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July 13th, 2009

How can “free” work for photographers?

Posted by liveBooks


An illustration from Anderson's piece on Free in Wired. ©Wired

There has been a tremendous amount of buzz lately around Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book Free (which you can, of course, read for free). The basic premise is that if you give something away, more people will “purchase” it than at any other price point (even one cent) and then money can be made on that group, through advertising, secondary sales, etc.

There are big examples (like Google giving away all their services and making money off their associated ads) and smaller ones (like Prince giving away his CD in London’s The Daily Mail, boosting ticket sales for him and circulation for the Mail).

Rob at APhotoEditor predicted a few months ago, “I suspect [Anderson is] going to take a real thrashing on this one since it seems the tide has turned on free. All anyone is talking about these days is subscriptions, premium upgrades and advertising.” His prediction has largely come true, with the New York Times refuting most of Anderson’s points in its review. Malcom Gladwell makes a strong case against Free in the New Yorker as well, which Chase Jarvis referenced in a recent post, after invoking a small firestorm earlier this year when he posted about Anderson’s original Free story in Wired.

Obviously the big question here is, how does this apply to photographers? Craig Swanson of CreativeTechs makes a smart point in Chase’s “featured comment”: “generic stock image libraries are among the digital products already on a steady march towards ‘Free’…while…the availability of, for example, ‘Chase Jarvis’ is quite scarce these days. (Scarce items maintain and even increase their value). So I think this has a lot to do with how we manage our careers and art in the future. To maintain our value we must become our own monopoly.”

“To maintain our value we must become our own monopoly.”

I have talked to a lot of photographers and photo industry professionals about the importance of building an audience for themselves, building a reputation around quality work, industry knowledge, and personality. To do that, you often have to give away some things for free. Here are a few models that seem to be working.

Give away content, sell expertise
MediaStorm distributes its top-notch multimedia pieces for free, but makes a tidy sum on its workshops teaching professional photographers and journalists how to make multimedia pieces (and even some of those are free).

Give away general expertise, sell specific expertise
Consultants such as Mary Virginia Swanson and RESOLVE contributor Amanda Sosa Stone and Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua, along with photographers like Art Wolfe, share their extensive knowledge for free online, knowing that people will pay for their consulting or teaching services once they have gotten to know and trust their work. (What Mary does might actually fit better in the above category, since she provides great information on her blog about events and deadlines, as opposed to generalized versions of her consultations.)

Give away your vision, sell your “monopoly”
It’s not surprising that Chase pulled out that comment about “becoming your own monopoly” or that he himself is the prime example. By constantly sharing his insights, expertise, even iPhones with his huge audience, Chase has created a kind of creativity factory with a built-in audience — clients are no longer just paying for his images, they are paying to be part of that community.

Give away involvement, sell the product
Photographer Simon Roberts has been keeping a detailed blog journal of his process of shooting, editing, and publishing his latest book, We English. Along the way he has done things to help his growing audience feel like part of the creation process, like offering free prints to the first 150 people who wrote him with an idea for something inherently “English.” Having a built-in, engaged audience like this can only help sales of his book and prints.

Give away the filter, charge for the content
This model has fewer proven examples but I think it has great potential. Since everyone is giving content away for free, what becomes valuable is a filter that you trust. PDN recently highlighted the importance of “digital curators,” like Flak Photo, Conscientious, and I Heart Photography, as the first layer of filtering, which galleries are now turning to for new artists. But these filter sites will have to become profitable themselves soon; one way could be for them to become distributors of the art they feature. Or they likely have some other things up their sleeves that I haven’t even thought of. (Stay tuned for a discussion with Flak Photo founder Andy Adams on this topic soon.)

Photography as a profitable business in some ways depends on individuals’ ability to flesh out these models and decide which one (or combination of several) works for them. What are the downsides to each of these? What other models am I missing that seem to work? Obvisouly there are many that don’t depend on the “free” mentality at all. Do you think those can hold out against the free content?


  1. July 13th, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Miki Johnson

    Joerg Colberg seems to be on the same wavelength today…he pointed us to Michael Mazzeo’s RSVP project, which accepts free submissions for a themed exhibition; inclusion is free too.

    We assume that the gallery will get a percentage of sales from the exhibition but would love to hear the details. Another “free” business model?

  2. July 13th, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Miki Johnson

    Fred Ritchin also has outlines an interesting model on his After Photography blog that includes free and non-free options – the television model.

    Network TV is free, cable is subscription, and premium is a special package, he says…

    “Perhaps the Web should be similarly arranged so that a large number of sites are free, an array of others are available only if one pays a single monthly subscription fee, and then there are other sites which one has to specifically pay to view.”

  3. July 13th, 2009 at 12:12 pm


    I despise the word ‘free’ as a prefix. There is no such thing as free. Free as a suffix implies something that is not included, which is a much more honest use of the word.

    However, a ‘loss-leader’ (as a phrase chosen at random) is something very different and often, sadly, confused with the word ‘free’. Or, even more sadly, capitalised upon and swallowed by the commercially illiterate.

    The old model and the new are actually the same – Just the trendy like to make it out as otherwise. If you spend 2 million on advertising, you are spending (at a loss initially) in order to try to capture a market share. The supposedly new model is no different, just a different medium. Giving stuff away labelled as free is no different to any of the previous models before it – But agreed, it is via a different delivery path.

    Whether it is effort, time or money to leverage (I hate that word) your product, service or brand… It’s a loss leader – not free. The price of your efforts will always be included in the end bill you submit to your client / clients. You have to eat, pay the bills, school the kids and in some countries, pay your own medical bills.

    The proletariat are getting wise to the deception at last (thank god), so we all need to be ahead of the game. Yes there is still a large proportion that just don’t get it, but do you really want that market?

    There is no magic formula – There will be one day, once all the major players have found out what it is – then, once again, as it is now, all will follow and then it will all change.

  4. July 13th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Debra Weiss

    For the sake of clarification, Mary Virginia Swanson does not give away her knowledge for free. Her blog is a wonderful resource of events taking place in the photo industry and is incredibly informative, but that is very different from what her clients experience when working one on one with her.

  5. July 13th, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Mary Virginia Swanson

    To be specific I maintain a blog called MARKETING PHOTOS which is updated frequently with notice of events, deadlines and opportunities for photographers, and it is through this vehicle that I share my insights with our community. You can reach it via a link on my homepage,, or at

  6. July 13th, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Miki Johnson

    Don’t miss Joerg’s new post on Free and the potentially scary problems with it.

    And the Burns blog – – pointed us to this post about the Gladwell review of Free.

  7. July 13th, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Steve Gibson

    It’s an (perhaps sad) inevitable end to some of the low end work that’s out there. the reason is because there are lots of ways to make money out of free as a photographer that do work. Nobody is going to give away exclusive stuff that can’t be obtained elsewhere.. are they???, but there is a large about of ‘commodity photography’ out there for which the market is saturated that has already started to become free.

    I wrote a post a few months back from the perspective of microstock photographers – probably the first sector of the photography market to be affected (as it’s at the bottom)

    The thing I always keep in mind, and I think will be a saviour for a lot good photographers is that the public at large can see the difference between good and bad photography or design, we see it all the time online. Even non photographers are affected by a good photo, even if they don’t know exactly the reasons, that’s what photo buyers will continue to pay for – and when I say good I don’t mean ‘beautiful’ and ‘pretty’ photos at are all over flickr, I mean emotive and involving photos

  8. July 13th, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Miki Johnson

    Debra and Swanee, thanks for the clarification. I still think that what Swanee does applies insofar as she is sharing important information for free (or perhaps I should say at a loss-leader), thereby drawing viewers to her website and associating her name with “valuable photo information.”

  9. July 13th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Rich Burroughs

    I made it here through Joerg’s blog. I found it a little ironic that he was reacting to a book that he admits he has not read, when it’s available for free.

    I’m in the midst of the book now, and so far I have found it to be very engaging. Early on Anderson gives a history of some of the evolution of “free” in marketing, and even the evolution of the market economy itself. As he points out, the current issues with record labels and MP3s are a bit of a replay of the flap around radio royalties from the late 1930s.

    People who rail against newspapers folding miss the point a bit, to me. It’s a reality of the market, complaining won’t change it. My first major in college was Journalism and I always loved newspapers, but I’ve hardly bought a paper over the last five years. Why would I when I can get most of the same content online, and not have to drag around a big paper half full of ads? I don’t even bother to pick up the free weekly papers here anymore, as all their content is online too.

    I’ve been working for Internet companies since the mid 1990s. My first tech job was working for an Internet provider as a sysadmin. Back then people were talking about micropayments as a method for monetizing content like newspaper articles, and people are still talking about it. Micropayments never took off, even with companies like Microsoft launching their own ecash wallet software. Again, who could blame users for not wanting to load up a digital wallet to pay for web content when they could read content “free” on another web site for just the cost of some banner ads flashing at them?

    How this all applies to photography, I’m not completely sure. As Anderson points out, once information is digital, the cost of storing it and transmitting it is relatively cheap. There are already a lot of photographers taking advantage of services like ImageKind to sell prints on demand, and services like Blurb to sell books on demand. I expect that to increase, if anything.

    The Internet offers some opportunities for economies of scale that are potentially very beneficial. Would I rather sell a limited edition of 10 prints for $750 each, or sell them online for $75 each with a much bigger potential audience? I’m not sure, these are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot. In a way, the large galleries remind me of the major labels in the digital music revolution.

    What if you took it even a step father and gave away high res downloadable copies of some of your images, 300 DPI, ready to print, and asked people to pay you whatever they wanted, like Radiohead did with their online downloads. Would you make more less than you would selling them at the $75 a print price, or more? In addition to whatever people paid, you might also get new fans and exposure, and generate a lot of good will that would lead to other paid assignments.

  10. July 13th, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    How can “free” work for photographers? | Blub Studio Blog

    […] via RESOLVE — the liveBooks photo blog » Archives » How can “free” work for photographers?. […]

  11. July 13th, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Twitted by janado

    […] This post was Twitted by janado […]

  12. July 14th, 2009 at 7:29 am

    Photography and the price of being “free” « Stockland Martel

    […] Miki Johnson in a post titled “How can ‘free’ work for photographers?” The post includes examples of a few models “that seem to be working.” This entry was written by […]

  13. July 14th, 2009 at 1:46 pm


    The thing I found most interesting in the New Yorker article is right at the beginning. James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News complains to congress about negotiations with Amazon:

    “The idea was to license his newspaper’s content to the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic reader. ‘They want seventy per cent of the subscription revenue,’ Moroney testified. ‘I get thirty per cent, they get seventy per cent. On top of that, they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device.’”

    Does that sound familiar? I guess the shoe is on the other foot now.

  14. July 14th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Taylor Davidson

    Thanks for a balanced take on “free” and some actual applications of the pricing strategy (note: a pricing strategy, not a business model); most people in the photography industry fail to understand the most basic ideas behind “free” and freemium.

  15. July 14th, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Miki Johnson

    Guess who just jumped on the “free” bandwagon – Microsoft Office. Very interesting…

  16. July 14th, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Henning Wüst

    One thing i ask myself is: Why is this discussion about “free” up just now? Is it because of “the crisis”, or is it really a huge change in mentalities?

  17. July 15th, 2009 at 5:58 am

    gale zucker

    The problem I see with free for photographers is, where is the mechanism for upgrading or making the “free”become income producing? A site that offers photo advice may get advertising (like The Strobist) but then you are an instructor and not a photographer. Same with creative consulting or portal gallery curating. All worthy career activities, and all photo industry assets, but these are not photography. The way the “free” sites monetize is advertising, and how much can any photographer expect in advertising? I’m skeptical. I’m afraid free = further devaluation of what we do. Like the new “client” who wants you to do something free and then they’ll have this AMAZING job for you later on. Right.

  18. July 16th, 2009 at 3:00 am

    DWF » Blog Archive » Can You Turn “Free” Into Profit?

    […] RESOLVE, the liveBooks blog about the photo biz, has some ideas about how giving away your expertise can turn into profits on the back […]

  19. July 19th, 2009 at 12:16 am

    Twitted by ruff3000

    […] This post was Twitted by ruff3000 […]

  20. August 7th, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Free isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. | Taylor Davidson

    […] 3 of my series on how photographers can create new business models. Also, see Miki Johnson’s How can “free” work for photographers? on the RESOLVE lifeBooks blog for additional thoughts on how to leverage […]

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