Why Unsplash’s 1-Million-Photo Milestone Is No Big Deal

On May 30, 2019, controversial free stock photo site Unsplash announced that it crossed the 1 million images uploaded mark. That had much of the photo blogosphere up in arms.

Many photographers hate Unsplash because it encourages people to give away their pictures for nothing — not even credit. But I’m going to argue that Unsplash’s 1 million photo milestone is no big deal — outside of stock photography, at least.

I went down the Unsplash rabbit hole to figure out exactly what’s happening with this company, and I came up with 5 conclusions:

1. Unsplash is small and not growing as fast as you may think

2. Photographers are not uploading many pictures to Unsplash

3. Unsplash offers photographers no real incentives to upload images

4. You may not know how people are actually using Unsplash

5. Unsplash will be acquired for a lot of money because of its powerful SEO

I close out with ​how I believe Unsplash has changed the photography industry​.

Note: I contacted Unsplash to​ see if I was missing anything. They declined to ​speak with me.

What Is Unsplash?

Unsplash is the best-known of a new breed of stock photography sites. The pictures are 100% free to download and can be used for any purpose, including corporate advertising.

Theoretically, you could upload a picture to Unsplash, and McDonald’s could slap it on a billboard the next day, all without paying you a penny.

When downloading an image from Unsplash, you see this message:

It’s hilarious that Unsplash actually uses the word ‘exposure’ here. ​To photographers, ‘exposure’ translates to “you ain’t getting s**t out of this.”

Note: All photographs in this article​ are from Unsplash with no credit given to the photographer. Why no credit? Because if they don’t care about it, why should I?

Now let’s talk about why I don’t think Unsplash is that big of a deal:

1. Unsplash Is Small and Not Growing As Fast As You Think

Let’s wind the clock back.

Unsplash crossed 500,000 images on April 22, 2018, and 1 million images on May 10, 2019. So it took Unsplash about 13 months to double its image catalog. And in the recent blog post making the 1 million photo announcement, Unsplash CEO Mikael Cho said: “50,660 images have been contributed in the last month alone.”

So, Unsplash’s image library grew by 5.3% in May. 5.3% monthly growth would be impressive for a big company. But it doesn’t scream “hypergrowth startup”. At its current rate, Unsplash would need 14 months to double the size of its image library again.

And let’s remember, 1 million photos is not a lot when it comes to stock photos. iStockPhoto has over 1.4 million pictures of coffee alone!

For comparison, I picked out 5 keywords to compare Unsplash with 4 other stock services:

I wouldn’t expect Unsplash to offer more photos than iStockPhoto. But it should be destroying a small player like Stocksy. If Unplash were set to take over the world, it would be much bigger than it is now, and it would be growing faster.

2. Photographers Are Not Uploading Many Pictures to Unsplash

This is perhaps the biggest sign that Unsplash is not a world beater. On its about page, Unsplash itself says to “join 100,000+ photographers and creators.” Based on this 1 million uploads milestone, this means the average contributor to Unsplash has uploaded about 10 pictures to Unsplash.

Not 100, 10.


​If you navigate around Unsplash, you’ll ​see that many photographers just don’t upload many photos.

I looked at Unsplash’s curated collections like “Editor’s Choice: New Photographers We Love of 2018 | Summer” and “Top 100 Most Viewed Photos of 2017”. Many photographers featured in these collections have fewer than 100 uploads! Now, why don’t photographers seem particularly engaged with Unplash?

It’s simple:

Unsplash has nothing to offer photographers.

3. Unsplash Offers Photographers No Real Incentive to Upload Images

Unsplash gives photographers the wrong kind of dopamine kick. On Instagram, you collect Likes, Followers, and Comments, which gives you short-term pleasure. But on Unsplash, you see thousands of other people downloading your images… and possibly making money off them. And your reward is exposure to the “I want free photos” demographic.

I think that’s a breeding ground for resentment.

The lack of a true reward may explain why photographers upload very few images to Unsplash. I think people will continue downloading images from Unsplash for years and years, but I expect the pace of new uploads to slow.

4. You May Not Know How People Are actually using Unsplash

Photographers view Unsplash as a free stock photo site. And indeed, many businesses use Unsplash photos for commercial purposes. But let’s use some web analytics tools to see the search terms people use to reach Unsplash.com.

None of these tools are perfect. But if they are even in the neighborhood of right, they show that some of the world does not use Unsplash as a stock photo site. Believe it or not, many people go to Unsplash for free wallpaper images for computers and smartphones.

There’s no way to measure how much of Unsplash’s overall audience this is, but it may be substantial.

Here are the top 20 search terms ranked by Serpstat (as of June 11, 2019):

  1. pictures
  2. background
  3. wallpapers
  4. backgrounds
  5. coolest wallpapers
  6. coolest wallpaper
  7. cool wallpaper
  8. cool wallpapers
  9. daisy
  10. cool pictures
  11. wallpaper and backgrounds
  12. h d wallpapers
  13. wallpapers and background
  14. hd wallpapers
  15. hd wallpaper
  16. walls hd
  17. cutest wallpaper
  18. desktop background
  19. desktop backgrounds
  20. iphone wallpaper

Here are the top 20 search terms according to Ubersuggest:

  1. tele mobile
  2. wallpapers
  3. coffe
  4. foodes
  5. peaple
  6. gilr
  7. background​
  8. videography download
  9. free s
  10. pictures
  11. tatoo
  12. wlppr
  13. merican flag
  14. world stap hip hop
  15. shepherds pic
  16. brids
  17. wallpaper iphone
  18. images
  19. Unspalsh
  20. wallpapers that are cool

Please note: these two lists are different because every analytics service uses a different methodology to estimate traffic. I Googled many of these terms like ‘gilr’ and Unsplash does indeed rank very high for them.

This is the Google search result for ‘pictures’ (Note: I deleted the ads at the top of the search results page.):

You can see that Unsplash ranks #1 for the word pictures, with fellow free stock sites Pexels and Pixabay in slots #3 and #4, respectively. And that’s why I think…

5. Unsplash Will Be Acquired for a Lot of Money

I predict that a big player like iStockPhoto will acquire Unsplash for a dollar amount that you think is crazy.

Now, why would a company want to acquire Unsplash? Because Unsplash attracts tons of people looking for stock photos and will continue to do so even if the pace of uploads slows dramatically. ​Unsplash is an SEO powerhouse.

Sites with lots of inbound links rank very high on Google. ​And Unsplash is on every listicle in the universe about free stock photos, free wallpapers, and free pictures. And because it’s controversial, it’s been heavily covered in the photography and tech blogosphere. I mean, you’re reading about it right here.

​The domain Unsplash.com is likely worth many millions of dollars because it ranks so high for so many search terms. ​

Now let’s move on to…

The Impact of Unsplash on the Photography Industry

First, let’s acknowledge that Unsplash only exists because photographers give away their work without compensation or even credit. ​The company is very upfront about this.

You get this message before you upload your first image:

Now let’s talk about a big topic: valuing one’s work.

Unsplash did not create the problem of photographers giving everything away for nothing. That’s a product of the digital photography revolution and free/cheap online education, which flooded the industry with highly skilled amateurs.

Frankly, I don’t think you can force people to value their own work, especially those that don’t need to make money from their images. But the fact that the average Unsplash contributor only uploads 10 images implies that many photographers are uploading a few images and moving on.

However, Unsplash is leaving a mark.

Stock photography, particularly microstock photography, was already a hard way to make money. It takes a lot of skill, time, and energy to shoot, post-process, keyword, and upload images to stock services. And remember, there’s no guarantee that your stock photos will be accepted, let alone generate revenue.

I believe Unsplash just made ​earning money from stock photography 10 times harder. Most people can’t tell good images from bad, let alone good from excellent. For most users, the free photo beats the $1 photo every time. I’d also expect Unsplash to hurt demand for travel and landscape images.

Don’t be surprised to see headlines like:

“My Unplash Photo Made the Cover of XYZ Magazine”

“I Found My Unsplash Photo in a Calendar in Target”

“This Mall Gallery Is Selling My Unsplash Photo for $900.”

But, I don’t see any impact on photographers that produce images unique to a specific person or business — like portrait, fashion, wedding/event, and product photos.

So what do you think about Unsplash? Do you think it’s good or bad for the photography industry? Will it have an impact on you?

P.S. Click here to download my free eBook “37 Weird Tips for Better Portrait Photography.”

About the author: Michael Comeau is the Editor of OnPortraits.com, an all-new online community dedicated to simple, classic portrait photography. Click here for more information. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.