Is there really money in taking photos of trees?
October 14, 2011 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Tips on getting started selling photographs as art?

I have taken a decent body of landscape/still life photographs that a growing number of people (not just friends) have suggested that I should sell as art. I am not a professional photographer - just an amateur with a decent eye - and I don't work with high-end equipment, and am basically clueless about how I would go about doing this. Would Etsy be the way to go here? I've browsed Etsy quite extensively, but there doesn't seem to be any way to tell if anyone is actually selling anything, or who the more popular/best selling artists are.

I'm sort of ambivalent/dubious about doing this, but it's becoming increasingly clear that there is some population of people out there who at least claim they would pay money for a print of my work, and we could certainly use even a small amount of extra income. I do have a great local shop that does great quality prints for me (so far just to hang in my own home) at a reasonable price, but I don't have a ton of start up money to invest in a big inventory, so doing the craft fair circuit (or even coffee-shop shows, as lots of photographers around here seem to do) is right out.

Any thoughts you have on how I could start this would be appreciated.
posted by anastasiav to Work & Money (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if Etsy's a good outlet, but assuming it is, I don't see why you would need to limit yourself to one. Etsy, ebay, maybe boilerplate on Flickr pages indicating each print is for sale, with your e-mail address ...
posted by troywestfield at 8:01 AM on October 14, 2011

Just off the top of my head (I noticed you're in Portland, too)--I would start by asking around some coffee shops (Bard, Hilltop Coffee) that display art to see if you can get some work shown there. This would definitely involve some cash up front, but it's a good place to start.
posted by Stephanie Duy at 8:02 AM on October 14, 2011

why do you need an inventory? Just print them as requested.
posted by titanium_geek at 8:04 AM on October 14, 2011

Also--maybe try to get into the farmers' market at Monument Square/Deering Oaks? I sometimes see photographers selling framed prints there.

On preview--I'm working off the assumption that you'd need to build a name/following before trying to set up an online presence.
posted by Stephanie Duy at 8:05 AM on October 14, 2011

Response by poster: why do you need an inventory? Just print them as requested.

For Etsy/on-line I would not, but I'm not sure that anyone really buys landscape photos that route. For other venues where I actually see photos being shown/sold (coffee shop shows as mentioned above, craft fairs) I would need either framed prints or a fairly large inventory of matted prints.
posted by anastasiav at 8:06 AM on October 14, 2011

I've browsed Etsy quite extensively, but there doesn't seem to be any way to tell if anyone is actually selling anything

Just so you know, this is the wrong way to look at this question. A percentage of sales will come from people just browsing etsy for nice prints to hang on the wall, but the supply is vast. The best way to look at Etsy is as the provider who deals with the website address, web hosting, layout design and ecommerce for you. They make it easy for you to sell online. They do not do the selling for you. That is your job in this arrangement. Generally, who sells on Etsy is not down to Etsy but to the individual sellers/artists/creators.

In your case I would open an Etsy store, print Moo cards with your Etsy address, and hand them out to all those people telling you that you should sell your prints. Ace; now they can buy them. If your local print shop is good and takes less than a week, tell people in your listings that prints ship in seven days. That means no upfront investment. If you don't sell, you don't sell - but at least people can buy.

Also, just FYI, you can tell who is selling on Etsy. This seller has sold at least 1,400 cards and prints from her photos because that's how many buyers bothered to leave feedback.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:12 AM on October 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

My mom is a little further along in her journey, but in a similar situation.

Not to get all philosophical here, but you need to do a self-inventory. Why might you want to sell stuff? Do you want to make a little money? Do you want to get your name out and be recognizable? Do you want to take a little personal risk and see where it goes? Be honest with yourself.

The most difficult thing is realizing that when your art leaves your hands, or even gets displayed publicly, it is out of your hands. You'll be judged by a different standard than you're used to. It's up to you to decide how to deal with that. In my mom's case, she wants to be thought of as an Artist, not just a dilettante, but she doesn't want to be judged by the same standards as people who take it more seriously (even at that coffee-shop level). That's not the way to go.

Example: my mother will say, "Would you spend $20 on this pen-sized papier-mache peapod?" and my response is, "Um, no; I would not spend any money on this papier-mache peapod, because I am not in the market for such a thing." But that is what she likes to do. Some of her photography is very popular; some of it merely makes people go, "Aww!" and move on. You have to decide whether the effort you put out in one area is worth it for the satisfaction you'll get out of it.

That standard is up to you.


1. Make an inventory of all of your photos. Make yourself a blog or some other online display thing, so when people say, "Ooh, that's nice! I want to show your stuff to my cousin..." you can do that.

2. Do your research. What else is out there that's like your stuff, especially locally? What makes yours different and/or more awesome? What are the prices?

3. You don't have to do the craft show circuit, but you should probably do the coffee house and/or libraries/restaurants/shops/galleries your friends own circuit. Spend some time and money getting your work framed in a way that's easy to display. Spend some time and money making good labels, an artist's statement, a price list, and some flyers/postcards/etc. Spend some time making a press kit, with easy-to-email copy that will be applicable no matter where you have a show.

This is your "kit." You can take it where it needs to go; you will find a way to display it that works with your budget/aesthetics and can be adapted to different spaces.

4. When you display, people might then want to buy. Hooray! As some have mentioned, you can then do print-on-demand. You might also be able to offer a framed or matted print by building a little bit into the cost.

5. Get advice from other people like you. Go to craft fairs, etc. when you're doing your research and chat people up. Be realistic.

6. Etsy: Personally, I think Etsy is super difficult to get a hold in, given the sheer volume of people in there. But if you make a name for yourself locally, you can then send people to an Etsy store, and then they'll tell their friends, etc. etc. (Wait... is "etc." where they got the name? OMG. Can't believe I just thought of that.)

It will get easier as you become more familiar with the scene and find cheaper/faster/easier ways to do things. But it will definitely take a while to find your groove. That's okay :)
posted by Madamina at 8:16 AM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Consider donating a print to Photo-a-Go-Go in Westbrook. Obviously you won't make money on the donation, but you'll get your work in front of a lot of people and you'll see just how much someone might pay for your work at the auction.

Even if you decided not to donate a print, come to party! You can make a lot of good contacts there.
posted by mikepop at 8:17 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are just looking at selling low cost prints then "gallery quality" isn't that important but you don't want prints that will look like crap after a few years and you don't want flimsy frames or crappy matting. Get all of the elements from decent sources and try to buy those in bulk to save some costs. Note that if the costs for materials and on-demand printing are too high people will not buy them unless the quality of equipment and images is high.

Promotion is going to be key to getting people interested and promotion will cost money initially whether it is printing cards, advertisements, or having a dozen mounted and framed prints on display somewhere. If you feel confident that it will sell then you will have to be willing to spend a few hundred dollars upfront.
posted by JJ86 at 8:29 AM on October 14, 2011

Why not sell them as stock photos? Istockphoto is a good place to start--and a whole lot easier than making prints. Advertisers pay more than people looking for something to hang on their walls.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:42 AM on October 14, 2011

Anecdata: I've been photographing for several years now and have heard "oh man I'd totally buy prints of your stuff" many times. I've found multiple ways to sell prints online, at various price points - pricing them as "art" for strangers, deep discounts for friends and family, etc. I've tried different services, alerted everyone various ways, promoted myself, ad nauseum.

Everyone always says they would buy prints, but when the prints are available ... no one buys prints.

To clarify, I don't want to come across as bitter. I don't care one bit if someone does or doesn't buy my prints. Selling them is a hassle to me. That's why I was willing to sell them at cost to my friends, even through services where I wouldn't have to be involved at all. Many times I've even sent them the link to the highest-res version on Flickr and said, "Here! Do what you want with it!" and I'd say at least 95% of the time nothing ever comes of it.

I have come to believe that "Oh, I would totally buy some prints if you sold them" is the public's way of saying, "I really really like that but I can't just say "I really really like that" because it's not emphatic enough and / or I believe everything relates to commerce so telling someone that their output has commercial value should make them happy."

Me? I just like taking pictures. That's why I no longer bother with offering to sell prints in any way. I'd rather just give them all away than deal with try to make any money off of the situation. Your mileage will totally vary.
posted by komara at 8:43 AM on October 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

It's 10% taking really good photos and 90% hustling your ass off. Photography has never been high on the "art" scale and these days with a camera on every cell-phone and Instagram making everyone think they're Ansel Adams, .... no, you're not going to sell anything unless you hustle, hustle, hustle. If you don't like hustling, just enjoy it as a pastime.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:10 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would totally agree with Komara. Even when the pictures are in a gallery setting, getting people to part with discretionary income is difficult at best. One exception to this is donating your pictures for cost, in conjunction with a non-profit event, particularly if the pictures have a connection of any kind with the non-profits issue. People will buy my work if they can write it off. This gets your name out there and allows people to feel comfortable contacting you when and if they want to buy more of your work.

Also, think of submitting your work and joining a local photography organization like Vermont Center for Photography where admission is juried and selective. Once your are in you may display your work alongside other great photographers.
posted by Xurando at 9:20 AM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: Maybe you deserve a little more of an explanation.

Physical artwork is a commitment. It's stuff that is brought into the house. Buying art means you have to hang it somewhere. Where everyone will see it. Instead of a wall or curtain or window. It takes up visual space. It takes up mental space. People will say they love it. That means they love it right now. They will say they want to buy it, do you sell prints? That means they love it a lot right now. But they haven't turned on the "I AM SHOPPING FOR ART TO HANG IN MY HOUSE" part of their brain yet.

As soon as you show them a dollar sign, your friend who loves your art turns into a SHOPPER and that whole part of their brain lights up that says: "how much is it? have I paid my bills this month? Do I want to go out to eat instead? I'm saving for a nicer car/house, this is just some picture that I will have forever, right? What if I hate it next week? What if my partner hates it? What if it doesn't match my couch? Where the hell will I hang it? Is the frame extra? How much is that? Are other sizes available? How much are those? But I hate that frame, I want another frame, or maybe I want another kind of print? Do you have it in green? Well I kind of like it really but maybe this other print is better? Well she is taking pictures all the time so I think I will wait and see if something better comes along." So maybe they spend five bucks on an art card instead so you're not offended by their indecision but it's going to wind up in a pile of papers in the den and they'll look at it in five years and smile.

What I suggest is if you really really really want to sell prints for people's houses, you want to introduce yourself to local interior decorators and show them some prints and say you'll cut them a deal then you can work together. Other than that, just make great photos and share them with your friends and maybe put them in some coffee houses for some egoboo. But don't expect to sell anything (like as a profession) unless you're willing to hustle, hustle, hustle.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Wait... is "etc." where they got the name? OMG. Can't believe I just thought of that.

No. It was the shortest domain name available to buy when they were in the market, lo those many years ago when you could still get semi-meaningful 4-letter TLDs.

posted by DarlingBri at 9:24 AM on October 14, 2011

I think seanmpuckett just nailed the disconnect between "I would buy a print of that!" and the reality of the situation far better than I've ever seen it said before. I'm gonna have to copy and save that one for future discussions.
posted by komara at 9:25 AM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: I've been told similar things, and I'm pretty sure I'm nowhere near as good a photographer as you. I just take better pictures than the average person because I take a little more care than most people - that's it. I think the average joe's criteria for a "good photograph" is pretty low - some of my friends rave about the stuff I've posted on flickr, and tell me I should do something with my skills, but honestly, I just think they haven't really thought about the difference between a pretty good snapshot, and an excellent photo. This may not be your case - you very well could make saleable prints out of your work. But if you're feeling ambivalent about it, I wouldn't put all that much into the hustle - like a poster further up, I'm just happy to give people free prints from my printer when they want them, and to leave small prints in library books when I return them (I use them as book marks).
posted by Calloused_Foot at 11:08 AM on October 14, 2011

« Older Bird suffering, need help!   |   Anatomy of a Search Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.