Why my conservation photos are not free

Earlier this summer I was asked a question by someone I'd just met. We were talking about our common 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!" Maybe I could have been more tactful, but those were the first words that popped into my head. 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. There seemed to be an assumption that 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 and quite generous 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 want other conservation photographers -- indeed all photographers -- to require payment for use of the majority of their work. If we do not then we, as individuals and a group, suffer.

Tule elk are endemic to California, and were nearly lost to extinction. Even after significant conservation efforts, there is a good deal of controversy over how their growing numbers should be handled. Photography that tells the story of this elk species can help generate support for conservation, something of significant value. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tule elk are endemic to California, and were nearly lost to extinction. Even after significant conservation efforts, there is a good deal of controversy over how their growing numbers should be handled. Photography that tells the story of this elk species can help generate support for conservation, something of significant value. © Jaymi Heimbuch

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 rent or mortgage, electricity, water, gas and other bills, car payments, insurance payments, groceries and a range of other expenses stacking up while they spend hours upon hours editing, tagging and marketing photos, researching details for upcoming expeditions, doing their accounting, paying their taxes, updating their website and social media accounts to get their name out there, pitching magazines for new assignments, and yes, working on volunteer projects.

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? The photographer will have no choice but to enter a paying industry like wedding or baby photography, and we lose sight, literally, of what we need to save right now on this planet, those things that make it a place where we want to get married and raise kids.

It is simple: 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.

That is why it is an insult to conservation photographers -- to all photographers -- to be constantly asked if our photos can be used for free. It is basically like saying that the work we do is not "real" work, that there is no cost to us for sending off a file so easily uploaded and downloaded.

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.

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. © Jaymi Heimbuch

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. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This isn't to say I don't think conservation photos should never be free. Everyone has their projects that they're willing to do on a volunteer basis; everyone has organizations they are willing to donate materials to. Just this year alone I have donated over 1,600 image files to Conservation Canines, a nonprofit that trains dogs to sniff out scat of over three dozen species of animal for biologists engaged in wildlife studies around the world. I've been working on a volunteer basis, photographing the dogs and handlers at their training facility as well as in the field. Beyond the digital files I've given to them for free use, I have spent dozens of hours doing design work on calendars that we will be selling at the end of the year -- with 100% of the proceeds going to the group -- as well as running donation drives to raise the funds I needed to get into the field with the teams and capture the images in the first place. We all have our projects where we are willing to volunteer and donate work.

But we as conservation photographers should not be expected to donate our work, just because what we do is in the name of conservation. Our work should be valued as much as any other niche in photography -- perhaps more so, since what we do has a mission that benefits not just a particular client but entire communities, entire countries, the entire world.

The work we do is important, and it is also a job, a profession, how we put food on our tables and a roof over our heads and buy plane tickets for the next expedition. It is work deserving of a paycheck.

While many 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. 

Just while writing this article, I received an email from a wildlife nonprofit asking me to donate images for them to use as stock images on their website. While I admire and agree with what this organization is doing for wildlife, the answer will be no. And the answer will be no in part because they asked outright for free use of images -- not even the merest hint at compensation. The assumption is that since they are working for a cause, and I have photos that could help them, that I can and perhaps should just hand over images. I admit, it is tempting. I do want to help out where I can with something I believe in. But were I to do this every time, I would be left with nothing. A name credit doesn't fill the gas tank to get back in the field to create new images, and contrary to popular belief, doesn't do much for generating sales or landing new paid assignments. Instead, this can be taken up as an opportunity for me to (kindly, and with gratitude for their nonprofit's mission and the motive for their request) say, "Thank you for your interest, and I would be happy to license images to you, but not donate them, as this is how I make a living as a photographer."

The more people expect photos to be free to use, the fewer photographers are able to get out into the field and make a difference with their work, and the weaker the pool of available images becomes - or the more quickly talented aspiring photographers realize there is no reasonable future in conservation and switch to commercial ventures, and there goes the next generation of dedicated conservation photographers.

See, it isn't just me affected when someone asks me to give away my work. When organizations have free images and no need to pay a photographer to capture images for them, we all lose out on a potential assignment, a potential paycheck, a potential way to make a living doing what we love, to help document threatened wilderness and the hard work being done by conservationists, researchers, scientists.

It may sound overly dramatic, but it isn't. It actually is a big deal when those creating the imagery can't afford to get out and create it. It is a big deal when those who have a passion for conservation lose that passion because they are always asked for more but not given anything of value back.

That is why as a conservation photographer, I do not put my images in the creative commons and, most of the time, I expect to be compensated in some way for the use of my images. Often, this means having my work rejected in favor of someone else who is offering their images up for free. Salt in the wound, but so be it; I will still ask for a fee for my work.

Conservation photographers are not just hobbyists, or people who take photos while traveling for vacation. We 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. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Conservation photographers are not just hobbyists, or people who take photos while traveling for vacation. We 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. © Jaymi Heimbuch

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 afford to pay photographers and pay them well for the images they use on their websites, in their social media posts, in their newsletters and lectures and billboards.

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." Even if, 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. Without us, what tools do conservation organizations really have to get people to donate? 

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.

Morgan Heim, Photographer and filmmaker

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, 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.

Robin Moore, Photographer

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.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.