NFTs and Photography, Part I: How Photographers are Making Money with NFTs


In case you haven’t heard, NFTs have been making money for photographers and, for some of them, a lot of money. This is the kind of thing that generally piques people’s interest, especially in an industry such as photography, where it is hard to make money. In late 2021, when several photographers and former guests of the B&H Photography Podcast began to find success in selling their work as NFTs, I concluded that this was something worth my attention.

What are NFTs?

An offshoot of cryptocurrency, NFT stands for “non-fungible token.” In essence, when something is “non-fungible,” it has a unique identity unto itself. I like to think of NFTs as digital “one-of-a-kinds,” so to speak.

Unlike a JPEG, an NFT cannot be copied or duplicated. This is because each NFT created gets a unique ID code that is recorded on a giant, public ledger and stored on a decentralized network of computers, commonly called a “blockchain.” Regular, run-of-the-mill JPEGs, MP3s, GIFs, or any other kind of digital asset can be immutably associated with an NFT through a process called “minting.” Once minted, the token acts as the digital deed for that particular digital good. This public, decentralized bookkeeping of digital goods and who owns them, has allowed for a new form of digital ownership. The ability to differentiate the “real” or “original” version of a digital asset from a worthless copy has spawned a market of digital scarcity, paving the way for a new creative economy to emerge.

A key function of NFTs are “smart contracts,” which are customizable, self-executing contracts. The terms of a smart contract are declared at the time an NFT is minted. Commonly, photographers will set the terms to ensure that they are automatically paid a 5–10 percent royalty each time the NFT is resold on the secondary market. This is attractive to some artists and photographers who have traditionally not received a royalty when their work is resold.

Most NFTs are minted on the Ethereum blockchain, but alternatives that aim to lower transaction fees and electricity usage, such as Polygon, Solana, and Cardano, have begun to grow in popularity, as well. But more on that later.

NFTs and Photography

From an intellectual-property standpoint, photographers have had a rough go of it in recent years. Social media and other factors have made it extremely easy to rip off photographers, and it happens all the time. According to one study, 2.5 billion unlicensed images were stolen daily in 2018. That is a staggering figure. Will NFTs help the problem, or make it worse? Artists have been divided on the issue, photographer Cath Simard has decided to address the problem with her NFT project #freehawaiiphoto, although in a roundabout way.

#freehawaiiphotoCath Simard

Simard, a well-known Canadian landscape photographer and Sony ambassador, was early on the NFT scene. After several successful sales, she decided to make a point with the #freehawaiiphoto project—she would auction off her most stolen photograph as an NFT, a picture of a lonely Hawaiian road, and then release the rights to the public for both commercial and non-commercial usage. The NFT sold to a well-known NFT collector who goes by the pseudonym Gmoney for 100 Ether, which at the time was worth more than $300,000.

By giving away usage rights to the public, Simard (and Gmoney) are making a bet that the more the photo is shared and spread, the more the NFT “original'' will be worth.

But NFT skeptics aren’t convinced that all of this is a good thing for artists, or society at large, and often point to environmental concerns due to the high energy consumption associated with certain blockchains, high transaction fees of minting NFTs, and the alarming amount of counterfeiting and fraud rampant in the space. OpenSea, a platform that allows anyone to mint and sell an NFT, recently admitted to having major problems with scammers fraudulently minting stolen artworks, specifically with their free minting tool. Cent, a smaller NFT platform, recently suspended most of its NFT sales for the same reason.

Proponents, however, say that you can’t scapegoat NFTs, and point to the undeniable fact that art theft, plagiarism, and copyright infringement are age-old problems, and that this is just the latest manifestation. One platform that is trying to tackle the issue head-on is DeviantArt, a popular social community for artists that has been around since 2000.

In July of 2021, DeviantArt announced DeviantArt Protect, an image-recognition tool that, according to the company website, “scans public blockchains and third-party marketplaces for potential art infringements in the form of minted non-fungible tokens (NFTs),” and is available to paid users of the community at all levels of membership. When the tool detects a potentially stolen image that has been minted as an NFT, the creator is made aware of the situation.

DeviantArt Protect can easily detect exact matches.
Machine learning allows us to detect a level of manipulation and…
DeviantArt Protect is trained to ignore passing similarities, and human…
DeviantArt Protect DeviantArt

While the technology sounds promising, DeviantArt can’t fight the problem alone. The DeviantArt Protect tool simply notifies the creator of a potential stolen image. It’s up to the creator themselves to contact the NFT marketplace to make a copyright infringement claim, and up to the marketplace to take the image down if it deems the claim to be valid. Late last year, DeviantArt called on all web platforms that serve creators to partner with them to integrate the tool, but it remains unclear exactly which platforms and blockchains are currently being scanned for theft.

What’s Next?

Despite the obvious growing pains, many photographers and artists remain optimistic about NFTs as a way to monetize their work. In the next installment of this series, I’m going to discuss some of the popular NFT marketplaces and communities to which photographers have gravitated to share and sell their work, how collectors have been displaying their collections, and explore the different blockchains available for you to mint your NFTs. Thanks for reading, and I encourage you to leave your thoughts, whether optimistic or skeptical, in the Comments section, below.