By Gary Gray
Let me begin with a common joke amongst photographers.
What’s the difference between a large pepperoni pizza and a photographer?
A pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.
It’s a silly joke but it does contain an element of truth.
I can’t possibly cover every angle concerning this topic, but I can relate a few of the things I’ve experienced and some of the knowledge I’ve acquired along the way.
How can you make money in photography?
When I began my photography business in 2006, I wasn’t totally in tune with the realities of being a professional photographer. I had a business plan, I had the photographic skills, I had the equipment, but I didn’t have the actual experience of working and earning income as a photographer. I started with event and wedding photography. Both at the time were good sources of income and I didn’t find it all that difficult to get the hang of it in a confident and competent way. I did a lot of this type of work for about 6 years but the market conditions changed and my interest in it waned.
It isn’t uncommon for people who have been involved with photography at an amateur level to delve off into the world of making money with their passion. The reality is that it’s not that hard to make money but it’s far more difficult to make enough money to support yourself and a family.
Fundamentally, you’ll need to understand and practice a few basic business concepts.
Top of the line professional grade cameras aren’t a requirement. All you need is a competent camera body and competent lenses. Gear that doesn’t keep you from being successful. We all hear about iPhone photographers but I doubt you’ll find many serious photographers using their mobile phone as a primary camera.
Don’t shoot JPEG images unless you are required to do so. Shoot raw. Not naked, but raw file format. You gain a lot more latitude with editing when you start with a raw file. You can make a better JPEG image with your computer than you can with your camera. Have a decent computer and monitor with proper editing software. Own a decent printer.
Quality of work.
Lets face it. If your photographs are mundane, you are not going to get a lot of business. The world is full of bad photography and if you are trying to sell bad photography; well, good luck. You must master the art of making compelling images, consistently. Learn your camera equipment, learn the fundamentals of photography, learn to competently post process your digital images and learn to make prints of your photographs. Don’t ever try to sell a bad photo or print. You must establish an ethical reputation. If you have all these bases covered, you have a pretty good foundation from which to succeed.
Know your audience.
If you are planning to work on the theory that “if I show them, they will come”, you are in for disappointment. Photographic art, like all other forms of art, has an audience. That audience will vary depending on the type of work you are trying to sell. Also, don’t think small. Selling your photography to a limited audience is going to generate limited results at best. Don’t think local, think global. There are close to 7.6 billion people in the world. If you limit your sales to local people, you will never know your true potential.
Nothing is achieved without a good solid plan and dedication to executing that plan. Want to shoot weddings? You better figure out how to work as a wedding photographer. Another common thing I notice is the inability of amateurs to get out of bed in the morning. If you wish to be a landscape or wildlife photographer, you best learn to get out of bed before sunrise and work until after sunset.
The secret to success is your own motivation to be successful. A lazy attitude about capturing images is a recipe for failure. Most successful wildlife photographers are out working every day. Study your subject matter, know your subject matter. Know where to find your subject matter. Know how to photograph your subject matter. Plan your photography trips around facts, not luck.
Selling photos and photographic services is a business decision. Like any good businessperson, one must learn to maximize profit while controlling costs. For the enthusiast, this means developing the necessary personal and business techniques that will make your efforts profitable. Simple things for the most part.
I look at photography trips as part of a profit plan. I don’t generally plan photography trips to locations or around events and subjects that won’t earn me money. That isn’t to say there is no place for enjoying a variety of photographic activities, however, if you are spending more time and money on getting the photographs you want than those shots will earn you, it could be a very limiting mistake. A big part of the joy of making money with your photography is actually making money with your photography.
My underlying functional objective is to make any photography trip I take pay for itself. That means covering the costs of food, lodging and transportation along with any other miscellaneous things with the sales or business I generate from that trip. Spending more on the trip than it produces as income is a bad business decision. If you have money to throw at things, great. Throwing money at a hobby isn’t a business plan though. It’s a hobby that costs a lot of money.
Group outings to public or private venues are for amateurs. Many of these places are private venues and to get any type of income out of it you either need an agreement to shoot for the venue for their purposes or you need signed property releases and model releases from those venues in order to have salable material. If you are working on private property, you will at the very least need a property release from the owner to market those photographs commercially. Otherwise, they’ll just sit on your computer and only be viewed by the photography club you are in, your friends and family and on Facebook. There’s no money in that. If you take photographs of people, you should have blank model releases with you to get them to sign off on your commercial aspirations. Promoting your business with the likeness of someone else without their permission will get you nowhere.
The single most important thing about selling your photography and services that I can think of is marketing. You are your brand. You are your image. Your work is your product. You have to promote yourself at every opportunity.
I recall one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot once saying, “If you are going to sell something, sell it to people who have money.” The best single line business advice one could ever hear. I suggest you listen to Ross.
People with money to spend will spend that money. Market your photographs to folks who have the money to spend on art.
An interesting thing I’ve discovered is that I make more when I price my art higher. There’s a connoisseur thing happening here. Asking a higher price gives a better impression of viability and less of an impression of desperation.
Make acquaintances and network with people who need to buy art for a specific purpose. Doctors, buildings, hospitals, home sales people decorating model homes like to decorate their walls. From time to time you can get a good order put together for someone who needs to cover the walls of their office or waiting room.
The first thing an aspiring photographer needs to understand is there is no money to be made giving your photographs and services away for free. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the expression “I’m doing it for the exposure.”
Amateurs wrongly believe that obtaining exposure in an over-saturated market is going to improve their odds of getting paying work down the road. Being a good photographer isn’t enough, giving away your photographs for exposure seems to resonate as a way to get your work out there. Surely, the general public will see that my work is a cut above and they will flock to me with wads of cash in hand. If only I can get that recognition.
Thus, they submit their images to publications that don’t pay for publication. Proudly they hail at their photo being selected for inclusion in some magazine or book or on some website.
Publications that actually pay for photographic content don’t normally pay that much. My typical published images in magazines earn anywhere from $50-$250 per publication. To make that profitable, you’d need to aggressively pursue getting your images published. Constant submissions and constant rejections is the order of the day here. I don’t think I’ve earned over $1,500 in any given year getting published. Who cares about exposure? Show me the money.
Alternately, one could self publish. I do that. I create coffee table books, publish my own websites and such, but there can be a lot of time involved with building, printing and marketing your own photography books. You should evaluate what your photography book is going to be about. Is it just another book of photographs? Are you an expert who can teach a subject with a book? It takes a fairly successful photographer to manage making money self publishing but it isn’t unheard of. If you’re making your books on the internet using a book making service, it can cost you upwards of $100 just to make one book. The best approach I’ve found is to make less expensive books in larger quantity and sell them at art shows and festivals. Profit margins are thin though. You can have 50 books printed and only sell 10 of them. If it costs you 20 dollars per book to make, you’ll have to sell it for a profit to actually make money. Based on this example, you could easily drop a couple thousand dollars on a few of cases of books only to make a few hundred dollars in actual profit. Factor in the time it takes you to get the book content ready, design the book and then market that book.
You can try marketing to book companies, but let me tell you, that’s a tough nut to crack. Most book publishers are inundated with submissions and unless you have something really interesting, they won’t bother with you.
For most, publishing books is nothing more than Vanity Press. Doing it to look professional and expert-like for their own personal adulation. Vanity Press is not good exposure either. Paying to have your book published isn’t a secret way to make money, it’s a well known way to lose money.
Another method of marketing can be social media.
Facebook likes don’t earn much money. I wouldn’t plan on being a Facebook photographer as a primary source of income. Social media is a swamp filled with mundane art and no real vehicle for making your photographs pay off. Yeah, you can obtain an occasional print sale and a little attention amongst a very small group of unknown friends, but where’s the beef? If you are a photography enthusiast on Social Media sites like Facebook you may notice that the advertisements you see are proudly pointing you to other people who are photography enthusiasts. Groups you may like, others like you, more exposure. Well, that’s a losing bet. You aren’t going to sell your photographs to other photographers. They have their own and in their mind theirs are better than yours.
What Facebook and other social media does is give you a test bed for your images. By using social media, you can compare the relativity of your work compared to others. Better photos generate more likes and more attention. Occasionally someone will want to purchase a copy of your photography and the knowledge of which of your photos are more likable gives you a feel for which images to market.
Advertising on social media is a hit and miss prospect though. You can spend a lot of money on paid advertisements and not see much return on investment. It’s the presence itself that really matters. If done properly it can be a good way to cultivate your brand and make yourself known to potential future customers. The draw-back is that you don’t have control of how your work is presented and to whom it’s presented.
Ultimately, I find Facebook and other social media to be a big nothing when it comes to making money though. The little business it generates is shadowed by the amount of time you’ll waste trying to use it for consistent sales.
I have a love/hate relationship with photography clubs. For a beginner or for someone looking to improve their skills, clubs can be a good thing. There’s a social aspect to clubs as well. You make friends, you get to compare thoughts in person, you can enter competitions and in some situations it’s possible to receive tangible results from participating.
What clubs don’t do is provide much income except for a very few who try to use the clubs as a platform for promoting their own knowledge. For example, an amateur club member may be knowledgeable about certain aspects of photography and host a club seminar/workshop, where they may charge you a small fee. You can do that too if you have the ability, but we’re talking about a few dollars and nothing approaching a steady way of making meaningful income.
There is also the aspect of learning to be a better photographer in a group environment but for the most part the only people who have found income in photography clubs are established photographers who visit the club to do a presentation or competition judging. Many successful photographers will gladly attend a club meeting in this capacity. They’ll bring their published books in for sale to the members, maybe promote their workshop and sign up a few members.
The money in camera clubs comes from being a presenter and contest judge. Not a member.
Have you ever been to a restaurant and seen art on the wall with a price tag on it? Have you ever been back to that restaurant and seen the same art on the wall that was there a few years earlier? For me the answer to both questions is yes.
It’s a romantic notion that some restaurant patron will become so enamored with your photo on the wall above them that they’ll break out their wallet and ask the waitress to bag it up.
People go to restaurants to eat. They aren’t very good places to sell artwork unless you can get your stuff in the gift shop. I’ve made a few print sales from gift shops but it’s sporadic and not generally a lot of money. Plus you have to give the owner a cut of the action.
You’d be better off to approach the owners and convince them to purchase your prints outright and let them display the print they now own. Maybe get a deal on multiple images, a themed set or something like that.
One of the more enjoyable things I did for several years was to sign up as a vendor at art and street festivals. The experience of interacting with potential customers browsing through your work is enjoyable. You get instant feedback and you can hone your sales skills.
You’ll have quite a bit of overhead at first. You’ll need a tent or booth and table and chairs and point of sales system. You’ll also have to determine what type of display system you’ll use. I’ve seen some photographers set up impressive gallery like displays. Print bins, postcards, books, calendars, and framed artwork hanging on portable walls. If your work is impressive, you can sell a lot of stuff.
You’ll also contend with sales tax licenses and such.
There’s a down side to festivals as well. If you are working from a tent, you will be exposed to the elements. I’ve had some festivals where I’ve sat in the rain for three straight days and not even made enough to cover my entry fee. I once sat through a severe thunderstorm in high winds and rain where the festival goers crowded into my tent just to escape the elements. As soon as it cleared up, gone. You can’t sell photos in a tornado. Indoor venues remove a lot of the potential problems of dealing with weather and can cut down on the amount of stuff you have to haul around and set up.
Not all art festivals are created equal. Some festival organizers are quite adept at getting the right mix of vendors, others seem to not have a clue. As a vendor you don’t want to set up your shop along a row of other photographers. Try to arrange with the organizers to have your own individual spot mixed in amongst a variety of vendors. I like high traffic areas but I can’t stand it when I have three other photographers within eye sight of my tent. It takes away your sales edge. If you can’t create impulse buys, you’ll lose a lot of business. It’s hard for a person to be impulsive when they have an alternative just next door.
Another financial drain regarding festivals is the overhead. You have to keep quite a bit of product inventory. That inventory costs money. You’ll also have to contend with loss from damage and theft. For a few years, I went the distance and had a number of prints custom framed for festival sales. Those framed prints generate a lot of viewing and comments but they don’t sell that well and your profit margin isn’t always good. Framing prints for sale adds a lot of overhead. You can spend quite a bit of money on framing costs for an item that doesn’t sell. The best I’ve been able to tell is that most festival goers aren’t exactly anxious to walk around a festival with a big hunk of wood and glass in their hands. Plus, you will eventually begin damaging your own goods moving them around, packing and unpacking. Your customers and even other vendors can inadvertently destroy your product as well. Spending a couple hundred on a framed photograph that is ultimately damaged and unsalable. Multiply those frames and the costs gets prohibitive.
I eventually quit doing framed print sales. Customers may not like your framing, it doesn’t match their couch or drapes. The costs of constantly replacing damaged items can drain your profits quickly.
I’ve found the best products to sell are prints. Just the prints. I use print bins and easels for displaying larger prints. Protective packaging is inexpensive. Acid free cardboard, plastic sleeves, price tags and stick on labels are far less expensive than big framed prints. I’d also give some thought to using cardboard shipping tubes. I buy them by the case in different sizes and keep them with me at festivals. The ability to roll a print up and place it in a sturdy sealed tube will improve your sales. People are far more willing to carry a mailing tube around with them as they are perusing the other vendors at a festival. Consider offering free shipping to your customers too. They buy the print and you get their address and ship it to them. Very low likelihood of damage that way.
It’s also important that you choose your festivals carefully. Target higher end festivals that are more likely to attract customers with money to spend. State fairs and neighborhood festivals may garner a few sales, but most people out there will be looking for something to look at and not be looking to buy. Think Ross Perot here.
I’ve also found that festivals that include music acts can be problematic from time to time. Nothing against popular music but my best sales have occurred at venues that feature jazz, blues and classical music. Attendees have a different sensibility and purpose. My worst sales occur at Country Music events. I don’t fully know why, but it seems Country music doesn’t really attract the type and number of customers I’d like to have.
As a general rule of thumb, I’ve calculated that I get one print sale for every 80 people who enter my display. A high volume of foot traffic is a must.
The main reason I stopped doing art festivals was that my average profit worked out to be the equivalent of working for $2.50 an hour. The days are long and the expense can be high. From a monetary standpoint, you might be better off working part time at a hamburger joint. But, they are generally fun and can generate some side business that does make money.
Selling your photography in art galleries can be very problematic. It seems all artsy and elite but unless you are famous and are in a good gallery, your sales are not going to knock your socks off. There’s a lot of profit margin to lose in a gallery as well. A typical gallery agreement may be a 60/40 split between you and the gallery, with the gallery wanting the 60%. Some even require you to rent the wall space. Most galleries are in business to make money. They have to limit their own overhead and select the best possible works for their customers. The gallery won’t absorb any of the costs for your framing either, so you are out that costs in overhead as well. I’ve never seen an artist sell out their display. I’ve quit trying to sell in galleries. It’s time consuming and not all that profitable.
When I first got into selling photography, the big topic of discussion was stock photography. A lot of photographers look down on selling stock photographs as if it’s beneath their dignity. A common refrain was “stock photography is ruining the photography business.” Don’t buy into that sentiment. I’ve found selling stock photos to be a very steady source of income. The concept is that any photo not making money has no value. The sales come in small amounts, but on some occasions a stock image can bring in $20 or more in a single sale. I look at it as throwing loose change into a coffee can. When the can gets full, you cash it in for a hundred dollars. The idea is to have a lot of coffee cans and that means you’ll want to sell a lot of images. As with anything else in photography, better images sell more copies. Some of my best selling stock photos can generate up to $50 or more a year. Compound that over the years and one photo can make hundreds of dollars over time. Volume is important though. My stock portfolio is rather small at around 2,000 images at the moment. But, I get paid every month and that is extra money with no overhead.
The added benefit of selling stock photography is that it’s a global market. I sell quite a bit of stock in other countries.
Stock agencies aren’t looking for junk though. You better have good photos that are properly exposed and without technical problems. The technical bar is higher with stock as every agency will review your photo and decide if it meets their high technical requirement for image quality. There is a learning curve to selling stock. Once you get it figured out it’s a perfectly good and respectable way to sell your photographs. You could find one of your stock photos anywhere as a result. I’ve had mine used in books, magazines, on television, in advertisements and on promotional web sites. It’s always fun to be looking through Reader’s Digest and see one of your stock photos in print. It happens and it works.
The beauty of stock photography is that you can mine your image catalogs for stock photos all the time. Think volume though, you won’t earn a ton of money with just a few images. My goal is to build my stock portfolio to 10,000 images. For someone who like to take a lot of pictures, this is obtainable.
Don’t let rejections bother you. At first you may see an acceptance rate of 50% but over time as you improve your knowledge and photography, you can get most of your stock images approved for sale. My average approval rate on the stock agencies is over 95%.
I look at my stock photography as a small pension plan. I won’t get rich by any means but you can earn a steady flow of a few hundred dollars of month if you keep at it. Plus, when you’re gone, they’ll be a great little stipend for your survivors to collect. At the very least, it’s not beyond possibility that stock photography can pay for your photography habit. I highly recommend stock photography for earning extra money.
I hope you’ve found this article to be interesting and informative. I’m sure you can come up with new ideas for making money with your photography as well. You’ll never hit any higher than you aim.