Retired, that is, from hiring myself out as a photographer, selling my photos as prints, and marketing them as stock images.
More on that in a moment.
Here’s the new plan: I’m going to make my photos available to everyone, at no cost, under a Creative Commons license.
Millions of content creators have been using Creative Commons licenses for the last twenty years to share their music, photos, illustrations, graphics and other works with the world. I appreciate the fact that I’ve been able incorporate Creative Commons licensed music in several of my video projects. If my photographs can be put to some constructive use by writers, artists and educators, then I prefer to pursue that option rather than simply leaving them locked on a hard drive until I die.
Take a moment to read the terms of the CC BY-SA 4.0 license that I use, then follow this link to view all of my Wikimedia Commons uploads to date. There you can download, embed or share any image you choose.
If you’re keen on one of my photos that you’ve seen before but it’s not in this collection yet, just let me know and I’ll move it to the top of the list. Bear in mind that I very recently started this project, and only 160 images have been uploaded thus far. With thousands and thousands of photos in my library (and thousands more yet to be taken), adding all of this material to the Commons is a process that will take years to complete, as each file needs to have keywords manually added to the metadata.
By the way, if you’ve ever appeared in any of my photos, note that I will not be making those images available via Wikimedia Commons unless you are in silhouette or your face is otherwise invisible. Also, I’ll refrain from uploading any of my experimental and abstract film images, such as double exposures, souped films and collaborations. Though I may occasionally play with 35mm film in that manner, I want the Commons uploads to focus on the more straightforward photographs in my catalog—those that are potentially useful to people who need a photo to illustrate an article, a book, a website, etc.
Speaking of useful, I’ve recently taken steps to purge material and accounts from platforms whose time has passed; I’m after a more targeted approach to sharing my photos and videos. And, with my retirement from the financial side of photography, the website ridingwithcarl.com is no longer needed; it has been deactivated. The links to my remaining online content can be found at the end of this post.
So why walk away from print and stock sales? Why give my images away for free?
Because the days of photographs having financial value are over…or very soon to be so.
First, let me say that there’s no heartbreak or sour grapes at play here. My motivation to shoot remains as it was when I started in 1976—simply for the love of it. I never aspired to a career as a professional photographer, nor did I expect to live like a king on stock photo royalties. The few paid shooting jobs I took on over the years, the attempt at selling prints and merchandise, my sojourn into the world of stock photography…these were merely experiments with potential sources of supplemental income.
It should also be known that I’ve never been good at—and never cared for—selling myself (i.e., promoting my goods and services). But more than that, my lack of enthusiasm for photography as path to income has always been a defense against contamination from the stress that comes with shooting to meet the customer’s expectations. True professional photographers can manage that; I’m not wired for it. And I did not want to assume the risk that that stress might diminish my motivation to continue shooting for my own pleasure. So the photo gigs I accepted and the images I marketed were those that suited my taste and expectations. That didn’t fly for print sales, but it did turn out well for selling stock images…while the party lasted, that is.
“Print is dead.”
~ Egon Spengler, Ph.D.
I’ll wager that few of you reading this post ever shop online for photographic prints to hang on your walls as art. Yes, I’m still a believer in analog superiority; music sounds better on vinyl and photographs look better printed on high-quality paper. But we’ve all become used to viewing photos on screens, and unless everyone you know visits your home regularly, digital files are clearly the best method of sharing images with your friends. If you do have photographs hanging on your walls, they’re likely photos of family members or events from your life, rather than something you purchased online.
As for the prints that are being sold as wall art, most of those end up not in homes but in offices, lobbies, waiting rooms, hotels, restaurants, and so on. These buyers are typically interested in stuff from the fine art genre; you’ve seen these images…dark and mystical forests, long exposures of waterfalls, macro photos of exotic flowers, narrow streets in tiny Mediterranean towns, etc. There’s also love for the fantasy genre, as I call it…images heavily photoshopped to the point of distorting reality; stuff that’s more akin to digital art than photography.
I know photographers who work in these genres, who are very skilled at their craft, and are making money doing it. I’m not trying to be dismissive of these photography styles, and I’m glad these people have found success. I’m just stating that I have no interest in creating such work. My bag has always been realism—capturing a brief slice of time and space that I was there to witness, then posting it without embellishment. And as my experiment confirmed, realism doesn’t sell prints.
During those five years when I had an account at Fine Art America—with around 660 images available for purchase—I think I sold about 10 prints…and all of those were bought by family members. Frankly, this came as no surprise. Having seen countless prints hanging on countless walls in public places, I knew going in that my reality-based images were not going to break any sales records. So, a failed experiment, but one that I felt was worth a try.
Would I change my photography style and the subjects I shoot just to gain sales? No. If I’m not being true to my own eye for the process, the activity becomes pointless.
There are two aspects of fine art and fantasy imagery that prevent me from attempting such work. One is that these styles involve a considerable amount of computer time, manipulating and—often to a great extent—creating the image. Popular techniques used in fine art photography include multi-exposure focus stacking and exposure stacking. Aside from my double-exposure collaborations with friends, all of my images are captured with a single click of the shutter. The software component of digital photography has always felt chore-like and tedious to me, and I don’t like staring at screens for extended periods.
The other relates to the philosophy that prevailed back when I started, when film was the only game in town: “Getting it right in the camera” means taking the time to perfect your composition and your exposure settings before releasing the shutter, yielding an image that is the best it can possibly be with little or no need for touchup after the fact. The advent of DSLRs and editing software brought along the temptation to bypass that traditional process by allowing a shooter to quickly rattle off dozens of shots, pick the best one, then dress it up with Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.
Even with my DSLR, I still try to “get it right” and keep my shutter count low on each shoot (though I’m not always successful). But my problem with digital shortcuts has nothing to do with purism or seeing them as a slap in the face to tradition; it’s the fact that they suck so much of the fun out of photography. When I look at one of my images—old or new—I’m not only savoring the view, I’m also remembering everything that went into getting that shot. I can recall the weather that day, my mood, conversations with friends who were there, the successes and difficulties of capturing that image. It’s all of those events that take place before the shutter opens—sitting and waiting for the perfect light or for the clouds to drift into just the right position, the time invested in setting up for that one shot you’re after, the hours of driving to find the ideal location to capture the rising Harvest Moon, listening to the coyotes as you wait expectantly in the cold night air for an aurora borealis appearance—that make photography such an enjoyable pursuit. Grabbing a quick half-assed shot and then manufacturing the finished product in Photoshop…well, where’s the fun in that?
One of the many joys of shooting with film: When I get those scans back from the lab, they’re ready to share “as is”—no digital touchup required…
Kodak Portra 160 35mm film
The Stock Market
Realism did however payoff with the sale of my stock images. Photos of subjects that I enjoy shooting—wind energy, the power grid, agriculture, scenes that capture the loneliness of the Great Plains—were big movers.
When you make a stock sale, you don’t know the identity of the buyer or the intended use of the image. But targeted searching via Google has allowed me to locate many of my photos and it’s been fun finding out where they have landed. Most of them were used for online articles (you can see a few here, here and here); others found their way to websites, corporate literature, even a children’s book. (One of my photos from a paid shoot became a magazine cover…a magazine you’ve likely never seen before.)
But I was a late arrival to the stock photography market. Before digital cameras came along, stock sales belonged almost exclusively to professional photographers, and they were paid very well for their work. Then, quite quickly, we reached the point where everyone was carrying a high-quality camera in their pocket. Stock and microstock exploded over the last decade, drawing in not only hobbyists and casual shooters but non-photographers who just wanted a little extra income. The market became hypersaturated, and payout prices plummeted.
During my time in the market, I saw my commission percentages drop, just like they did for contributors across the industry (though I’m sure the decline I witnessed was nothing compared to the drop experienced by stock veterans who had been there for decades). I sold thousands of licensed images over the last five years, but toward the end, my payouts typically ranged from one to twenty-two cents per sale.
Microstock platform EyeEm filed for bankruptcy last month, after a troubled final year that saw them failing to make payouts to their contributors.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the decline and potential demise of the stock photo industry, there’s no shortage of articles available on the subject. Here’s one you can read at fstoppers.com: Is This the End of the Stock Photographer?
I chose to share this particular article because I was struck by one reader’s comment, which crystallizes the current state of affairs quite well…
“When creativity is easily democratized as it is now, there is no premium for excellence and no penalty for average. It’s just disposable stuff that anyone with a phone can get anywhere in the world for free.”
It’s hard to fathom the number of photos that humanity has generated over the last twenty years.
That fstoppers.com article mentions the entry of AI into the realm of stock photography. Will AI turn out to be the stock industry’s deathwatch beetle?
The AI-armageddon dance party is in full swing this year; no matter the type of news you follow or where you view it, you’re sure to see daily stories on this scary technology and its ability to destroy everything you love…and possibly all of humanity. Personally, I’m not losing any sleep over AI and I don’t subscribe to all of the paranoia surrounding it. But is AI a legitimate threat to stock photography? That’s certainly a reasonable assumption. Pretend you’re a buyer in need of a stock image; you can: (a) spend hours looking through thousands of files on a stock website for the best suitable photo, or (b) feed your parameters into an AI generator and let it create the perfect image for your needs in a matter of seconds. Which would you choose?
In spite of my earlier overstatement about photos no longer having financial value, the point of today’s post is not to make sweeping declarations about the death of photography as a source of income. Professional photographers will continue to work, stock images will still be bought and sold, prints that are suitable for framing will still be ordered. Shooters and digital artists will continue to make money with their craft and, despite my own retirement, I wish them success. But with the challenges that have already emerged, and new ones on the horizon, it’s logical to assume that the trend of diminishing returns will continue, and fewer photographers will survive without finding sources of supplemental income. And we’ll probably see further consolidation in the stock photo industry, as smaller outfits close their doors or get bought out by someone bigger. The stock companies with the brightest future are likely those that will find a way to embrace AI, rather than fight it.
What cannot be denied is that the world of photography has changed radically in the last two decades. I’ve known skilled professional photographers who thrived in the 1990s, then with the new century saw their livelihoods dwindle away until they were forced to switch careers. As for what lies ahead, I see no indication that photography’s rapid evolution is losing any speed.
Kodak Portra 160 35mm film
One last thought on AI…
At the moment, the thing about AI that I find most disappointing is the sad fact that our eyes can no longer be trusted. Everything is suspect. “Is this a real photo or was it faked?” As time goes on and the technology improves, it will become harder and eventually impossible to tell.
Though my exposure to social media is limited, I’m seeing more and more deceptive content lately. Mind you, the AI-generated imagery is a fairly recent arrival and is often labeled as an AI creation. The bulk of these fake videos and photos are the kind that have been floating around for the last few years, manufactured by individuals who enjoy showing off their prowess with editing software and/or enjoy fooling people with their hoaxes.
Perhaps the majority of the viewing public doesn’t care; they can appreciate an image or a video regardless of its origin. As for me, I do care.
And if you care as well, be assured that when I share my photos and videos online, you’re seeing a moment that existed in the real world, captured by an eyeball and a camera.
Here are the remaining active links to my online content:
YouTube channel: youtube.com/@ridingwithcarl
Facebook (mirrors Instagram posts): facebook.com/ridingwithcarl
Google Photos: state & provincial borders album
Google Maps: interactive travel map
Wikimedia Commons: my uploads