June 25, 2013 · 10 comments

7-640-695  stock photo of Greece, Athens, Acropolis, Tourist photographing the Porch of the Caryatids, Erectheion

When I started out in photography the career path was well-defined, thanks to the business counsel of ASMP and quite a few years of tradition. You developed your best possible work, created a portfolio, showed it around and little by little you’d get assignments, building a reputation and a body of published work. Contacts were editors, designers, art directors who produced printed material for ultimate distribution to readers, subscribers, shareholders and consumers. Aside from the occasional fine art print sale, or workshop, I rarely knew the people who finally enjoyed my work (and paid for it when all was said and done).

Today, with the internet, everything has changed. Everything.

Ordinary users still read stories, news and features, and books, but they do so online. Yet, with smartphones, their experience of photography is no longer mainly passive. They share everyday experiences, images shot on the fly, holiday scenes, parties and baby portraits using the same internet that also distributes carefully crafted images by pro shooters.

The practice of sharing images is not new. When I was in college we cut photos out of magazines and pinned them to dorm-room walls along with postcards and our own snapshots and polaroids. Today’s dorm-room wall is social media, the function is identical. We show things we like to our friends, both personal images and things we have seen and heard online.

It is the basic technology of the internet that underlies this profound change, not any conscious decision or moral failure.

Pro photographers are often distressed by this public sharing. They view everyday users in the same light as the editors and art directors they are used to working with, as people who need to license their images before they publish them. But the public isn’t interested in commercial publishing, just sharing with friends. Even if the theoretical audience is millions, the practical audience is often just a handful of friends, especially in social media where new posts sink quickly.

To make sense of this new regime I think it’s best for photographers to see user sharing of their work not as a threat but as an opportunity. One could do worse than have thousands of people like your images. The challenge is to find ways to build their audience, leverage their popularity and invent business models for direct photographer-consumer interaction.

Traditional photographer-editor licensing will continue in commercial publishing and advertising. And to be sure there will be cases where a line must be drawn. But sharing is here to stay. We must adapt.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Svein Wisnaes July 21, 2013 at 2:11 pm

It is actually quite simple. Use Creative Commons. The license I am using for my images now is CC BY-NC which simply means that anyone can share it and use the images as long as it is not in a commercial setting. And commercial here covers everything where you get support to pay for your expenses. So a blog that has ads is commercial, even if they don’t make a profit. The same is any no-for-profit organization.

But if someone wants to download my images and use it as a desktop background on their computer, they are welcome to do so. Or if they want to share it on Facebook or anywhere else.

The only thing I ask for is that my name is published with the picture and that there is a link back to me.

But in general, we can not keep chasing innocent sharing of images. But we can enjoy the fact that people like what we do (not that I am in any way in your league, David!).


2 Paul Watson July 8, 2013 at 11:41 am

Non-commercial sharing of my work doesn’t really bother me, although I get a bit annoyed if the person hasn’t attributed the artwork to me, and usually email them politely (that’s politely, not passive-aggressively) asking if they could add my name and possibly a link. The reason I don’t get bothered by non-commercial sharing is that there’s no lost sale – no one posting a jpeg of one of my works on Facebook/a blog/etc would ever have paid me money to do so. Commercial use is a completely different matter, though.

I noticed recently that photographer Ellen Rogers has a whole subdomain dedicated to bloggable images – – that is, images of her artwork specifically for sharing with the following text:

“This site is for all the lovely people out there in the blogoshpere who
need to quickly find the photos they want to use on their blog. My
images seem to find themselves with all sorts of strange crops and edits
from blog to blog. I know I’m partly to blame for having had such an
awkward website in the past but if you could find the time to download
the images from here and use them on your blogs I’d be very grateful.
Thank you, Ellen.”

She’s obviously decided that there’s more to be gained from encouraging sharing than trying (probably in vain) to restrict it.


3 Mitch Labuda June 26, 2013 at 4:48 am

It’s not just photographers. Artists of all types react to sharing of works, mostly it seems because of not understanding copyright and the rights granted to us, which puts the onus on us to protect our works and many see social media sites as the bad guys, because they “encourage” sharing, when the user signs an agreement to share properly.

We also would share music by making copies of cassette tapes, now, we share MP3’s, so, like you mentioned, it’s nothing new.


4 David Sanger July 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm

However I think each medium has different characteristics. Part of what I am coming to think though is that copyright as currently structured works well for controlling the reproduction of physical artifacts but in some cases is misplaced, ineffective or miscast for digital uses, not the commercial usages of course, but the personal or incidental usages. It will take time to sort out.


5 Mitch Labuda July 4, 2013 at 5:14 am

The control rests with me. I own the image, and I can keep tabs on the image and allow it to be shared, or disallow or file a suit for damages if used for other reasons.

Copyright laws never stopped people from making copies of music, on tapes or CD’s.

It’s a right granted to us and as well, the requirement for us to enforce our rights.


6 lokey December 10, 2013 at 9:24 am

its an absurd thing to insist on, not only practically, but morally. If you want to maintain ownership of an idea, then you need to keep it to yourself. But you cant go around displaying and describing your art and ideas, then react negatively when people take your art and ideas and reproduce and reinterpret them: it becomes a living beast, wild and free. The requirement to enforce your rights should be a red flag, as it is a costly, wasteful and ultimately doomed pursuit based on a flawed view of how a single individual fits into the world. Create, profit from that creation, but dont do it under the assumption that you can maintain control over your creations.


7 jimgoldstein June 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Well put David. Now I must share.


8 David Sanger June 25, 2013 at 11:17 pm

yes please do.. I expect some pushback from photographers…. and there’s more in the pipeline


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