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When James Turrell heard that I was afraid of flying, he offered to take me over the Roden Crater in his two-seater plane. He had me there. My desire to say that I flew over the Roden Crater with the great artist James Turrell trumped my fear of flying, almost. It was a tiny little plane, what if we crashed?
Years before I had been in a New York restaurant when the woman who was in the car when Jackson Pollack died walked in. Well, one of the women, the other one died when he smashed his car into that tree. But as she strode through the restaurant, everyone stopped and stared. Someone whispered to me "She was in the car when Jackson Pollack died." It was this story I remembered as I climbed into Turrell's plane.
Yes, I thought to myself, if I died in a plane over Roden Crater with James Turrell it would be a noble death.
"Gee haw!" I shouted as we took off.
I didn't die that day, but swooping low over the crater again and again, chasing his cattle across the countryside from above, waving to the cowboys who worked his ranch, I certainly went to heaven.
I once had an art gallery that showed a lot of photographic work and I also ran a studio where we collaborated with many highly successful photographers. So I understand the photography market and how to sell photographs.
I only wish that more photographers did.
I believe that all artists, photographic and otherwise, are self-employed small business owners and that as such, they have specific responsibilities. They must understand their market, behave professionally within that market, and be able to set and achieve financial goals.
Photographers also need to understand the unique financial and legal situations that this business entails. It is important to get professional legal and financial advice before embarking on sales. There are many resources out there, you are not on your own.
But too many photographers yearn for a gallery or an agent to take care of all the details for them. Such an easy solution is pure fantasy. Even if someone was willing to take on those duties, it is still your responsibility to understand and oversee your business. I have seen many photographers lose everything at the hands of unscrupulous dealers and agents because they gave their power away.
In treating your practice as a business that sells photographs, you will need to create some professional marketing tools.
To start, you should create a short biography telling who you are and what you’ve done. You’ll need an up-to-date resume. An artist’s statement is imperative in order to connect the viewer to the work – your pictures don’t always speak for themselves. And a portfolio of your work both online and off is a must.
This portfolio should be curated carefully. You don’t want to dump a lifetime’s worth of photographs in front of someone. It’s happened to me and it’s painful. Instead, take your viewer on a journey. Think through the experience of your viewer from their POV. It’s got to make sense. Leave them wanting more, not less.
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One important issue to consider when selling photography is editioning. You have the possibility to create endless copies of your photos, but does that mean you should? If you are selling your work as fine art, the images have substantially more value if you limit the amount of times you print each picture – this number is called an edition. Photographers can choose any number of editions to print – anywhere from 1 to 1000, or more. But the lower the number, the more valuable each image is.
When I sold editions, I would gradually raise the price as the editions sold. And this is the industry norm in fine art. For example, Photographer Kate Breakey sells her photographs in editions of six. For every two that sell, the price goes up another $500.
Of course when you work in editions, it is imperative to keep good records. You want to always know which number has sold and to whom. And do keep track of how much it sold for as well. This is a business – remember?
The word photographer connotes a wide variety of possible endeavors, everything from commercial to artistic to documentary to travel to wedding photography, and probably several other areas that I can’t think of right now.
And within each area, there are endless opportunities to sell photos. There are magazines, book publishers, calendar publishers, private collections, museums, stock photo agencies, art galleries, art fairs, licensors, and advertising agencies to name a few.
Some photographers work solo while others form relationships with agents or galleries. It makes me sad when I hear artists begrudge the large commissions they pay to their partners. Because that’s what agents and galleries are, they are your business partners. And they work very hard for their money. They bring you audiences and opportunities that you probably would not have had without them.
Treat them well and generously. Think of an agent not as someone who takes a percentage from you, but as someone who adds to your audience and helps to build your career.
Be very selective and only choose someone whom you really trust. Do your research, get referrals, and understand your market before approaching anyone.
And when you do find that agent or gallery to represent your photography, do not just sit back and expect the agent to do all of the work. You still need to take responsibility for your marketing and your own success. Your agent is your partner, not your slave.
To find the best people to work with, be the best to work with yourself. Have a consistent and strong work ethic, always work from a place of integrity, and prove your devotion to your craft.
Create Your Marketing Plan
Whether you have an agent or not, you will need a marketing plan to detail how you expect to sell your photography. Think of your ideal client and brainstorm all the possible ways they might find your work.
Create a comprehensive list of where the best places to sell your photography would be. Include every possibility you can think of. Be bold and go wildly outside the box.
Don’t forget to consider how you intend to use each social media platform and choose at least one if not more to regularly showcase your work. Doing them all is overkill. Better to choose the ones that you truly enjoy, or at least don’t hate, and learn to master those.
The best way to engage with social media is by determining how you can add value to your followers, how you can use the innate properties of that platform and get people interested in what you have to offer. Put a system in place to continue to build the relationship and develop trust between you and your viewers. Don’t just plop your work out there and expect to get a response, use it to start a conversation.
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Do Your Research
No matter which venue you approach to sell or license your photographs, it is important to research them first in order to find the best fit. Then follow their submission guidelines carefully when you contact the editor, agent, or gallerist.
Many photographers now sell their pictures through micro-stock agencies. And this can be a good source of income. Study the contract and read the fine print. And know that you don’t have to limit yourself to one, you can use multiple sites unless your contract states otherwise.
These sites are often teeming with photographers all wanting to sell their work. The best way to get noticed and stand out from the others is to tag your work, but make sure it is appropriate.
Create an online portfolio and label it with your name and a thoughtful sentence or two about your work, what you do, and don’t forget to add your contact information.
I strongly advise that photographers create the images that speak to them – and develop a strong body of work, rather than worry about finding a market. If there is no market, then you will simply have to create one.
For example, when I had a gallery I represented the beautiful bird portraits of Kate Breakey. I had great success with Kate’s work and was about to give her a third show. But I was afraid that I had saturated the market I had built. I wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so I approached the Audubon Society, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the preservation of birds.
The Audubon Society and I agreed to co-host a fundraiser. They were able to raise money for their cause through taking a portion of the sales and, using their mailing list, I was able to create a whole new market for Kate’s work. Such out-of-the-box approaches work really well, it just takes imagination and fearless hard work.
Being a photographer is a difficult path. Most who choose this road do so because they have something to say, it’s a mode of expression. But often it is fear that causes a photographer to veer their work toward the market and away from their heart. Success may come, but it won’t be sustainable or help them to grow and evolve.
Figure out what you want to shoot. What do you want to explore? What do you want your work to say? Even if you are shooting commercial photography for advertising agencies, you will still have a voice. It is this unique perspective that will stand you apart from the pack.
A lot of photographers ask me, “What if my work is too different? What if it doesn’t fit in with what else is out there?”
And I respond “That is your strength.” In today’s world, it is far better to be unique than to parrot the market. I believe that success finds photographers who create something authentic, what comes from inside, more than those chasing something that is dictated by fashion.
Continue Your Education
Each photographer will have unique issues to face depending upon their potential market, their personal challenges, and their audience. For someone who has been making photographs as a hobby and wishes to begin selling, there are books and websites and blogs out there that will help.
I myself offer an online career workshop for artists and photographers. Check it out here - http://theworkingartist.com/courses
And I’m not the only one. My colleagues number in the hundreds. The challenge lies in finding one that speaks to you, to your work, and that presents the information in a way that you can relate to and understand. Do your research, sign up for a few mailing lists, listen to what each teacher has to say and who speaks to you.
Once you learn what is expected of you as a professional photographer, be a professional photographer. Meet deadlines. Have an updated website. Carry a business card, always. Only submit work that you know to be excellent. Have your materials ready to go at a moment’s notice. Opportunity doesn’t wait for you to get your act together.
Be able to speak about your work. It’s important to understand what it is that makes your work different.
Become part of a wider creative community. This will be one of your best resources. Other artists will be your most-knowledgable allies and will share what practices work for them and what might work for you.
Keep working at mastering your craft and developing your eye. Photography is both an art and a science.
Read about your field, look at other photographers’ work, understand the history of the medium, know what the issues that are now being discussed in your field. Engage.
I once against Magnum photographer David Hurn what his best advice was for aspiring photographers. His answer? “Invest in good shoes.”
Apparently, the road to success is rocky. But I truly believe that if you organize your business, present yourself and your materials professionally, identify your market, work well with others, find your niche, and market your work smartly, you will succeed in selling your photographs. And as your reputation continues to grow, so will your career.