The difference between a professional who makes a living out of photography and an enthusiast looking for his or her first sale isn’t always talent. There’s no shortage of mediocre photographers using their cameras to pay the rent, and there’s no shortage too of photography lovers with a great eye and a portfolio filled with valuable but unsold images. Much of the difference between a reliable revenue stream from photography and just the thrill of a great picture comes down to a few key pieces of knowledge.
The first piece of knowledge is the hardest to pick up. Professionals know how to price their pictures. They understand the market rates for the kinds of images they produce, the type of photography they do and the amount that the market is willing to pay for them. It’s something that every professional struggles with as they launch their business and it’s a calculation that’s even harder for an enthusiast to make.
For professionals, the cost of their equipment and the need to pay expenses and bills provide a foundation on which to base their prices: if the profits they’re making on the sales aren’t enough to cover the rent, they’re know they’re going to be looking for another career. Non-professionals however, who see any sale as bonus revenue, are often clueless about market rates and are willing to push down prices to land a sale. Buyers, of course, are only too willing to encourage them.
Your First Mistake
The result might well be an enthusiast’s first sale, but it will also be the enthusiast’s first mistake. When Brandy, a photographer in Spokane, Washington, sold her first framed print, she had no idea what to charge, so she asked for fifty bucks, a price that looked about right. By the time she’d taken out the shipping, framing, printing and matting costs however, she found that she’d earned exactly what the picture had cost her to produce.
There are few easy solutions to the challenge of getting the pricing right — and even professionals frequently get it wrong, usually when middling photographers charge prices that reflect a generous self-assessment of their talent — but the good news is that you can learn and make corrections. Begin with market research, looking at the amounts that other photographers in your area are charging for similar types of pictures, then negotiate keeping in mind the buyer and his ability to pay. Remember that one pricing issue that professionals often neglect is that the sort of buyers who turn to enthusiasts are often the type who don’t have a budget to pay professional prices. They’re willing to put up with the difficulties of dealing with an amateur in return for the low fee. Charging top rates then because that’s what others charge, could cost the deal.
Finding prices to make comparisons is relatively easy. Knowing where to find the buyers though — and how to catch their eye — is much harder. This isn’t something you’re going to pick up just by looking at other photographers’ work. It’s specialized knowledge that needs to be learned and pulled out of more experienced photographers. Browsing Flickr, for example, will reveal the value of including website links in image descriptions and indicating that the photos are available for sale to buyers browsing the site for unusual shots. But you have to know that buyers are on Flickr in the first place. You also have to know how to use the site’s stats to assess traffic flows, what it takes to hit the Explore page, and the value of networking to build an audience.
Similarly, while anyone can upload images to microstock sites, it’s the experienced and successful microstock photographers who know what kind of images sell the best, how to create them, and how many images to shoot and upload each week to maintain a steady revenue flow.
Most importantly, those photographers are aware of what buyers want.
Know What Buyers Want
That’s the most critical piece of knowledge that photography sellers need — and enthusiasts tend to lack. It goes beyond the value of a well-taken image — there are millions of beautiful photos easily available on the Web that never receive offers — to a recognition that buyers aren’t looking to pick up a picture simply because they like the aesthetic. They want to use the image, perhaps to illustrate a blog post, maybe on an ad design, or perhaps on a book cover. Even if they’re buying a picture to hang in a spot on a wall it has to be a photo that matches the design in the room and the taste of the buyer. Beauty alone won’t cut it.
It’s that understanding that has made successful microstock photographers out of contributors like Andres Rodriguez and iStockPhoto’s Lise Gagné. Both began their careers not as photographers but as graphic designers — the type of people who most frequently buy images and understand what other buyers need.
There is a difference between shooting for yourself and shooting for money, and it’s the photographers who know those differences who make sales and continue to make sales.
And they know two other things as well, both of which are difficult lessons for even the most enthusiastic of photographers to absorb.
They know that creating the kinds of pictures and putting them in front of buyers willing to pay for them takes time. You can create a portfolio on a microstock site today, but it takes longer to create the kind of pictures that sell and put together a large enough portfolio to bring in lots of sales. It takes patience build a Flickr following that will attract the attention of buyers (and perhaps even Getty), and as for search engine optimization, that requires both the patience of Job and his willingness to absorb punishment.
But making sales also requires action. Knowledge about selling pictures is only useful when it’s applied. It’s not enough to know that business images sell best on microstock sites, for example, or that it’s a good idea to leave space for text on images offered to designers. You have to shoot, edit and upload those kinds of images too.
The most important piece of knowledge that professional photographers possess then, is knowing that sales don’t come in — you have to go out and get them.