why its not good practice to give away your

Photographs for Free

This blog post covers the right and wrong times for a wildlife photographers to give away their images for free, in exchange for free publicity. I have made this mistakes in the past with a very prominent African wildlife and conservation magazine (they are subsequently gone digital). I was just so happy to have my images published that I carried 100% of the costs and they got 100% of the profits! I feel very silly writing that. I am hoping that any new wildlife photographer that read this post, does not make the same mistakes I did!

Just a quick side note: I am not actually in the business of selling photographs, my income is from selling amazing experiences to photographers on safari. But I have been photographing for long enough to have experienced many of he pit falls that a professional photographer would experience. I am writing from this perspective. 

Free photographs: understanding the problem

I have decided to do this blog first in this series of blog posts on Sales & Marketing, because I feel its the most important thing when it comes to sales and marketing of your photography. A lot of photographers are driven to succeed and their success is governed by the amount of hits, likes and follows they can generate on social media.

If there was one thing I could whisper in the ear of the young safari guide that picked up a camera all those years ago it would simply be … Value your work

Dodgy Publishers/editors all to often question ask if they may, Please may we have the rights to publish your photograph for free? Which is usually followed by a long sob story about their limited budget for spending on photographers. These publishers/editors do however realise that nothing is really for free, so they throw you a bone. “We have a huge following and we would credit you as the photographer”

Now I want you to read that last sentence again out aloud and then tell me what you find wrong with it!

  • They have a huge following, so they have plenty of sales, so they should have plenty of money.
  • They would credit you as the photographer, wait who else took that photo?

Frustratingly there are enough young photographers that have not yet gone through the tough times of being a freelance photographer and wanting to get published, they agree to these ridiculous terms.

Look at it this way

The most obvious reason why not give away your image rights is that you will not be getting any return on your huge investment. Your time is money, as is the photography equipment used to capture that image. These magazines and publishers are in business to make money (so should you be), so they will be selling a final product, be it a article in a magazine or blog to their readers. Your image is only a very small part of this final product, as a result the exposure that your image will get is often limited and to the point that it rarely generates enough eyes on your work and subsequent image sales to cover your costs.

Often these publishers go through this process if they are looking for a generic run of the mill stock image that they don’t want to buy from stock agencies. These images are not going to be the main photograph of the story and often your images end up being the filler images to bulk up the story.

You need to see this whole process as a business transaction, you are giving them money (your image is worth money) in exchange that they will market you (the supposed free publicity). Are your going to get a return on that marketing investment to the value of the cost of your image? Bare in mind that you don’t just want to break even, you need to be profitable. Would it not be more worth while to take the value of that photograph and invest it into google ad words or a Facebook marketing campaign.

Funny thing is about this whole process, is that these editors, publishers and magazines have found your work in the first place. so you are doing something right! So don’t spoil all your hard work by giving it away for free!

How it should work

So when a big publishers approaches you for the right to publish one of your images. Give your self a massive pat on the back, you have been noticed and are doing something right. If this publisher or editor is at all serious, they will state in their first email what their budget is for purchasing your photograph. In my experience its not necessary to ask for this kind of information, its there or its not.

If they however they do ask to use your photograph for free, politely decline. Its not necessary to go and write this huge email that belittles them and is rude. Stay professional and you will be rewarded, I have had a few editors come back to me over the years in a very rewarding way.

When is it ok to give away your images

Thats a completely personal view, I will explain when I find it acceptable.

  1. Firstly I do it as a way to give back to the very industry that has carried my career and that the safari and wildlife industries. I often approach conservation organisations willingly to offer them any of my images for free, for them to generate interest and ultimately funds for their efforts. Obviously you need to be very careful that you are supporting the right organisations and just double check how the images will be used.
  2. For my own marketing, I have a working relationship with ground operations and booking agents that I use for my photographic safaris. They need to sell me and my safaris, its in my interest for them to do this and naturally I provide images for this.
  3. If I know that the image will be used in a manner where a large amount of eye will see my work and where there is an active link directly back to my website. Examples is where a website/blog would like to do an interview with me and when my images are the main attraction of the article.

I really do hope that this helps young or new wildlife photographers to avoid the pitfalls of this often tricky situation that you will find your selves in at some point.




the Author

Etienne Oosthuizen

Etienne Oosthuizen

Photographic Guide

I’m a guide with an insatiable enthusiasm for African wildlife and an absolute passion to help photographers photograph Africa!

4 replies
  1. Tracy May
    Tracy May says:

    Hi Etienne,

    Thank you so much for this blog. Very interesting. I have recently been asked to supply some of my images for free, however, I was interviewed by this American Publication, and I am hoping that my images will be used to highlight the plight of our Rhino’s in Zimbabwe. But your article has made me think. My question is:- there are lot of wildlife photographers out there, how do we get recognition and get work published if we are unknown? It seems to me that the big names in the industry get all the commissions and it is rare for an unknown to make it.

    • Etienne Oosthuizen
      Etienne Oosthuizen says:

      Hi Tracy,

      Its a personal thing, I have often supplied images to conservation organizations as I feel its my way of giving back. Some thing I learnt a while back, after a whole series of my Aardvark images got published in a very predominant magazine and I was great let me recoup some of money for the huge investment of personal time and effort. Only to be told that your payment is exposure. It then I realized the exposure means nothing with out food on the table. IF you have unique images and they want to publish them, they will pay … so How do you get recognition, pick a topic and subject and photograph it in a unique way, This is a great topic and I will start putting some more thought to it and write a whole blog post on this …I think this will be the title – Getting recognition for your work. Look out for it

  2. John Vosloo
    John Vosloo says:

    Well stated, and thanks for that advise which we as beginners often do not see in it’s true and real commercial perspective – Thanks again. Regards – John

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