Once you’ve developed your talent, honed your skills, loaded up on the equipment and filled a hard drive or two with folders full of beautiful, well-shot images, you’ll be ready to start putting your pictures in the market. But the market might not be ready for you. Whichever branch of photography you want to focus on and whatever kind of images you want to shoot, you should always expect to have to wait between making your pictures or skills available for sale, and actually seeing that first check.
Microstock appears to be the easiest market to break into. To offer images through sites like iStock and Fotolia, you won’t need to build a website or do any marketing yourself. You’ll just have to register, upload your images and wait for them to be approved, a process that won’t take more than a few days.
The sales though may take a lot longer.
iStock has an inventory of around 10 million photos and sold an estimated 21.5 million downloads in 2011. But despite receiving contributions from more than 100,000 photographers the site is dominated by a relatively small group. More than 90 percent of all the images in the collection are owned by little more than a third of the contributors. Fewer than 200 photographers are responsible for one in four of all the sales that iStock has made in its history.
You could get lucky when you upload a photo to a microstock site. It’s possible that you’ll have taken just the right unusual image at just the moment that someone needs it. It’s more likely though that your photo will join the thousands of others on the same topic, which have been on the site longer, sold more downloads and because they have a track record will be returned higher in the search results.
Your sales won’t start coming in until your inventory has grown large enough for one of your images to stand a chance of being spotted. You’ll then need to keep that inventory growing — and accept that you probably still won’t make enough money to cover the cost of production.
Art Fairs Take Advance Bookings
The problem with microstock is that because anyone can join, the competition will beat you most of the time. Art fairs are easier places to make sales because the competition is restricted. Juries check applications keeping out as many as 90 percent of artists hoping to show.
That already means you could be waiting a while. You won’t be ready to show at an art fair until you’ve produced a good body of work with a clear style and theme, and understand the quality of work that art fairs are looking for. Until that happens, you’ll be getting rejections. And even if you do make it through the selection procedure, you’ll still have to wait. Applications for art fairs begin a good six to eight months before the fair opens. Between shooting a collection of images good enough to sell, and actually making that first sale at an art fair, you could be waiting the best part of a year.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t choose to sell at art fairs. They’re often a good way to get your foot in the door of the galleries. Just don’t expect either of those opportunities to open just at the moment you’re ready for them.
Prints Depend on Trust and Attention
To have a chance of pitching your images to buyers at an art fair, you’ll first need to persuade a jury that your photos are likely to sell. Offer your prints online and you’ll get to pitch directly and without asking anyone’s permission first.
Like microstock, that should be fast and easy. Flickr and 500px both allow members to offer their images as prints so there’s no need even to build a website.
But you will need traffic — and that takes time. On a website that means getting your search engine optimization right, promoting blog posts and trying to build links and keyword-rich content, all of which can take months. On social platforms like Flickr and 500px, you can take part in a slightly more enjoyable process of commenting and following, and joining photography groups on subjects you find interesting.
Your ability to land sales through those sites will depend not just on your images being high quality but on your name being known. Buyers won’t just want to own a beautiful shot of a landscape. They’ll want to own your beautiful shot of a landscape. They want to own a print by someone they consider — or would like to consider — a friend. It takes months, at least, before your activity builds that level of trust either on a website or on a social platform like Flickr and 500px.
Word of Mouth Travels Slowly
For photographers who rely on bookings and commissions clients tend to come in through two channels. Some wedding photographers describe word of mouth as their main client generator while others say that it’s their optimized website that brings in the bulk of their leads. We’ve already seen that climbing the search engines can take “weeks or even months” and referrals are little quicker. If your first shoot was a portfolio-builder for friends, you’ll have to wait until one of their friends gets hitched before you can benefit from that single shot at a referral. It’s only when you have lots of clients that those referral processes really start to kick in.
It would be great to be able to say that all of those wonderful images on your website can be shifted to buyers within minutes. But in practice, it rarely works that way. It took you a long time and plenty of practice to learn how to shoot images good enough for people to want to buy. Selling them might not take that long but don’t expect to start your photo-selling with the same skill and ability with which that you now take pictures.