How can I make money from my casual photography?
February 28, 2013 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm a photographer by hobby and by interest, but not for money. I'd like that to change, but just a bit. What are some good ways to sell my photos?

I've been taking digital photos for over a decade now, starting with the silver brick that was the Canon PowerShot G1, and most recently getting a Nikon D3100. I have also dinked around with Photoshop for over two decades, though I've only focused on image correction in the last 5 years. In short, I have a LOT of photos.

I'm not looking to become a professional photographer, or make a living selling my photos, but it would be nice to earn a bit of extra money by selling prints. I've thought of printing up a collection of my photos and going around to see if I could get some stuff shown in coffee shops, but I moved this summer, and I don't know if there are that many little places that would show art like that around now. I also checked out local art shows, but there were a number of photographers everywhere I went, with a booth full of mounted images for $25-50 each. I image that they made some money, after paying for printing up all those photos and renting the space, but it seemed like a decent online shop could do better.

But looking online, there are lots of places to sell images. I don't think I really have stock-type images, as they're more of interesting places and views and less of common events/emotions, and stock shops seem to be full to the gills with any sort of image you'd want already. Then there's Etsy for making (and possibly mounting/framing) my own prints, or Smugmug and the like, where you pay some money to host images and have them handle the sales and printing mechanisms. But I'd still be worried about how to get found amongst the mass of what's already out there.

In short: I'm looking for feedback and experiences from more casual photographers with selling your work, either online or off, how much effort it takes to set up shop and what I could do in my spare time to promote my little shop in the immensity that is the internet. Thanks!
posted by filthy light thief to Work & Money (13 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Caveat: I haven't tried to sell anything in a long time. Probably since around 2000.

At the time, I basically entered stuff in open gallery shows. You sell directly in these things, but also local galleries will call you and ask to see a portfolio if they like your offerings at the show. You can then get some pieces in those galleries, usually for more money. I never really made much from it, but it was a nice ego boost that people wanted to display and try to sell some of my work.

Selling stuff online... I think it's going to be pretty rough. There is really just so much online that I don't even know how you'd get people to *see* it, much less sell any.

Many restaurants and coffee places where I live do show local art. That honestly seems like a better place to start than online. The trick here is that someone needs to essentially accidentally see one of your pictures and then decide to buy it. If someone is on the internet LOOKING for photos to buy, I think you're basically adrift in a sea of images, getting yours noticed is hard.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:20 AM on February 28, 2013

The main problem with this is that it is essentially the dream of almost everyone who gets into photography. So you have to figure out a way to stand out from the crowd, and IMHO the best way to do that is to make your photography unique and AMAZING, rather than finding the right venue in which to sell it. If you have photos that blow peoples' minds, you will be able to sell them regardless of where. If you have photos just like everyone else on Flickr, you're going to have a hard time of it even if you have the most amazing online presence.
posted by primethyme at 10:22 AM on February 28, 2013

A friend of mine has had some success with a web gallery here. He does still have to handle all of the printing and packing and shipping when he gets an order, and he has an extensive portfolio, but having a web site he could point people to has helped.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:39 AM on February 28, 2013

This has been previously asked, and this is a good post to read about the sales you can (not) get from an online store.
posted by Sophont at 10:52 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've sold a few (literally, just a few) prints from shows. I struggle to think of occasions in the last decade when print sales was a successful business for enthusiast photographers. Even the really highly promoted events (for reputable professionals) that I can think of barely netted enough sales to cover their marketing costs.

I'm of the opinion that photographers can sell their skills, but I see little to no evidence that they can really sell their photos.

You might get a bit of pocket money now and again if you stick your stuff on iStock or Alamy (if it's good enough) and keyword it well.
posted by Magnakai at 11:32 AM on February 28, 2013

Most photographers I know who make any money do it from commissions -- commercial photos, portraits, etc. Even that is a pretty tough market, but you can make a living on it.

with a booth full of mounted images for $25-50 each Of course the question is --- did any of that sell? Plenty of photographers lose money on those kind of shows.

Now, you just want extra money so there's little risk I suppose -- not quitting your day job and all that. But the people I know who tried to sell art/stock photos for a living had a really hard time of it, and that was with putting in full-time hours on the project.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:15 PM on February 28, 2013

In 2005-2007, I had prints at a monthly art exhibit - new prints almost every month. I also had ten framed prints on the walls of one of the hippest eateries in the hippest part of town. I hit galleries with a portfolio and even got some "oh, wow"s from gallery owners, even though they didn't have space at the time. Total net sales? One framed 12x18 photo and one 3am call from a drunk guy who wanted to buy something but then hung up.

My understanding is that even the big name guys don't make a living selling their photos. They write in the magazines, take retirees on photo safaris, and occasionally have commissioned work (paid in advance).

The only seeming profitable photographic niches are portrait and wedding photography.

Learn to love your hobby as a hobby. Maybe sell costco prints to your friends' moms.
posted by notsnot at 1:15 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think Vivienne Gucwa's post (as linked by Sophont) has it down. I have been enjoying "success" - defined under my personal terms - with photography for several years now. I do it for the love of it, not for money, but like you I thought, "Well, the images already exist and people are telling me that they'd buy prints, so why don't I try to sell prints?"

To clarify the following statement: I'm neither cynical nor bitter about this, it's just what has become apparent to me. One's friends and acquaintances will often say, "Oh, man, your stuff is great! Do you sell prints? I would totally buy one" and what they mean is, "Chances are that everyone is telling you your photography is good and I too think it's good but if I just say that you might think I'm doing nothing but lip service so let me add some energy to that compliment. Since money is my motivator it must be your movitator too so I'll tell you that this thing of yours is worth money."

For months I sold prints, or it's more accurate to say that I had prints available for sale. I sold one photo. I have found that even when I give someone the high-res original digital and give them permission to print it at any size on whatever stock they feel is appropriate it never gets printed.

Again, I don't mean to sound negative. I love photography, I love shooting. It thrills me when people have interest in my work. I also recognize that I will never ever make a living - or even enough money to justify the time and labor - selling prints of my existing shots. The only professional photographers I know are either doing commissioned shoots for magazines or are out busting their asses 365 days a year selling to Getty and the AP. I know literally not one person making any decent money from selling photographic prints.
posted by komara at 1:31 PM on February 28, 2013

I buy (a lot) and sell (a little) stock. I suggest you give it a second thought and spend some time researching what exactly are the possibilities out there. Competition is fierce, but so is demand. It is a lot more dynamic arena than it might look from the outside... and yet wide content and style gaps still exist.

Not really relevant to the discussion, but the most successful photographer I know does stock and has several full-time employees devoted exclusively to it in a large studio in one of the main US cities. He came to stock from the kind of exotic gigs for top publishers that most photographers would kill to get. In terms of getting the most money out of his creative and technical skills while able to lead a regular life that would allow him to be there as his kids were growing up, there was simply no competition.
posted by magullo at 2:03 PM on February 28, 2013

I think the fundamental problem with having a hosted/printed-for-you solution is that you have very little profit margin. Smugmug might give you pennies on the dollar. Same with iStock. If you sell enough, printing at home, maybe purchasing a decent printer, would make a larger margin for you.

Secondly, I don't see a purely online shop as being a good way to connect to your buyer. The people I know who buy photos are either going to craft/art fairs, going to a gallery, or are corporate-type interior decorators with specific things to buy and possibly specific photographers they've developed a relationship with. Or I buy lots of stock photography for design use, and I'm looking for very specific things and make a keep a list of irrelevant and crappy stock photos for my amusement.*

And then, you should consider that what you like to take pictures of, and what sells might be two different things. Things that will sell: cats, dogs, animals in general. Tourist attractions. Pretty nature scenes. Quirky, retro, humorous, kitschy. Holiday themed items where people are obligated to buy gifts for their distant relatives: "My niece will totally love this cute kitten wearing a santa hat photo for Christmas!"

*not that yours would be crappy and irrelevant, it was mostly just an excuse to share some of my prized specimens. I mean, did you see that poor doggie?!
posted by fontophilic at 2:11 PM on February 28, 2013

I'll just throw in a couple of random ideas (I realize you specified rather precisely what you are looking for, but still, perhaps it helps):

- You might want to think of what do with 'photos' in a much more general sense. There are (as you know as well) thousands of people who have been wondering about what you are currently wondering about. It is not harder at all to sell calendars, business cards, mousepads, posters, stickers and the like instead of photos. It might be worth looking here. For instance, you could create something like this calendar or this mousepad. Now many people are doing that sort of thing as well, but I believe you might still have a better chance with it than with photos alone. I created a couple of t-shirt designs and posters a few years ago and still sell one every now and then (and I did not log in on the site for at least a year).

- This might perhaps give you some ideas as well. Hopefully, this will not give you some ideas.

- In case you want to make use of stock photo sites in any way, use software like this to upload photos to many sites at once.

- For niche photography, it might be a good idea to be very, very specific (e.g. not just wedding photography, but doing something that makes you stand out of the crowd - to make something up, let's say high resolution wedding photos where the couple always stands in front of a background that is completely filled with real, red roses - or photos mimicking a traditional Thai wedding, photo where the couple is standing in front of a large waterfall... - make it a brand and focus on your specialty niche only).
posted by capgrassyndrome at 2:16 PM on February 28, 2013

This is 99% a marketing problem.

There are billions of photos out there and millions more being made every day. People look at a thousand images a day for free, and many of them are stunningly beautiful. They smile or say wow and then move on to look at the next photo and forget all about the previous one.

If you want to sell them, you need to make a market for them, either by finding a niche, or actually carving one out on your own, and then dominating it yourself. A niche could be a coffee shop, or it could be a downtown portrait studio, or it could be a decorator's gallery, or it could be a particular kind of stock photography that is underrepresented right now. It's not about your photos, it's about getting them in front of the people who would pay money for them.

So, what kind of photos do you like to take? What kind of audience would like those kinds of photos? To sell those photos, you must now go ruthlessly exploit that market.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:20 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you host on Flickr, like most people in the universe? You can pretty easily put all your photos up available for license by Getty Images there. A friend of mine who is a demi-pro photographer has had several images bought that way. One of her photos is on a Stephen King book as a result! (This is different from Getty Images stock, btw, because it takes longer for the purchaser to contact you about an image and negotiate the rates, while stock is immediately available to the purchaser at a set rate.)
posted by sweltering at 7:43 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Disagreement at work about best photography...   |   Annapolis in April: activities? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.