Just finished reading a fantastic series of posts (6) by QT Luong about his journey from amateur to professional photographer. What makes the series so fascinating is his honesty and his analytical way of looking at how photographers make a living. If you have the time today it’s worth checking out the whole series even if a personal stock photography business is not your cup of tea. I’ve pulled out a few interesting nuggets from each post for you:
Sure, in the late 90s, my mountaineering images had appeared in various specialized magazines, but the thrill back then was more in climbing the routes and getting published than anything else. For instance, when Climbing Magazine published on a double spread my picture of the summit ridge of Mt McKinley (incidentally taken with a P&S Camera, the Yashica T4), it was the memento of being there and creating that image in difficult conditions which brought the most satisfaction. To submit images, you had to label meticulously slides (by writing or printing on the mount), stuff them into slide pages, and send them around, hoping that they wouldn’t get lost or damaged in the process. When your images would come back, weeks, or most often months later, you’d have to refile them carefully in your folders. It’s not something that you wanted to do by yourself on any large scale.
I began to progressively increase the time I’d spend to develop my photography business, reducing my work hours proportionally to the progress of that business. I first took leave without pay, then officially changed my work status to part-time, with the limitation that I needed to put 50% of the time to keep benefits. My approach was to operate at a constant income level – which actually requires an increase in income, once benefits are factored in: if during a given year I’d make with photography the equivalent of, let say, a month of work, then the next year I’d work one month less. Within five years, my income from photography had exceeded my (hypothetical) full-time income in research. I stayed at SRI one more year, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. At that point, I didn’t have enough time to work even 50% at SRI, take care of the photography business, and take care of my family, so it was actually with a sense of relief that I resigned from SRI and became a full-time photographer.
Photography has become such a difficult business that I recommend such a path to anybody whose work is flexible enough. I was certainly fortunate that this was possible for me. In fact it was one of the reason I stayed in academia. In hindsight, I must say that this prudent approach probably limited what I was able to achieve, for in the recent years, the photography business has become considerably more difficult. If I had jumped in 100% ten years ago, I would have been able to take advantage of a window of opportunity which has since then disappeared. I could have also used a couple of years on the road before our children were born. However, this is merely hindsight. I wouldn’t have been able to predict that my novel approach to the photography business ( I will elaborate in future posts) would work that well, like I was unable to predict that a start-up company whose name is now synonymous with internet search would do so well. When they approached me in the early 2000s, I turned down their interview offer, as I was already too focused on a future in photography. Maybe I have not arrived to a better place, but so far the journey has been interesting…
It is often said that a photographer with great work but no promotional plan will make less money than a photographer with average work and great promotion. So if you are trying to make a living in photography, promotion should be a priority.
Be aware of what others have done, study and understand what has worked and what didn’t for them, but don’t automatically try to copy their efforts. Your photography is what it is because you are unique. So should be your promotional efforts.
Creating beautiful and meaningful photographs is hard enough, but making a living of them is even harder. For most who manage to do it, there is not a single source of income, but rather a wide variety of income streams that hopefully accumulate to form a large river.
my photography income is almost entirely based on the sales of prints and licenses of images created on self-assignment, through this website. The mode of operation of the business was therefore the following: I visited on my own locations of personal interest to me, created photographs there, published them on terragalleria.com, and waited for visitors to find them.
The internet has transformed how we access and consume information. Potentially anyone with a computer and a connection from around the world can see your images around the clock, opening up for the first time a line of direct communication between artists and art buyers. People do not visit your website because you handed them a business card, but because they somehow found it on the internet. Yet, this seemingly random mechanism can sometimes provide a number of viewers comparable with traditional media, at an extremely low cost. This makes the internet the first affordable medium for pull marketing.
To give some numbers, in the year 2009, terragalleria.com received 5.7 M visits. This was measured using the great Google Analytics, which offers (since 2008) the most accurate site statistics because it automatically disregards numerous visits by the search engine crawlers, unlike for example Webalizer. That year, we sold 267 prints and 148 licenses, which actually generated more revenue than prints. So it took 21,000 visits to sell a print and 38,000 visits to sell a license. True, if we had priced our licenses and prints at a lower point (prints currently start at $350 for the smallest sizes), we would have sold more, but that would have meant more work. We were pleased enough with the balance of revenue and work at our price point, which catered to high-end buyers, but this choice has to be different for each photographer.
Artwork is not a commodity, therefore priced accordingly, and seldom bought as an impulse purchase. On the other hand, search engine users are fickle. In my case, the majority of them stay less than a minute on the site. The majority do not visit any other page than the one they landed on, returning immediately to the search engine page (this is called a “bounce”).
as a photographer, your ultimate goal should be to create superlative photographs, lots of them, that are good enough to make people want to link to you. So it comes down again to great work: the best you can do to improve your SEO is to go out and photograph.