The Hardest Way to Make Money from Your Images (and How to Make it Easier)

Photography: grewlike

There are lots of different ways to make money from your images. You can license their use and see them appear in ads or on websites. You can shoot them on commission and hand out bumper albums to beaming wedding couples. And you can photograph for the media and see your images accompanying news reports and articles to name just three.

Those are all enjoyable and rewarding but they’re not as satisfying as selling your photos as prints. When someone buys a framed copy of one of your pictures they’re not making a comment on the usefulness of your image – Does it suit the sales message? Does it spark a memory? Does it capture the story? – they’re passing judgment on the quality of your photography. Only beautiful pictures sell as prints and there’s no clearer indication that your photograph is beautiful than that someone is prepared to pay to own it.

Offering Prints is Easy, Selling Them is Hard

That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to sell prints. There’s no shortage of beautiful pictures available – even if everyone’s idea of beauty is different – but there is a limited number of people prepared to buy photography, and a limited amount of wall space on which to display it.

Nor is there a lack of channels to put those prints into the hands of buyers. As FotoLibra, with its 1,000-plus different licensing prices shows, stock photography is complex and challenging. Taking orders for prints however is very simple. Even Flickr allows viewers to order images through Qoop while PhotoBiz includes a complete printing, ordering and payment system.

It’s no surprise then that with so many images available, it’s so difficult to make a sale. Josh McCulloch, a professional photographer whose revenue streams include commissions, stock, prints and postcards, reports that prints make up the smallest part of his income.

There are ways to make things at least a little easier. Farmboy Fine Arts, for example, acts like a conventional stock site but instead of accepting images of smiling call center clerks and families jumping in fields, it looks for artistic photographs that could be used to decorate hotel restaurants and spas. The images are sold as prints and the photographer receives a royalty for each use but it’s likely to have fewer customers than stock companies so contributors could be in for a long wait before they make their first – and subsequent – sales.

And when an image is sold to a corporation, there is still a sense that it’s serving a purpose rather than being bought for its beauty alone. (Farmboy Fine Arts does also place images in homes but most of its work is done for institutions rather than for private clients.)

Sales for Crafty Photographers

One alternative which markets to individuals is, a craft site which charges contributors a usage fee. The costs keep the quality high – only people with reasonably good products are likely to contribute — and ensures that artists and craftspeople work hard to make a return on their investment.

And they do need to work hard because with more than 76,000 photographs available for sale on Etsy, the competition is fierce here too. Etsy though makes the sales a little easier by allowing buyers and sellers to meet in the forums. Although that’s not quite as effective as being able to walk up to a shopper in your own gallery and ask if they need any help, it does allow contributors to build relationships that might lead to deals. It’s a system that some photographers have found effective enough to generate their very first print sales.

Building those sorts of relationships online is difficult and time-consuming. A conversation that can drag on for weeks in a forum could last just a few minutes had it been held face-to-face. That’s one of the things that makes art fairs so attractive to photographers – that and the fact that you can be certain that people visiting are the sort who tend to buy art and that they’re likely to be in a mood to do so.

The challenge at art fairs though is being accepted in the first place. Photography is often one of the most over-subscribed art forms submitted to acceptance committees (jewelry-making is the other) and acceptance rates of just one in nine are not unusual. Exhibitors also have to invest in display material such as a tent and container bins, they must ensure that their images are protected from the sticky fingers of browsers, include enough framed examples to encourage buying, and offer photos in a range of different prices to suit buyers of every budget. All of that requires an up-front investment.

But with sales that reach four figures a distinct possibility, you wouldn’t need to exhibit in more than a handful of fairs each year to generate some very useful extra cash.

And perhaps the best benefit of selling at art fairs is that winning prizes at juried events can help to attract the attention of gallery owners. This is always going to be the best way to sell prints. Gallery owners don’t just provide a venue and marketing power. They can also offer career advice, pricing suggestions and allow the photographer time to do what he or she does best: create images.

Being accepted by a gallery is probably the hardest way to sell images though. Gallery owners tend to prefer photographers to make appointments than drop in and they’ll expect to see a resume and an artist’s statement as well as a record of previous shows even if many of them are group exhibitions. It’s the name and history that sells at galleries as much as the images themselves.

When you’re looking to sell your images as prints, the biggest and most important challenge is always going to be to create beautiful photographs. After that, the work begins.

2 comments for this post.

  1. cencurut Said:

    Yeah, you're right. It's very hard to sell even for a penny. One thing for sure, there is no way for you to detect your photo being use in other part of the World (i.e in Timbuktu).

  2. Alfredo Lietor Said:

    There's a new site (still in beta) from Germany (from the guys at Lumas) called Whitewall. It's an online lab, and online gallery...

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