Many photographers who like shooting landscapes dream of selling prints someday. If that includes you, then you face a challenge: identifying which images will sell.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. I often wrap up my longer landscape photography workshops by playing a game with students that I call “Flops Versus Bestsellers.” I show the students 16 images. Eight were bestsellers, with more than 100 prints sold. Eight bombed, with less than 10 prints sold. The students’ task is to analyze each image and decide if it soared or cratered. The game seems trivial; surely, it will be obvious whether an image was a bestseller or a dud. It turns out that the game is surprisingly difficult. Few students score 100 percent.
You can play a shortened version of the game right now. In this article, you’ll see eight landscape images. All either bombed or became bestsellers. None are moderately popular images of which I sold 20 or 30 prints before I discontinued them. None are winter images, which in my experience are inherently harder to sell as prints than summer and fall images. None are images with purely local appeal, such as images of the Flatirons, the famous rock formations right outside Boulder, Colorado’s city limits—even though Flatirons images have sold well through the brick-and-mortar shop I work with in Boulder. And I selected only Colorado images since I had the best data for them. In my experience, it’s hard to sell images of Utah, for example, to people living in or visiting Colorado.
Done scoring? Let’s discuss the results.
The bestselling images are “Columbine along the Trail to Arapaho Pass,” “Sunrise Aspen,” “Longs Peak from Bear Lake in Autumn” and “Maroon Peak from West Maroon Basin.” The images that bombed were “Ruby Basin Sunset,” “Silver Creek Basin and Treasure Mountain,” “Twilight Glow over Capitol Peak” and “Marcellina Mountain and the Raggeds.” Here are some general conclusions.
- As much as we landscape photographers love sunrise and sunset light, images don’t have to be shot in warm light to be bestsellers. Three out of four of the bestsellers shown here were not shot at sunrise or sunset. Of the eight bestsellers in the full-length game, only four exhibit sunrise or sunset light. So, don’t put your camera away just because the color of the light is white. I normally keep shooting until about an hour after sunrise and resume shooting about an hour before sunset. Really dramatic clouds can extend those shooting sessions. However, I’ve never shot a grand landscape at midday, when shadows are short and photos look flat, that became a bestseller.
- Bestsellers can have a variety of color schemes. “Columbine along the Trail” is a study in cool greens, blues and lavenders. “Sunrise Aspen” is a study in orange and black. Both are bestsellers.
- The effort you put into getting the image is invisible to potential customers. I hauled my 4×5 field camera up the steep trail to Delicate Arch nine times before finally capturing the fabled sunset glow. My delight turned into a rueful chuckle, however, when the photographer next to me casually remarked, “Wow, that was nice! This is the first time I’ve ever been here!” My image was perhaps no more saleable than his. You have to consciously set aside the vivid memories you have of the fatigue in your legs, the numbness in your fingers, the raw bite of the wind slashing at your face—the effort that went into making the photo—and focus exclusively on the image. All by itself, can it evoke in the viewer the emotion you felt as you made the shot?
- You might think people buy prints showing views they themselves saw, but it’s not quite that simple. Most tourists at Rocky Mountain National Park visit Bear Lake, one of the park’s scenic climaxes, in the middle of the day, but that doesn’t mean that a shot taken at noon will sell as a print. A well-done shot taken at sunrise or sunset certainly could sell, but that’s not guaranteed. Many years ago, the bestselling poster at a gift shop in the park was taken by David Muench in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Surprisingly, the photo doesn’t show the famed Maroon Bells. Instead, it shows a gorgeous alpine garden with tundra flowers and orange lichen. The peaks in the background are so hazy and distant that even after spending 30 days backpacking through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I’m still not sure where the photo was taken. Certainly, no visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park had ever seen that view, yet that poster outsold all the posters that actually showed the park. Somehow that image captured the essence of Colorado for customers.
I’ve found that uniqueness is a necessary but insufficient ingredient by itself for success. Almost all the images in the full-length Flops Versus Bestsellers game could be described as unique in some way. In some cases, the lighting was unusually beautiful. In others, the location was remote, so the image felt fresh just because relatively few people had ever seen that view. In others still, the image captured an extraordinary abundance of flowers or exceptionally vivid fall colors. Yet uniqueness alone doesn’t always lead to sales.
Take “Marcellina Mountain and the Raggeds,” for example. I found this grove of aspen in perfect fall color just before sunset about 2 miles from the road while exploring the Kebler Pass area near Crested Butte. All the hills in the direction of the setting sun were lower than my location, and the sky was clear at the horizon at sunset, which allowed warm light to backlight the leaves and make them glow like stained glass. No one was standing next to me as I shot the photo, nor have I seen a similar composition published anywhere. In that sense, the image is unique. While I still love the image (all except the unavoidable twigs in the foreground), it has never sold well as a print.
“Sunrise Aspen,” on the other hand, which has a similar color palette and similar subject matter (golden aspen backlit with warm light) has been a bestseller since I introduced it in 1996. Why? “Marcellina Mountain” has richer colors than “Sunrise Aspen” and distinctive mountains, which “Sunrise Aspen” lacks. Many years ago, I showed a Colorado gallery owner a closeup of wildflowers alongside a tumbling stream in Rocky Mountain National Park. He responded, “That’s lovely, Glenn, but somewhere in West Virginia there is a stream that looks just like that. When people are in Colorado, they want photos that scream, ‘Colorado!’” By that criterion, “Marcellina Mountain” should have won, hands down, but it didn’t. Could it be the sunburst in “Sunrise Aspen” that makes the difference?
Consider “Ruby Basin Sunset,” another image I was sure would sell. This image showcases one of the largest, most lush groups of columbines I’ve ever been privileged to photograph. The composition, I thought, was classic, with a deep, V-shaped valley framing the distant Twilight Peaks. The sun, setting into the notch to the right of the peaks, provided warm light that backlit my flowers. Despite everything the subject had going for it, the image failed. Perhaps it was the smoky orange skies, a consequence of a wildfire at nearby Mesa Verde National Park, which gave the image an unappealing purple and orange color palette. Admittedly, my use of a graduated neutral density filter on my 4×5 field camera, while essential to tame the bright sky, also made the tops of the valley walls unnaturally dark.
Or take “Silver Creek Basin and Treasure Mountain,” which shows an unusual grouping of columbine and king’s crown. In most years, king’s crown is a dull brown color, but these flowers were a vibrant red. A sweeping view down a lush, green valley leads the eye to distant, snow-capped peaks. I have spent several days in that valley on two other occasions and even revisited that exact spot but found nothing like this lush bouquet. I thought I had a winner, but the prints didn’t sell. Why? The grouping of flowers is larger, more varied and more colorful than the flowers in my bestselling image “Columbine along the Trail” and arguably as good as the flowers in “Maroon Peak from West Maroon Basin,” another bestseller. The peaks in “Silver Creek Basin” are, if anything, taller and more rugged than those in “Columbine along the Trail.” Certainly there’s no place in West Virginia that looks like Silver Creek Basin. The color palettes are similar (with the exception of the prominent red paintbrush in Maroon Peak). None of these images has sunrise or sunset light. Did the dull, slightly smoky sky in “Silver Creek Basin” kill it, at least in comparison to the more interesting skies in “Columbine along the Trail and Maroon Peak?”
Look closely at the final bomb in this group of images, “Twilight Glow over Capitol Peak.” I thought this image had all the essential ingredients: beautiful aspen framing a rugged, 14,000-foot peak dusted with snow, wispy cirrus lighting up pink and highly unusual lighting on the land. I shot the image about 15 minutes before the almanac time of sunrise, when a broad band of clouds, out of frame to the left, lit up pink. It was a rare example of a “cloudy-sky glow shot,” in which warm light from glowing clouds overwhelms the blue light from the rest of the sky and casts a diffuse magenta glow over the landscape. On most clear mornings before sunrise, the blue light from the sky casts a blue pall over the land. The lighting was far more uncommon than the lighting in my bestseller “Longs Peak from Bear Lake in Autumn,” which I shot about an hour after sunrise.
Despite everything the image had going for it, it failed to sell as a print. Was it a victim of our changed perception of images in the digital age? In the film era, people would look at a magnificent landscape photograph and think, “Wow! What a beautiful world we live in!” Today, people look at a beautiful landscape photograph and think, “Wow! That photographer really knows Photoshop!” To most viewers, does this image look like a botched editing job rather than a magnificent display of natural light?
I think an honest answer to the question “will it sell?” is that no one knows for sure. I shot “Columbine along the Trail” as a consolation prize when I slept through my alarm and woke up too late to reach a previously scouted shot by sunrise. When I showed it to a gallery owner with a decade of experience, his reaction was a mild, “Let’s give it a try. It might work,” not, “Glenn, that will be a bestseller!” I had no idea when I first saw the 4×5 transparency that it would earn more than $50,000 over the next 26 years.
Many years ago, I tried to determine which images to print by conducting focus groups with friends and neighbors. I put together a slide show that mixed the bestsellers from years past and new images I was considering offering as prints. The focus group participants weren’t familiar with my work, so they didn’t know that some images were already in my line and had proven themselves. I figured that if a new image received the same score as a current bestseller, it would be a hit. The results surprised me. Current bestsellers didn’t necessarily receive a high score. My focus groups couldn’t predict which images would sell.
Ultimately, I concluded, the only workable strategy is to print the images I love and accept that customers won’t always feel the same. I thought all the images in the Flops Versus Bestsellers game would succeed. When some failed, I consoled myself with a quip from travel photographer Bob Krist: “In photography, your batting average means nothing. It’s only the home runs that count.” If I can hit it out of the park half the time, I’ll call that a win.
Glenn Randall’s most recent book is Dusk to Dawn: A Guide to Landscape Photography at Night, published by Rocky Nook. See more of his work and learn about upcoming workshops at glennrandall.com.