Your privacy and the safety of your data are very important to us – and for full transparency, we’re not saying this just to make you stay in our website. To make things run smoothly and to constantly improve your experience, we use cookies in our website. If you’d like to understand exactly how or you’d rather not allow it, please read our privacy policy here .

Photography Goes Mainstream: the Power of Unsplash

One of the purposes of today’s most important brands is to own a huge family supporting their existence and by supporting we mean adding value to it, growing together as one. A real brand to truthful humans. Unsplash is one of those cases in which a community serves the brand’s mission while they feed the network with content. Pro bono photography content. What started as a humble Tumblr blog 4 years ago became one of the references as an industry-leading photography community. You can browse through a catalog of high-quality photographs to use them in a creative project or in any other personal or commercial.

A Faithful Community

Unsplash serves a giant volume of designers that constantly seek inspiration on images and use them as fundamental resources to their day-to-day creative challenges. Unsplash has now millions of creators and hobbyists worldwide and while it went mainstream it also created a search for quality and reflection on something that years ago was frequently seen as a secondary element when compared to the written content – Images, another kind of visual symbol that structures and reinforces the power of words altogether. In the meantime, it also started an arms race for quality among its peers.

Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, linguist and philosopher introduced the concept of the meaning behind an image in the book ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ where he explores the language of imagery, trying to define how does meaning work with this language. He commences by remarking that the word ‘image’ derives from a Latin term meaning ‘imitation’ and from that it starts to question if images can truly function as conveyors of meaning given the fact that they are imitations, analogical representations.

What he found is that our perception of ‘natural reality’ is a construction based upon the verbal concepts that are ingrained in our brain but, above all, images play a major role in building on top of this concepts. This represents a pivotal change in the common that images are merely a portrait of reality – they are actually constructing it. This was a revolutionary insight as the power of images became more crucial to complement the whole paradigm of language, turning an image into a primary element. 

From a hipster Tumblr to the mainstream

The story of Unsplash is documented on their website with a timeline that goes from the nightmares of 5 years ago free stock photographs and the changing paradigm with the evolution of the platform when they decided to move from Tumblr to a wider network: their own website.

Mikael Cho, a Montreal-based entrepreneur created a copyright-free photography model in 2013 and while developing the homepage for his company Crew, he struggled to find a worthy and suitable stock photo to use; inevitably Cho hired a photographer and asked him to take a photoshoot for the website content which resulted in unused photos that were published afterwards on Tumblr.

Ultimately, they had three options. They could forget about the unused photographs, they could try to sell them on a stock photo website or eventually they could just give them for free. They ended up choosing to share free content with a modest and unknown community on Tumblr, inviting people to use them as they saw it more convenient.

Turns out that it was the smartest move they could have done, only because it meant they wanted to cultivate a connection and share a common desire for people like Cho, that identified a huge flaw on the industry of stock photography. Besides, the data is undeniable: the first 10 photos published on Tumblr have now been seen more than 58 million times.

Unsplash went from a discrete comfort zone of discovering a community to bond with during their Tumblr accommodation to a confident and assertive step on the timeline of its growth by creating an official platform for those who wanted to rely on high-quality resources. By doing this the platform turned into something meaningful which may be an explanation for the 20 million creators that keep coming around and contributing with great content.

As Cho stated:

‘People from all over the world have generously contributed over 250,000 photos, moving hundreds of millions of creative acts forward.’

The Perks of Being an ‘Unsplasher’

As we said before, years ago images weren’t seen in the same way as we do nowadays. Just by scrolling through old stock photographs (by old meaning c.a. 8 years ago), you have a feeling of human detachment and non-relation to what’s presented to you – it’s a matter of authenticity. When you see an old photo representing a teacher you just can’t relate today’s imagery with the aspect of that specific person; and we don’t just talk about faces but surrounding scenery, what are they are wearing, how they use that white superficial smile. In the end, you can never relate yourself with those kinds of ‘realities.’

Unsplash created the reverse world, a space of unlimited imagery with undivided attention to the detailed photography, serving not only designers and entrepreneurs to create demos and websites but also to be an inspirational tool for everyone from nonprofit companies, independent creatives, teachers or just people who love a good photo.

Its a database with stock images from a community of photographers willing to license their photos for free without requiring crediting the intellectual property authors. Users can search for images by keywords or descriptions such as “iPhone Desktop” or “Creative People“ and it’s certain you’ll find a sense of real people portrayed in there. Not just regular boring stock photos.

In a way, you feel like you have royals by belonging to this creative mass which keeps creating content to be viewed and shared. Unsplash offers you the kind of exposure you might be wondering since a photo published on this platform is “seen by more people than a photo posted anywhere else.” With an average of 12 downloads per second, and all of it free, it surely became a neat tool.

In addition to visibility, there’s this characteristic that turns the process of being a creator at Unsplash a challenge for today’s standards on what’s a good photo – the spread of the content throughout the community. And that’s why family matters too because, in a way, when you belong to this kind of dynamics, your content will be shared by your fellow colleagues way faster; if the average of downloads per second stands on 12 imagine the views and likes of the photography.

The celerity benefit makes Unsplash a potential platform for all of those who want to reach wider audiences and be known for the talented photographs they create and want to share. Plus, there’s always the hope to be featured on the platform’s Editorial section like we were a few days ago.

Briefly, there are a lot of good reasons for you to try and explore this database as it really gives you new insights and helps you with the search for ‘the perfect picture’. Either photographers who want exposure or to connect with business prospects, designers, bloggers or youtubers which may want to create mood boards as well as augment their web and print projects, anyone can be in, even small businesses who don’t have the resources to hire a professional photographer. A world where everyone can watch and be watched.

KOBU says Yes

Adventurous as we consider ourselves, we tried to enter in the Unsplash world and we can say it has been a surprising travel.

We created a profile in late 2017 and we have been publishing some photos, the most adequate having in mind subjects like technology, creativity, graphic design, developing, productivity, originality and so on. Our feed is still a modest one but since we started this journey it was already on our sight the added value of belonging to a community like this one – you are seen, your content is viewed, liked and downloaded so many times you might be speechless. The data we can collect tell us how many users have interacted with our profile and photographs since we began.

It’s amazing to see the statistics and know people join us in this challenge of creating nice stuff to put online. We usually create and upload images that reinforce brand awareness and of course to build connections with all the other creators spread around this world.

If you’re thinking this article is almost ending (it is!) try to scroll up and check the photographs that complement the written information so far. Yes, most of the photos belong to users that have uploaded their work on Unsplash and we constantly seek for creative valuable pictures like these ones that can represent and improve the message we are trying to convey.

Other than the visual content for our articles here, we often visit Unsplash in search of good photographs to use in our daily work as we tend to have a lot of projects asking for this sort of content as in web and print projects. In a very specific project, the visual communication of LAB Terrace in 2018, we decided to use only Unsplash-based photography to create this fascinating world where reality is unexpected.

So we said yes to the perks of belonging to Unsplash as it’s a way to facilitate and democratise the access to valuable content in the photography world. We have the same feeling of belonging to a community, it’s like a family, a functional and supportive one which gets you packed with the right tools for you to rock in your graphic design projects or to distinct yourself on an article you’re writing.

The importance of this community is well presented on Unsplash’s website where they appreciate everyone’s efforts, resources and passion to contribute with the best content to the fast-growing platform archive. One thing that sets Unsplash apart from the others ‘Free to Use’ websites is the attention to the details, the care for its users: I even got a handwritten postcard showing gratitude for being part of the community. This simple act shows that their mission is still present – as a family they constantly nurture the relation they have with their members while recognising their success.

What about the Photos to Come?

We’ve analysed some of the best features of Unsplash but there is a subject that must be solved as quickly as it can. In the latest years the Internet and technology resources have vastly enhanced our ability to display images online, and we usually call ourselves not just viewers or consumers but creators too.

But with this democratisation comes a sense of responsibility for the content we’re either creating or downloading. On their website Unsplash states that all photographs published can be used for free, for a commercial and noncommercial purposes. You don’t even have to ask for permission to use them or to give credit to the author of the image (although you will definitely gain some points in doing so….) – this is a setback that the team needs to address because, due to volatile regulation, it can present unforeseen troubles to naive uses (e.g. usage of photography with brand elements for commercial purposes).

As with everything, we must discover a balanced state of being and working. We can never misuse or switch the meaning of content created by other fellow colleagues, or at least we shouldn’t. It comes down to ethics and a strong well-defined posture to deal with these kinds of situations. Nevertheless, Unsplash is starting to deal with these questions, figuring ways to raise awareness among their users to think about content rights and the protection of intellectual property. We strongly encourage you to go through their Terms & Conditions and License text.

What is also relevant in this whole ecosystem is that the free photo-sharing platform now wants to build a new economy around photography. Recently, news showed up about Unsplash thinking on designing a model that ‘works equally well for both photographers and other creators.’ This is starting to reveal something: the democratisation of creativity, specifically of photography, will continue to spread leading to an ongoing growth of photography further and further.

And we will be here to share it with you! Join the race with us.

Btw, go check our profile on Unsplash! Just click here.

Update September 19th

Curiously enough, one day after I published this article, one of our photos from Unsplash with Sandra and Sónia went straight into Público’s P3 on an article about  “Portuguese Woman in Tech“. It’s so great when you see your work spreading.

In case you’re interested go check P3’s article here.

Transparency disclaimer

Article written by Ramiro Mendes.
Editing by Nuno Tenazinha.


How do you feel about this article?

Ramiro Mendes