Learning from a Photo Sale

Photography: Janet Towbin

The biggest challenge for any photographer hoping to sell their images isn’t understanding lighting, f-stops or composition.

It’s understanding the market.

You can read up about lighting, play with your camera settings and re-frame shots until you create the effect you want. The image on the screen will tell you right away how you’re doing. If the lighting’s off, the shadows will be too dark or the background too bright. If your focus is wrong, you’ll be bothered by the blur. And if the composition isn’t balanced, you’ll see what you need to change to create the harmony you’re looking for.

Then it’s just a matter of doing the same thing until you’re ready to move on to the next technique.

But the market doesn’t tell you anything.

Put up an image for sale, hear nothing and you’ll have no idea why. You won’t know if the image is wrong for the market, if you’re marketing it in the wrong way to the wrong people or if there’s just something wrong with the pictures you’re shooting.

It’s only when you make a sale that you actually make contact with the market. At that point, it’s vital to collect all the information you can to increase the chances that that sale will happen again – and soon.

Learning What Sold your Photo

The first thing you learn is what sold. That’s not just the image itself but the different elements that make up the image. Every photo contains a number of different parts and if you can identify which of those attracted the buyer the most — the subject of the photo; the style; the price – you should find it easier to repeat the trick and continue making sales.

The simplest solution is to ask the buyer what he liked about the photo, but that’s not always possible. The only alternative is to look at the other images the buyer would have seen and pay attention to the differences. If the buyer was faced with two images showing a similar scene, then the differences in the photo he bought can tell you a great deal about what your market is looking for in an image.

You also have an opportunity to learn about your customers. You could be selling your images to a range of different kinds of buyers. Many of the images sold on Flickr, for example, are bought by Web designers and publishers. On Etsy, a site for arts and crafts, you’re more likely to find small art-lovers looking for attractive items to decorate their homes.

Those are big differences but even small differences in buyer demographics can have a large effect on your marketing and your sales. Young, trendy buyers and design houses tend to want different images – and look for them in different places – in comparison to older couples who might just want a nice photo for their condo.

Again, you can’t always ask your buyers to complete a survey each time they make a purchase – which is why sites like Facebook, which are filled with demographic details, are so valuable – but you can chat with them and ask them how they plan to use your image. All of that information can help make sure that you put your pictures where your buyers are most likely to be.

Where are your Buyers from?

A third piece of information you can pick up from a sale is how your buyers found you.

Flickr’s stats can reveal which search terms that people who found your images were using, and help you to optimize your tags to catch more of them.

Your server stats can tell you which sites buyers were looking at before they reached yours.

And even looking at the metadata on Web pages that have used your images can provide you with some information about the terms the buyer thinks best suit your photos.

If you can see that you’re getting a lot of views and sales from people who click a link on a site on a related topic, for example, it might be worth talking to the publisher about running an ad on those pages.

And the easiest piece of information you can learn from a sale is where your customers bought the image from… but that’s no less valuable for being easy to discover.

There are lots of different platforms that let photographers sell their images. You can set up your own website, upload your photos to stock sites, create an optimized Flickr stream, place them on products and use any one of a gazillion other methods to move your photos.

You’ll probably do more than one of them.

And you’ll probably also find that most of your sales come from just one or two of the strongest streams. Microstock photographer, Lee Torrens, for example, uploads his photos to half a dozen sites but finds that iStockPhoto outperforms the others.

Spread your images around to maximize your options but when you know which outlets deliver the best, you can focus your marketing efforts to make them more efficient.

Every time you make a sale, you make money. But you also uncover intelligence about your market that could be worth far more than the cash you earn for the print or the license. Don’t leave that money behind.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Henrik Said:

    It is important to learn out of you sales. Unfortunately its sounds easy, but it is not so easy to create the information and understand the results of your analytic tools.

  2. laura ann Said:


    i was just offered to show my photos in a local resturant that allows artists to show their work (usally upward of $800 per painting).

    what should i price my work at? this is my first "show"

    [email protected]

  3. dcpatton Said:


    how are you selling photos on flickr? do you mean via the gettyimages.com flickr group?


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