SELLING PHOTOGRAPHY ON THE WEB
last updated, 2/18/2009
It’s harder than it looks.
This photography web site went up in 1999.
During my first year of selling photography on the web, I sold one print. And that was paid for by check. And that check bounced. So during my first full year I lost money on my one sale since I had to pay the bank a fee for the bounced check (luckily I still had my day job as a programmer).
The web site, back then, was sort of a portfolio. Friends would use it to look at prints. I would visit them with the actual prints they were interested in and help them arrange several prints so they could see what they’d look like on their wall. That was my interior designer stage.
Next realization: people were coming to the site and looking around but still not buying. And I’d never hear from them again.
There had to be a reason for people to return, and to make the site less anonymous. There was a real human being behind this photography. Enter the online journal (later called the blog). I started a photography blog back in 1999, where I’d talk about my life as a photographer. It became popular, and helped give my site some individuality.
Traffic began to increase. Not to look at pictures, but to read the journal.
By having people come back to view the journal – it helped to keep the site fresh in their minds – and some of them came back and bought prints.
MODEL RELEASES / PROPERTY RELEASES
This seems to be the most frequent question photographers have. Do I need a model release to sell photographs of people on the web? I am not a lawyer, and if you got a room full of lawyers you’d probably get different answers.
Some things are for sure: if you are going to use the image of a person in any sort of advertising – you need a model release. Though even that gets tricky – because what happens if you are at a ballgame and you photograph say 20 people in a crowd. Do you need to get model releases from each person to use it in an advertisement? I don’t know.
Art is art – to a point. If you are selling images of strangers in a gallery, whether online or not – it seems to be okay so long as you don’t show them in a way that makes them look bad. In other words – the golden rule to some extent applies (at least for my photographs). Of course even this rule can be challenged and often is. In other words, anyone can be sued for anything. But generally – at least in this country – photographing strangers and displaying your results is covered under free expression.
Remember, the same fuzzy logic applies to property. It’s true that you can photograph property that can be seen if you are in a public place and use it for artistic purposes. But it can’t be used without a release from the owner for advertising purposes.
In the ten plus years that I’ve been doing this online, I have been approached once by a guy who saw himself on my site. His reaction was one of great pride, and he just asked if he could get a print for himself and a few of his friends. But who knows – tomorrow could be different. If you worry about this sort of thing too much, you’ll just end up shooting flowers. Though even there, if they are not in a public place, or if the place has rules (believe it or not, Central Park has rules) you can still be sued. I once witnessed a photographer getting a ticket for using a camera on a tripod in Central Park. He was photographing the Cherry Trees. He was told that professional photographers need a permit to shoot in the park. On the other hand, I’ve been shooting in Central Park for decades without ever running into this sort of zealousness.
IF YOU ASK THE CUSTOMER TO DO SOMETHING EXTRA you will almost always lose the sale.
They have twitchy fingers out there. Another site is just a click away. The sale is often an impulse sale. The potential customer has to feel that the image they’re looking for is just a click away. Don’t show too much at once in the thumbnail gallery. Just enough so that they want to go on. Just like your photographs are a way of communicating – the web site is also a form of communication. Make it as easy as possible for the user to find what they want.
IF YOU SELL YOUR PRINTS TOO CHEAPLY THEY WILL BE SEEN AS CHEAP.
When I began, I tried to make the prints as cheap as possible. I just wanted to get them into people’s hands. That was a mistake. On the other hand:
IF YOUR PRINTS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE THEY WON’T SELL
It is a delicate balance. There is a price point that is related to the size of the photograph. A print that you could never sell for $90 you might sell if you lowered the price to $85 and charged $5 more for shipping and handling. That handling happens to be the most time-consuming part of the whole process.
This is assuming you are one of the great unknown artists of your day. If you are a known commodity – then none of this applies to you.
This price-point thing is still a mysterious subject. But the general price range that works (as of this writing) is somewhere between $25 for a small print and $150 for a larger print. Over $150 and you are into a specialized segment of your audience.
You may be able to sell prints on the web for more, but you’ll sell less of them. The main reason for this is, as I say, You are not a known commodity, and who is going to take a chance (even if you offer a full money back return) of spending a couple of hundred dollars for a print that they’ve only seen on the web? And here I can’t blame them.
WHAT SELLS ON THE WEB
You may run into a collector of fine art once in a while but most of your customers are looking for photography to hang in the living room or as a gift for a meaningful occasion. Here again – the price is important. If you are giving a gift for someone’s wedding you want to pay something substantial for it.
Pictures of strangers don’t sell unless they express some universal feeling that transcends the individual in the picture. The easiest thing to sell – prints of landmarks. I’ve sold a hundred prints of landmarks (Central Park etc.) for every shot of an individual, although the shots of people are much more difficult to do.
SO WHERE IS YOUR YOUR WEB NICHE?
Before you do anything – you must figure out where exactly you fit into the vast universe of the web. In my case, it turned out to be Black and White Photography of New York. That was what I was selling on the web. Period.
This niche is the single most important decision you will make.
If you decide that your niche is Fine Art Photography – good luck.
There are ten thousand sites, many large corporate entities that compete for that phrase.
There are lots of books available to tell you how Google works, but here are a couple of tips:
– The Title Meta tag, i.e. what you call your page should not only be related to what’s on the page, but contain at least one of the phrases that people are searching for. Don’t try and trick people into visiting your site; they’ll just leave as soon as they see it’s not what they were looking for.
– It doesn’t do any good to just submit your link to all sorts of generalized sites. The big thing with Google is that it not only looks at the content on your site, but looks at the material on the site that links back to you. And also looks at that sites rating for that particular phrase.
If – for example – one of your keyword phrases is “Black and White Photography” you would like to be linked back to by other sites that specialize in B&W Photography and that are ranked highly themselves for that phrase.
– If you just put up pictures without text descriptions – Google isn’t going to do much with them. Google can’t yet read photographs. And as of this writing, I don’t think they use the “ALT” tag. I did read that they were starting to use real human beings to categorize and rank images for their image search.
THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT
I don’t care what they put you through – by the time you have actually gotten a paying web customer you just need to do everything in your power to keep them. Take their returns gladly. If a print is damaged – send them a free print. Whatever it takes. Word will get around that you are a trustworthy web seller.
I once had a customer who was very irate about something – can’t even remember what anymore. I got a very nasty letter from him. And I took a deep breath, and told him he was completely right – and that he could have any picture he wanted as a replacement. His tone changed immediately, and a year later he was back for another picture.
YOUR BEST ADVERTISING IS THE PRINT ITSELF
When you do make a sale. Put everything you have into producing the best possible print you can. I can’t tell you how many times someone e-mails to say they saw such and such a print on someone’s wall and they want one as well. Every print you send is your advertisement.
What you really want is for people to return for more. I have many customers that I don’t hear from for a year – and then like clockwork – an order comes in for the holidays. Year after year, usually around the holidays but not always.
WEB IMAGE SIZE
This is another important variable. The photographers that visit your site may like to see nice big 1200 pixel-wide images – but if you do this in your gallery you are going to be surprised at how many people can’t see the full image on their monitor. You are really shooting for the Lowest Common Denominator. You just can’t blow off half of your potential audience by doing large images. The proper size for a web image has grown larger through the years. Right now I’m opting for 650 px wide.
They want to get a general idea of the picture and – this is also important – anything you can tell about the photograph is helpful. I don’t mean what lens you used – but something – some words to describe what was going on. something to give the image some context.
ENOUGH TO LOOK AT
Don’t start selling photography on the web until you have at least 75 good images. Even if many of the images aren’t sellable – and you know that – if they show the quality and seriousness of your work – they give presence to your more sellable prints. Check your ego at the door. Just because you are in love with a particular image doesn’t mean it should be in your store. Save it for your blog if it isn’t going to sell.
IT AIN’T GONNA BE EASY
Unless you are an established artist with a name, and can afford to hire a full-time web designer, you are going to be the web-designer, the marketer, the mat cutter, the packager, the customer service department, the accountant, the tech support guy – and every once in a while the photographer. I took many more photographs when this was a hobby (I hate that word) – then I do now when this is a full-time business.
On the other hand – there are great satisfactions to be had. One thing is that you can show much more of your work than if you were in a physical gallery. In the few gallery shows that I did – the most I could present at one time might have been 15 prints. And things happen on the web that surprise you. Almost every year – something came along: offer to do a book (now out of print); design firms that wanted to use my work in hotels, and corporate offices.
And best of all – and I don’t mean this in a corny way – the friends I’ve made through this site and the helpful information – I don’t think I could have continued without that sort of support.
Concluding – I’d say that selling photography on the web has been difficult, and at times frustrating – but it offers great rewards as well.