A recent tweet from my favorite Irish photographer, Roger Overall, got me thinking:
I get as many request now for #free #photographs as I do for paid ones. I wonder when the tipping point will happen
I’ve had some requests to use my images for free, and as often as not, I give them away. But usually the images I give away are given for personal use, and are images that I shot on my own volition. But why do people look at an image, think “Wow, I like that shot, and I want to use it for [...]. I wonder if I can get it for free.” Or put more simply, “That image has value to me. I want it for free.”
Don’t get me wrong–I totally understand the inclination. We all want to minimize our expenses, and if we can get something for free (within reason) why not ask for it? But our social construct limits what we’ll ask for for free, and usually it is something we perceive as having very little value or (perhaps) very little cost to the person giving it to us. Need a napkin to wipe a kids’ runny nose? Ask a restaurant, even if you haven’t ordered something from them. Gotta go? Hit the gas station, even if you don’t need gas. Need to write something down? Borrow a pen from a stranger. Need a cigarette but you’re out? Bum one from a fellow smoker. Each of those interactions has a real, albeit small, cost. And I’m not even talking about friendship- or family-based free stuff, or goods/services specifically offered for free. These are examples of an individual needing something that has a cost, and getting that from a stranger. But we never ask for a free soft-drink from a restaurant. We never ask for a free haircut. We never ask for a free movie ticket. Each of those activities has negligible marginal cost to the producer. Why don’t we ask?
So, why would we ask for a picture for free? I think it is because, in the digital era, we recognize that the incremental cost of that image file is $0. But would you ask an author for a free copy of their eBook? Would you ask Amazon to give you a free copy of the Kindle version? Would you ask a musician for a free copy of their album? Again, I’m not talking about a) taking something illegally, or b) getting something for free that the creator is already offering for free. I’m talking about seeing the latest book from your favorite author, and asking them to send you a pdf. Would you do that? I don’t think I would.
So why do we feel comfortable asking photographers for a free version of their image? I think some of it comes from a lack of understanding of what is involved in creating some images. People think “I could have created that image, had I only been in that place at that time.” In contrast, they understand that a lot of time and effort goes into writing, performing, recording, and mixing a song. They understand that writing a book takes a lot of time, work, and skill.
Of course, some images are great, and were captured with little preparation. Except for having the right gear. Except for studying the gear and how to use it based on the situation at hand. Except for understanding what makes a great composition. Except for having the gear prepared and ready to make the shot. Except for checking the weather, sunset/sunrise time, driving, parking, waiting, watching, etc. Except for downloading the image, and modifying it from what the camera captured into what the viewer sees. Yeah, except all of that. /snark
So, does it matter if an image was created based on 10 hours worth of work and years of experience, compared to a book that took 100 hours worth of work and years of experience? They both took time and experience for the creator. We seem to recognize that for authors. Not as often for photographers.