Peter Orsel

Why You Should Not Contribute To Unsplash+ as a Photographer

I guess most of you have heard of Unsplash now, but did you know that they have a premium subscription as well? I got accepted as a contributor for their Unsplash+ program and almost started uploading my files to earn some quick money, but right before that moment came I decided not to do it. In this blog I’ll explain Unplash+ from a creator point of view and why I think you shouldn’t contribute to it. Please note that this is an opinion that you don’t have to agree on, as I’m just explaining my point of view.

In This Post

What is Unsplash and what does Unsplash+ mean?

Unsplash is an open platform where people can download unlimited images of photographers from all over the world. For free. Site builders like Squarespace have an integration with Unsplash and it’s easier than ever to use photos without dealing with licenses or paid subscriptions. To give you an example of what’s possible, I’ve taken all the photos on this blog article out of the free Unsplash library. There’s quality content, but people actually don’t get paid. And that’s why I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the program. As a photographer, it’s nice to be valued for the work you deliver and we make huge costs to create certain shots, and then others use it for free. Yes, you get a lot of views, but you never really know where they end up. If you download an image, there’s an option to give credits to the owner, but you don’t have to. If you’re nice, you do that, if you’re lazy, you don’t. This post, for example, is filled with photos from Unsplash. I used them for my Pinterest pin, my header and my blog photos. I do give credits to the photographers, but you don’t have to and it’s all completely legal. 

As soon as Getty Images took over Unsplash, some things have changed. One of them, is that the brand created a premium subscription called Unsplash+. As a consumer, you can take a subscription for $12 dollar a month. For this fixed price, you get access to a premium library of images, better protected with model and property releases. This content also gets control checks before being added to the library. As a paying customer, you get unlimited access to all premium photos and you can download all of them for one fixed price. Because of the subscriptions, contributors can get paid. I almost jumped on this train as I smelled easy money, but once I read the contract, I decided not to do it. Here’s why.

Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

How does Unsplash+ work for a contributor?

As a photographer, the process is pretty straight forward. There’s a sign up page on Unsplash, where you write some basic information and where you provide a link to an active portfolio. You can link to your website, your Instagram portfolio or your Unsplash page. You don’t actually need to be active on Unsplash to become an Unsplash+ contributor. I linked to my Instagram page and got accepted a couple of days after applying. The whole process should be: Apply, choose your main subject, contribute and get paid. It looks easy and maybe it is easy, but make sure you know the terms and conditions before you decide to go for it. I must say that I was excited once I got that email: Your Unsplash+ Application is Accepted! Until I read the contract…

Photo by Ruth Troughton on Unsplash

What about the contract?

As soon as you got accepted as an Unsplash+ contributor, they will send you a contract you have to sign. Once you sign, you agree with all the terms and conditions they state in the contract. As the contract is of course very hard to read, I recommend to check the FAQ for contributors instead. You can find the FAQ here. The contract tells you all about their rights, the rights you give to Unsplash+ and all the conditions involved. The biggest red flag I saw, was the exclusivity. Once you upload an image to Unsplash+, you can’t sell that photo on any other platform or any personal project again. Ever. 

How much does Unsplash pay their contributors of Unsplash+?

Unsplash is pretty clear about their contributor payments. They don’t believe in a royalty system, so they decide to pay for every image that got approved by the quality and model/property checks. The payment will be around $5 to $30 dollar per accepted images as a one time payment. If you compare it to other stock sites like Shutterstock, Adobe Stock and iStock, that’s a lot. But not when you consider it’s just a one time payment. On the sites I mentioned above, you’ll get a commission for each download. It might not be a big amount of money, but the more a company wants to use your photo, the more they pay. Let’s take Adobe Stock as an example for this: the least you will get for a sell is $0,33 per photo, but for extended licenses, you can get $26 per download. On average it should be around $1 per photo, but you can sell your photo unlimited times and on other platforms as well.

Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

Can I sell my submitted Unsplash+ photo to other websites as well?

Even though you own the rights of your photo, Unsplash gets an exclusive selling license to your photo. And that’s confusing, as they write:

You grant Unsplash a non-exclusive, perpetual license to display and market your images on the Unsplash+ website, and the further right to license your images to Unsplash+ subscribers. – Unsplash.

By non-exclusive, they don’t mean that the rights of your images are non-exclusive, but your contract with them is non-exclusive. You’re still able to work with other brands. Pfewwww. Imagine being forced to work just for them, as a freelancer.

However, the content you submit that’s accepted in the Unsplash+ library will be exclusive to Unsplash+, meaning you agree that you will not license accepted content with other platforms or partners. – Unsplash.

With other words, once your image to Unsplash+ got accepted, it’s their exclusive image and you’re not able to sell it to other clients. Not to a newspaper, not to a magazine, not to any other stock site. And that means, once it’s accepted, you lose all the opportunities to actually make good money, because Unsplash already paid you maybe $10 for your image. And that’s ridiculous.

When I just started photography, a photo on my Instagram got attracted by a local newspaper. They contacted me to use it on the cover of their spring edition. I had no idea what to charge and asked €50 for a one time usage. They agreed straight away and I got the money in my bank account, still owning all rights to the photo and still able to sell this photo again. And again. And again. That’s how it should be if you ask me, but once your photo is on Unsplash+, all these opportunities are legally gone.

What happens to my photos once I resign from Unsplash+ or delete my account?

Hold tight: your uploaded photos to Unsplash+ will be theirs. The photos you once submitted are part of the platform and it’s impossible to get them down. You’re still the owner of the photos, but by giving you $5 to $30 dollar they bought the rights to publish the photos to their Unsplash+ program forever. You’re not able to get them down and when you delete your account, the photos will be transferred to an anonymous Unsplash account and they are still able to offer them to their paying clients.

Can I remove an image that is published on Unsplash+?

No, if you submit an image that is published on Unsplash+, you agree to allow Unsplash the right to distribute the image in perpetuity. – Unsplash.

Photo by Andrew Svk on Unsplash

Why I think you shouldn’t contribute to Unsplash+

The two questions I answered above, are my biggest concerns about the Unsplash+ program. As a photographer, you own the rights of your photo and it would be amazing if you can earn some money with it. Unsplash+ limits you to earn a decent amount of money with your photos. Other stock sites usually don’t work with exclusive licenses, but Unsplash (and Getty Images, their owner as well) does. They limit you to $5-$30 to earn with your photo, while you could sell your photos for way more to regular clients or through other platforms. You don’t have to care about reoccurring opportunities as your photo is yours and you can sell it to whoever you want, unless you decide to give them the full rights. But if you give exclusive rights of your image, I think you should get at least $500 to $1000 dollar for your photo, if it’s a quality shot.

Besides that, there’s no way back. You can’t remove your items and you grant the right to use your photos even for the promotion of Unsplash itself. As a photographer, you’re more worth than that. I do believe that stock photography is a great way to create a small income, but please head over to the other platforms instead of Unsplash+.

Are there other ways to earn money with Stock Photography?

The good news: It’s still possible to make a living with stock photography. Keep in mind that you need good and especially a lot of content. As a travel photographer, I made about $2.000 USD in my first year of stock photography, and my second year is going to be better than my first year. Read my articles about it below! 

What are your thoughts about Unsplash and Unsplash+? Do you think it’s still worth it? Let me know, as I’m curious about your thoughts!

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About Me

Peter Orsel is a Dutch travel photographer. He visited over 40 countries, capturing them in the most beautiful ways. Right now he writes about his trips and inspires others to do the same. 

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for this article. You answered every one of my questions about applying and uploading photos to Unsplash+. I have uploaded to their free side because the quality of my camera wasn’t good enough to sell the photos, but I have recently upgraded my camera and am working on fulfilling a lifelong dream (well since I discovered photography at 10) of being a professional photographer. Shutterstock has accepted my newest submissions and so I was researching where else I could go. Once again thank you for the information.

    1. Hey Melissa, glad to hear that! Shutterstock is one of the well-known platforms for selling content. I do sell some stock images too, but keep in mind that it’s all about bulk. I’m earning on average $0.05 per photo per month. That means you need 2000 photos for $100 a month. My best selling platforms are Adobe Stock and Envato (Photodune). With the rise of AI, I’m not sure how long it’s still possible to make money in this market. If you’re aiming to become a photographer, find small businesses and offer a free shoot to gain experience, maybe just ask them to pay whatever they feel like. Shoot a lot, find your passion and as soon as you feel comfortable, start charging! Good luck chasing your dream. 🙂

  2. Not sure what you were confused about. If they pay the one time fee for the picture of course it is theirs. To get access to all of those images for free compared to the high cost ridiculous cost of other image sites adobe stock, getty, etc that is such a good deal especially for email designers, web designers graphic artists. we might have to redesign etc. it sucks paying 10 bucks etc for an image of a basic things. This was such a waste of complaining and explaining that you don’t want a company to provide an excellence service. Photographers can get tips on there put you venmo paypal in your description like the rest do.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write a comment. It seems like you see it from a buyers point of view, I wrote it from a seller point of view. As a professional photographer who travels the world and spends fortunes to take photos, I feel like my work is worth more than $5 per piece. Selling a photo on Unsplash+ means you can’t earn any money with this photo, anywhere else, forever. Earnings on other platforms may be lower, but you don’t lose any rights and can sell it anywhere you want, and taking it down whenever you want. Taking photos is a profession and not a tip based service where people just show their appreciation. A while ago I tested and posted 6 photos on Unsplash for free, gaining over a million views and 6000+ (!) downloads within a month. Zero traffic to my website, zero tips through Paypal. The option to earn is great, but I haven’t found a single story of a photographer who was positively surprised with the amount of tips through Unsplash.

  3. Hi Peter, many thanks for such a detailed post. There is a fellow Australian photographer I follow whose experience was very similar to yours – lots of views, but no tips, no traffic to their website etc. I was rummaging around to see if their experience was consistent with everyone elses – looks like it was. I won’t be posting to unsplash as a result. Looks to me like the only people with success on unsplash were the early adopters.

    Have you tried RedBubble? I have had some success there. You set your own pricing and they seem to have quite a wide audience. With the quantity of photos you have it would be interesting to see how much you could earn in RedBubble vs stock.

    Great photos by the way, especially the whale shark stuff.

    1. Hey! Thanks for taking the time to write a comment. I gave it a try, just to be able to speak for myself, but I’m not surprised there are people with similar experiences. I personally haven’t tried RedBubble. I do sell on other stock sites, something I wrote a blog about as well. I’ve only been serious about it since the last months of 2022 and made about $2000 in my first year. But I’m curious about the results through RedBubble as well!

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