Why My Conservation Photos Are Not Free
Why you should charge for your conservation photography
How to respond to inquiries for free images
A few years ago, I was asked a common question by someone I’d just met. We were talking about our shared interest in nature, about what we do for work. He introduced himself as a wildlife tour leader, and I introduced myself as a wildlife conservation photographer and writer.
He asked me, “So, since you’re a conservation photographer, does that mean all your photos are free?”
To which I did not hesitate to reply, “Hell no!”
I probably could have been more tactful, but I wasn’t. Frankly I hear this assumption pop up often enough that my eyes roll on reflex. Why on earth would my photos be free, just because my focus is in conservation?
He noted that he photographs a lot of the wildlife he sees on tours and puts everything in the creative commons. He felt this was the right thing to do, the generous thing to do, what people like us should do. He also said that I, as a writer, was welcome to use his images whenever I want.
While that is a kind offer on the surface, it is also flawed and damaging to both other wildlife photographers and conservation photography in general.
My conservation photos, for the most part, are not free. I don’t think they should be. And I encourage other conservation photographers, indeed all photographers, to require fair payment for use of the majority of their work.
Like any product or service, giving away your work for free has both direct and indirect consequences.
If we do not then we as individuals – both as photographers in an industry, and as a species inhabiting Earth – suffer.
Let’s start with the obvious: It takes an enormous amount of time, resources, and very expensive gear to get to the locations and capture great conservation photos.
Beyond the pricey task of getting into the field, at home a photographer has all the same personal and business expenses as any other business owner. These bills are stacking up while we spend hours upon hours editing, tagging and marketing photos, researching details for upcoming expeditions, doing accounting, paying taxes, updating websites and social media accounts, pitching magazines for new assignments, and yes, working on volunteer projects.
Like any other business endeavor, there is a cost for the overhead, labor, and time spent becoming an expert. If we do not place an appropriate monetary value on the images that come back from the field, how can we expect a photographer to be able to get out to make the images?
And here’s where this gets even more serious for us all as: If the conservation photographer can’t get out into the field, we lose sight, literally, of what we need to save right now on this planet (including ourselves).
No money, no field time, no photos. But perhaps more importantly, no respect for the extraordinary work, talent and passion that goes into conservation photography, and no in-depth understanding of the environmental wrongs that we can right when we’re made aware of them.
There’s another critical angle to this issue – one made eloquently by pro conservation photographer Morgan Heim in her column in Outdoor Photography Magazine:
What’s perhaps the most egregious act in my opinion is that this contributes to a world where only those who can afford to give away images will continue to practice conservation photography, and that tends to mean wealthy, white or retired people. We then find ourselves in a deficit, both as photographers and as a movement, and more prone to telling stories from the same perspectives. Media outlets lose accountability. Do they really know how that photo was made? Does it meet journalistic standards? Is the accompanying information accurate? Will photographers know how to illustrate stories? And right now media outlets around the world have an image problem.
Every argument – and there are many – adds up to this: Expecting a professional to give away their product for free? Not cool. And when that product has conservation as the end goal? Super not cool.
We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot as a species by starving the people whose work we desperately need to make significant — scratch that, ANY progress toward conservation.
We are willing to invest money in wedding photographers and baby photographers, in commercial product photographers, hell, even to AirBNB rental photographers. We know the value of quality photography. Conservation absolutely deserves that same respect.
GETTING OUT TO LOCATION TAKES A GOOD DEAL OF TIME, ENERGY, RESOURCES, EQUIPMENT AND COMMITMENT. THE IMAGES THAT COME BACK FROM WORK IN THE FIELD ARE A PRODUCT OF HARD WORK AND SKILL, AND THE FAIR THING TO DO IS OFFER PAYMENT FOR USE OF THAT PRODUCT.
I used to make this argument while feeling some level of guilt, so I’d mention all the volunteer photography work I already do to those I’m turning down for free images.
I felt some need to prove I was a good person even while trying to be a business person. But you know what? My volunteer work is my business, and charging for my work is just simply not something I need to justify.
While many, if not most conservation photographers volunteer time and energy to the causes they photograph, they can’t exist on praise alone. There has to be some financial compensation, even from nonprofit groups.
Speaking of nonprofit groups…
It is assumed that conservation organizations are small, struggling nonprofits doing the grunt work to save species and habitats. There are a good deal of these small organizations out there who need what help they can get.
But there are also a good many conservation organizations that are pulling in tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars a year in donations.
Many of these can easily afford to pay photographers, and the investment of high quality images to use on their websites, in their social media posts, in their newsletters and lectures and billboards adds up to bigger donations.
Those who can afford to pay, even a small amount, should. Even if it is just a token amount to say, “We recognize this is of value, though this is all we can afford to give you.”
In the case of a nonprofit with a shoestring budget, it is an in-kind exchange by providing the photographer access to exclusive or restricted areas to photograph, to create images which the photographer can then sell to others. Something of financial value should be offered because it’s the fair thing to do, and because it’s the only way to guarantee there will be truly committed, talented people out in the field working to bring back beautiful, compelling, heartbreaking imagery telling the true story of the state of the world.
We are a visual species. People protect what they can see. That makes the work photographers and videographers do vitally important to the conservation movement. It is something that should be valued, work that should be compensated.
If you’re still feeling uncertain about charging for your work, I’m adding in the thoughts from several conservation professionals at the end of this article. Meanwhile, I’m hoping I’ve convinced you of the need to charge for your images – no matter where you are in your career.
CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE PEOPLE WITH A DEEP KNOWLEDGE NOT ONLY OF HOW TO USE A CAMERA BUT ALSO OUR SUBJECTS – THE PLANTS, ANIMALS, PEOPLE AND PLACES WE PHOTOGRAPH. IT IS OUR JOB TO BE AT THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME TO CAPTURE IMAGES THAT WILL MAKE PEOPLE THINK, CHANGE PEOPLE'S MINDS, ALTER THEIR ACTIONS. IT IS A JOB WITH A SKILL SET, AND ONE THAT DESERVES A PAYCHECK.
So, let’s talk about HOW to respond to requests for free images.
Here is my approach:
1. Respond to requests for images with the assumption that the requester is open to paying for your work.
Many times, the requester won’t even write back once they realize you expect payment, which quickly weeds out anyone incorrectly assuming they’ll get your image for free.
2. If the requester replies with willingness to pay, then simply decide on terms, send a licensing agreement, collect payment, and celebrate.
3. If the requester replies without willingness to pay, send off a quick “thanks but no thanks” note and be done.
Continuing the conversation just takes up valuable time you can be spending responding to paying clients.
And if they come back with “payment” being exposure, remember this: Exposure doesn’t work. Pretty much ZERO paying clients come to you thanks to “exposure.”
4. If the requester genuinely doesn’t have a budget for images, and you feel the image use will be a good fit and are open for trade, figure out a reasonable in-kind value.
This might be ad space on their site for a few months or in their publication for a few issues. If they have a large social media following, you might ask to do a take-over to gain followers on your own accounts. There’s a broad range of possible trades that could work out so both of you win.
Propose the trade, but be willing to walk away if necessary.
5. Feel strong and solid about your assertion to be paid for your work. You’re a business person with an expertise, and your images are of value. Never second-guess that.
That last one might be the toughest to remember. There’s certainly an amount of fear and guilt that goes into passing up a request. Guilt because you know you have the resources they need to do their best work, because images are always essential. And fear because closing any door is always a bit scary, especially when you don’t know where the next paycheck is coming from.
Want some examples of exactly what to say in these situations? I made you a swipe file. You can cut-n-paste the emails I created for you, or use them as a template for crafting your own cut-n-paste responses. Having these ready to go is a great time saver.
I understand that many people (mostly hobbyists) want to do good by putting their images in the creative commons. But doing so dilutes the importance of what we do, weakens the statement that photography — really good photography that people can connect with — is of value and those people making the images should be financially compensated for the incredible work that went into capturing that moment, that scene, that threat or that thing deserving of being saved.
Ultimately it comes down to this: Pay the photographer, save the world.
I’m not alone in this view. I have asked several of my colleagues in conservation photography, whose work and ethics I deeply respect, for their take on the issue. Here is what they have to say.
Put simply, you get paid because it's a job. Yes, we are super passionate about conservation. But it's still a job. It's more than that. It's my livelihood, my calling. There is no part-time or on-the-side, or a hobby that I want to feel good about. I do this every day of the year. Day and night. I leave my family for it. I fly into the unknown, travel hostile territory, risk health and injury for it. It's a job because I can in a moment drop everything and get into a story when that story matters most, not when I happen to be on vacation. Conservation efforts take full-time commitment, and I basically eat, drink and dream conservation. But I still have to get paid. There's nothing wrong with getting paid for this work. It's a skill. Storytelling is a skill. Being willing and able to gain access, exercise special photography techniques, travel to sometimes dangerous and risky situations to do this work are skills. And they cost a lot of time and money to do well. Paying for work means conservation partners can go deep on important issues and tackle them thoughtfully when they arise. A photographer on vacation, or who happened to stop by might get some pretty nature images, but they aren't going to tell the story. The staff person who snapped some pics when they thought of it in between all of their other jobs, aren't going to get the story. They are the story! Doing this job takes focus, and that's what we bring. We bring focus, and depth, and professionalism. We showcase beauty, the unimagined, the awe, the horror, the heart of what these conservationists dedicate their lives to. It is not a hobby. It is a calling. It is something we do everyday. It's a skilled trade that deserves compensation, plain and simple.
Alexandra Garcia, former Executive Director of International League of Conservation Photographers
Conservation groups pay for the paper their annual reports are printed on, they pay the printers, they pay the graphic designers, and the copywriters. Why then is there an expectation that the images that such a report is built around, or a website, or other use, should be given for free?
All along the value chain of producing print and web collateral to promote a cause, issue or news piece, the standard is to pay the providers; why should images be any different? Some groups may say they get some of these services donated – but in this case it is again like the above: they have a specific relationship with a particular provider for donated services because they have nurtured these relationships with them as donors. They can't call up any random provider and ask for free services just because they are a non-profit.
Photographers who do give all their materials for free are ultimately undermining the industry as a whole and making it very difficult for young photographers to be able to look at this as a career or profession.
Furthermore and ironically, while it is understandable, especially for young photographers, to give away images in order to get their images in print and start to make a name for themselves, five or ten years down the road, when making a living at photography means the ability to license for income, it is hard to go back to those same groups and say, “Now please pay me”. Earlier practice has set the precedent and and reinforces the notion with non-profit groups and small publications that they don’t need to pay for imagery.
Donald Quintana, Photographer
Here’s a fun thought. I think it begins with the adage, “A photo is worth a thousand words.” Last time I checked with a publication, and I’ll use High Country News as an example, they pay well per word for writers. This is from their submission guidelines: “We divide submissions into front-of-book stories (500 to 1,600 words) and features (2,400 words and up). We pay on publication, between $0.50 and $1.50 per word, depending on the writer’s experience and our experience with the writer.” So how much would a photo be worth? If a photo is worth a thousand words then at $.50 per word, the price of a photo would be $500.00. At $1.50 per word, the price would be $1500.00 for a photo. But we all know we aren’t going to get that. High Country News does pay for images though, and I am grateful for that!
Another thought, even the best of writers cannot accurately describe the horrors that befall environmental disasters, It’s one thing to describe how an oil spill destroys habitat, kills animals, and wreaks havoc; it’s another to be able to see the damage with your own eyes. Only being there in person or looking at a well-captured image can do that.
It drives me crazy to hear someone talk about this billboard, article, ad, essay, etc that they want to do that represents some idea they have. But in order to fully convey the feeling of being there, they would like some free photos. It is essential that, in order for them to fully communicate the total experience for the reader, they use visuals — yet for some reason they feel that these essential elements of story-telling be made free. I still don’t get it.
How do you sell a resort vacation without showing how amazing the resort is? How do you save the rain forest without showing the loss, damage, etc? Out of sight, out of mind. Images need to be in sight to make a change.
There is also the thought that if you are on board with saving the rain forest, etc. then wouldn’t you want to donate your images to save it? Isn’t what really matters is that you are saving the rain forest? So give away your images for a good cause! It should give you a warm fuzzy feeling to be able to contribute to the greater good of saving mankind! Last time I checked, even us liberal tree-hugging hippie types can’t buy very much granola with warm fuzzy feelings!
Neil Aldridge, Photographer
I did not just wake up one day and decide I wanted to be a conservation photographer. I have invested heavily in my own time and money, and I have made huge personal sacrifices. I have forfeited any savings to afford £20,000 worth of camera equipment. I have paid my way through two university degrees and my professional wildlife guiding qualifications. I volunteered my time for free just to get my foot in the door of the conservation sector, where I then worked for a salary half of what I could have got in another sector or in a big city.
By the time I took the step to become a professional conservation photographer, I had invested ten years of my life in preparing and close to £50,000 of my own money in equipment and training.
That, to me, is my biggest contribution to conservation and I don't want anyone to pay me back for it. I simply want to earn enough now as a fully fledged professional to be able to survive and continue photographing the natural world.
If I was to now give my work away for free, I would not be able to afford to continue using my work for conservation, and conservation would lose a life-long advocate and fighter. I'm good at other things. But I'm at my best with a camera in my hands and a cause in my heart.
I will sometimes give a photograph away for no financial return, but there must always be something in return. Mostly access. Access to sites, species, research, people. But I only do this occasionally for certain NGOs that I know well.
I consider myself a conservationist first and a photographer second. That said, I strongly believe that conservation groups should allocate sufficient budget to compensate professional photographers for their work.
The culture of expecting all imagery for free undermines the ability of many photographers to make a living, and undercuts the profession as a whole. Visual storytelling is so integral to the ability of conservation groups to communicate their work and raise support that sourcing strong imagery should be incorporated into any effective communications strategy and budget.
In my opinion, it is the prerogative of those in a position to provide images to conservation groups for free to do so. I have allowed my images to be used for free to advance a worthy cause championed by a local NGO. But in no way does it mean that all photographer are, or should be, in a position to do the same, and there should not be an implicit assumption that images are available for free. I think it is fair to offer something other than financial compensation in exchange for images, if the trade is mutually agreeable, but it is extremely patronizing to assume that photographers will be thrilled to give their images for free in exchange for “exposure”.
I have worked for conservation NGOs for the past decade, and I have without fail been paid for my work (aside from when I have taken on a personal crusade!). Everybody has the right to expect to be paid for their work. For some reason we often expect those in more creative professions to provide their work for free regardless of skills and experience. Imagine asking an established lawyer for a freebie in exchange for a shout out on Facebook. I'm not sure many lawyers would go for that. Photographers shouldn't be expected to either.
Clay Bolt, Photographer
People often assume that because you are passionate about conserving nature that you should give your images away freely to support the cause. What they don't realize is that a powerful image often comes as the result of months of planning, time spent in the scorching sun, hours in a blind, time away from family, or in a dangerous part of the world. This doesn't include the thousands of hours of practice and training that is required to learn how to shoot in these difficult conditions and walk away with a strong photo.
Yes, I believe in the greater good, but I also believe in eating on occasion as well. In addition, less time being paid for conservation related photography means more time spent taking on work that does pay, which often includes corporate clients. It can be a very frustrating cycle.
I do donate my images to causes from time-to-time for causes that I can about, but generally speaking, a credit line doesn't do much more for me than lead to another opportunity to give away more work for free.
Gaston Lacombe, Photographer
My general rule of thumb is to ask if anyone is getting paid for this project. If everyone is working for free, then I am happy to volunteer my work as well. But, if anyone is getting paid, I expect to be paid as well.
Of course there are always a few exceptions, and I am willing to trade (not donate) my pictures with some organizations or causes I am particularly passionate about. By “trade” I mean that we both get some good out of it.
For example, the organization get photos for free, but they give me particular access that I wouldn't otherwise have, for example, and give me releases so I can use the photos for stock or other purposes.
Basically, I'm glad to support some causes, but I also need to support myself, and I always find a way to benefit from it. Just donating photos with nothing in return is professional suicide.