The life of a free stock image provider


It’s a rainy summer evening, we crossed through the old city center from Zwolle. After a brief wandering within the small city streets, we settled down at Grand Cafe Public with the founders of Skitter Photo. Friends Peter Heeling and Rudy van der Veen launched Skitter Photo in May 2014 and have enjoyed the many ups and downs of creating a wholly public domain image company. Below they explain the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful moments behind their passion and venture.

How did you get started in this industry?

We find a lot of our photos on blogs, Pinterest, etc. Places where the images are used as inspiration. Those kinds of users don’t want to pay for an image just for inspirational purposes. Shutterstock photographers make scenes. It’s all very fake but they are trying to elicit an idea so it works really well.

That’s actually how Skitter Photo started. I [Peter] was at work searching for images. I work for the government and had to purchase images. You can’t just use a government credit card like that. And I couldn’t create a government account. Then I came across Unsplash and we asked each other, why can’t we do this? Why can’t we produce images, completely for free. We’ve made a lot of photos over the last few years, so why not start a business where we just give people our photos and try to see if there’s a revenue opportunity in the future. still enthusiastic about this idea of purely sharing our photos and going out into the world.

So that’s where the idea began?

*laughing* It actually started at a birthday party.

You both have full time jobs. How do you find time to devote to Skitter?

Skitter is more of a part-time project — that consumes a lot of time. But the whole idea is to take it to the next level. We’ve only been around since May 2014 and I think we are as good as the few platforms that are focused on truly authentic photos. We’ve earned some revenue through ads but we definitely have some growth opportunities when it comes to automating our CMS and increasing our user base.

How do you grow your user base?

It started out with months and months of just a few visitors per day and then it all of a sudden grew when Site Builder Report analyzed us. After that, we started getting a stable visitor rate.

But to keep it going, I simply write about Skitter Photo on every blog I found about photos. You’d be surprised how many times people come from those links.

Unfortunately, if you really want to make money from free photos, you need a booming amount of users. As I said, we do sell advertisement space on our site, and we’re building up our network, because each time someone puts photos on our website, they refer their friends and we can expand on that by putting it out into the world via social media. But social media — putting your images there — in the end it’s still media which isn’t a place where users come from. Blogging is more where our traffic comes from (roughly 50–60%). There’s a tip — web developers — anyone who needs pics for websites and placeholders, that’s a big market. And if you are experienced with sites that put out references, they don’t really get much traffic. If you advertise that “this photo came from [name a place],” it doesn’t generate much traffic.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to deal with copyright infringement?

Sometimes we get emails from people who want to include our photos on a T-shirt they will wear themselves. Nothing more. Then we find out others sell products with our photos on it and pass it off as theirs. Our photos are everywhere. We’re on so many lists now and keep getting more traffic so we’ve started to see that a lot of competitors have our photos. It’s annoying sometimes, but we have to deal with it because it’s public domain.

We had a situation with a large conglomeration where I had to send them an email and they sent me a long email back where I then had to find all the copyright infringements. It’s their website and they should be dealing with it, they should be finding all the infringements. I think they know what they’re up to and what their rights are, but it’s a moral thing

It’s the right thing to do to ask someone if it’s okay. Of course it is — it’s public domain — but it’s nice to ask someone. When you take bulk from Skitter Photo, you take our brand. When you take a single photo, you take our work and that’s what we want — take our work — but to take our brand is another story. Our work may not be protected but our brand is.

How can a user be sure the photo they’re using is actually public domain?

People have to be really careful when they user public domain. Sometimes a photo from some place that’s from some other place and you think it’s PD. Then you use the photo and you’re contacted by the original owner and get fined. You have to always find the original source of the image. For our photographers, they have to explicitly tell us, show us, that this is their own material. Completely.

Are digital marketplaces future opportunities or disappearing trends?

If the market is willing, I think it’ll stay; everyone has a camera. Hard core users, though, they don’t just come and go. And who wants to submit photo after photo after photo and be rejected. They also have to tap into photographers who just take photos for themselves and turn them into contributors and sellers. Also the marketing of these new platforms need to change so people know where to go to find or sell images. There are so many businesses that popup and people don’t know about them.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

We take our camera with us every time we travel. When you see something, we just take a photo of it. Places you don’t expect, trying out different ideas. This flower here *pointing at table centerpiece* with the cup of coffee… could be beautiful. Having your camera on you also gives you a chance to get a lot of content in one day. We also travel around when we’re inspired — if you see a pretty sun set, go to the nearest lake or someplace you think would work.

Peter showing a photo of his daughter* This is one I’m most proud of. You always make better portraits with children when the sun is either setting or rising. You can make a fabulous photo but if no one is interested in the subject matter… you always have to think a bit before you upload.

Can you describe your creative process?

We check the weather a lot. You can’t really make beautiful photos — especially landscape photos — when there is no light. There is a chance when there is rain… but you have to be prepared. A spray can or a lighter… just test what works. I’m a fan of patterns and empty spaces and I’m constantly looking around to explore “Is this a photo? Is that a photo?”

How do you overcome creative blocks?

Peter: Usually when that happens, I turn my camera off and stop thinking. sometimes I force myself to go somewhere I know will give me good content — forests. I also take a lot of photos with my children but we really can’t put up photos with people, so we stick with inanimate objects. I think an object is an object, and even if it’s not an interesting subject, I think you can still make something artistic from it. Taking good photos is seeing the shot. Sometimes you can get away with posting an image with a single person but you have to explicitly make sure that photo could never be used in a way that could harm the person.

Rudy: I agree with Peter but I don’t necessary shut my camera off. I usually peruse other visual content site — YouTube, etc — and look for inspiration.

What advice you can give to those just starting out in the industry?

First thing that’s important is if you love to take photos? If you don’t love it, you won’t do it. It takes time and passion. If you want your photos to be special, you have to have an eye for it and to have an eye for it, you have to love it.