Selling Photography on the Web is Difficult
My photography store (www.BeckermanPhoto.com) went up (or maybe I should say down) 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 fee for the bounced check (luckily I still had my day job as a programmer). That is a fairly typical beginning. Compare that with my first photo show in “real life.” It was an office crafts fair. I arrived with ten matted prints in a bin. Someone found an easel for me to display one print at a time on. Every print sold.
So in the beginning, I thought of the web photography store as a portable portfolio. It was used in a similar way that the iPad is used today – as a portable portfolio. If someone was interested in seeing the “real prints” then I would visit them in their home. I would show them what a print would look like on this wall or that. This was as close as I ever got to being an interior decorator.
Next realization: web visitors were coming to the photo site and looking around but still not buying. I found it surprising that someone could spend ten minutes on the site. Look at just about every image. And leave without buying anything. And would then return? No.
So in 1999, before there were blogs, I came up with the idea of doing a journal, or a daybook, or something that I could do every day to give a more personal view of the photography experiment. Also, I was shooting film back then (as everyone was) and I was working full-time as a programmer, and there was just no way to post a new image every day in the store. But I could jot down some notes in the morning before going to work.
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 (eventually) and bought prints. But the store didn’t really get anywhere until I began to accept Credit Cards. Up until then, I was asking people to email me, and tell me what print they wanted, at what size, and then telling them where to send the check.
Of course, the web is about instant satisfaction. Eventually, the photography store showed enough promise for me to leave my programming job and rely (don’t try this at home folks) – on the store and other photographic assignments to make a living. (You call that a living?)
YOUR MOST ASKED QUESTIONS:
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. That means, the less clicks to view and buy your images, the better.
THE 20 / 80 PERCENT RULE
It’s really more like 10% of your prints will produce 90% of your sales. However, this is tricky. If you were to cut out the 90% of prints that rarely sell, you would lose your audience and most of your sales; not to mention your search rank. The trick is to have a gallery of Popular Prints, and make that the first thing a visitor finds.
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.
OH THOSE ART BUYERS and GALLERIES
The interior decorator, the art buyer – they need to make money too. And how are they going to mark-up your prints for their clients if you have you show your prices on your website. This is one of the biggest issues with selling on the web. It is also how you can tell whether the photographer is dealing with the retail or wholesale trade. Are they selling directly to customers, or are they able to work through an agent, or an art buyer.
My own solution, not perfect, and not very good for me, is to offer art buyers a substantial discount so that they can then sell the prints to their clients at prices shown. Of course they also can charge for their services, their framing etc. But they don’t want to be in the position of selling a photographic print for $500 and having the client discover that it can be bought for $75.
This is also an issue for physical galleries. How can you sell expensive photographs in a gallery, and after all the gallery wants to make it’s commission, and then have the buyer discover the same print can be bought for much less money on your website. My solution is to offer two different types of media. The gallery will show will still be with silver prints. Not because they are intrinsically better than high-quality inkjet prints – but because they can be sold for larger sums.
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.
GOOGLE / SEARCH ENGINE TIPS
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. I don’t believe in trading links. Mostly this winds up with all sorts of junk pointing back at you. Links to other sites are a part of your content, and if you are going to recommend another site – it should truly be one that you regularly visit.
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.
- Have a site map file that you can regularly submit to Google.
- Use Google Analytics to see what people are visiting on your site, and how long they stay. Set goals, so that when a sale is made, you can see how the person arrived at the buy page.
- Advertising has never worked for me. I’ve tried it in various forms over the years, without results. On the other hand, if you can Find Your Niche, and get a good ranking for it, that has more meaning than ads. Figuring out your web niche is the single most important thing you can do in terms of having your site seen by the right people.
As I say, the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a subject for another article. It is mysterious. And it is important.
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.