Want to build a thriving creative freelance career? Then it’s time to rethink the way you’re making money. Here’s why I decided to stop creating for money only, start freely sharing my photography with Unsplash under the Creative Commons license, and how it dramatically boosted my income.
One of the biggest questions I get asked by people just entering the industry of food and photography is how do I get jobs? How do I get my work seen & shared? And lately I’ve been getting this one a lot: how do I become the type of photographer magazines hire to shoot their covers?
From Unknown to Globally Recognized
3 years ago, I was a scrappy work-from-home food blogger. Felt lucky to have patched together a freelance career. Was certain life would always been a frenetic hustle from one job to the next.
But then, I stopped clamoring for cash and accidentally stumbled onto an approach that changed everything: I stopped thinking in terms of scarcity and started sharing some of my work…for free.
The Most Unpopular Decision I Ever Made
When I first found Unsplash, it was a simple one-page feed full of hi-res photos anyone could use for free. I stumbled upon the site while building a website for a friend, and thought it was so profound. Because unlike most free photo sites, these photos were gorgeous.
For someone like my friend, a single mama with big dreams but a limited budget, being able to access photos as beautiful as her vision was game-changing. She could create everything she needed for her brand without breaking the bank. All because a few gifted photogs willingly shared some of their work.
Wow, I thought. I am so grateful for this resource. So grateful, in fact, I want to share, too.
So I started uploading my photos to Unsplash.
Shortly after I began publishing to Unsplash I received this email from someone who had come across my work:
“ I just heard about Unsplash and their "business model" of giving away photography for FREE! If we as photographers get into the habit of giving away our work for free, how long do you think we'll be able to make a living at what we love??? Exactly what do you think you're accomplishing by contributing to a business that so totally does NOT value our hard work, experience, training, education, expertise, etc. What you're doing is devaluing photography for everyone and hurting an entire industry and those who rely on us for excellent photography. Shame on you!”
Clearly the idea of sharing photography for free is controversial. It does take time, money, resources to build and fuel a creative career. Having clients and brands respect that process and value that work is the primary way we freelancers make cash-money.
However, I never saw Unsplash as a way to put myself out of work. I saw it as a way to reclaim my art as a gift, an offering. A way to join a community of creators and say “look at all the beautiful things we can make together.” #communityovercompetition
So I decided to ignore this email and trust my own gut for how to grow my brand. And how to prioritize the values that are important to me.
You will never reach your destination if you stop & throw stones at every dog that barks.” ~Winston Churchill
Since receiving that email, I have received hundreds of emails from aspiring creators, designers, web developers, and authors, thanking me for the photos I share. I’ve read stories about how my photos have been featured in web designs, book covers, news articles, and even iTunes app features.
I wasn’t just giving away my hard work for free. To me, I was marketing, sharing my work, and perhaps even helping new creatives build their brands and products.
And that was enough.
Except that’s not the end of the story.
Because those aren’t the only emails I’ve been getting.
After 2 years of sharing on Unsplash, my work is now downloaded more than 30,000 times per week and viewed by an average of 22 million fans monthly. The site has helped me build a name for myself, and has become a top referral site for potential new clients.
Turns out, when brands see your work and get to know your name, you’re the first one they call when they need something custom created.
Sharing is Smart Marketing
Every week, I now receive dozens of emails from clients who want to work with me because they found me on Unsplash. Here’s one I was extra excited about. Because there are job out there you didn’t even know you were being considered for. But if your portfolio is out there, waiting to be found, it’s possible you may just be in the running for big gigs:
Hey Brooke, Art Director for Delicious Living Magazine here…we really want to start  off on the right foot …and that means collaborating with you! Our goal is to commission and produce our all our covers…And after reviewing a wide range of artists, we know that you're the perfect fit for the job. Looking forward to a prosperous working collaboration.
Two weeks later, I was in contract to shoot 12 magazine covers for a major publication. And it all happened because 2 years ago, I had an abundance of photos and simply wanted to share.
So, if you’re asking how to get your work seen and shared, how to become a big-named professional, how to reach that ultimate goal of magazine covers or published work, my one piece of advice is to share. Put your beautiful creations out into the world, and NEVER let anyone tell you that your art doesn’t belong there. Create abundantly, and take the time to nourish your art. Don’t wait for a client or a job to begin creating. Start now. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll find clients and companies who need what you are creating.
DID YOU KNOW I JUST LAUNCHED AN ALL NEW DocuVlog?
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Download hi-res images from my archives for FREE at Unsplash.