“Just grab a stock image for free” and several other dumb things photojournalists have heard over the years.

The issue of how photography should be used in journalism came to a head last week after a column on the Poynter website suggested that writers should find free, generic images to pair with their content. The column drew a sharp rebuke from photojournalists who felt their work was devalued or considered simply “art” to decorate “real information.” The National Press Photographers Association wrote an open letter, expressing both dismay in Poynter’s approach to photographs as well as outlining the true value of quality photojournalism.

(Quick disclosure: I’ve said before that our field has about two or three degrees of separation to it and it is true for me here. Kristen Hare, who co-wrote the Poynter column, is a former newsroom student of mine from my time at Mizzou. Danny Gawlowski, who signed on as one of the authors of the NPPA letter, is a former newsroom student of mine from Ball State. I’m not even sure if they know I’m alive anymore, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t look like I was hiding something.)

For this post, I asked photo folks I know to tell me the most annoying, problematic or ridiculous things people have told them about photography or the value of their work.

Here we go:

It’s gotta be the equipment!

(“Money it’s gotta be the shoes!” Um… no. He’s just really gifted and he practiced a lot.)

Photographers often carry an abundance of high-end equipment to make sure they can get the best possible shot in each set of circumstances. However, the equipment alone doesn’t create the photos, as one former student who now shoots for a Major League Baseball team pointed out:

One thing that really bugs me is when people say, “You take really nice photos! You must have really good camera equipment.” Equipment only gets you so far. You need to know how to use the equipment and look for the angles that will make the photos the most interesting.

I’ve heard this issue discussed in a variety of circumstances and ways. One former colleague pulled out his phone during a meeting and told a skilled former news photographer that, “I have an iPhone, so I’m essentially a photographer now.” A photojournalism professor and former news photographer noted something similar about the “anyone can do what you do” vibe:

When people say something like, My brother/sister/cousin, etc. is a photographer. I’d ask who they work for if they own a photo business, and I’d usually find out it was a hobby. Putting together Lego buildings with my kids never made me an architect or a construction worker.

Equipment does matter to some degree, as we’ve pointed out before on this blog, but the photographer’s eye and skill matter a lot more. The ability to compose an image, capture a mood, cope with lighting issues and a ton of other things make the difference between great photography and whatever my 12-year-old is doing with her Instagram account.

You mean you want me to pay you?

It’s weird what we’re willing to pay for and what we’re not. People will happily pay the neighborhood kid to cut the grass or shovel the snow. We pay for lollipop hammers in “Candy Crush” or coins to play app-based slot machines. People will even pay for “moisture” that may or may not exist any more.


(Yes, this is a real thing and yes, I own one of these. Don’t judge.)

One thing apparently people don’t pay for is photographs, as one long-time shooter noted:

One of my peeves is when people ask to do it for free. I didn’t spend money on gear just so I can give images out for free. Not to mention the time spent at the event but also post-production/editing. Time is money.

Speaking of time, a photographer who has worked internationally noted that time is not only money, but it’s also often miscalculated by people who hire shooters:

“It’ll only take like 30 minutes…” To clarify, it ignores the time spent cleaning the gear, editing the photos, traveling, gear insurance costs, software costs, archive costs etc. Photographers used to be able to roll this into film processing fees, but now without those everyone thinks the day ends when the event is over.

Skilled work takes time in all fields. I’m sure Pope Julius II could have gotten the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling painted in a lot less than four years if he had fired Michelangelo and called on a local kid with a roller and a couple cans of eggshell white.

Skilled work also costs money to buy the gear, go to the event, shoot the event, edit the photos and provide a finished product. Again, you’re not paying for just the image any more than you are paying for the chemicals in the prescription medication you are taking. There’s a whole lot of R & D that goes into those pills so that the stuff comes out the right way. You’re paying for more than the materials. You’re paying for the skills.

Just grab some clip art

This argument was at the core of the Poynter article: Go find free stuff online and use it as you see fit. A former student media adviser who has family in the photojournalism business noted how this is a really dumb idea:

A volunteer I work with (and respect): Can you get some photos off the internet and make a video for these kids?

Umm. I’m not going to “get” anything off the internet without permission. I explained, taught a copyright/ownership lesson, only to hear this same request on another day. Why is it that many people don’t think words and images have value — that they just are out there for the taking?

A current journalism professor also mentioned a similar concern:

“Just grab some clip art” usually leads into my real world case study of the blogger who was sued and lost thousands for “just grabbing” a Google pic of a green pepper from Google Images.

(We discussed this particular issue before with the “ECOM-dude” who thought photographers had “trapped” him into using content and then suing him.)

Three key thoughts here for anyone thinking about “grabbing” images:

  1. Just because it’s out there, it doesn’t mean its yours for the taking. Even the line about “There were a whole ton of images and I just took one,” makes no sense. Every day, I can see a parking lot full of cars from my office. I can’t just go down there and take someone else’s car because I like it and it was there for the “grabbing.” People own things, whether those are cars or images.
  2. Trying to limit your liability by “crediting” the source doesn’t work. (And let’s get this out of the way: Google doesn’t own anything, so writing “Photo courtesy of Google” is doubly insulting to photographers.) If you don’t get permission before you use it, this isn’t a “courtesy” use. Go back to the car analogy: If I steal your car and drive it around campus, it doesn’t it make the situation any better if I tell people, “Driving around courtesy of Jimmy!”
  3. The argument that it “wasn’t an important/valuable/rare image” so it shouldn’t be such a big deal is really stupid. The whole reason that particular image was stolen was because someone looked at it and found it appealing. Sure, it might “just” be a photo of a green pepper or a sunset, but it was the quality of that particular shot of a green pepper or a sunset that drew the person’s attention. Thus, the effort and the eye of photographer played a role in the inherent value of the image. Something to think about…


Here’s the biggest point: Stock images fail you in journalism

Even if you’re not swayed by the argument that photographers are part of the journalism ecosystem and that when you steal stuff or use generic images you are harming a fellow journalist, think about the point of photos in journalism: They tell stories.

There’s a reason why I used the term “photojournalist” quite a bit here and why good quality publications hire photojournalists to work for them. Just like ALL forms of journalism, the images that these people create are meant to engage readers and provide value to your audience members. The images operate in a symbiotic fashion with text or tell stories on their own. To do this, they have to be composed with the underlying story in mind by a journalist who understands how to tap into that story.

In closing, consider these thoughts from a couple of the photojournalists noted above as food for thought the next time you are tempted to “just grab” an image:

In my opinion, stock is very bland. Photojournalists capture raw emotion and the scene. Stock images can be ok for some things but real photos tell more of the story.

Photos are what draw people into a moment that already happened. They help draw the reader into a story. Photo journalists are valuable, because we know how to search these moments out to tell the story visually. You will not get the emotions or angles of moments that photo journalists would get from stock photos.

Good photojournalists know how to grab something more important than photos. They know how to grab eyeballs. In a time in which every journalistic operation is fighting for attention, it pays to take advantage of their expertise as part of a storytelling process.


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