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Why I Give Most of My Photos Away for Free, Even for Commercial Use

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I’m a professional full-time photographer and I choose to let people download and use 95% of my images (even commercially), here’s why.

Who am I?

I’m Samuel Zeller, a freelance photographer from Geneva, Switzerland. I’m also an ambassador for Fujifilm and the editor of Fujifeed.

I recently launched my “Archive”: a repository that contains nearly all my photography, organized by location and subjects. All of the images can be downloaded for free in high-resolution (up to 6000px on the longest side).

Oh and they’re all under a Creative Commons license.

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How it all started

I began my career as a designer, working in agencies doing retail design, graphic design, 3D rendering and more. In most of the projects I was using other people work (fonts, photographs, 3D models, vector illustrations) as a base to build new content for clients.

For years I’ve been using other people work without really giving anything back.

Then I discovered Unsplash

About two years ago I stumbled on Unsplash, a website that features free (do whatever you want with them) high-resolution photos. I loved the concept instantly; people could just upload their images and give them away for free under a Creative Commons public domain CC0 license.

So far, I’ve uploaded 184 images to my Unsplash profile and they’ve been viewed over 63,000,000 times and downloaded over 613,000 times…

Just insane numbers.

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But it’s not just numbers

Now, people from all over the world are creating things with my images: websites, album covers, iPhone Apps, book covers… here are just a few examples.

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Even Apple used an image I took on their website to promote their new iPad Pro. This is actually the 6th most downloaded photo on Unsplash with almost 100k downloads, no wonder it ended up here…

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The amount of traffic Unsplash generate to my portfolio is huge. The number of referrers I have is constantly growing, many websites and blogs use my images and give a link back. My website is no longer just a small island in the sea that nobody see, it’s a freaking lighthouse

My latest and biggest client found me because of Unsplash, in fact I never really searched for clients, they found me in the first place. (Isn’t that what every photographer dreams of)?

And recently, Unsplash created the world’s first fully open, crowdsourced book featuring contributions from 100 creatives including myself.

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Today, over 650 million photos a month are viewed on Unsplash and featured photos on Unsplash are seen more times than if they were published on the largest Instagram account, the front page of the New York Times, or the cover of Time Magazine.

So… am I losing money?

It is a matter of perspective. If I put all my images on a stock photography website I could make some money out of it… but stock photography is dying and people are paying less and less for images.

I know, I worked for years in a design agency were we regularly had to buy images for clients, and our clients budgets were always getting smaller.

Why should I need to sell images if I have clients paying me to shoot specific images? To me, working for a client face-to-face is rewarding, way more rewarding than making money through digital sales to people I will never interact with.

Does my work lose value?

This is something people asked me before and the answer is simple: no.

My photography keeps improving, more people are stumble across my work, and I’ve got more contacts, more projects, and more clients than ever before.

An image has value because someone has a use for it. It has absolutely no value if it’s sitting uselessly on my hard-drive or if it’s on social media somewhere awaiting a few likes. Sure, it has emotional value, don’t get me wrong, but I need money to live and pay the bills.

The images I give away for free are like a teaser of what I can do. Think of it as a “try before you buy” option.

What makes you happy is worth all the money in the world, and it makes me happy to give my images for free to those who need them. I smile when I receive an email like this:

I just wanted to say thank you for your generosity in sharing your work and that I think your appreciation of the beauty to be found in the details of our world is inspiring.

And it happen often.

Exposure or talent?

We live in an ever connected world dominated by social networks and there’s never been so many photographers around. After you reach a certain quality threshold, all that matters is exposure and, perhaps most importantly, being a nice person.

Clients will not land on your portfolio randomly. There’s no magic. You need to have your work published, visible, commented on, shared, talked about.

There’s no point in being talented if nobody can see what you do.


About the author: Samuel Zeller is a Swiss photographer and Fujifilm X-Series ambassador. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find his work on his website, Instagram and, of course, Unsplash. This article was also published here.

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