Most people who get serious about their photography eventually entertain the idea of doing it professionally. Selling a few photos here or there to pay for travel and equipment isn’t actually that hard – the market for photography is huge and anyone who takes reasonably nice pictures and takes the time to figure out who buys their type of photography and targets those buyers with well though out presentations is bound to sell a picture or two from time to time. The real challenge is to build a photography business that generates enough consistent income to pay for everything in that business and in life, and as any pro will tell you that has become increasingly difficult due to many factors, primarily the explosion of digital distribution which has leveled the playing field and driven both stock and assignment prices to their lowest levels ever.
It used to be that nature and adventure photographers could make the bulk of their income by spending most of their time out in the field shooting and then send their images to a handful of stock agencies, who did all the selling. That is no longer the case as microstock agencies have increased competition and driven stock photo prices to very low levels that effect the income of all photographers. While there is no one model for success in this business, I feel that diversity is the key. While I still make decent income selling stock, I could not survive as a photographer if I didn’t also work on commissioned photo projects, write books, sell prints, and lead workshops. I am also starting to get assignments for shooting and producing multi-media projects. This is really a mix of different businesses that I never imagined I’d work on, but by adjusting to the market and “reinventing” my business, I’ve been able to keep doing what I love.
One obvious key to selling photography today is to get your images on the web. It is imperative to have images on-line where people can find them, get inspired by them, and easily purchase them. We actually use two web sites to market my photography. Both host large lumber of high-res files that can be searched by keyword and allow buyers to license them as stock without any interaction from me. We use two websites because they serve different markets. Our EcoPhotography site is geared towards professional image buyers like photo editors and art directors looking to purchase stock. I put a very deep collection of images on this site because these buyers sometimes need very specific subject matter. It is hosted by IPNstock.com and has served us well for a long time.
We set up jerryandmarcymonkman.com to serve a different audience – those members of the general public that might be interested in purchasing our books or prints, or attending one of my workshops. This site is hosted by Photoshelter which is less expensive than IPN, but offers great features for monetizing images. Photoshelter sites can be customized (ours is a custom site that works seamlessly with my wordpress blog) and it is super easy to add images, build galleries, etc. Photoshelter has also optimized their site to improve search engine results, and they make it easy for people to buy your photos by offering simple tools to embed photos and slideshows on other websites like Facebook and blogs. Click on a photo in this post and you’ll go directly to that image’s page on our website where you can buy a print in a couple of clicks or explore the rest of the site. The Heron Pond Farm slideshow above is a gallery on our Photoshelter site that I embedded in the post by just grabbing the embed code from the gallery. This is easy, but powerful stuff that makes it simple to feature your work in a variety of places on-line.
While having a strong on-line presence is a key part of any photographer’s business, it is only one small tool in actually selling images. Even though I have about 15,000 images on-line, they don’t sell themselves, even with good search engine results. To make consistent sales you need consistent marketing. Today, that involves all the social networking tools at our disposal as well as traditional direct marketing – e-mails and postcards. However, the only reason we have survived the downturn in the photo business is because we have taken the time to build solid long-term relationships with clients. Most of our income comes from direct sales to clients we have worked with for several years, and they are now the ones most willing to hire me for my new multi-media skills as well as traditional photography.
Finding these clients and making them long-term customers hasn’t changed much since since the days when I sent out pages of duplicate 35mm slides. It boils down to identifying potential customers that use the type of photography I shoot, getting my work in front of them and slowly building their interest. This may mean sending web gallery links instead of slides, e-mail story queries instead of typed letters, and laptop presentations instead of a printed portfolio, but it still requires that I reach out only to people that could potentially use my skills (I don’t market my nature photography to Vanity Fair, for instance,) and that I prove to them that I am professional both in my photography and in my business practices. This can take years with some prospects, but once they become customers I do everything I can to make sure they stay customers. I made our first photo sale ever to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It was only the second time I had sent photos out to a photo editor, but I knew they published my style of photography and that I had the subject matter they liked to feature. That was in 1993 and I’ve sold them images every year since then.
While the details of building a photography business go much deeper than what I’ve outlined here (search Photography Business on Amazon and you’ll see just how in-depth you can get,) I feel that anyone with photographic talent can find a way to sell their pictures by taking the time to understand who their potential customers are and then reaching out to them. This is not a get rich quick business, but if you commit to it for the long term, it can be a very rewarding profession.