Unsplash is a free website to download and upload photos, and I’m an enthusiastic contributor. In this article, I want to outline why I use the site and why you might enjoy contributing as well.
When you upload a photo to Unsplash, you’re giving anyone in the world permission to download and use your photo for virtually any purpose without even giving you credit.
This might sound like a bad deal! But there are fantastic benefits that come with giving.
First, let’s discuss a few frequently asked questions about Unsplash.
What do people use Unsplash photos for?
People use Unsplash photos as:
- Reference images
- Blog post featured images
- Marketing images, typically used alongside custom branded content
Where can I find Unsplash photos for my projects?
Click on the category pages inside Unsplash’s main menu. You’ll see categories for Current Events, Wallpapers, 3D Renders, Textures & Patterns, and more. You can also follow photographers and see their photos in your own customized feed.
How many people use Unsplash?
Unsplash has over 4 million photos from 300k contributing photographers. Images on Unsplash have received more than 800 billion views and 4 billion downloads.
Are there really no limitations on how I can use Unsplash images?
There is one noteworthy stipulation in the Unsplash license: You cannot “sell copies of photos” you download from Unsplash “without first significantly or meaningfully updating […] or incorporating new creative elements”.
So you can’t simply download 100 photos, launch a gallery website, and sell unaltered photo prints. And you can’t make minimal changes and then sell t-shirts and iPhone cases with the photos you downloaded.
If you’d like to review other limitations, you can read the Terms & Conditions.
What are the upload limits on Unsplash?
Unsplash has reduced upload limits over the years.
When you start an account you can upload 10 photos. After your images are approved, you’ll most likely be allowed to upload 100 photos per day. (An algorithm determines the exact quantity based on your image quality.)
So, in short, I wouldn’t worry about upload limits.
What are the quality standards on Unsplash?
Unsplash submission guidelines state that your photos must be at least 2,500 x 2,500 pixels. They can be original photos or 3D renders. (Composite art, screenshots, and photos of flat artwork are not accepted.)
Unsplash invites contributors to experiment with editing and filtration, but they may reject a submission for heavy vignetting, oversaturation, or excessive manipulation. For example, you can’t isolate one color in a black-and-white image or publish a fantasy composition you made in Photoshop. Definitely do not add borders, graphics, text, or watermarks to your images. And do not submit an image multiple times with different crops or editing settings.
While Unsplash will accept sensual images, they don’t allow nudity or violent images. This keeps the platform accessible to a wide audience.
Street photography is allowed. However, if you’re uploading an image of someone who could be recognized, it’s best practice to ask for consent and permission.
Where can I upload images?
Now let’s get to the main topic at hand:
Why should I share photos for free?
I’ve put together a list of 15 reasons that sum up my thoughts and the sentiments of other Unsplash contributors. This way, you can determine for yourself whether making your images open source would benefit you.
1. Photography is more fun when people see your work.
Few creatives thrive in a vacuum like Emily Dickensen. Most of us want people to see our work, respond to it, give us constructive feedback, and share encouragement.
Just having a community appreciate your work can be massively motivating. Unsplash takes this a step further. By letting you see who likes your photos and who uses them, you can pinpoint what images resonate with people and what subjects are in demand.
When photography is more fun, you’re far more likely to spend more time taking photos, improve your creativity, and produce better work.
2. You’ll boost your confidence.
If you feel like you’re not ready to build a website or charge clients, Unsplash is a great place to build your portfolio and your online reputation.
Your Unsplash account can serve as your initial portfolio – something you can show people whenever you discuss a potential photoshoot. If you create a Google Business Profile, you can link to Unsplash as your website until you’re ready to build a custom site.
“Unsplahser” Nathan Anderson says that engaging on Unsplash pushed him to experiment, including with drone photography. Nathan felt that having a meaningful audience for his photos helped him develop confidence. He wrote:
“I wanted to push myself to take more photos and, as importantly, do something with my photos. Unsplash turned me into a photographer. I would’ve never called myself one a year ago, and I’m happy to call myself one now.”
Rapid exposure to a massive audience can give you a huge confidence boost. After a month on the site, and after uploading just over 100 photos, I found that 11,000 people were viewing my images every day, and 110 people were downloading my images every day. Other bloggers have shared similar numbers.
3. You’ll get inspired to be a better photographer.
Click on any image on Unsplash. Now scroll down and you’ll see other images similar to it taken by other artists.
This is a phenomenal way to get inspiration for alternative ways to shoot a subject!
For example, check out this photo of a boba tea I uploaded. When I scroll down, I can now see more impressive ways that I could potentially stage, compose, light, decorate, and color correct a similar shot in the future.
While my shot isn’t bad, I can now get ideas for how I could take a more eye-catching shot – perhaps one that gets 5,000 downloads instead of 40.
To help photographers exchange ideas and share feedback, Unsplash also has a Slack channel where photographers can converse.
4. People will see your website and social media.
Unsplash lets you customize a 250-character bio and share links to your website, Instagram, and Twitter.
This profile information gives your online platforms enormous visibility. Photographers take advantage of this by using their websites and social accounts to promote their:
- Lightroom presets
- Online courses
- Photography services
- Other professional services
5. You can get hired for jobs in your niche.
Unlike on Instagram and Flickr, most Unsplash users aren’t just browsing for fun. Unsplash has a unique value proposition that attracts purpose oriented visitors who often have a budget for their projects.
The most obvious monetary benefit of publishing on Unsplash is that companies can discover your work and then hire you to produce similar work for their brands or their clients’ brands.
To connect clients with photographers, Unsplash allows contributors to activate an “Available for Hire” button. When a visitor clicks this button, a popup will allow them to send you a 2,000-character message. (To help photographers avoid spam, Unsplash flags when a user sends the same message over and over again.)
When you fearlessly publish high quality work without worrying about getting credit or earning money, great opportunities can come back to you.
Here are some examples.
- Do you enjoy portraits? Connect with models in your local area to get free shots for your portfolio. Then tag your location on your Unsplash page so locals can see your portraits and hire you.
- Are you into hiking and camping? Take some shots of your adventures and camping gear. If your pictures stand out, outdoor brands might offer you free gear in exchange for you posting photos of their products.
- Do you enjoy landscape photography? Share your collection on Unsplash to draw attention to your work. Then you can sell epic sized prints on your website.
- Visiting an Airbnb? Take photos and post them on Unsplash. Now Airbnb owners or managers, as well as local realtors, can get in touch with you if they need photos for Airbnb listings or real estate.
- Do you ever shoot event photos for a friend’s graduation, engagement, wedding, or newborn? Post your pictures on Unsplash (with their permission) and you’ll have a portfolio so you can charge clients for similar shoots.
- Are you a designer, illustrator or visual artist? Post your lifestyle photos on Unsplash, link to your website in your bio, and enjoy free traffic to your website from agencies who notice your aesthetic.
- Do you enjoy product photography? Shoot everyday subjects and share them on Unsplash. An agency just might hire you to shoot photos for prestigious brands.
- Do you like taking branding photos of stores, food, products, and more? Publish on Unsplash to gain more exposure for the brands you shoot for, then showcase your projects on your website to prove your abilities (even if you’re not being paid yet).
- Do you shoot destination weddings in Hawaii? Post your best shots of the island, then link to your website to attract potential clients.
- Are you interested in exterior photography? Shoot some exteriors around your city, upload them to Unsplash, tag your location, link to a professional gallery in your bio, then contact local ad agencies to see if any of their clients could use similar photos.
6. You can grow your following.
Unsplash is a launching platform with ample opportunities for people to discover you. By launching on Unsplash, you’re potentially expanding your network to millions of people.
On Instagram, Unsplash features contributors’ photos and profile links. On Twitter, Unsplash links out directly to contributors’ Twitter profiles and Unsplash profiles.
Some people pay hundreds of dollars for social media promotion from accounts with this many followers!
As a high traffic website, Unsplash.com itself acts as free advertising for your work. A visitor might discover one of your images, click through to your profile, then visit your social media and follow you so they can see more of your work.
7. Your images will be seen.
Unsplash is integrated in services like Google Slides, Prezi, Medium, Buzzfeed, Trello, Figma, Squarespace, Wix, Affinity Photo, and Dropbox.
With so much exposure, your photos can show up on websites, blogs, and even offline places like print ads and billboards.
To help the right people find your photos, Unsplash has both AI and manual tagging systems. To get the most out of this system, consider this example photo.
The AI tagging system does a great job of identifying the subject and details. Unsplash will automatically add hidden tags like: book, cup, coffee cup, beverage, drink, latte, newspaper, text. (Currently hidden tags do not display in the interface.)
You can increase the reach of your photos by manually adding tags that the AI missed. Try adding tags that are subjective, symbolic, or evocative. These tags might include: morning routine, latte art, coffee shop, pastime, hobby, relaxed, simple pleasures.
You can also add a caption and tag your location on every image to maximize exposure.
8. You’ll learn how to create marketable images.
To learn what subjects people are searching for, visit the Unsplash Trends page. If you choose, you can shoot images to target specific trends, or you can add trending tags to your existing photos when appropriate.
Photographer Dominik Vanyi recommends shooting subjects that are underrepresented. He observed that of his top 6 photos, the one with the most downloads was a shot of tractors mining in Indonesia. This image had fewer views than his other top images, but it depicted a subject that is hard to find. People who need photos of mining operations just don’t have a lot of options, so they’re more likely to download his photo.
To set your images apart from generic stock photography, Unsplash recommends contributors evoke a mood. You can use all the tools of photography to accomplish this including unique perspectives, posing, framing, and color use.
9. You can see who’s using your images.
I like to know where my images are used for personal satisfaction, to better understand what images have commercial value, and to see what images connect with people. This helps me take better photos that are more relevant and useful for people.
I recommend creating a Google Alert for your name. This is an intuitive, 3-minute process. If you need any help, Google offers simple instructions on how to create an alert, edit an alert, and delete an alert.
Once you have Google Alerts set up, you’ll sometimes get emails from Google announcing when someone credits you for a photo.
A lot of websites won’t credit you, so you won’t be able to discover all the instances your photos are used through Google Alerts alone. An easy way to see additional use cases of your work is to put together a folder on your computer of your most downloaded images, then run a Google Images search for each image using the “search by image” feature. This technique will pull up your images on major sites that have been indexed as well as social media like Facebook.
Your most popular photos are going to account for 80%+ of the instances where your photos are used online. This means that you don’t need to search your whole photo library. You can just search for your biggest hits to find the majority of instances where your work is used.
With this data, you can observe what types of content people are responding to. This is a powerful way to help you organically hone in on your photography niche. Over time, you can produce more work in the photography genre that aligns with both economic demand and your personal creative talents, rather than just focusing on your personal interests.
10. You might get “free” money.
Unsplash lets companies pay photographers to create sponsored photography for their brands. Sometimes this will involve the photographer shooting new branded content. Other times the client company will simply pay the photographer to rebrand existing images for their campaign.
So far, Unsplash has attracted clients with a minimum ad spend of $50k by pointing out that consumers are tired of “interruption advertising” (like commercials) and much prefer ads that are contextually relevant (like movie product placements).
In other cases, agencies reach out directly to photographers and ask to buy a RAW image or just pay a small contribution to use a particular photo. Photographers have requested anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on the context of the ad campaign, and received voluntary payments from agencies.
Agencies of course aren’t legally obligated to pay. However, paying for images helps them build relationships with photographers who they might some day want to contact for branded photoshoots.
(Another way Unsplash contributors accept money is with donation buttons. Some photographers add Buy Me a Coffee or Patreon links to their bio. However, I have yet to meet an Unsplash contributor who has made any money with this. Please, let me know if you have though.)
11. You can give back.
If you’ve created websites, videos, presentations, blog posts, and other media for clients, then you’ve probably visited Unsplash and downloaded photos for your projects. In fact, since much of the Internet was built on freely licensed projects, most of our lives actually rely on open source.
After utilizing other people’s free work, it can feel great to give back to the worldwide community of creators. Licensing your photography from a service you already enjoy is a perfect way to contribute your talents.
Of course, Unsplash is not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It’s a subsidiary of Getty Images. So, some photographers reasonably feel that they don’t want to share their work for free in a way that benefits a publicly traded company. That’s a valid viewpoint.
However, your photos do not become the property of Unsplash. They become available freely to the world. Unsplash is building a business around curating and sharing photography – helping artists distribute their work, gain exposure, and get hired for paid work – while helping individuals and businesses gain free access to breathtaking images.
One perk of Unsplash’s for-profit structure is that it doesn’t rely on donations to maintain its servers and host millions of high resolution images. If you’ve ever found Wikipedia’s donation messages annoying, then you might find a legitimate benefit in using a great service without the obligation to keep a nonprofit afloat.
12. You’ll increase the value of your work.
Many people believe that giving away photos will devalue their work. They believe that as something becomes “free,” fewer people will be willing to pay for it.
However, if people haven’t seen your photography, then they aren’t paying much for it to begin with. Exposing your work to a mass audience, then, can actually increase its value. As your work spreads online, more people, brands, and agencies will notice you and consider commissioning you for custom projects.
“An image has value because someone has a use for it. It has absolutely no value if it’s sitting uselessly on my hard drive or if it’s just on social media waiting to get liked.”
It’s also important to remember, businesses and individuals often give away resources. But just because something is given, doesn’t mean it has no value. In many cases, when you give, you get something back.
Donations are “free contributions” to society. You don’t get anything directly out of a donation. But you do get psychic satisfaction from doing your part or helping others.
Advertising is “free communication.” Advertisers write ebooks, publish videos, write blogs, and do other activities that don’t directly create income. But advertising activities often lead to people discovering you, liking you, talking about you, and hiring you.
Stock photo sales are rare and getting smaller every year. For many photographers, the value of a thank-you email from an Unsplash user, or just seeing the number of people using their work, is far more satisfying than the occasional $0.10 royalty from Shutterstock or iStock.
13. You can be as competitive as you like.
Unsplash has fewer social signals than platforms like Instagram. You just see the number of views and downloads on an image. When you visit a profile, you don’t see the number of followers someone has or the number of likes they’ve received on a picture.
This allows you to appreciate other artists without feeling “inferior” or like you need to compete.
Unsplash has a stats feature that allows you to see how many views and downloads each of your images receives. This page lets you be competitive with yourself. If you want to grow your reach, you can observe what images are connecting with people and then step up your game to create images that get more attention.
You can ask yourself dozens of questions to improve your creative thought process. For example:
- What subjects are most useful for people?
- What kind of lighting or photographic effects are drawing people into my photos?
- What types of compositions are people responding to?
- What filters do people enjoy most on these types of images?
- What genre do I enjoy shooting that also appears to have commercial applications?
14. You’ll travel more.
The pursuit of new images – unique from anything you’ve captured before – can be addicting.
You see other contributors’ photos and immediately feel, “I have to go there!” You want to see the scenery, people, wildlife, and phenomena depicted, and you want to see how you would capture it differently.
Traveling is a fantastic time to take photos. On a good day in a new place, I can take more photos than I do in a month when I’m at home.
Just taking your professional camera, and knowing you have it on you, can encourage you to look more carefully at the environment around you.
You’ll notice more details. You’ll think about the most spectacular angle to view a site. You’ll capture awesome images to remember your trip. And you’ll get to share your experiences with millions of people around the world.
15. You’ll extend the life of your images.
Unlike social media, Unsplash gives your photos more than a half second of fame. Unsplash images live on for a long time because people use them.
Having your images on a massive database, and on hundreds of other websites all over the world, increases the odds of your images surviving and being seen by people years into the future.
It seems somewhat sad to me that when a person dies, their photos often become irrelevant to the people who inherit them. Sometimes they’re discarded quickly. Other times they’re put in a box, passed down, and then eventually dumped.
Perhaps you want to leave behind a photographic legacy of your travels, memories, experiences, and creativity. Publishing your work in a public medium so that anyone can access it and share it creates an opportunity for people to discover and appreciate what you’ve created for years into the future.
For the foreseeable future, Unsplash will provide free hosting for your images, perhaps even after you’re gone and your Dropbox and iCloud subscriptions lapse.
You may not want to give your work away for free, and that’s ok.
Hopefully I’ve shown that whether you’re an amateur or professional photographer, you can get something out of giving.
If your photos are just sitting in your cloud, are they doing any good for yourself or your company? If you haven’t seen any meaningful royalties from Shutterstock or iStock lately, would you prefer the psychic and promotional benefits of giving your work away?
You can always try uploading some images and see how it goes. If you don’t get anything out of it, you can stop uploading. But if you enjoy it, you can keep going, and see how far Unsplash takes you.