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I Tried Unsplash for Two Years, Here’s What I Learned


It is now exactly 2 years since I started uploading stock photos to Unsplash, the “slightly” controversial stock photo platform where everything is free for everyone. I thought this would be a good occasion to share what I’ve gained from my presence on Unsplash.

In this article, I want to answer the question of if giving away one’s photographs for free on Unsplash has benefits for photographers. These are just my own experiences, of course. Your mileage may vary…

Let me give you the short conclusion first. For me as a professional photographer, publishing photos on Unsplash was (almost) completely useless and had no tangible benefits.

Yet I am not negative towards Unsplash, and I am going to tell you why.

My most viewed photo on Unsplash. 4.8 million views and over 6,800 downloads

Why did I choose to give away some of my photographs on Unsplash for free? The short answer: Why not? I was curious to see what happens. After all, I can’t lose anything from doing so… or can I?

In my 15 years as a professional photographer, I have never been into stock photography and also never considered seeking income from selling stock photography.

My main source of income from photography is in wedding and engagement photography and a tiny bit of commercial photography, mainly for industrial clients from the mining industry. If you are interested to see my commercial photography work, you can find it here.

My most downloaded photograph. Over 13.000 downloads in 1.5 years

Besides my professional photographs, I also compiled a huge collection of photographs that I mainly took for fun and without any commercial interest in mind. Most of those photos were just sitting idle on my hard disks.

I recognized that some of those photographs could be useful for some people, especially when the ever so mighty Adobe knocked on my door and bought some of my ‘holiday snaps’ (but that is another story altogether).

I also once tried to submit some photos to Adobe stock, but it did not work out for me. It was too complicated with all the rules.

Some photographers say that being on Unsplash, in spite of not getting paid, has been beneficial for them. That having one’s work exposed and in front of eyeballs can’t be a bad move.

Photographers reported success from publishing photos on Unsplash in the form of exposure and thus attracting paid clients there.

To read one photographer’s success story, see this link (take this with a grain of salt, though, as this is from Unsplash’s own blog).

So, I was wondering how useful my photographs would be for folks looking for stock photographs and what could I get out from being on Unsplash.

My Unsplash Photo Stats

I uploaded 58 photographs in the period from October 2017 through June 2018. Here is what happened in terms of numbers.

My 58 photos got a combined 23.5 million views. And they’ve been downloaded 126,200 times over a period of 2 years.

Before we go a bit deeper into those numbers, let me show you my 6 most popular photographs on Unsplash:

My top 6 photos on Unsplash by the numbers

The first photograph — the one with the pink flower — got close to 5 million views and over 6,800 downloads. Interestingly, my second most ‘successful’ photograph had only 1.1 million views yet almost as many downloads as number one.

What I find interesting is that a relatively ‘un-sexy’ photograph of mining activities in Indonesia (picture #6) has the most downloads. In fact, in terms of downloads, it towers way above the other photos.

I suspect that is because such photographs are rather hard to come by, yet there are quite a few people out there who need such photos for their publications.

Whereas beautiful flower photos certainly abound and even free ones are easy to find.

My 2nd set of most popular photos in Unsplash

Someone even reported having seen one of my photos being published on a huge billboard in a big city somewhere in South America.

Exposure and eyeballs I certainly got, which brings me to:

Exposure and Visibility from Unsplash

If a photographer is seeking exposure, then Unsplash is certainly not a bad idea, though there are alternatives such as Behance or 500px or 1x.

In comparison to social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, etc… I think Unsplash is a very good option because one’s photos are more easily searchable and do not just get their 5 milliseconds of fame in an ever-changing feed of ‘visual noise’.

Or if a photographer wants to know if his/her photographs would be of any use to others, Unsplash is also a very good option.

So, yes, when it comes to exposure and visibility, Unsplash is certainly among the best places to showcase a photographer’s work and be seen by a large audience.

But whether that exposure will or will not lead to paid gigs or be otherwise beneficial toward making money, I am not too sure.

For me, it did not yield any inquiries, let alone paid gigs.

Have I become more ‘famous’ as a result of being on Unsplash? I doubt it. Maybe a tiny bit.

Why I Abandoned Unsplash

I now see little to no benefit at all from giving my pictures away for free. The exposure factor or the benefit of being seen is also rather questionable for me.

I am not seeking validation for my work and I don’t get a kick from the fact that my photos are being put to use on various platforms and in various publications.

Sorry, but likes, views, and downloads don’t really tickle me. Nor do they put food on the table… After 17 years as a commercial photographer, I know my worth (or the lack thereof).

The only negative experience I had on Unsplash was when I saw that someone took one of my images, re-cropped it, adjusted contrast and saturation, and is now selling this photo on Adobe stock.

Here is the thief’s photo on Adobe stock.

The thief ‘Anna’ is selling my photo on Adobe stock

And here is my original which ‘the thieve’ took of my Unsplash page:

Someone else is selling this photo on Adobe stock (without me even being credited)

Shame on that person. But what this ‘lovely person’ did is absolutely legit under the Terms of Usage of Unsplash. With plagiarism being so common these days, I am neither surprised nor particularly upset about this incident.

I also see some of my photographs being displayed on various Instagram accounts. But here at least I am getting credited (sometimes, at least — I would not know how many folks use my Unsplash photos without giving me credit).

But hey, this is perfectly ‘OK’ usage of Unsplash — that’s the deal. I am not complaining or whining.

My Feelings Towards Unsplash

Do I have negative sentiments towards Unsplash? No, not at all.

I understand though, that a part of the photography community strongly opposes the idea of photos being available for free.

I would say that the benefits of Unsplash’s existence outweigh the fact that probably a tiny bit less money is made from stock photography.

If you are a blogger or someone who publishes some sort of a website and you need high-quality images that are legally for free, then you are in paradise with Unsplash.

They have a truly impressive array of photos on a great variety of topics. Whether it is lifestyle, food, environment, or travel, you will most likely find suitable images on Unsplash.

And indeed, I often encounter images from Unsplash all over the Internet.

Even the big boys like Apple and various large publishing organizations use photos they source from Unsplash. And who can blame them…

Could Unsplash Be Better (for Photographers)?

A resounding YES. Unsplash sucks in their attitude towards photographers.

Why they do not allow links in a photo’s description to the photographer’s website or Instagram or whatever is a mystery to me. It would not do any harm to anyone.

And the photographers giving their work away for free could at least get a little ‘link-juice’ in return, which could enhance a photographer’s chances of showing up in Google’s search results.

Also for those who understand SEO: the links Unsplash gives in a photographer’s profile are no-follow links. There would be no downside for Unsplash to have follow links. Pure arrogance, I suspect…

My personal favorite among my Unsplash photos

Also, in this day and age where lots of people are willing to part with a few cents or even a few dollars voluntarily (the donation economy), why not have a donation button for those who want to donate some money to the photographer? Again, easy to implement and surely beneficial to some photographers.

I could think of a couple of other ways where the Unsplash platform could give some more benefits to photographers. With little to no effort, the guys behind Unsplash could make it much more useful and worthwhile for photographers. Therefore, I think it is only a matter of time until someone makes another, better ‘Unsplash-like’ free stock photography platform. I am sure something already exists or is in the making…

So this was my take on Unsplash and my experiences being present there for 2 years. I have meanwhile deleted most of my photos on Unsplash and only keep a tiny footprint there.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

About the author: Dominik Vanyi is a photographer based in Bali. You can find more of Vanyi’s work on his website, wedding site, and Instagram. This article was also published here.