The Day I Sold My First Photo — Three Photographers’ Stories

Photography: Diego Lema

The moment that you sell your first picture is always special.

Above all, it’s a vindication of your talent, a passport into the world of valued photography.

But it’s also some useful extra cash, and it can be the start of a whole new income stream as well as a wonderful way of making a second living.

For Diego Lema, an Argentine model and graphic designer, it happened through Flickr. After taking up photography as a hobby in 2005, Diego began shooting self-portraits, enjoying the freedom of being behind the lens instead of in front of it.

Comments from other Flickr members encouraged him to continue posting images, until one day Diego found a message in his Flickrmail from Rothschild & Bach, a Dutch publishing company. They had seen this self-portrait in his Flickr stream and wanted to use it on the cover of a book by Escober, the pen-name of authors Esther and Berry Verhoef.

“They made me an overview of the history of the book and my photo represented very well the history of the main character,” Diego told us in Spanish. “Then we made the financial agreement. It was not a lot of money, considering that I was the model, photographer and digital re-toucher. Obviously, it turned out to be very easy and economical for them, but for me it was more important to have a cover of a book in Europe with my name in the credits. That’s something very difficult to achieve, even as a model.”

Photography: Diego Lema

And the opportunity didn’t end there. Esther and Berry Verhoef contacted Diego to tell him how happy they were that his image appeared on their book, and asked him to shoot self-portraits for the next three titles in the series.

Diego himself then contacted a publisher in Spain. The publishers agreed to place his photos on the covers of three of its books.

“Definitely my passion for photography has increased as a result of these experiences,” Diego said. “[To hold] the book in my hands is the greatest satisfaction but above all read my name printed on the credits of the book is what gives me the greatest pleasure. It is to see a dream come true: to be recognized as a photographer.”

“This Image Didn’t Cost Anything!”

Photography: Matt Pagel

Flickr also provided a starting point for Matt Pagel. A graphic designer who works for Google, Matt started taking pictures while at college. Unlike Diego, Matt tends to avoid shooting people, preferring to focus on buildings and long-exposure night-shots.

In fact, it was a lucky break while taking photographs at a sneak preview event at the new de Young Museum in San Francisco that led to Matt’s first publication, and eventually his first print sales too.

“I was not aware at the time, but my photos of the de Young preceded any ‘official’ photos of the building released by the museum,” Matt explained. “At that time, the museum was fenced off 24 hours a day so my photos were the first look at the museum for a lot of people.”

Photography: Matt Pagel

Once he uploaded the image to his stream. Matt’s Flickr views spiked and he was contacted by a magazine in the UK called Icon asking if they could use the photo. The message sounded very humble, Matt told us, and also mentioned that while they couldn’t pay, they would provide a credit. Believing that he was dealing with a small online publication, Matt agreed to let Icon use the photo and asked that they send him a link when the piece came out.

His contact instead sent him a printed copy of their oversized, professionally laid-out design magazine, giving Matt mixed feelings about allowing his image to be used for free — especially when he saw how the magazine had used it.

“It was so exciting to see my photographs printed in such a well-designed magazine,” Matt said. “However, the title of the article: ‘This image didn’t cost Icon anything.’ made me feel a bit duped.”

The article was about how amateur photographers with good cameras were able to produce high quality images at very little cost. That’s not a position we have an argument with but “little cost” isn’t the same as no cost and the article didn’t mention that both Matt and the other photographer featured in the piece were professional designers who had studied photography.

If the publication itself was a little disappointing, what happened next wasn’t. Matt told his friends about the publication and asked contacts who travel to Europe to bring back copies so that he could share them.

“Due to the word-of-mouth I created amongst my group of friends, trying to find extra copies of the magazine, a friend-of-a-friend somehow saw the photos and asked if I’d be willing to frame some for her house,” Matt explained. “This time, I asked for money!”

In fact, Matt asked for $50 more than the cost of the framing — not a huge sum, but more than the amount demanded by Brandy, a 25-year old photographer in Washington State when she sold her first image less than a year after taking up photography….

From One Sale to 80

Photography: The Way You Look At Me

Although Brandy does have a stream on Flickr, her first image sale came through, an online marketplace for arts and crafts. While both Diego and Matt had done nothing to achieve their first sales (beyond shooting good pictures and making them public), Brandy networked deliberately, spending an hour on the site each day, handing out business cards to people she met, posting bulletins on MySpace and writing about her photography on her blog.

One day, someone she had been communicating with through the Etsy chat room told Brandy that she and her husband wanted to buy her photo of a tree reflected in a puddle — and they wanted it framed and ready to hang.

“I was so excited,” Brandy recalled. “Because it was the first photograph that I had sold that had a frame, I had no idea what to charge. So I just charged her $50 and she was so ecstatic. Once I shipped the item though, I had wished that I had done more research before selling at such a low price.”

Once Brandy had taken off the cost of framing, matting and shipping across the country, she found that she had just about met her expenses.

But knowing that her photos we good enough for people to buy gave her the confidence both to keep shooting and to keep marketing.

“[It] led me to the opportunity to display my photographs at a local coffee house,” she said. “I ended up selling a framed photo the first day my photos were up! I’ve since sold upwards of 80 prints.”

It would be easy to say that what all of these photographers’ stories have in common is that the first sale tends to be for very little money.

That might be true but it would also miss the point. The first sale is mostly remembered as the day they became photographers… and the last time they charged too little for an image.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Victor Said:

    Great article! Very motivating for an amateur with aspirations. Thanks!

  2. Steff Said:

    I have done business with Brandy through! I purchased the print shown in this article. It's truly a beautiful piece!

  3. Smudgechris Said:

    Great article as Victor has said above.

    Very inspiring and makes me excited for the day I finally sell my first print!

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