Photographer’s Experiment Sees 78K Photos Downloaded, Zero Donations

Stock photo.

A stock photographer has revealed the results of his experiment that saw him upload 100 images to free stock photo websites.

Alex Rotenberg wanted to see how much revenue he could make after fellow stock photographer James Wheeler revealed that his highest-paying stock websites in 2022 were Pexels and Pixabay.

This may come as a surprise since Pexels and Pixabay are both free websites. But as Wheeler explains, there is a “Donate” button that appears when someone downloads a photo for free on these sites. And while the majority of people don’t give any money, some do.

“A lot of people do give donations,” explains Wheeler. “[I made] almost $600 worth of donations that I got in 2022. I made more money giving away my photos for free than I did selling them on Shutterstock or Adobe Stock.”

The Experiment

Rotenberg wanted to see if he could emulate Wheeler’s success, but he could not. Despite his photos being downloaded over 78,000 times since the beginning of 2023, the photographer got zero donations.

Writing on his blog, Brutally Honest Microstock, Rotenberg doesn’t hold back in expressing his disappointment.

“Even though my initial images were pretty poor, I tried to improve the offerings with images that have actually sold regularly on [other microstock websites],” he writes.

“Nevertheless, the fact that I received ZERO in donations is depressing considering the 78,000+ downloads. I could have waited for the full year or 10 years but I don’t think I’d ever get donations and not gonna risk it by uploading more content than the original number”

Rotenberg adds that there is “apparently zero benefit” uploading to free sites and emphasises that he is “completely against giving away images for free.”

To add insult to injury, Rotenberg found that his images had been downloaded for free and used in a professional setting — including on a book cover.

How Can You Make Money From Free Stock Photo Websites?

Wheeler explains that to make any money from free photo websites, the photographer needs a lot of downloads to make a small number of donations.

“To give you an idea, I went and checked, I’m getting about 100,000 downloads every month,” he says.

“That was only on Pexels but I get most of my donations on Pexels. So, every month 100,000 people download and I maybe get five to 10 different donations so it is a very small percentage.”

Wheeler also adds that he was a very early contributor to Pexels and is the “44th all-time” viewed profile on the website.

“Because I started early I got my photos up there earlier, I’m kind of high on the list,” he adds.

Wheeler also says that there isn’t the same level of competition that there is on Shutterstock and Adobe Stock but stresses that he doesn’t believe having his photos available for free on Pexels affects his sales on paid websites — despite having the same photos on both platforms.

“Pexels and Shutterstock have very different markets and people who go to Pexels aren’t typically going to Shutterstock,” says Wheeler.

“If they’re looking for free photos, they might give a donation, a small donation. If they have a subscription to Shutterstock, they go to Shutterstock.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people out there going, ‘Oh, I see this photo on Shutterstock, I wonder if it’s on Pexels.’ People just don’t have that amount of time, so I don’t think it really hurts my other sales.”

It underlines how the business of photography works differently for different photographers.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.