I’ve been selling photographic services and work for more than a decade. Finding a niche price point and marketing my photos to potential buyers has always been somewhat of a struggle. There are two general strategies when it comes to making money – you can sell fewer, more expensive items (generally with higher markup) or a greater quantity of lower priced products. Either way, people need to be able to know your product exists.
I know one photographer who has built his entire brand around limited edition, fine art collectors prints. He only sells large prints, mounted and framed, and operates his own gallery where he hosts fancy parties when he reveals a new piece and exclusive receptions for collectors complete with wine and hors d’oeuvres. His work is gorgeous and outrageously expensive, and he caters to the rich and famous; several of his clients are well known celebrities or socialites. He has won contests and appeared on local TV – his name is out there among people with money who want to spend it.
Then there are the photographers that sell a higher volume of lower priced work. Maybe they sell inexpensive post cards, calendars, and greeting cards at local gift shops, shoot school photos or toddler portraits at the local box store photo studio, supply photos to royalty free stock agencies for a small fee, or deal exclusively in online digital image sales. Buyers might not even know who they are, but their work is readily accessible and affordable.
Many photographers fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, hoping to sell their photos for a modest fee. How do you know which model is right for you? And how do you get people to find and buy your photographs?
While I’ve never demanded an exorbitant amount of money for my photographs, as I simply don’t have the ego to support the mystique of uniquely talented artist nor the temperament to indulge wealthy society types, over the years I have sold a number of larger fine art pieces for what amounted to a very nice unexpected bonus for me. Those buyers have generally found my work through my website. However those sales are few and far in between, and most years I generate very little revenue from photograph sales.
Last year, after a career of demanding strict control over my work, I decided to sign with the stock agency Tandem Stills + Motion and see if they would have any luck in moving my photographs to a larger market. One of my photos sold rather quickly and I was optimistic about more sales. I received a small check fro the usage of the image, then nothing for nearly a year and a half. While my work is no longer represented by Tandem (the relationship was a positive one and ended amicably), I suspect the single sale I got through the agency is one I would likely would not have gotten on my own.
Recently, I started to sell digital files on a website where amateur athletes can purchase photos of themselves participating in an event – the site I use, Roots and Rain, is for mountain biking but no different than websites I’ve seen that sell photos from obstacle course races, town 5Ks, or high school track meets. The price for each photo is very low (less than $10) and since the website takes a cut and payments are processed through PayPal I don’t get very much per image sold, but the visibility is high and in just one event I have made a profit equal to what I have made from selling art prints this year.
In the past I may have frowned on sales like this, but the reality is this: at this point my photography business is more of a hobby on the side than my career. I have another unrelated job to support myself and don’t rely on my income from photography to pay bills. Ideally each year I make enough money from photography so that the hobby supports itself. The less money I make from it, the less I put back into it, and if I have a particularly good year, I’m more likely to buy new gear or upgrade my equipment. So selling work, at whatever profit margin, makes it easier for me to keep shooting.
Also, the photos that I am selling on this website don’t have much other value. While good photos, they are mostly unremarkable – I won’t likely be selling them to ad agencies or winning any contests with them. I currently only sell 3000 pixel high resolution photos for personal use; my buyers are guys who ride mountain bikes and want to show off pictures of themselves racing, usually on social media, which has the added bonus of getting me more publicity when they credit me as the photographer. Since I’m already at these races supporting my boyfriend and taking photos of him, there is no added cost to take photos of other racers, and once those photos exist, why not sell them? While I do spend some time editing and processing the images before they go on the website once they are there the site handles everything for me – sale, distribution, and payment. Once the images are loaded and tagged, I literally have to do nothing but get a paycheck. Overall its a pretty easy way to generate a little extra money from photography and a great confidence boost to see others liking, buying, and linking to my work.
Every photographer needs to decide for themselves what works best. I’ve found that by being flexible with my image and being willing to try new avenues, I’ve succeeded in selling images I never otherwise would have. By giving up a little control, I’ve made sales through my stock agency and Roots and Rain, without the headache of handling every detail of the sale. For me, the reach to more customers and the efficiency of the selling process makes the commission I pay to these websites more than worth it.