What I've learned after sharing my photos for free on Unsplash for 4 years
|Stairs in Coimbra, Portugal — one of the 460 image I uploaded on Unsplash|
This editorial was originally published on Medium, and is being republished in full on DPReview with express permission from Samuel Zeller. The views and opinions in this article are solely those of its author.
What is Unsplash?
Unsplash is a website where photographers can share high resolution images, making them publicly available for everyone for free even for commercial use. It was created in May 2013 by Stephanie Liverani, Mikael Cho and Luke Chesser in Montreal, Canada.
Four months after creation they hit one million total downloads, and a year after they had more than a million downloads per month. Now there are 400,000+ high resolution images hosted on Unsplash, which are shared by 65,000+ photographers from all around the world.
Last month 2,400 photographers joined Unsplash and shared 25,000 new images (not just snapshots, some really good photography).
Here are a few examples:
Visitors in the last month viewed 4 billion photos and pressed the download button 17 million times. The average Unsplash photo is viewed over 600,000 times and downloaded over 4000 times. No other social network can give you those numbers.
Unsplash is massive, and it’s (currently) one of the best place to get visibility for your work as a photographer. Some of my most appreciated images were viewed over twelve million times and downloaded a little bit more than 125'000 times.
Here are the top nine below:
I receive 21 million views per month (677'000 per day) and 93'000 downloads (3000 per day). As a result, every day there’s one or two person that credit me on Twitter for an image they’ve used. I also get emails regularly and new backlinks to my website every week.
And it’s not just for old users who’ve been sharing for a long time, here’s the stats from someone who joined Unsplash just three days ago:
I have to be honest: in 3 days since i joined @unsplash, this has blown me away!! I can’t even believe the amount of exposure this site has brought me!! Seriously anyone who isn’t on this already needs to be!! @instagram time to setup and adapt!! 🙌🏼❤️ pic.twitter.com/VxMhbrd1l2— Taylor James Photos (@taylorjphotos) January 6, 2018
In total I’ve uploaded 460 images, they’ve been viewed over 255 million times and downloaded over 1.7 million times. Of course these are just numbers, but they are much more meaningful (and larger) than the likes you can get on Instagram or Facebook.
Designers all around the world have been making album covers, posters, article headers, blog posts, adverts and billboards with my images on Unsplash. Like many photographers I chose to turn what was idle on my hard-drive into a useful resource for other creatives.
Here’s a few examples:
That’s not all, one of my first client (when I started as a freelancer in 2016) found me on Unsplash. They’re the biggest bank in Switzerland and I did four projects for them.
One included spending a night at 3,571 m (11,716 ft) at the highest observatory in Europe, the Jungfraujoch Sphinx observatory to document it (full project visible here); the second one was much lower at the Zürich airport photographing below aircraft like the Airbus A340.
The reason why they reached out to me? They were already using a few of my Unsplash images in their global database and wanted more in the same style.
Fast forward to a few months ago, I landed a new client (a design firm) and at one of the meeting they introduce me to one of their designer. The guy said after hearing my name “I know you already, I’ve been using some of your images on Unsplash, they’re great.”
The problem with social networks
People, especially the new generation, are becoming incredibly lazy. Our attention span is lower than ever, and we get stuck in nasty dopamine loops—we literally need to check our phones multiple times a day.
Social networks make us think we need to post new work often to get good engagement and get noticed, but the truth is great photographers take a year or more to publish new projects (for example Nick White “Black Dots” or Gregor Sailer “Closed cities”). Good work will always take time, and it will always get noticed.
We all fight for attention, for likes, for numbers that will not bring us anything good. We are in that aspect devaluing our own craft by over-sharing—being tricked into becoming marketing tools for brands.
The rise and fall of Instagram
What will you do once Instagram becomes old school? I don’t know if you noticed, but Facebook are ruining the whole Instagram experience by bloating the UI and releasing features for brands.
Here’s the user interface in March 2016 vs today on an iPhone 5/SE screen:
Seriously, what the heck? I can’t even see the user images anymore when I land on their profile.
Before Facebook bought it, the app was a simple, chronological photo-sharing service. Now they’re rolling out “recommended posts” from users you don’t even follow right into your feed. The suggested content will be based on what people you follow have liked (and probably on how much brands are paying to shove their ads right into your smartphone screens).
By sharing on Instagram daily as a photographer you are basically expending a ton of effort to grow a following on a network that’s taking a wrong turn. It’s like trying to build a sand castle on a moving elevator—sure, it works. but it’s not the most effective use of your time.
Not only is real engagement dropping, soon your reach will crumble unless you pay to promote your posts. I’m running an account with a little bit over 50,000 followers, and for a post that reach 25,000 people, only 170 of them will visit the account—the rest will just merely glance at the image for a second (maybe drop a like) and keep scrolling.
People create accounts on Instagram, then stop using it after some time. Truth is, many of your followers are inactive by now, and most of the ones that are active don’t care enough about your work to even comment on it.
What’s even worse is that Instagram makes photographers literally copy each other's styles because only a few type of images can get better engagement and please the masses—think outdoorsy explorers taking pictures of forests from a drone or hanging their feet off a cliff. They’re diluting their work and style by focusing on what will grow their account.
Followers are still valuable now, but in two to three years they’ll be worthless. There’s a ton more 50k+ accounts than two years ago. Brands are now looking into accounts with 100–150k to do collaborations. Instagram is a big bubble that will blow one day, and I don’t want to have all my eggs in the same basket when it happens.
I have 16,500 followers on my personal Instagram account and I could close it any day. The reason why? I also have a newsletter with over 25,000 subscribers. Guess which is more valuable and long-lasting?
Too many photographers today are forgetting that a portfolio, experience, publications and exhibitions are far more important than building up their following on a social network.
There’s still a lot of good sides to Instagram, the community aspect to start with and also the fact that there’s not yet a proper contender to replace it. It’s still (to me) the best place to discover emerging photographers and get your dose of inspiration. There’s also a great deal of photography magazines that are actively curating work on it.
The culture of the new
That’s the big problem with photography online as curator and photographer Andy Adams explains, "It’s always about the new, which inevitably means the not new drops off our radars way sooner that it should."
Social networks like Instagram and Facebook are flawed for photographers for this particular reason. They are great for brands who can afford to hire social media managers and post regularly or sponsor content.
There are other social networks that don’t rely on a feed but rather on search, for example Behance or EyeEm. Those are way better for photographers in the long term. They have a higher rate of discoverability.
The images I share on Unsplash don’t lose value, in fact there’s no difference at all between a year old shot and a week old shot. Their value are not based on time. I could stop uploading new images and still have a lot of visibility every day. Try not posting on Instagram for a month…
Here’s a real example, those two images below were shared on Unsplash in October 2014. Notice how they still gather a ton of views/download per month even after four years?
Leaving a mark
Last year in February I lost my dad to cancer—he was diagnosed just a month before in January. I wrote before on the concept of memory and digital data (See: the data we leave behind) but his sudden death made me realize how short life can be.
We always say "we need to enjoy every moment, life is fragile," but it’s impossible to understand it fully until you have lost someone close. My father had bookmarked my website, my Instagram account and my Unsplash account on his laptop, he was checking them often, he was probably my biggest fan.
What’s left of him are memories but also his files on his computer—photos of him and his art (he was doing digital art and uploaded a lot of pieces on DeviantArt). I’m grateful to have all of this to remember him.
Having some of my images on Unsplash is one way to ensure that even if I’m gone my work will keep on living. Another way is through prints and books. Speaking of which, I’m finishing my first book that will be published in April by Hoxton Mini Press.
Photography isn’t about making money as a freelance photographer, it’s also a part of us, stories of where we traveled, visual tales of our singular experiences with life. I choose to share it as much as possible because I can.
There’s one last reason why I share photographs for free and Josh summed it up very nicely in one of his Medium article, here’s what he wrote:
“Beauty has always been free. It came in the box with sunlight and eyeballs. It was granted to us upon birth as we first laid eyes upon our beautiful mothers and then mother Earth. For those of us with extreme empathy and a wide-eyed approach to seeing the world, finding the beautiful all around us and capturing it is a deep and glorious honor. Yes, you can have that image at the top for free — perhaps not because it has no value, but because I simply want you to see what I can see. I want to share in the joy of this world’s beauty. The image, in that scenario, is only a document of our mutual appreciation for it. And maybe taking money off the table in that discussion is actually what helps it remain beautiful.”
I feel like Unsplash is just the beginning of a new era of photography. It’s thrilling to be able to grow with it.
I was born in 1990 just before the world wide web, and I’ve seen how technology evolved for the past twenty years. I’m afraid of how addicted we have become to it. How fast paced things have become. We need more generosity, community based efforts, human curation and less algorithms driven by the need of profit. We need to slow down.
Some projects are trying to focus more rewarding artists instead of advertisers, and Ello is one of them. I’ve made the decision to stop using my personal Instagram account and switch to their social network.
But that's a topic for a different article.
Samuel Zeller is a freelance photographer based in Switzerland, an ambassador for Fujifilm and the editor of Fujifeed magazine. You can contact him here and follow his recent work on his website and Ello.
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