Become an Independent Photographer in 2012

As 2011 comes to an end, it’s time to start planning for the year ahead. For professionals, that means looking at the most successful marketing channels of the last twelve months, understanding which demographics were most likely to hire them and increasing efforts to bring in more work and at higher prices in the coming year. For enthusiasts, it means trying to figure out how they can increase  — or at least hold onto — their current rate of sales. In 2012, that’s likely to mean a more independent approach to marketing, a move towards relying on their own efforts to reach buyers instead of hoping for stock agencies to do it for them.

The problem is most clearly seen in microstock where saturation has spread revenues among contributors and lowered returns per image. It is still possible to make sales on microstock, and enthusiasts looking for a little extra boost to their incomes with some low-cost imagery can still send in their photos and hope for a small second revenue stream from commercial photography’s biggest open gate. But even though less than two percent of market leader iStock’s photographers are said to be responsible for half the site’s sales, the trend on returns is clearly downwards. More photographers are earning, but they’re taking home smaller amounts each, making the costs of shoots harder to justify economically.

The easiest alternative isn’t great either. Getty’s deal with Flickr, which lets the stock giant negotiate and administer sales of images on behalf of Flickr members who opt into its program, moved thousands of images within months of its launch. But with royalties as low as 20 percent for the photographer, it’s little wonder that 500px chose not to follow the Yahoo-owned photo site into Getty’s arms.

Do It Yourself

The reason that Getty’s deal is so questionable for Flickr’s photographers also suggests what may be the most powerful solution in general for enthusiasts looking to make a little extra cash: why give 80 percent of your revenues to Getty when it’s possible to negotiate your own deals?

That’s not entirely straightforward, of course. Flickr photographers who want to sell their own images need to make a note in the description that their photos are available for licensing. They need to respond quickly and professionally (flaky sellers are a major reason that buyers prefer to deal with reliable middlemen like Getty) and they need to indicate that they have model releases available when appropriate. Most difficult of all, they need to know how much to charge. But Getty’s own price quotes can provide a good source of comparison, and when you’re taking home 100 percent of the sales price, you can also undercut them, making up for the lack of Getty’s reputation.

It’s that direct approach to winning clients and customers that can work for any kind of photographer.

All photographers, both amateurs looking for occasional sales and professionals who need those sales, should have their own website. There’s no shortage of easy and low-cost options, from Photoshelter’s templates (which are used by some of the world’s leading independent photographers) through services like FolioLink, which has ecommerce built in, to simple Flash-based modular sites like those offered at MoonFruit. The building and hosting is now easy, giving all photographers their own unique space on the Web to show off their style, their approach and their very best work.

No less importantly, it also gives prospects, having viewed their work, a way to contact them and enquire about pricing, commissions and sales.

Facebook for Events, Etsy for Art

But while the building is simple, bringing in the traffic won’t be. Search engine optimization is time-consuming, unreliable and difficult. Online advertising is competitive and the days when you could buy clicks for five cents each are long gone. Advertise for “wedding photographer New York” on Google’s AdSense program and you’ll be paying around 50 cents per click.

Having built their sites then, enthusiasts will need to rely on more guerilla methods of generating sales and building a client base. Social media will clearly be one of them. Although Facebook advertising has proven to be notoriously ineffective for most kinds of business, with high prices and low clickthrough rates, photographers have been able to enjoy the viral effect of face-tagging as well as the ability to target advertising to specific demographics. It’s a method that works for some kinds of photography: wedding photographers are doing well on the site; stock photographers not so much. Those photographers would be better off licensing directly from their own sites and using blog posts and forum contributions about their particular niche to build their reputation and establish a unique place in the market.

For fine art photographers, sales have never been easy, and art always struggles most when economies are in the doldrums. But there are independent options for them too. Etsy is pretty full of photographers, and buyers usually want a bit of image manipulation on photos that match the seasons or which show famous locations. But it is possible to make sales on the site — and having made sales, it’s always possible to convert those customers into a fan base by collecting email addresses, sending a newsletter, keeping them informed on Twitter and thinking of the site as a place not to deliver the odd image but to find regular buyers who love your style.

And while online selling can be frustrating, technical and time-consuming, selling at art fairs can be a lot of fun. You’ll only be able to do it occasionally. Winning a spot at the fair might not be easy (competition for photography places can be as high as ten or even twenty to one). And the expenses involved in obtaining a booth and display materials can be eye-watering. But photographers who do sell at art fairs report healthy profits, and in judged fairs awards can lead to new interest from gallery owners.

That would take you back to a middle man — one who will usually take 50 percent of your sales price — but it would make the marketing efforts a lot easier.

4 comments for this post.

  1. Maui Photo Festival (@mauiphotofest) Said:

    Become a professional in 2012.

  2. Sam Said:

    I read your article with interest, as I co-own a microstock site which endeavours to reduce some of the issues with photographers making money this way.

    We're and we have a slightly different proposition to the 'normal' microstock marketplaces.

    We offer all our customers the opportunity to download a small, low-res version of our images for free, so they're good for kids' school projects, smart phone backgrounds, etc. If customers want a larger/high-res version then they have to pay for it.

    This proposition means that we get exceptionally high traffic for a site with relatively few images (compared to some of our larger competitors).

    Giving images away (albeit small ones only) may not seem a great idea for photographers, however with us they'll receive 75% of all sales made; which we think more than makes up for the freebies. So the person with the talent gets the bulk of the rewards - we get our 25% for providing the distribution channel.

    This way the photographer wins, the customer wins and, we'll admit it, we win too (we need to stay in business after all!).

    We'd welcome your comments on whether you think this way of microstocking makes more sense to you and if you can see more potential for sites like ours in the future.

  3. Laurie Said:

    Sam, I think you idea is brilliant. I for one will be using your site regularly, now I know about it.

    I think that the business of photography is changing, drastically, and I for one am really excited to see where it goes.

    I''ve just launched a site ( for event photographers, where I encourage the use of Facebook for marketing. It's a really awesome way for the potential customers to find out about photos, and then I can connect them directly with the sales mechanism, and yes, it seems to work really well.

  4. Bryan Said:

    I'm always looking for ways to make Facebook work better for me and there are some good tips here

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