer distribution, the real cost of distributing music [and photos] has truly hit bottom. This is a case where the product has become free because of sheer economic gravity, with or without a business model. That force is so powerful that laws, guilt trips, DRM, and every other barrier to piracy the [music] labels [and photography trade organizations] can think of have failed. Some artists give away their music online as a way of marketing concerts, merchandise, licensing, and other paid fare. But others have simply accepted that, for them, music is not a moneymaking business. It’s something they do for other reasons, from fun to creative expression. Which, of course, has always been true for most musicians anyway…

IF (capitalized for emphasis) this is the case, and photography–like music–is a zero marginal cost model to the distributors, where goes the future of earning a living as a photographer?? The future of earning a living as a photographer lies not in your old pictures, but your next pictures. Sure, one-of-a-kind historical, documentary pictures will always have their earning potential, but the successful professional of the future — just like the successful professional of today — will make their money getting hired to deliver their commissioned, artistic vision for the newest product, trend, or photo of the moment, NOT to deliver the ones and zeros from yesterday’s digital file.

Scary to some, exciting to others. You just need to decide on which side of that fence you’re going to sit.

Related entries:
[Creativity in the New Economy]
[To Go Or Not To Go]
[Kader Attia: It Comes From Within]
[Getty Images SOLD. Now you feel _______.]
[Don’t Worry, Just Focus. Please.]

32 Responses to Free Photos and Artistic Vision

  1. Eric Schmiedl February 28, 2008 at 3:51 am #

    It makes sense– basic economic theory states that a perfectly competitive market eventually drives the price down to marginal cost. Digital having removed a major barrier to entry that created a relatively oligopolistic photo market, this is in a sense the inevitable conclusion.

    Still, there go my hopes of establishing a ‘Four Hour Workweek’ style product-based business that can earn money in my absence using my stock archive. On the other hand, if the downward pressure on photo prices that has been traditionally generalized to the whole industry only affects segments with a zero marginal cost, there is still one photography market segment with a very much nonzero marginal cost and a remarkable growth of late– fine art prints.

  2. Ryan February 28, 2008 at 6:44 am #

    Sure “free” sources like Flickr will pinch pure stock photographers but for people who shoot commissioned / portrait work I don’t know if the notion of free will cause a major shift – in fact I think the industry has been there in some aspects for a long time.

    After all – how many photographers do you know have, at some point in their career, done free shoots to gain experience & build their portfolio?

    Event photographers have long done the “freemium” model as well; Shoot everyone at the event then charge people if they want to get their own prints made of the pictures.

    Sure it’s likely not a 99:1 ratio as with online sites, but the “free” model has been alive and well in the photography industry for many, many years.


  3. Chase Jarvis February 28, 2008 at 6:58 am #

    Now THIS is the kind of stuff i like to hear from photographers! I LOVE that the first two comments are insightful, confident, and not fear-driven. That’s the kind of thing that will strengthen an entire industry.

    I’ll always caution those looking to “retire” on their old pictures, but a-men to those are focused on being out there clicking their shutter as much and as thoughtfully as they can.

    That’s where our real gems lie!

  4. Bill Allen February 28, 2008 at 7:19 am #

    In some ways, it seems like the photographers (and artists in general) are dealing with problems that software developers dealt with 10-15 years ago. Software was being copied long before music, photography, and video. I realized this in 1999 when I started studying computer science in college; being a software developer would mean providing a *service*, not just a *product*. If people want custom software, they’ll pay for it. If they want custom photos, they’ll pay for it.

  5. Joost van der Borg February 28, 2008 at 8:17 am #

    You said: “That is, the cost of digital things that are easy to copy and distribute go to zero [read photos, music, etc.”

    I think that, although it will definitely decrease due to the easier accessibility, the stock photography market will not disappear. It will however be important to focus on providing that for which the marginal costs won’t go down to zero: Finding the right image, easily. Given infinite time, any publication can find the image it’s looking for. The stock market will have to focus on making it possible to find high quality, relevant images for clients in as short a timespan as possible. All easily found for free or nearly-free images will no longer be interesting for stock agencies.

    Ofcourse, the majority of the photography market will (remain to?) be in commissioned work.

  6. Scott Dickerson February 28, 2008 at 1:22 pm #

    I like the post. It’s always helpful to step back and look at what we as photographers are doing and whether it makes sense in our current (and coming) market.

    I want to add my perspective as a 75% stock photographer (currently). I live in a unique place (Homer, Alaska) and I take opportunities to photograph unique subjects (surfing in Alaska in winter!?). Thanks to copyright these photos have value, and the fee I can expect for licensing them is not determined by what a stock photo of a surfer on Waikiki beach is valued at by Getty or iStockphoto. Certainly I’m not entirely immune to the ‘zero marginal cost model’ but I do feel confident that my stock photography can continue to be profitable in spite of it.

    That said, I am planning to move into more commissioned work, and more projects that take my creative passion all the way from planning the shot, through to selling the finished display. I’ve seen that while a unique image is nice to have, it’s not always the easiest to sell. People may love them, but they also might not know what to do with them. Distribution is a growing thought in my mind. How can we photographers move ourselves beyond just taking the ‘stock’ photo that we can’t resist, to making a place for that image to be displayed or used? We need to use our creativity to not only make these images, but also to pioneer new ways of putting them to work for everyones benefit.

  7. Eric Schmiedl February 28, 2008 at 2:28 pm #

    I don’t think it’s about retiring on a stock archive so much as having a regular stream of income that enables us to pursue projects and new directions. I don’t know about you (you certainly seem to have the operational stamina of a nuclear submarine) but I find it very valuable to mix up the kind of work I’m doing — whether people, architectural, landscape, still life, big production, etc — in order to stay fresh and not-burned-out creatively. Having a steady income in the background gives you a lot more freedom to say, “f*ck it, I’m gonna buy a Speed Graphic and shoot mountains for a month.”

  8. JM February 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm #

    I hate to say some of these things as it seems to go against a lot of photographers, but your post and the comments that followed I think give me enough grounds. (maybe).

    I come to photography from tech consulting where my time is valuable (and generally well compensated for).

    I have never understood the concept of “I’m going to create this now and let the royalties roll in!” mentality that seems to exist in creative media. Whether that be visual artists or even writers. I’m hard pressed to think of another area where this type of compensation scheme is in place. The closest I can come up to is if I write code that gets reused, or if a lawyer writes a document that (mostly) gets reused for another client. But, in either case we are making our money up front, at whatever we bill for our time and expenses. Sure, it’s great to be able to reuse it, but the chances are often low, and maybe last 1-2 years.

    I’m sure someone will tell me I’m insane to think that compensation should only be based on a commissioned project (and that stock should be more of an added bonus in the future). But, with the notable exclusion of surfers in Alaska (was that in winter?) I just don’t see how a professional photographer can make it shooting speculative stock and hoping to compete against an amateur who is just in it for the love of the photo and maybe an opposite page credit.

    To take even more flack, I do paid shoots for boring things (yes, weddings bore me) but I’ll take a shoot at cost if it’s something that I haven’t done before or enjoy doing. For me that keeps me from hating photography like I grew, over the years, to hate computers. I do intend to take your (Chase’s) advice and do some larger scale personal projects, but so far I’m content enough doing the occasional shoot for someone that just interests me.

    My 2¢ … which seems to be what most common stock photos are going for.

  9. Eric Schmiedl February 28, 2008 at 5:01 pm #

    jm, stock is definitely not the only business where a continuous income is derived from a (relatively) one-time effort: Timothy Ferriss made a name and a lot of money for himself by writing a book that generalized it to most product-based e-businesses through the creative application of outsourcing. (Actually, I would argue that Ferriss’ commercial cleverness had much less to do with the success of the book than the parts of it which are more in line with your standard motivational fare, but that’s another point. Read it for the ideas on running a business while being anywhere you want, not for the Tony Robbins bits.)

  10. bri@n February 28, 2008 at 5:54 pm #

    Personally I’ve always had a big problem with stock. It’s always seemed like an ass backwards way of doing things, from an ad/cd’s standpoint as well as a photographers.

    Eric’s comment of selling speculative stock as a base income while exploring more creative opportunities is a prime example. Why not spend your time building your core business around clients who would never use stock i.e. architects, product photography, assigned editorial etc…then you’re free to explore and shoot whatever you want (and sell as stock if you so wish)…without the fear of the ‘free’ issue. Worked for me.

    Nowhere near a major market, I’ve been able to build a very successful commercial business off of a regional client base, which allows me to say f**k it and shoot larger production personal projects for a portfolio that lands national work. Again, because of my market the larger accounts aren’t as frequent (yet..knocking on wood)..but I’m not eating Ramen Noodles when they don’t happen. Easy, nope..but worth it.

  11. Eric Schmiedl February 28, 2008 at 10:07 pm #

    bri@an, I think you’re right in that ‘bread and butter’ assignment work can only play a larger and larger part in photographers’ finances as compared with stock. Unfortunately, it lacks the critical advantage of stock in that you have to /be there/ and promote yourself to make money, which means that not only do you not have income while you’re off pursuing that photojournalism project in Afghanistan but you have to make sure that your clients don’t forget about you while you’re gone.

  12. JM February 28, 2008 at 11:46 pm #


    I didn’t mean be quite as absolute as I was about stock photography being the only way to get residual income. Just that most creatives (photographers, other artists, writers, etc) I think put too much emphasis on it.

    I think you have it right, your stock income allows you to pursue other projects that wouldn’t have an upfront payment. But, I’m going to point out that if you went to Afghanistan you are suddenly outside the realm of amateurs with advanced cameras and back into getting images that won’t be flooded onto the stock market. There will be stock niches for quite some time to come and rarity adds value to a product. Books used to be expensive and only the product of scribes, then movable type presses, etc.

  13. Andy. February 29, 2008 at 1:49 am #

    Fascinating article/blog post/comments. I either completely understand it, or I don’t understand any of it. Which means I’ve either got something very interesting to say, or something very stupid to say. So at worst you’ll be able to have a laugh. For free.

    Doesn’t all of this pose the question: When does work you’ve been commissioned to create, become stock?

    Example: You do an assignment for a client who is paying you $200 to be there and an $800 usage fee, or whatever. Once the agreed license expires, that work effectively becomes stock, which may still have value to that same client, or it may not.

    Now, the “free” point of view, suggests that the license you agree is perpetual from the beginning, therefore completely goes against the idea that your time as a photographer and the usage of the work you create have a separate value.

    If, on the other hand, this is referring solely to stock that’s created whilst NOT under commission, doesn’t, some time in the future, the decreasing value of those image licenses, pose a threat to the value of the image licenses created whilst under commission from a client? Natural progression would suggest that commissioned license fees would be next in line for the chop.

    Or am in a very special place of my own at the moment?

  14. Eric Schmiedl February 29, 2008 at 4:11 am #

    Yeah, John Harrington raised a similar point over at his blog:

    If we assume for the sake of argument the most radical possibility–that the concept of limited use images will become untenable–the question becomes how to hypothetically make up for lost revenue. Numerically, it’s easy– figure out how much you make on average from post-shoot licensing, and add this sum to your fee. (And start revising this fee upwards as clients start using images on the proverbial Times Square billboard.) Of course, things which look good on paper don’t necessarily work in practice.

  15. Anonymous February 29, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    This makes no sense in certain respects.

    For instance, to anyone in celebrity portraiture (not paparazzi, who follow more of a “journalistic” event-related model albeit one of a questionable reputation) it means we’re getting paid $350 for that photo instead of the thousands we would otherwise see in syndication royalties. Celebrity photographers still need to keep their work up to date and for the most part, don’t sit on their laurels waiting for their 15 year old pictures of Jim Carrey to sell.

    Or, for anyone in advertising, it means a client can use and re-use and re-use your intellectual property as long as they want.

    The music industry model isn’t a very good comparison for most commercial photography since most music consumers are the end user, while most photographs are not licensed for individual use.

    Sure it applies to commercial uses of music, but that’s not what we’re talking about when we discuss the “free online music” phenomenon. I think it’s one thing for Radiohead to give out their album for whatever price you want to pay, but they would probably be pretty annoyed if their music appeared in a commercial royalty-free.

    At the moment, I have no problem with some kid downloading a celebrity image I’ve shot for their wallpaper but when it’s on the cover a of a magazine or on the cover of their album (or if it’s used to directly market them or their products), I want to get paid.

    Additionally, you generally don’t know the historical value of a photograph when you’re taking it… usually when you do grasp the historical value of a photograph when the shutter is clicking, you can be pretty sure someone else does as well and is shooting it too.

  16. Chase Jarvis February 29, 2008 at 11:34 am #

    Just to be clear, y’all, a couple of you have either misunderstood this position, or are making you own claims separate from what I’m claiming here (which is good…) but I can’t tell the difference. So, in short, what I’m suggesting is–IF Chris Anderson is correct–is:

    1. that “stock” photos (ie images either shot on spec for some future possible use OR images that were shot on commission but whose rights have now reverted back to you to do with what you wish) will continue to decrease in value more sharply as the market grows in size and speed.

    2. Will there still be value, and will that “stock” value be realized more quickly and directly by photographers who know how to take a picture than those that don’t? Certainly. But if you buy Chris’ argument, their value does head to zero because of the speed, ease, and cost to distribute heads to zero. Simple market economics.

    3. So where the revenue shifts in such a case is to favor the creative artist who is commissioned to create those photos in the first place (they get commission AND stock option…diminishing as it may be… vs just the “stock” shooter, or the shooter relying on their “stock” as longevity and livelyhood). And what will get that photographer hired, as more photos flood the market and become available to buyers with a few keystrokes, is to be able to distinguish him or herself as a artist with vision.

    5. THUS, hone your vision, develop your recognizable style, and get in gear to land commissions. It’s therein that lies the greatest chance for ongoing marketplace success as the digital economy marches on.

  17. Randy Santos February 29, 2008 at 11:40 am #

    From my perspective we live in the most exciting time ever to be a photographer or any creative professional. We live in a world of instant worldwide communication. There has never before been more opportunity or tools by which we can share and market our work.

    There is a huge image/art buying world out there that doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the 10 cent download or $49 image scenario.

    I don’t believe for one second that in order to succeed you need to succumb to downward pressure on fees. In my opinion the key is to be creative, be motivated, be productive, be positive, shoot constantly. Differentiate your work from others, learn and understand the marketplace, learn good busines practice. Realize the value of your work and charge appropriately. Create a niche that you can make your own which enables you to target market a specific audience. Believe in what you sell, the easiest thing in the world to market and sell is something you believe in.

    Sorry if these are all such obvious points but I’m surprised how often I see those who forget or just ignore these things. Steer clear of negative people and those who say you can’t do it. It only means they can’t do it. Stay positive and enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is contagious, whining and moaning will kill you and make people and clients run away.

    OK- I forgot the point of my response. I guess it’s that my opinion is that there is still, and will be for a long time, a strong market for good stock images. You can choose to head towards the crowded lower end of the market or at least strive to work towards the higher end.

  18. Randy Santos February 29, 2008 at 11:57 am #

    Perhaps i should be more clear. In my response above I talking about marketing your own work yourself, as opposed to through an agency.

    Like so:

    It’s easy, it’s fun, and it works!

  19. falcopics February 29, 2008 at 12:59 pm #

    It is important not to blur distribution with creation as it seems was done in this article, from the excerpt. There will always be a cost of creation: tools, facilities, food, shelter, transportation, et’c.

    Zero cost of distribution does two important things. It eliminates a significant cost to the creator in the delivery process; and secondly, because a hugely wider audience is available at no additional cost, the creator can charge much less on a per unit basis which benefits the consumer.

    I believe the greatest benefit of the internet is the ability to dis-intermediate the non-value ad. As a creator I can directly reach my audience, I don’t need a traditional merchandiser like the record company. As photographers, we benefit through internet marketing. I get many wedding jobs every year from craigslist, a totally free advertising medium. Other advertising web sites I do pay for, or pay specifically for leads, but at a much lower cost than print media would entail, and with a much wider audience.

  20. AnthoNYC March 2, 2008 at 8:48 pm #

    I guessing I can say with some confidence that Chase does not mean “costs go to zero” with stock as in instantly, or even quickly, as an absolute. Things trend over time to zero. Am I putting words in your mouth here Chase?

  21. Ben March 2, 2008 at 9:20 pm #


    Here is an interesting way to look at what is happening. From 15,000 feet that is. I can’t take full credit for this, it is a synthesis of about 1,000 different articles, books, interviews etc. Basically from the mid to late 90s there was a fundamental shift in the western world’s economic focus. Whereas a nations wealth was previously (like… in all of industrial history) based on boring old world things like coal and wheat, this was the advent of the ‘Idea’ (intellectual capital) as a commoditizable resource. Some would say (and I’m synthesizing a lot of other synthesis here) that there was an inordinate value placed on these ‘Ideas’ and the commerce of the Ideas. I don’t totally agree, after all, I live in the creation of ideas. But this relates directly to the wired article. Economic progress was stretching into new areas following technological advances (utter simplification here, I know). Stay with me on this one. Now, we find ourselves in a situation where the very basics are once again leading the cause. This extends beyond the old knowledge that in times of economic downturns precious metals gain value. We are again in a situation where natural resources are increasing in value. Quickly. For example corn farmers had to be subsidized, selling their crop at prices below production. How quickly things change. Insert the need for alternative fuel and all of a sudden bread and cereal and a million other things are more expensive. Insert an exponential increase in demand for things like copper in China and all of a sudden copper is scarce. This stuff is happening fast. Hold on, I swear this is coming back to media/photography. Here’s a current event point that will make this tangible. This week in certain chinese provinces it is likely easier to download the new rambo film (or Juno, I’m partial to screenplays written by former strippers) than it is to get clean drinking water.

    So, if the product of ideas (film, music, photographs, software) is ‘free.’ At this point. And it would be hard to argue otherwise. Focus on the next idea. And it had better be really good. All this to say that I agree. And I had a few minutes waiting for a dentist appointment.

  22. Jess McMullin March 4, 2008 at 10:15 am #

    Kevin Kelly has a more useful post on “Better than Free”

  23. Chase Jarvis March 4, 2008 at 6:32 pm #

    @ Jess – I posted a discussion about the same article you mentioned, a little over a month ago:

  24. Geza Darrah March 7, 2008 at 1:48 pm #

    “free” is still a time consuming commodity… Everything free still needs an “image” of some sort to market it (because if you can’t find it or see it who cares if it’s free!) That image will likely be created as a photo, illustration, recording time, by some one who can etc. So a client giving away widgets to promote their interests doesn’t mean I need to work for free – if they can’t translate “widget” to “cool” nobody will care, so the market still works. So to make a (recurring) point – you get what you pay for – even if it’s a trade/barter system, and again the value is in what you haven’t thought of yet…. so every widget you haven’t dreamt up album art etc. is a potential. And if you’re a true one man band it wouldn’t matter what FREE is since you’d be totally renewable and self sufficient : )
    This seems like a much bigger issue than whether or not someone will rip off photos/ideas etc. or give them away free as it is an issue that could be concerned with localism vs. globalism. As long as (some) people have original ideas it will keep the ball rolling-1 good idea will get payed for, then rehashed in a mediocre way over and over until its “free” and the mainstream can handle it!!!

    Fogrive the rambling, it’s a hot friday afternoon!

  25. Husac May 16, 2008 at 4:01 am #

    You can use my photos for free at – all of them are taken by me and made Public Domain ; hope you enjoy them!

    Cheers, Husac!
    I hope that you found it interesting!

  26. Eric Schmiedl May 16, 2008 at 4:31 am #

    @Husac- That’s an interesting idea, giving away low-res photos entirely and trying to attract enough traffic to make money off ads or get buyers for high-res (rights-managed or royalty free?) versions of the same images. I’m very curious to see how it goes! Please keep us posted.

  27. Husac May 28, 2008 at 8:47 am #

    You can use my photos for free at – all of
    them are taken by me and made Public Domain ; hope you enjoy them!

    cheers, Husac!

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