Why You’re NOT Making Photo Sales

There’s only one thing worse than creating images that no one buys: seeing other photographers creating images that people do buy. Now that it’s possible for anyone with a camera to put their photos in front of image users, talented photographers should expect to pick up sales. If that’s not happening to you, there’s probably a good reason.

Or rather, there could be one of several reasons.

The first – and least pleasant to admit – is that your images just aren’t good enough, at least not yet. With such a huge choice of photos now available, buyers are only going to pick the best, and those shots are going to be very good indeed. Your best image might be excellent in comparison those you’ve created before but it also needs to be excellent in comparison to everyone else’s to win a sale. The lighting has to be perfect, the composition exactly right, and the amount of noise at a level suitable for use. A photographer’s justifiable pride in a good image can get in the way of an objective assessment of the photo’s quality. Place similar compositions from other photographers side-by-side and ask someone else which photo they prefer. If they don’t point to yours, you’ll know why your picture isn’t selling – and what you need to do to improve.

Your Images Need to be Good – and Usable

Good though isn’t the same as usable. Stock sites are filled with wonderful pictures of sunsets, flowers and beaches. Buyers need images that can match sales messages, have room to add text or which can illustrate stories. While many photography websites allow viewers to order prints, selling artistic pictures online is notoriously difficult. You’ll always find it much easier to make those sorts of sales on a site like Etsy, possibly on eBay and far more likely away from the Internet at an art fair where browsers are in a mood to buy and you’ll be able to talk to them directly. When you’re looking to make sales online, it’s important to make sure that at least some of them are the sort of pictures that don’t just look good but which a designer can use as easily the top stock images too.

There are though plenty of both excellent and usable images on the Web that could win sales and never do. One reason that can happen is that buyers don’t know they can buy them. Photographer Chris Lupetti reminds viewers on Flickr that his photographs are not available for free use by repeatedly stating that they’re copyrighted. But he also invites buyers to contact him by email if they’re interested in licensing them. He places a message under the image and even tags the copyright message on the photo itself with his website address and an invitation to contact him for creative commissions. That doesn’t just tell buyers how to make an offer. It also tells them that he’s used to doing professional work and available for hire.

Buyers browsing Chris’s images are left in no doubt that they can make contact and pitch him an offer for his photos. That makes it much more likely that they will.

And the fact that they know how to do it is important too. With a million-and-one images to look at and the next good photo just a click away, buyers won’t want to waste too much time hunting around for contact details, an email address or a purchase form.

One reason you’re not selling your pictures could be that buyers simply don’t know how to buy them. Alongside each of your images, include a call to action telling buyers where to go if they’re interested in using the photo. You’ll be helping them to make the offer and helping yourself to land the sale.

You’ve Got to Push to Sell Pictures

Of course, for that call-to-action to be effective, potential buyers will need to see it, and that’s probably the most common reason that good photographers fail to make sales: they’re bad at marketing.

This is a challenge for every creative entrepreneur. The kind of skills and the drive necessary to create good photos are rarely the same as those needed to be a good salesperson. Most photographers would rather be out with their camera, lining up shots and playing with the lighting than optimizing their website for search engines, researching competitors’ packages or pitching to editors and buyers.

For too many photographers, marketing means keywording, tagging and hoping.

But there are a number of small, simple things that any photographer can do and which can have a dramatic effect on the chances of making a sale.

Networking on Flickr, for example – joining groups and talking to other photographers – can be both fun and educational, and raise your profile high enough to be spotted by a buyer. It was her popularity, after all, that attracted a Toyota executive to Rebekka Gudsleifdottir.

An act as simple as sending an email to a photo editor can be enough to persuade them to look at your images and — if they’re good enough — license some.

And even search engine optimization doesn’t have to be too big a drag, especially if you’re prepared to pay someone to do it for you.

Marketing might not be the reason you picked up a camera, but it is something you have to do if you want to make sales.

And there is one more reason that you might not be making sales: the numbers are against you. There are already millions of images available for sale on the Web and while demand for older images can fade away, some sites are adding new images at a rate of almost half a million a month. Oleg Tscheltzoff, founder of Fotolia, once estimated the demand for business images at around two billion a year, but he was probably being optimistic. Photography remains horribly competitive. If your images are good enough, if you tell people how they can buy them  and if your marketing is strong enough, you should make sales. But you’ll still have to push hard to do it.

9 comments for this post.

  1. Matt Said:

    Great blog, and great post! I think stock photography attracted a lot of people who thought they could "set it and forget it" by uploading and waiting for the cheques to come in. The success stories are certainly inspiring, but we can't just sit on our behinds waiting to be discovered magically. If you want it to pay like a business, you need to work like it's a business!

  2. Fotoviva Said:

    The trouble is that digital cameras are so good and so cheap these days that so many more people are taking photos that the competition is much stronger than say 5 years ago. But competition can be a good thing!

  3. Neville Lobo Said:

    Great post here! I remember when Isold my first few photographs how excited I was but then I realized that a few sales isn't going to help. I needed to market myself and make sure that I could get across to as many people as possible. So I've just now started on that p[ath by making my own website, next is going to be making some business cards that'll make it easir for people to remember me too!

  4. Harry Nowell Said:

    Well said - many photo students aspiring to work in their fields never learn more than the basics of business! The reasons Yousuf Karsh, highly successful portrait photographer, was so successful include his networking, hard work, sales, and drive to create a need for his work.

    On our blog we are currently highlighting some posts about stock.
    A successful photo business requires better business skills than photo skills.

    I have seen brilliant photographers failing and mediocre photographers succeed in the world of business!

    Nice work.


  5. Dave Said:

    That's what it all about...having a product that people want, and marketing yourself. And Fotoviva was right about the competition...so many people want to be photographers nowadays, that only the SALESPERSONS will be the successful ones. You gotta sell yourself to sell your work.

  6. Lou Gonzalez Said:

    I'm a Wedding Photographer. One thing that helped me dramaticly increase my sales to (guest and client family members) was marking down my print price for short period of time and creating a deadline. This created a sense of urgency. Once I started doing this my sales went from next to nothing to $4,000 in less than a year. I do this by creating cards with a link to my on-line galleries, and put them on every table at the reception. When they go to the site, it says all prints are 25% off for 2 weeks. It's been a huge success. People love a sale. Once you create a sense urgency, things happen. Once those people have bought, I then add them to an email distribution list that I market further.

  7. Delme Said:

    Awesome article, helps a lot as we go on the journey of trying to sell images. Thanks for sharing

  8. Erick @ DSLRBlog Photo Business Blog Said:

    This is a great article. The only thing I'd add is that I think direct stock photo sales (any time YOU sell a photo you've already taken) are often relationship based. And while networking with other photographers is great, the people you most need to be networking with are photo buyers. 🙂

    The other thing I guess I'd add is that this article is about stock sales (ie, selling PHOTOS). That's often a very different game from getting clients and assignments. And often I think that for starting photographers, it's actually easier to get certain kinds of assignments (portraits, engagement sessions, etc) than it is to sell photos to photo buyers.

    To Lou Gonzalez: That's a great tip.

  9. David Langdon Said:

    What I wonder, is Chris Lupetti on borrowed time? Isn't he in violation of Flickr's TOS?

    "Don’t use Flickr for commercial purposes.
    Flickr is for personal use only. If we find you selling products, services, or yourself through your photostream, we will terminate your account."

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