Photography: alice popkorn
As the Christmas countdown continues, stores and businesses are moving into high gear to cash in on the shopping spree. For photographers too, the holiday represents an important opportunity not just to fill stockings with new lenses, light meters and other gifted gear but to produce images that match the demand of the season.
The most obvious opportunity lies in cards and calendars. According to Calendars.com, a site that specializes in the niche, about 52 million calendars are sold each year, generating almost half a billion dollars in revenue. And, of course, most of those sales happen towards the end of the year as the current calendar runs out of pages.
While calendars and cards do represent an opportunity for photographers though, it’s not an easy one to make the most of. Large publishers such as Andrews McMeel, which used to produce the top selling The Far Side calendar until Glen Larson stopped licensing it in 2008, make clear that they focus on calendars
“related to best-selling books, popular cartoonists, well-known columnists, and highly rated television shows. Calendars that do not have this type of ‘built-in appeal’ often have a difficult time competing with our other calendars at retail…”
It’s a fair warning. While producing a set of twelve images on a niche subject such as dogs, cats or Corvettes, is simple enough for a photographer with a focused interest, getting them into stores will always be difficult, and selling them will be harder still.
Skipping the Stores
There are alternative strategies though. Sites like Etsy, Zazzle and Cafepress let photographers skip the retail stores and sell directly to the public. But even here, you’re likely to find yourself competing with the cute and the copyrighted as well as calendars that are just plain cruddy. Print-on-demand services like these do allow photographers to create calendars with minimal risk, but the chances of making meaningful sales are low without plenty of advanced marketing. Retail stores can pick up custom from passers-by who spot them on the shelves; online sellers however, need to tell people that they’re there, something that requires both effort and expense.
A simpler option is to use the calendars and cards not as retail products but as marketing tools. Instead of hoping to recoup the time spent on production through sales, create a smaller production run, send the cards and calendars to clients, and remind previous buyers that you’re still around. The calendars will sit on the desk through the year keeping you at the top of a client’s mind when they need to head back to the studio or whenever someone asks them for a recommendation.
The rewards won’t come right away, as they might when you try to sell calendars, but without investing in heavy marketing they’re likely to pull in more income over the year as a whole.
The choice of subject though is going to be crucial. A wedding photographer might be hoping to keep the referrals flowing, but few people will want to put up a calendar that shows images from someone else’s nuptials — or even their own. The calendar shouldn’t necessarily be a piece of advertising so much as a gift that also delivers a marketing punch. A collection of floral images, landscape photos or even the traditional cats and dogs can work provided it keeps the calendar on the desk and the name of the photographer at the top of the client’s mind.
Calendars and cards might be big business at the end of the year but they’re not the only products that buyers are snapping up in the holiday season. Retailers, media companies, even websites need images with seasonal themes.
It’s More Than Just a Bauble
For many of the biggest publishing companies, Christmas pictures are already old hat in early December. Seasonal images have been in demand for a couple of months already as they prepare the adverts and creative material that they’d need for the holiday season. Even little more than two weeks before Christmas Day itself though, seasonal images are still dominating the download charts at microstock sites, suggesting that some buyers at least have left their Christmas shopping late in the day.
The problem with producing seasonal images though is that they have a short period of popularity before they lie dormant until the next season. A search on PicNiche for the popularity of the keyword “Christmas” shows a sharp spike in demand from around November then a vertical drop at the end of the year. The annual sales opportunity for seasonal images can be measured in weeks as much as in dollars. More worryingly, PicNiche’s data also shows that the competition for Christmas pictures is intense. Even though demand is still reasonably high in December, PicNiche can only deliver a rating of 0.09, where anything less than 10 is considered to represent a “bad” chance of making a sale.
Selling Christmas-themed stock can be a good strategy then, but it’s probably best to fold the images into a naturally growing inventory, deliver them early to make the most of the relatively short period available each year, look for profits in future years — and make sure that they’re good enough to stand out from a massive crowd looking for quick sales. Decorations that can function as backgrounds can work well. The two highest selling Christmas images on iStock at the moment both show baubles and leave plenty of room to add copy. They’ve managed to deliver more than 12,600 downloads between them, although both have been on the site for more than three years. Traditional snowy scenes can work well too, of course.
Creating images for Christmas then can bring in revenues. But it’s not easy and it might not happen in time to pay for the presents. On the other hand, you could just skip the whole thing, enjoy playing with your new accessories and start thinking about all the valuable images you’re going to create in time for Valentine’s Day.