Commentary

Shooting down the idea of free stock photos

Putting up images for free download lowers the bar for the entire photography profession

I was recently alerted to stock photo website PixaBay by my photographer friends.

PixaBay offers royalty-free photos from its contributors, that anyone can use, manipulate and distribute without the need for permission or any attribution to the artist.

While I personally cannot fathom the thought of giving away my photos for free, I think PixaBay contributors probably want some exposure or love the thrill of seeing their photos being used instead of just getting "likes" on Instagram.

It sounds like a great deal for those in the advertising and marketing industry who need photos for their promotion collaterals.

You know, when things sound too good to be true, they usually turn out to be false. But in this case, it is actually true.

To see how it works, I signed up for PixaBay and started to download several photos. There are also illustrations, vector graphics and videos available for download for free. In addition, you can upload your images for others to download for free. Uploading a certain amount of photos will allow you to use the site without any advertisements.

The business model of PixaBay is via advertising from stock photo websites such as ShutterStock and Storyblocks.

If companies can use your photos for free, they will probably think that you can be hired for free too.

When you search for images, the resulting page shows not only photos from PixaBay, but also sponsored images from ShutterStock. There is a big watermark on ShutterStock's photos to make sure you know you have to pay for them.

But seriously, why would anyone look at ShutterStock if they can get their images free on PixaBay? PixaBay is not alone.

A simple Web search yields more than 20 websites, including Unsplash and Realistic Shots, that have the same free stock photography business model.

Browsing in PixaBay, I found the standard of photography to be mediocre for the most part. But I did find some good photos, including one of the Singapore skyline.

I can imagine some Singapore companies using this picture to front their website or marketing collaterals. But the photographer will not get any mention or, more importantly, earn a single cent (though the website does allow you to send some "coffee" money to the contributor).

Now, this is the part that I am truly troubled about. Having been a freelance photographer before, I know how tough commercial photography is. I hear some companies are already doing photo shoots "in-house" - basically using anyone in the company with a decent DSLR camera to take photos instead of hiring professional photographers. With this free stock photo business, it will get even tougher for professional photographers.

In addition, I feel it is a slippery slope for photographers - both amateurs and professionals - who put up their photos for free download on these websites.

It lowers the bar for the entire photography profession. If companies can use your photos for free, they will probably think that you can be hired for free too.

As British wildlife photographer Will Nicholls aptly wrote when he argued against giving away your photos for free: "Every time someone gives a photo away for free, it's a potential sale lost by the professional photography community."

I think the professional photography community ought to present a united front against such practices.

Individuals also need to understand that by looking for exposure this way, they are harming the very industry they are trying to break into and succeed in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Shooting down the idea of free stock photos '. Print Edition | Subscribe