At some point in your evolution as a photographer you probably want to sell your photos. Here is everything you need to know on how to earn money with your photography and how to shoot photos that are sellable.
There are probably a ton of reasons why you might want to sell your photos. Sometimes it’s just to get a little bit of money back to finance your hobby by being able to buy new equipment or to pay for the travels you are doing to get different stuff in front of your lens. Or you just might want to get better feedback for your work as an artist when you feel, that a like on Facebook or Instagram isn’t enough anymore. Hearing somebody say that this is a great photo you took is more than often meaningless (especially if it’s only a like via social media where somebody saw your photo for 1 second, liked it, and now is scrolling down to the next one), but having somebody that is willing to pay for your photo tells a completely different story. In this part of your journey as a photographer, you are more like an entrepreneur, who needs to get and think further than just asking friends if they like an idea they have. Building a startup and investing money, time, and a lot of hard work into an idea that your friends like is probably not the smartest thing you can do. Not because they are lying on purpose, but because they don’t want to hurt you. If you ask them for money to pay upfront for your idea, you might get completely different answers. In my opinion, the same effect applies to photography, so you might ask them for money in exchange for a print the next time they are totally amazed by one of your photos. ;-)
Getting a lot of positive feedback for your photos might be nice, but asking those people to buy a print often tells a different story. I tried it with this photo from Cologne and it got sold at least a few times, but of course not by the people that liked it the most.
You don’t win silver, you lose gold
Please think of a huge shark tank, that is full of sharks and fishes and you are just one of them and perhaps just a tiny one if you are just starting. All the other fishes are your competitors like all the other great photographers out there or even IKEA, where customers can buy huge prints for a very small budget. Most photographers will now try to become a bigger fish within this tank, but that’s not the only and probably not even the best way to improve your income. A better way would be to change the tank until you are the biggest fish within it, even if the size is a lot smaller. You might also think of this in the famous quote of the Nike advertisement from 1996: "You don't win silver, you lose gold!"
Become the leader within a small niche and if it’s not possible to become No. 1 you should think of other or even smaller niches. A good example is probably Melanie John alias "fototante", who is well-known in Germany for her countless beautiful images from Frankfurt. So if you would ever want to buy a photo from this city, you will probably cross her path sooner or later. Even if she wouldn’t the best photographer in the world, she would still have a huge amount of photos about one very specific topic, which means a wider portfolio than a potential customer could buy from. Additionally, she knows every corner of this city, so if I would need a very particular shot, I would ask her first. Within this tank, she got an expert and therefore one of the biggest fishes.
View from Frankfurt Cathedral towards the skyline of the city - photo by Melanie John
View from Main Plaza (Lindner Hotel) - photo by Melanie John
Who is your customer?
We already talked about friends or people in general that might buy your prints and fortunately, this is not the only way to earn money with your photography. Especially landscape and architecture photographers often tend towards selling prints as their way to get an income, but in my opinion, this is probably the hardest and longest way to earn money with your photos. Let’s say you already found your niche and you are already very good at what you are doing. The next step that I would suggest is to think about who exactly could be your customer because if you don’t know who would buy your photos, you can’t make precise decisions about the subjects of your photography, the pricing, the format etc. You will end up with everything and nothing, so you need to think again about that niche you want to be the best at and refine your definition by your target audience, which makes your niche even smaller and better to get started.
Here are a few examples that could be your customers:
- Local business websites
Nearly every business has a website and they usually want to show where they are located. It’s probably a good start to have some great shots of the skyline or very typical places for this city or region. If the company building itself is within the photo it might be even better, because if they need to book a photographer just for this shot it’s usually getting much more expensive for them. You should also offer a wide variety of colors in your niche because the color palette of your photo has to fit into an existing one. Therefore it’s better to have a big variety of photos with different colors than just a few ones with a lot of colors and no color focus as a consequence. In the end, it’s also important to think of an image format that is mostly needed for websites, which is still a horizontal one. Sometimes even a panorama might be a great format because this doesn’t cover too much vertical space in the header of the website.
- Advertising campaigns
There are so many companies, that are using landscapes within their ads to show a local connection to their service or product. Again the photos should be very typical, but the purpose is different in this case. For landscape photographers, the time during sunrise or sunset might be the best one, but if you want to advertise for a travel destination it’s often better to use daytime photos with a much brighter and friendlier mood. Additionally, it’s important to have some space within these photos where the company can place a slogan. Having „bad conditions“ for typical landscape photography with no clouds in the sky might now result in great images that offer a lot of space for logos, slogans, or text in general. Instead of rejecting these photos for your portfolio, you might want to sell them instead.
- Business prints
Instead of focusing on private individuals, you could also target your photography towards companies, because if they would buy their prints at IKEA it would only convey the impression of a low-budget business and that’s usually not the side of the story companies want to tell to their customers. Think again of photos that would be great for your target audience, f.e. waiting rooms where a lot of details are great to give the viewer some time to discover them.
Huge companies often have internal booklets where they are sharing their latest achievements, changes, news etc. These are printed or digital versions and they usually need a lot of great photos to make these „company newsletters“ more appealing to co-workers. In this case, you should think of topics your local business tries to cover, f.e. energy, industry, travel, construction etc.
This is definitely not my favorite photo and it’s already pretty old, but it’s still my best selling photo. The reason why this is selling so well is the niche because it’s much easier to rank in Google for cities that are not so famous for landscape photographers and since Bonn has no typical skyline this is a great way to find photo spots in Bonn that result in highly sellable photos. The panoramic format (2:1) and the consistent color scheme are apparently other pros for this image.
Don’t forget that you are not just a photographer when you want to sell your photos. You need to be very good at marketing/selling and that’s something a lot of people ignore. No matter what you want to achieve in your life - being a good salesman is always a big advantage. Even getting hired for a new job and your starting salary depends very much on how good you are at presenting yourself as a valuable support for the company.
A good example in our context is probably Peter Lik, who sold his photo "Phantom" of the Antelope Canyon in Arizona as the most expensive piece of art ever. He probably isn’t the best photographer in the world (although he is a very good one without any doubt), but he is extremely good at selling and drawing attention to his photography.
Never give up
If someone doesn’t want to buy your photo it doesn’t necessarily mean that your images are not good or that you are a bad photographer. It just means, that the value you are offering is currently not enough for this single person, which can have quite a lot of reasons. There are 3 factors that are important in this sentence:
Increase the value of your results by improving your photography or by taking shots that are more valuable for your potential customers.
A "no" you got today doesn’t mean, that you won’t sell something in the future. Sometimes it just means, that another impulse is necessary and that you need to find out what your customers really want and need. Ask them the right questions, get back to work, and try it again!
- Single person
Sometimes you just need to find the right customers. Don’t focus too much time and effort on selling something to the wrong audience. Alternatively, you could of course think about switching the niche.
The only thing that’s really really important for you is to never ever give up! Please do you and me the favor and promise this to your future self! Getting successful with something in your life that really matters to you is not only possible by becoming the best at it, but also by being the most persistent and by not giving up. A successful life is a marathon and not a sprint!
Screen photography jobs
Another helpful approach to understanding what potential customers might need is to screen job boards for photographers and see what types of content are requested. Maybe there are even part-time offerings that could help you to get started by building up some more experience or by simply gathering contacts in the business. Especially the last one is extremely important for everybody who wants to earn money without being employed due to the fact that knowing people and therefore trust and personal relations often matter more than simply being the best at something.
What are your experiences in selling your photos and are there any tips you might want to add?