Traffic is key

When it comes to making a living at photography, I’ll let you into a little secret. It’s hard. It’s really hard. While the few photographers perched at the top of the industry may be commanding big sums, most photographers struggle to make a living.

Earlier this week I was speaking to the manager of Adelaide’s leading professional photo lab, who offered a very good example of how tough times are. He said a well-known wedding and portrait photographer of 20 years standing had told him that if she had to pay rent, she’d be broke. This is a photographer I know (or know of, more accurately) who does superb work yet, despite regular bookings, is struggling to make a buck.

People don’t value photography as much as they once did. Pricing for photography services has been driven down, although photographers themselves are partly to blame for that. Whatever the reasons for the difficult economic conditions and uncertain business climate, photographers need to manage their costs of production very carefully.

Here, the internet can come to the rescue, providing a very cost-effective way to sell photos. Or does it? I’ve had a go at it and only recently derived a formula, or an approach, that makes selling photos online viable.

Here’s the problem.

But first, rewind. Do you remember when the world wide web was in its infancy? When all the cool kids were signing on with GeoCities for a free web page? Yeah, you remember. It was all so exciting back then. A frontier waiting to be conquered. Not any more.

The thing is that back then there was a saying among the sceptical: “Building a web site is like putting up a billboard on the Nullarbor. Who’s going to see it?” It was the sort of luddite reaction to the web that made those of us embracing the new frontier cringe. But there was, and still is, a lot of truth in it.

The web these days is a very busy place and trying to sell photos through the medium is a tough job. You first need to get some traffic, then you need to offer something people want to buy. Then you have to deliver. Then you have to be certain that your customers are happy with what they bought because if they aren’t the whole world will know about it in as much time as it takes to type 140 characters or less.

The flip side, of course, is that if you do a good job of it, you’ll have a lot of people driven to your site for next to no cost. We like it when that happens.

So what can you sell that makes money? Beautiful landscapes? Stunning macro studies of frogs? Sports? You probably could sell all that stuff online, but not directly, though of course there are always going to be some shooters who for whatever reason manage to sell such images off their own bat.

Mostly, though, photo agencies for images with short use-by dates and stock photo libraries for all the other stuff is where that action is. Or perhaps not.

People do make a living through news photo agencies such as Getty but they are strongly committed to the task. And there’s a lot of them doing it and doing a good job of it, so if you want to break in you’d better be ready to work hard.

When it comes to stock photos, the news there is not so encouraging. Digital photography has fuelled a glut in stock photos, payments for stock have diminished, and to be successful with agencies such as iStockphoto you need to have as much skill at networking and keywording as you do with your camera. Perhaps more.

I am only a conduit for the opinions of others more closely connected to the industry. I keep an eye on the stock industry because I’ve always been interested in shooting for it. But what I keep reading from those in the know is that it’s a very tough game.

All of that said, I’m selling photos online. Not through an agency, but through my own site, and last month I reached a milestone. For the first time, I actually made a decent return for my efforts.

What was I selling? Sports and school photos.

My online sales involve an industry partner who provides server space for my images and an e-commerce facility, so I can send customers there to buy photos and not have to worry about processing credit card payments. It took me a while to decide on a lab, but in the end I went with a local pro photo lab, which prints on photographic paper for much better results than can be obtained with even the best inkjet printer. Also, since it's a local business I can easily liaise with the lab, so if my customers are having a problem there’s a short loop between a complaint and a resolution.

So far, feedback has been very good, bar one customer who had some hassles with her credit card payment, though as it turned out this was more of a problem between chair and keyboard. The lab I use isn’t the cheapest but the quality of print output is dependable and in the long run that’s more important to me than squeezing some extra margin by sending prints to a cheap online photo finisher.

Yet what you may find surprising is what drove me to engaging this industry partner. Let me clue you in to something that most people don’t properly account for. Your time. I started out printing my own images for sale to customers. This was when I had more time than money and less money than sense. After a while, as I got busier with assignments, the time I had to set aside for receiving a print order, printing it, packaging it and delivering it was getting in the way of getting other stuff done, not to mention the time that was gobbled up by managing printer consumables.

Under closer examination, I realised that doing my own prints wasn’t making money. It was costing me money. It was around then that I decided I’d hand off the printing side of my business to a pro lab. Now, when a job comes along that has a lot of potential buyers (such as school and sports photography) the biggest challenge is not finding the time to print the orders, it’s the task of gathering email addresses so that I can market the images by driving interested buyers to my online galleries.

So this is my advice to you if you’re interested in selling photos online: it doesn’t matter what you’re shooting; what matters is driving buyers to your online store. In my case, I manage this by targeting buyers with an email campaign and leveraging exposure through the web sites of the organisations involved in the event that I shot. In your case, the best solution may be social media, or a combination of this, my approach and some other method.

However you do it, just do it. Because creating an online gallery of even the best photos on the planet won’t make you any money if your site is just another billboard on the Nullarbor.

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!