TLDR: Having people use my HDRIs is far more important to me than money.
I’ve tried writing this post a number of times in various ways, but I don’t think it’s possible to explain what HDRI Haven is now and why it’s changed without first telling you how it began.
At the beginning of last year I launched HDRI Haven as an online store for people to buy the best HDRIs I could make at the cheapest rates I could offer. But that wasn’t actually my initial plan to be honest, and while it was working pretty well, it always felt like I had taken the easy route.
My dream from the very beginning when I started shooting HDRIs was to release everything for free, in the same open-source spirit as the Blender community, giving everyone equal access to the same tools and assets to achieve both creative freedom and freedom from financial constraints.
Unfortunately, creating and publishing HDRIs costs quite a bit of money. Ignoring the once-off costs of camera and computer equipment, the biggest expenses are travel and bandwidth. Flights from South Africa to basically anywhere else in the world are notoriously expensive, and the few 2k HDRIs I’d published before launching HDRI Haven had been downloaded over 6000 times in just a few months – if I were to publish the 16k versions of those as well, it would mean several terabytes of bandwidth every month.
I decided it just wasn’t practical to make everything free. I couldn’t afford it. But I didn’t want to put everything behind a paywall either.
My first idea was to use some kind of PWYW (pay-what-you-want) system like Gumroad, where people could download the HDRIs for free, but have the option to donate a small amount for each one. While this sounded like a reasonable idea, I was unsure whether anyone would bother to support me and I knew it would mostly just annoy people to have to manually choose $0 and type in their email address (as most PWYW platforms require) in order to download it for free.
Having decided that wouldn’t work, I looked at how other sites like Textures.com do it: a paid monthly subscription for access to high-res textures, but with low-res textures available in a free account. For a long while, this was my plan, but eventually I thought of a number of reasons to avoid it: people don’t like subscriptions; I knew nothing about building websites and handling recurring payments; hiring a developer would cost a lot up-front.
Finally, I settled on the system that was the simplest to set up and the cheapest to keep going: selling each HDRI individually for a small price, allowing free downloads of the lowest resolution, and learning some basic PHP to build the site myself using Gumroad as the back-end.
Like I said, this worked pretty well. It earned me enough to live off, and also allowed me to travel to Cape Town and Germany last year specifically to shoot more HDRIs.
That was a lot of fun and rather exciting, but it often felt like I was doing it for myself, for the money, while only the relatively few people who bought the full resolution HDRIs actually got to use my work. The free 1k res was too small, but I thought making any higher resolution free would discourage sales of the full resolution. This was a selfish thought, and I realized that I was slowly becoming the soulless businessman I’ve always hated.
Was this just how life is? Was this what growing up and running a business meant?
Probably. But I don’t care, it’s no fun.
I decided things needed to change. Somehow. The ideal solution was to just release everything for free outright, but then we’re back to square one: not being able to afford the bandwidth costs, and being forced to go back to some normal desk job.
The possibility of using Patreon to accept and encourage regular donations was in my mind from the very beginning, but just like the PWYW idea, I was skeptical if anyone would be kind enough to help out. I still am.
So I wondered about it for several months, alternating between “screw it, money’s not important, happiness and free content is!”, and “this is a stupid naive idea, it’ll never work, you’ll be throwing away everything you’ve worked for!”.
That’s about when I started releasing a free 16k HDRI every Friday (along with paid HDRIs on Tuesdays). I’m not really sure why I did it, I was just sort of curious to see how people would react.
Turns out, people really like free stuff. In fact people like free stuff so much, they start buying the paid stuff too. My monthly earnings almost doubled overnight, all because I was also releasing stuff for free?
This was the final nail in the coffin. I knew it must be possible, even if it’s 100 times harder and slower, to make a living from free content.
Or at least enough to appease the bandwidth gods.
So I made the decision: everything must be free, for everyone, with no restrictions of any kind. Not even the minor attribution or share-alike restrictions of most creative commons licenses.
No, this must be 100% free, public domain.
For monies, I would set up a Patreon page and think of a few different ways to encourage people to support me on a monthly basis, without turning it into a paywall or nagging charity. Some ideas were to offer early access, sponsorship and access to a private voting system to help determine what I shoot and where, and ultimately how the money is spent.
Some goals on Patreon would serve as a way to keep my costs low initially and slowly improve the site as I begin to be able to afford it. For example, right now you can only download up to 8k resolution for each HDRI. Once the first goal of $100 is met, 16k downloads will be enabled as I’ll be able to afford the higher bandwidth costs.
But it’s not just a boring matter of keeping the site afloat, there are more exciting goals too like releasing HDRIs more frequently, shooting backplates with every HDRI, and even shooting HDRIs from a drone. You can see on the Patreon page that each goal has it’s own funding target and explains what the extra money is needed for.
Ultimiately, HDRI Haven is no longer just my adventure. It’s entirely up to the community, up to you, to determine what happens with it.
If you like the HDRIs that I make and want to help me keep making them, consider supporting me on Patreon even if it’s just $1 a month.
If you want to do more, you can also help by spreading the word. If you use one of my HDRIs in your work and publish it online, you can mention where you got it (even though this is not required) which might bring new people to the site.
Well that’s it for now! I have no idea if any of this is going to work, but thanks for reading anyway 🙂