Anyone looking at the banks of professional photographers snapping celebrities attending the BAFTA award ceremony in London recently might have assumed they were seeing technology nerds rather than camera geeks. In addition to the Nikons and Canons dangling from the photographers’ necks, there was also a steady line of Macbook Pros hanging from the press barriers. It’s a testament to one of the biggest changes that digital imagery has brought to photography. While a professional photographer would once have had to press his film rolls into the hands of a waiting courier to get his images back to the office as quickly as possible, he’s now expected to load his shots into his computer and ftp them from the location ready to run online even as the event he’s shooting is still taking place.
With the passing of Polaroid, the end of development labs and the rise of digital platforms, it’s tempting for anyone hoping to sell images to think only of file sizes and licenses. Buyers aren’t interested in touching an image, holding it or hanging it; they only want to display it on a monitor — or upload it to a website so that others can see it on their screens.
In fact though, the print market isn’t just alive and kicking; it’s flourishing and growing in a range of different directions, opening up all sorts of new opportunities for savvy photographers.
Photobook Sales Reach 1.2 Million in a Single Year
The clearest evidence of the continued interest in printed images is the rapid growth of Blurb. In 2010, the photobook company’s three-year growth rate of 4,829.6 percent put it 47th on the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies. In 2009 alone, just four years after its launch, Blurb created and shipped more than 1.2 million books, generating sales of $45 million from people who wanted to look at their images on paper rather than through glass.
It’s an opportunity that other print companies haven’t missed. EZPrints, which now provides the printing services to SmugMug and a number of other photo-sharing sites, used to cater primarily to professionals who wanted to create large, professional-grade prints and fine art rather than photo products. That original interest remains, says Evan Kramer, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, but the demand for printed images has now expanded into new products, even among professionals.
“Many pros find that their customers want to create more than just prints of their wedding photos or family portraits. They want to create photo books or canvas prints of their pro shots,” he said. “So pros have had to adapt to changing trends and offer their customers innovative photo display packages.”
Canvas prints and mounted prints are popular home décor products, Kramer says, and personalized stationery in the form of flat and folded cards sell well too. Last year saw a trend for magnet packs, especially for Save the Date announcements that foreshadow formal wedding invitations. And photobooks too have proved to be a valuable element of EZPrint’s range, with different sizes, options and designs appealing to a wide audience.
Individual photographers hoping to cash in on the demand for printed images can make use of a number of solutions. EZPrints styles itself “The Power Behind the Print Button” because it services so many of the print orders on websites, but choosing your own printing company can be complex and demand a fair amount of research.
While a lab that’s reputable, trusted and recommended by other photographers is likely to be safe, says Kramer, photographers should also know what kind of premium products or substrates they offer, whether they have specialized packaging services for large format prints, how frequently they balance and calibrate their printers (professional labs calibrate to a single color target daily and balance the printers hourly to maintain color consistency), and whether the staff is knowledgeable enough to answer specific questions when placing a print order.
The Challenge of Marketing Prints
And that’s just the printing. The real challenge will be winning the orders. If wedding photographers are finding that there’s a demand for large format prints of their best shots, then they’re either going to have to push those prints as upsells during the negotiations or include them in their packages to make their offers more attractive.
If there’s still a demand for Save the Date magnets, then photographers will need to figure out which designs customers are most likely to order. (A picture of the couple might be appropriate but how many people would want a friend’s engagement photo on their fridge door forever? When the magnet carries the name and contact details of the photographer that opportunity to stay visible to a new lead is an important consideration.)
And if stationery sells as well as Evan Kramer suggests then photographers will have to get the pricing, the images and the promotional platforms right to make those sales. Flowers are said to be popular themes on Zazzle but photographers selling online tend to do best when they have a clear creative line that allows them to be distinctive and memorable. That’s easier to do with a subject that requires expertise and props that are hard to find than one as ubiquitous as flowers.
The simplest solution is to head to a product site like Zazzle or a photo-sharing site like SmugMug and rely on the company’s own printing service to fulfill the orders while you worry about the photography and the marketing. But you’d still have to market those services yourself. Even the top-selling books in Blurb’s bookstore tend to have sales figures that are numbered in the dozens rather than the thousands. Most sales appear to be made by professionals on behalf of clients or enthusiasts who want to handle their own images in book form.
It’s an easy solution but one that requires some difficult selling and working with a printing lab does deliver a couple more benefits: it lets you feel like a traditional photographer again — and you too can get to hold the photo before it’s delivered to the customer.