Photographers need more fans.

Photographers spend waaay too much time and money trying to develop a very small and elite group of fans at the top. What needs to change is instead of thinking about having a couple of fans with deep pockets you need to start adding a large number with shallow pockets. These fans are actually just the same consumers you would potentially reach through traditional media except now they can find you without the help of magazines and newspapers. As these people abandon traditional media they’re looking for places to spend the time and money they used to spend at the top. Why not be there waiting?

If you somehow find marketing and selling yourself to average citizens somehow revolting, not to worry, there will always be a group of 500 successful elite photographers who dominate the top of this industry with a handful of deep pocketed fans (top Photo Directors, Art Buyers and Creatives) and if that’s your goal you can continue the long slow climb to the top, but for many people it’s just not possible to make that climb anymore or maybe the mystique of it all has suddenly evaporated.

If that’s the case you need to prepare to go get your fans back.

Christopher Anderson, Editor of Wired gives the following relevant example in his article, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business (here)

Traditionalists wring their hands about the “vaporization of value” and “demonetization” of entire industries. The success of craigslist’s free listings, for instance, has hurt the newspaper classified ad business. But that lost newspaper revenue is certainly not ending up in the craigslist coffers. In 2006, the site earned an estimated $40 million from the few things it charges for. That’s about 12 percent of the $326 million by which classified ad revenue declined that year.

But free is not quite as simple — or as stupid — as it sounds. Just because products are free doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, isn’t making huge gobs of money. Google is the prime example of this. The monetary benefits of craigslist are enormous as well, but they’re distributed among its tens of thousands of users rather than funneled straight to Craig Newmark Inc.

He’s talking about consumers having more time and money to spend elsewhere because services that used to be complicated and costly became efficient. And, I’m saying consumers will spend some of that extra time and money with their favorite photographers if you give them the opportunity.

It’s not so crazy to think that consumers who used to pay for the New York Times and now read it online for *free* will take some of that saved money and even time and spend it on books by their favorite NYT writers and photographers.

It’s not much of a stretch to think that photo essays and stories that magazines used to commission and then distribute to consumers sandwiched between $140,000 worth of ads will be commissioned by advertisers and distributed through new media channels to reach even more consumers.

Are you making yourself available to these people? I assume all of you have websites loaded with pictures and some of you have blogs where your fans can talk to you so that’s a good start. The other avenues for reaching consumers are prints, books, lectures, clinics, original stock, personal commissions and more local clients. National Geographic seems to have a pretty good handle on the idea that their photographers have fans or maybe the demand was there and they just responded to it by offering many of these products. Either way that’s a good example of how it works.

There’s one last difficult piece to this puzzle. You’ve got to make your photos available online for free. Anything that can be distributed digitally must now be distributed for free to remain competitive. Not for commercial use and not without attribution but fans should be able to distribute your photography for free and view it big on your website without watermarks and other barriers. It’s not like you don’t already do this it’s just that there’s a lot of hand wringing going on about the ability of consumers to scrape your photos off your website. It’s not necessary because they’re the fans you want to sell prints, books, lectures, clinics and personal commissions to. You should encourage them to look at and help you distribute your photography so you can bring in more fans. Don’t forget that some of those people will be Art Buyers and Photo Directors.

Several music industry artists are leading the way with this idea and Nine Inch Nails latest release proves that it works. They released 9 songs from a 36-track album for free, the rest of the tracks cost $5. A double CD version will be available in April along with a $79 deluxe edition and then in May a $300 autographed version. So far they’ve made 1.6 million and the most expensive offering is sold out with a limited run of 2,500 copies.

The audience is now in charge. Turn them into fans.

Kevin Kelly wrote a post about this phenomenon entitled: You only need 1000 true fans (here) which basically says if you’ve got 1000 people willing to give you $100 for some type of original performance then minus the expenses you’ve got a solid way to make a living.

I’m not even taking into account the difficulty advertisers are going to have reaching consumers in the future and how reliant they will become on these professional networks with fans to market their products to. All the camera, software and printing companies will pay to use these fan networks for marketing new products.

There’s about $1.3 trillion in our $13 trillion U.S. economy chasing demand [for content]… From John Sviokla at Harvard Business (here).

Will you be ready to capture some of it?

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  1. Excellent post. You hit the nail on the head in terms of the way business and the web is headed and how it impacts photography. Nice work!

  2. 1000 True Fans is an excellent reference. I like it because it’s scalable to your own particular skill, region etc. It’s a great way to quantify the impact of your work on others rather than blindly sending out promos and mailers. Fantastic post.

  3. […] Jump to Comments Go to APE to read about building your own fan club. It’s an extremely important topic for sure. Check it out, give it some thought and implement […]

  4. But with Greed once you reach $100 x 1,000 it still will not be enough!

  5. Great, timely post. Now I only need about 995 more fans…

  6. “You only need 1000 true fans ”

    Wow, this is the truth.

    I design and manufacture motorcycle parts for one specific model of motorcycle. There is a forum that has slightly over a 1000 dedicated riders that has supported me since 2002. I don’t advertise. I have a very small primitive website that offers the parts and I answer the phone, personally, 24/7 for customers that live outside the US. In the last 6 years these folks have sent me an astonishing amount of money.

  7. Hi Rob.
    I am a former musician turned mostly self taught photographer. I been shooting for about 10 years now. I have benefited greatly from relationships and your bit about fans is huge. By some twist of fate I’ve enjoyed a friendship with Frank Ockenfels, Mark Tucker, Michael Wilson, Norman Jean Roy and others. Frank loaned me a Hasselblad for a season when I was starting out and didn’t have a chance of buying a camera; I didn’t ask for one, he just thought I would enjoy it. I did, and got one. Thats heartwarming. The fact that these talented friends would guide me and share with me their ideas about the art and business of being a photographer is humbling but also a valuable component of maturity, creatively speaking. I do that with kids I meet now, like Jeremy Cowart before he was taking pictures. Everyone thinks there’s all these secret things these guys do to get it perfect but in fact great technical skill is usually less important than a restless imagination. A huge heart is a bonus and not all have that! Anyway, I am writing to say hi but also to affirm you, your site and work. Everything I read from you says “go!” and I love it. I stumbled on it the other day and have had a great time reading everything. You are modeling something I think everyone can use more of; openness, a willingness to share and a little truth. I came to photography late (43) so I had to work hard to get a leg up but let me tell you without friends like Frank and Mark I never would have gotten off the ground. With you and others like you this planet would be a far less interesting place. You have inspired me! Free is good… I’ve always thought that way. My site is old and crummy and I’m working on a new design with many of the things I’ve learned from reading all you’ve posted. So Thanks! I hope to meet you someday. If you’re ever in Nashville call me, we’ll have a drink. Peace+ Jimmy

  8. yes, the “traditionalists” would never have a part in this. not sure why; maybe too much pride of some sort. not highbrow enough? too common? too camera club?

    reading this post, this reichmann guy comes to mind. not sure where he made his money, but now he runs a site that sells videos; trips to places where forty photographers shoot the same picture over each other’s shoulders; but he seems happy. i guess.

  9. I wonder about the relation between this and art that is clearly “elite.” There’s a strong relationship between the type of photos that can get you a lot of fans and the type you could sell at a flea market, for instance — you’re trying to widen your base. I have enough fans that I can make a comfortable living without even selling any artwork to them (one in 500 will have the reason and means to hire me, and that’s enough), but my work is a lot more consumer-friendly and lowbrow than a lot of the people scrambling to be fine-art/commercial photographers.

  10. Great post. Almost seems like a no brainer, but obviously a lot of photographers out there so ridiculously over protective of their photos that nobody wants in the first place. Get the work out there! No Flash Sites! The money will come… it really will… but only if you don’t suck.

  11. This is a great post. But this isn’t groundbreaking news.

    There’s opportunity today for photographers that never existed before.

    The best (or most revealing part) of all of this, is that photographers who think like publishers don’t need publishers or, I dare say, photo editors.

    To everyone who hasn’t figured this out? Well it must be either an incredibly frightening prospect or a newfound freedom.

    Me? I bid adeau to a ‘system’ that is well on its way out… may it continue to lose money.

  12. I think this post is ahead of the curve. As a businessman, a large part of my job is about managing the usage of my images. As a photographer, it’s about creating something that I hope people enjoy or appreciate. As someone fairly new, I can appreciate the 1000 true fans theory. I guess that I’m looking for true fan number 4 and beyond;)

    This story also confirms my theme of the year, 2008 the year of Shameless Self Promotion.

  13. I especially agree about the prints as a way to reach and engage your fan base. So often I run across a photographer whose work I love, and whose work I’d love to buy, but I see no evidence on their site that prints are available of their work. Without that evidence, I bookmark them perhaps, but they’d have a fan for life if they allowed me to buy a print: not only would I be advertising their work to my friends and family but they’d get my email address, thereby ensuring they could let me know when they have new work to drool over. [Just my $.02 from a non-pro shooter who loves looking at and collecting photography.]

  14. Sorry to be a party pooper, and this all sounds great in theory, but there are a few holes in this approach. One big one being that it takes a lot of time to manage and negotiate the various possible “channels” of income. And since photography is mainly a “service”, you have a limited amount of time that you can dedicate to any particular channel. Eventually you will run out of time and prioritization will become necessary.

    In my opinion, unless you can convert your photography into a true commodity (instead of a service) — the same way musicians turn their music into a commodity through the sale of CDs/MP3s (not that record companies don’t actually take home all the profit), or fine artists who sell prints for thousands of dollars, it will be hard to achieve a higher profit margin with photography.

    You cannot possibly get thousands of people to buy $5 prints from you, the same way they would buy MP3s or CDs. I think Jen Bekman is in the midst of trying to figure this out with 20×200, but I don’t think the artists she represents are making a killing (yet). Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    The only “new breed” examples I can think of — photographers who have achieved by success through the support of fans, working multiple channels, and by giving away their photos for free — are The Sartorialist and that Cobra Snake guy. And even at the end of the day, their “prize” is still getting noteworthy commissions — i.e., it still boils down to being a service.

    And if you agree with that, then it is still in your best interest to cater to the people who will give you those noteworthy commissions — the very small and elite group of fans at the top.

    • This is my line of thought as well. I don’t understand how this logic above would work for anyone in the portrait, wedding, event side of photography. Perhaps commercial and stock. Hmm…

  15. First off, I have to agree, this is a great blog, and I’ve been forwarding it to photo editor friends telling anyone I know within the industry that it is one of my favorite daily reads.

    On to business…it’s funny you mention this. With sites like flickr and such there is definitely a greater awareness of whats out there. More recently, I’ve had people from other parts of the world making contact through that particular venue.

    Also, I peruse an art video/photography website from time to time and they always have wallpapers from contributors to download. In fact, have one up right now, and it tastefully displays the name of the photographer and the site it was sourced from.

    From what I understand, there are a lot of self-publishing venues for books online now and that is something that I am personally more interested in researching for the exact reasons as stated above.

  16. What a great post! Anything that can be digitized is being turned into a commodity. I am an IT professional by day, and would love to earn more of my income from my passion of photography. Being in IT, I see the coming digitization of everything on a daily basis. Everyone needs to read “The World is Flat” (the playing field has been leveled), “The Big Switch” (computing turning into a utility), and “Wikinomics” (the power of groups) and determine a method for applying the main concepts of these books into your work as a photographer. Think less about a small number of large transactions and more about a large number of small transactions. (BTW, I am not talking about micro stock here!)


  17. […] very important people (They are important to me, OK), saying similar things here, here, here and here. Sometimes there is a loosely connected thought process out there that is really intelligent. A lot […]

  18. Brett @16: “Think less about a small number of large transactions and more about a large number of small transactions” this is the real point here. I can’t believe the government is going to sit back and have the whole notion of retail sales tax for another E-Bay or Craig’s list style “Global Flea Marketplace” go under the table. Also, how many people are going to let massive numbers of folks get by with unreported income while they play fairly?

  19. Wait, sorry — what am I saying? There are photographers out there who are succeeding with selling cheaply by volume, for a mass market of “fans”, and who also frequently give away their photos for free. Porn photographers.

  20. @ Ronald: It used to be difficult to make and sell prints, notecards, calendars, books and other “merchandise” but the prices and quality are getting to the point where you don’t have to be involved in the transaction and can still make a profit. There are plenty of companies that do this for a cut.

  21. Ansel Adams said he made more $$ off of his $5-15 repro prints (which he sold a TON of) than his original platinums or silvers. I’m not saying we should all try and produce some kitsch, but hey… He knew he could touch a larger audience that way, and make some scratch, too…

  22. Shhhhhh…Rob you weren’t supposed to tell anyone!

    I’ve struggled with the idea of mass marketing my images and the idea of mass marketing photography or any “art”.
    Loving the work of artists like Andy Warhol and using those principals in your own work can be difficult. I really do appreciate the idea of accessible art and photography but hate some of how I see it used in people’s lives and in marketing now, especially in electronic media formats, because it’s so easy to copy and distribute.
    I hate Myspace/Facebook/Model Mayhem type networking sites.
    Mostly because they’re butt ugly.
    However, I have a feeling Mr Warhol would be all over this kind of media. But it really bugs me to see the images that I and other artists make used as icons and graphic elements on these sites.
    And this is what happens when a lot of people are exposed to your work.
    It’s unavoidable I guess, doesn’t mean I have to like it though.
    In the beginning I even asked people not to link to my site on public sites and forums.

    Yes, I see the advantages of nontraditional marketing avenues, and I like the idea of getting the work out there for people to see, hell, 50% of the reason I take pictures is to express something and show them to people. Having ‘fans” is nice too. I’m just afraid that in the 1000 fans I gain there’ll be 900 that have a copy of Photoshop, know where the filters are, and will make their shiny new posterized Myspace icon out of my work.

    I don’t have time to police this stuff either. Maybe part of it is educating those same fans on copyright and the value of the work.

    Or I can sit and clutch my leather bound portfolio repeating “Mine, ALL mine!”

  23. Fantastic post Rob. Keep up the good work

  24. “I think Jen Bekman is in the midst of trying to figure this out with 20×200, but I don’t think the artists she represents are making a killing (yet). Please correct me if I’m wrong.”

    Perhaps the only way your going to make a major killing is if you become a “name” photographer by a major curator/critic or collector (MOMA NY, Saatchi) speaking to your qualities and exhibiting your work, I don’t think Jen Bekman is there yet but I suspect she may well be savvy/plugged in/switched on enough in that world to do it.

  25. A Photo Editor – A Thought on the Future of Photography…

    “Photographers spend waaay too much time and money trying to develop a very small and elite group of fans at the top. What needs to change is instead of thinking about having a couple of fans with deep pockets you need to start adding a large number w…

  26. Great post Rob. I have a quick question: how does this thinking affect your hate-on for iStockphoto?

  27. Fascinating concept. Let’s just take one scenario: Let’s say your goal was to sell fine art prints, over the internet, without a rep. The goal would be to break the year down into twelve months, and shoot one sellable image per month, and actually sell and deliver that image to ____ number of buyer/fans.

    I think one thousand is highly optimistic, but could you sell one hundred? If you sold the print for $100 plus shipping, and you had $10 in fixed costs (paper/ink), that would be $90 per print net. Could you shoot one great image per month, then make one hundred prints, and sell them, and collect the money, and deliver them? If so, that’s nine grand per month, $108k per year, Gross. Not poverty, but not great.

    Yet, it’s pretty damn exciting to think of doing your own work, not waiting for the phone to ring, and pushing yourself to do one very memorable image every month of the year.

    The goal would be to standardize the print size, the shipping container, and use something like PayPal to receive the money. Could one man do this out of his apartment? Probably, yes. And could possibly up the print fee, and hand them off to a Fullfillment Center to actually fill and ship the orders.

    Very interesting concept, and Rob, a great well-written post.

  28. Anne Geddes caught on to this a long time ago…

    • Hmm, ok I see in her case.

  29. So did Art Wolfe…

  30. This is what we’ve been doing for around a year and a half now. I started with a photographer (at the time I knew literally nothing about photography) with a mantra about making everything available for free.

    The website documents Sydney’s night life culture, social cliques, music scene and fashion circles. All nice, shallow and vain stuff. But it’s what kids want. Our first month we had a grand total of 138 unique visits, with nothing but word-of-mouth we’re now reaching 200,000 unique visits a month.

    Our revenue is still all derived from services as I’ve been refining the type and style of product I want to create and sell. We’ve just begun developing an exhibition of our work. I’m looking to publish two books of our work to date that will (ideally) be entirely financed and funded by the readers prior to going to print.

    Our photos are big, with no watermarks and are available for anyone to download and use. I would rather a photo be seen by many and distributed for free then sold for $100 and seen by a single individual.

    The real problem is a lack of branding. Every lay person knows a tonne of musicians. How many photographers do they know? Not nearly as many.

  31. In Montana I worked for a nature photographer with 100,000 plus images in his archive. He made a great living in MT but despite traveling around the world shooting consistently the greatest percent of his income came from 2 books he shot on Golden Retrievers and Black Labs. No different than Geddes or Wolfe.

    I think the highest grossing artist in the US in 04 was Thomas Kincade. Talk about capitalizing on this model…

    The questions is if this model is going to be your venue what is your schtick? Thus far I don’t see how non A-list portraiture is going to make this work. Are there 1000 people out there willing to pay individuals for work on the average subject you find in a magazine? This could be the death of edgy non-celeb portraiture.

  32. If it’s on the web it’s basically available for free anyway right? I mean, not technically but what can you really do about it? Just today I saw Paste magazine was using a photo of ours without asking on their online blog here… and probably didn’t even realize we are the same people who shot their cover this month which is inches away. It’s almost daily that someone tips us off to someone using one of our photos online somewhere, but like I said, what can ya do?

  33. As usual, this post is on point. I make all my photos available for free on Flickr. I have been building a database of fans for months, and use that database to announce new sets, upcoming gigs, and special events. It has proven to be a very good strategy for me. I quickly rose to dominate the EDM nightlife scene here in Utah, and my fanbase is spreading rapidly to other areas, including Austin, Miami, and Vegas.

    The idea of marketing to fans directly has been at the core of my strategy (with MySpace as a major tool in my belt), and having a large database of opt-in fan subscribers gives me considerable negotiation leverage when I’m working a deal with a new client. When they try to say that access is my pay, I can honestly tell them that the publicity I bring to an event is more than equal to the value of the access, and that it’s worth paying for, because hiring me pays for itself. It has been a winning strategy for me.

    It has opened a lot of doors for me. For example — exclusive coverage of a performance by Tommy Lee and DJ Aero, stage access to Paul Oakenfold, and some really big upcoming shows I’m not gonna talk about yet — career making stuff. Having a fan-centric marketing strategy really works!

    I also want to point out that watermarks on MySpace / Facebook freebies are okay, and depending on your target consumer — even preferable. Watermarks act like branding, and many fans like it because it acts like a status symbol. They like my photos for the same reason they buy Se7en jeans — the brand name. When I first started watermarking back in december, I conducted a survey and the vote was nearly unanimous — all but four liked the watermarks, and only two disliked them strongly. Two out of over 1,000. I think that’s significant.

    Before I conducted that survey I hated watermarks — now I believe strongly in them for fan marketing, as long as they’re fairly unobtrusive. Where fans are concerned, watermarks are the cornerstone of your branding, and your branding is the foundation of your career.

  34. Eric: Is photography your primary source of income?

  35. The reason a lot of old skool dinosaurs such as myself are digging in our heels is that we’ve labored under the “all rights in perpetuity in all media now known or created throughout the universe” hell created by publishing companies and the onerous access requirements imposed by venues and performers over the last decade to decade and a half. Sure, I should have negotiated better, but some times it came down to eat vs principle.

    There are many of us with vast bodies of work, most of which we can never use and some of which we can never even, technically, show anyone.

    So the notion of giving more away is going to be met with resistance, probably until this new way of thinking takes hold and there is a viable new marketing channel to tap into.

    It all sounds great and holds great promise. I devoured the article when Wired came out last month. But I, like many established pro shooter friends, am not going to be the early adopter this time around. After all, the Istock phenomenon succeeded in making money for the company owners, saved money for the people who used to hire me for real photo shoots and cost me lots of money in the long run. Thank god for my small niche textbook agency….

  36. @ 24. Finn: Micro Crap still sucks. I think it’s fine if you have local clients who need cheap photos but you want to build a relationship with them so they buy cheap photos for local use every single year from you and those micro stock sites don’t allow that to happen.

    I think the big leap of thinking for everyone here is that it’s not just shooting babies or wildlife and making books like Geddes or Wolfe it’s doing that in addition to your commissioned work.

    Also, unfortunately you can’t just start out giving everything away for free and expect people to convert to paying customers. People should have free access to view and possibly distribute your images but beyond that they have to be paying clients otherwise you will be completely broke. You have to pursue advertising and editorial fans too.

    Popularity comes with a certain level of copyright infringement. I’m not sure how to handle that other then asking for attribution or removal.

  37. Comparing digital music to digital photographs, in search of a business model, digital music is fully formed and ready to go when it’s a digital file, sitting on a server somewhere, ready to download.

    But digital photography is different. Would I pay much of anything to have a digital photograph downloaded and sitting on my hard drive? I would not. It’s not until that digital photograph becomes a PRINT that it takes on full value. So in this model, the photographer is required to add quite a bit of additional investment and labor before his product is sellable. Just “sticking it on the Internet”, to me, is not enough.

    Still, I love considering what Rob is offering up here. I love the idea of taking charge of my own life, and not waiting for “a client” to call. Now, how to figure out how to actually implement it in the real world.

  38. Thanks Rob. Great post. Not that anyone really knows for sure what’s going to happen in the future, but no one thought Google would be as profitable as they are. The music industry fought against, and still do to some degree, Itunes, and services like Pandora, and Of course all of these things have been successful, and obviously are the future.

    It’s nice to see someone from inside the industry finally say something that isn’t the company line. As I’ve said a lot of times, often to scorn, there are many ways to make a living and achieve success in photography. There is not just one path. Repeating the same old rules to the thousands of new photographers entering the industry every year is not going to make them operate their business in the same way we used to do it. They don’t care that a photographer used to be able to gross $200k+ a year doing editorial and stock photography. For most photographers those days are gone forever. Time for a new business model.

    I’m also truly surprised that there aren’t more sites giving away free, quality, photography (this has been mentioned on this blog before). It makes sense, not in a traditional way, but the photography doesn’t even have to be what brings in the cash. Radio stations let you listen to the music for free, and make money on the ads.

    The ego is what prevents many from selling their photography to the average joe. They think that somehow, it’s better if you make your living selling to elitist art buyers than to their friends. Most will never sell their photography in a high end gallery in NY for $15k a pop, and it shouldn’t matter. Most will never shoot a $100k Nike ad, and that shouldn’t matter either. Just find a way to do the work you want to do. If you sell your work online for $20 a print, and can make a good living then why would it matter?

  39. um, I think Jim Jones was one of the earliest to recognize the power of 1000 True Fans…

    but seriously,

    The problem with monetizing attention, which is what you are doing, is that attention is fickle, and goes away instantly. This is just a different name for market share. Or a different kind of market share, one of loyalty. Being somewhat of a misanthrope, I actually find this idea pretty scary, that I need to entice and reward 1000 or so souls regularly, to earn an income.

    I think a lot of this “early web think” comes out of watching what has happened to the music industry, and that in turn comes out precedents that were laid decades ago with respect to that industry and it’s economic structure.

    If you tried to apply this to the movie industry I think you get a different result. The difference is the history of labour organization in the movie industry. Teamsters like to get paid and no one is getting to the location without the teamsters…

    Individual photographers may be closer to musicians in terms of a business model, and in terms of labour history too. But this doesn’t mean that they have to adopt the fallout practices as well.

    The music industry is always trotted out to make these arguments. It is true that technology has upended the recording industry, although new studios are still being built (I photograph them) just not by recording labels but by soft drink manufacturers and clothing labels. The cost has just shifted not gone away. This is true of photography too, big studios have not gone away, they have just gone in-house and now every magazine has a digital studio. Guess what, their product is not that good…but that is another subject.

    Digital technologies have increased my capabilities but they have not lowered my cost, in fact, they have increased it, put it on another tier altogether. I am talking about computers, storage, digital backs, which is in addition to cameras, lighting, grip, etc. Used to be a new film came out and I got an “upgrade” in capability, less grain, better color. Now that upgrade starts around 5k and is closer to 15k.

    Distribution has gone down, that I will not argue with. But production has gone up as the costs have shifted around. This idea of free has more to do with the fickleness of attention than it does with actual costs. Free is the consequence of zero attention span, zero commitment, and some serious naive altruism.

    I think it is possible to work with this idea, but lets not kid ourselves that this has anything to do with “free” anything. This has to do with the “product” being attention and people being “consumers.” I think those are two concepts that merit more attention than “free”.

  40. I have no doubt that what Rob proposes will work for certain narrow niches, but you only have to look on eBay to see the value of prints outside the gallery high end. It’s just a boot sale without either volume or value.

    The mass market Joe looks at a photo and knows the marginal cost of production is .50c because that is how much it costs to screen grab and put it through their inkjet. $100? Are you crazy?

    I’m sceptical that this supposed model isn’t just 99% vapourware. There are already sites like built around exactly this idea : that artists and photographers can build a brand and the print on demand and ecommerce service provides a ready means to fulfil it.

    The trouble is that when you look closely, there really isn’t any. Redbubble works for the site owners as the aggregate volume is adequate, but even the very best individual artists (and there are some) make only pin money by selling to their pals made within the social network. It really is a ‘bubble’.

    Only a minority of sales (around 35%) are made to people ‘outside’, and most of those are friends, relatives and customers introduced by the artists themselves. It’s all very hermetic, with little marketing reach because it appears there is actually no market out there to reach. ‘Wow, fantastic’ is as far as fans will go.

    Absolutely nobody makes anything approaching a fraction of a living. Even the most successful say in the forums that they rely on real galleries and other channels or day jobs.

    So yes, the web has magnified the opportunity in theory, but it has also multiplied the length of the long tail. All Rob is suggesting here is to make the best of where you are stuck.

    It seems that outside the speculative investment opportunity of high-end galleries, people are not driven to acquire by the quality of photos, at least not at more than 50c. There has to be some overriding other reason. Lust, vanity and blackmail are the only ones I can think of. Stick to those in some shape or form and it may well work. But this rather undersells the scope and beauty of photography as a whole.

  41. @Robert Wright.

    Brilliant insightful comment, especially the last 3 pars. Thankyou.

  42. There’s no doubt costs have increased. Robert makes many good points about it. What I see as problem with this line of thinking though, is that the customer, client, buyer, couldn’t care less about what it costs. I know when I buy a camera, the costs associated with the production of the camera never enter my mind. If someone else is willing to supply, what we as photographers supply, for less, many buyers are going to go with that lower cost alternative.

    Unless what we create is perceived as being much more valuable, then you’re just beating your head against a wall. I know how difficult, and competitive the photography business is, and even if my clients know it, they don’t care how it affects me, only them. And of course the competition is good for them. Soon the large publications won’t have to pay us at all. Good for them, bad for us. But talking about sticking together and charging, or at least asking for fair pay is useless.

    When you look at someone like Alec Soth (to bring up a name everyone knows), what his costs of doing business are is irrelevant to those who pay him to shoot something or who buy his works in galleries. What they care about is what they perceive the value of that work or service to be. For publications that would be more eyeballs, and for art buyers that would be an investment in an artwork sure to increase in value.

    For the rest, who will likely never know the kind of success Alec Soth has found, there has got to be some creativity and thought put into alternative business models. While finding 1000 loyal fans may be difficult, so is finding 100 willing to pay $15k for a print, a photo shoot, etc.

    While what Rob is proposing may not work for everyone, or heck for anyone, the way it is now hardly works for anyone either. Those of us that make a full time living from photography are in the top echelon of photography. Those who make a great living from it are in the top percent of a percent.

    By the way, Alec Soth probably does fall into something similar to the “1000 true fans” business model. Sure it may be the 2000 true fans, or whatever, but those who love his work, and will buy whatever he does, most likely are what provide him with the majority of his income. This is an assumption as I don’t know the financial figures in his business. This is, however a far cry from what most will ever be able to achieve with this type of business model.

  43. @41 kevin

    the fact that it works so poorly for most now is a good thing. Trust me, you don’t want a situation where photography is truly “democratic” and available to anyone. That is not what art is about. “Everyone” cannot be an artist no matter what anyone says. The problem is not with too few voices, the problem is with too many.

    I’m not saying art or photography is elitist either. But not everyone is going to have something meaningful to say and make beautiful work. Those who do are the exceptions and it is right that that is true.

    you are right to say no one cares about your cost of doing business, but what if the business has changed? there is a difference between a film workflow and a digital workflow, the buyer gets speed, oversight, no scanning, probably some retouching thrown in, this costs more in the fact the time is shifted onto the photographer. so when the product is different the price is different. I’d be happy to shoot film if it was asked for. 48hrs for contacts. Lets go back to that shall we? Fine with me.

    So digital is more valuable for all of those reasons. The fact that most people do it does not change the fact that part of the workflow that used to be done by prepress is now done by the photographer. Until I get a wireless CF card from Conde Nast that transmits my images to their servers there will be a cost for capture just as there always was, it was called film.

    finally I’m not sure you can recast the idea of 1000 fans as old school arts patronage. Two different scales of pay. This is why I kind of think the 1000 fans article was bunk, it is “duh”. If you have 1000 people who are loyal to you and support you you would be a successful business person no matter what you were doing, whether you had a corner store or klezmer band…

    what all these arguments about “the long tail” disguise is good old fashioned monopoly capitalism at work. Two or three giants suck up all the air in a segment and the rest is too low to bother with.

    I am still fascinated with the idea of selling prints and books online tho, mostly because I enjoy making them. Guess I am starting to sound like a musician…:(

  44. finally

    art is still about scarcity. that is what its value is derived from. it is rare.

    just because an entire medium (the web) has cropped up where nothing is rare, (except attention) does not mean that the work has to be free and we do it for some sort of exchange value. the reason alec has 1000 fawning fans is not because he is popular, it is because the work merits attention. (whether it continues to is another thing…) I think he got out because he saw it sliding the other way, it was becoming about the attention and not the work, which is not good for making work. You become beholden to an audience, and photography is not entertainment, and art collectors are not an audience. The photographer does not perform the work. The work is the work and performs itself.

    I don’t actually believe that the core of what photographers do has changed at all. They are still in the solitary or collaborative pursuit of good work, either making beautiful objects or telling compelling stories or some mix of the two. The fact that The Sartorialist can command a gallery show does not equate backwards to him being a photographer. In time he may be. But at “the moment” of his show, it was not about the photography.

    Yes there are other ways to leverage the web in photography. (See above). But the core of what we do is unchanged. It is not a question of old school or new school. The ways artists have made work is pretty constant, patronage, patronage, patronage. It is the patrons that have changed…

  45. Robert, thanks for the thoughtful, and in insightful responses. I guess while I agree with most of what you’ve said, I still think that the new technologies have created a need for some new thinking on business models. What worked once in the past, doesn’t always work in the present or the future.

    Art may be about scarcity to some (and certainly the high end gallery world), but I don’t know that that’s the only way to define it. And of course many out there will argue that anyone can be an artist. Even elephants – , or rats – can be artists. And as someone mentioned, Thomas Kinkade (though I don’t think he’s much of an artist, I’d probably be in the minority), doesn’t limit his art too much. Anyway, I think the discussion of photography as art, and art in general is a discussion I’d best avoid. An interesting read though is the following:

    Reading it points out the reason that there are probably other possible business models out there. Those at the top have nothing to worry about when it comes to their business models. As you say, “the reason alec has 1000 fawning fans is not because he is popular, it is because the work merits attention.” He’s not competing with flickrites. Hopefully neither am I. But regardless of my feeling on the state of photography or art, or anyone else’s feelings, there are, for better or worse thousands of photographers out there vying for attention and money. While some will still be able to sell based on the perceived scarcity and quality of their art, the majority just want to have their stuff looked and will try to find alternatives to the current market for photography.

    And that is, I think, what the point of this post is. I think it’s an attempt to peer into the future of a certain segment (not all) of photography, as a business. Perhaps it’s the way of the future, perhaps it’s not, or maybe it’s going to be something entirely different that’s not even been discussed yet.

    By the way, I’m in complete agreement on the costs of doing business. Any photographer who doesn’t take that seriously will not be able to stay in business. Same goes for any business. I shoot primarily commercial photography for that very reason. I lay it all out in an estimate or quote. If we can’t agree on a price, I don’t do it. It doesn’t work that way in all areas of photography, so I avoid those areas to a certain extent. I realize that maybe shooting for Conde Naste will get me some big commercial gigs, but maybe not…anyway this discussion been discussed to death.

  46. Brilliant post, it was precisely with this philosophy in mind that I started subxposed. Perhaps it is more than about time that WPP removes that ridiculous “please don’t steal” message whenever you right click a photo…

  47. Just out of curiosity Rob, do you give your services away? Here’s some thoughts on the concept of free:

    1) Free is not a business model that will ever create a sustainable revenue stream for photographers.

    2) As web based advertising continues to grow, now more than ever, photographers need to protect their work from infringement. The likelihood of a 72 dpi image working in a print ad was slim. The likelihood of it working in a web based ad is a given. Infringement happens in many ways – sometimes it is willful and the infringer just hopes that you won’t catch them; sometimes it is an art director who is ignorant about copyright law; sometimes it is the consumer who just feels entitled to take something simply because it’s there.

    3) Read my article on the EP homepage.

    The bust occurred as a result of one thing and that was the “let’s give it away for free and we’ll make it up on the back end mentality.” Only problem was there was no back end and there never was going to be.

    If it didn’t work the first time with the internet, why should it now? And more importantly, why would you place so little value on your work?

    It pains me to see photographers given advice based upon reading an article about razor blades. Photographs cannot be compared to razor blades, widgets, or for that matter, the music industry. No one, whether it be the consumer or the photo editor or the art buyer will shower you with money because you’ve given away something for free. When they have no money, they will come to you.

    Chip Mitchell posted this quote on EP the other day from a NY Times article on callgirls:

    “The more somebody pays for you, the more they’ll respect you. Tell a guy you’re $100 and they’ll treat you one way — tell them you’re $1,500 and they’ll treat you better”.

    Hookers know this. So should you.

  48. […] British MP is trying to curtail the harassment of law-abiding photographers. – A Photo Editor has a great article on the future of photography and how it relates to the web… There’s a fundamental shift […]

  49. Go Debra Weiss! I agree.

    Interesting concept, I suppose. Let me throw in a term I didn’t see on here: devaluation. If you’re selling to 10,000 “small-pocket” fans instead of 500 “elite” fans, scarcity disappears and so does interest in your work. Value goes down. Profit goes down. Surely we have all seen it happen at least once in our lives.

    Reckon I’ll stick to that “hard road” of the top tier clients who actually want to cover costs rather than devaluing my visual integrity in order to be more like Wal-Mart and less like Neimen Marcus.

    The real mistake nearly every photographer makes is having only one source of revenue. These days, to truly be rich, to build wealth, each person needs multiple revenue streams. And for many professional photographers, shooting is the only way they make money, which means they’re also missing out on a lot of income then.

    Treat photography as a fun, exciting career that supplements your other income (re-read what I just said) and prosperity is much more likely to be abundant. This industry becomes very dangerous when put in place as a last resort.

  50. 1. What if “Kristen” had set up her “escort business” so that she states, from the very outset: I will only sleep with twenty men in my entire career. Instead of charging a couple grand or three, I will instead charge fifty grand for each client session.” Would she ever get her business off the ground? Would she ever attract that first client? What about the second client? Could she sustain her business based on that model?

    2. What if Joni Mitchell, or the Beatles, or Ani DeFranco, had set up their business model so that they only pressed twenty-five copies of their recordings? What if they said, “Instead of running an ‘unlimited edition’, we’re going to limit the edition, and each copy of the record/CD will sell for fifty grand. The edition is limited to twenty five. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. No more. The master will be destroyed. Would they have gotten their career off the ground? How many, at fifty grand a pop, would they have sold? Is a copy of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” record any less a work of art than say, a Richard Misrach print, or an Avedon portrait?

    I think Debra Weiss (and others) make some interesting points, but I think also Rob’s suggestion to think outside the box has merit too.

    In a way, the “limited edition” approach seems to be the way that most advertising photographers are running their business — sitting around waiting for the phone to ring “with that big job” — the one with the fifty or hundred grand fee.

    And it also calls into question, for a fine art photographer, whether to limit his editions, to artificially create scarcity, and therefore hopefully up the value of each image. But the question arises again, what if he chooses the limited edition route, but there’s simply not enough “ten grand buyers” out there to ever generate enough buzz about the work, therefore he stays in obscurity?

    I’m not arguing; I’m just questioning.

  51. I agree that this post is ahead of the curve and most certainly advertising is headed this way as well. Ad agencies are scrambling to get in front of this and try all sorts of new digital tactics whether in social media or guerrilla advertising. It never hurts to continue go after the “elite” group but keep in mind so are all of the other thousands of photographers out there. If you come up with some great guerrilla ideas that catch on, guaranteed you’ll get quite the following of consumers and advertisers.

  52. Wow. I can hear the collective shudder throughout the ‘traditionalist’ camp. I love it. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts in this. It’s a phenomenal concept. Time for a beer and a bit of pondering time. Cheers.

  53. […] 23, 2008 by leochen APE had an article the other day about the future of photography. He wrote about the necessity and […]

  54. @ 46. Debra Weiss: Yes, I give something away from free. Here’s a hint: It rhymes with blog.

    Photographers already have websites, portfolios and produce promo cards which they send to their potential fans for free. I think you even tell them to do this. I’m just saying expand that group to include regular joe’s.

    Don’t kid yourself, photographs are widgets and all the normal laws of economics apply. Do you think google is a successful company? They gave their services away for free except now they’re worth billions. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree or get what I’m talking about but your assumptions about the economics of the dot com companies is way off base and if you think there’s nothing radical in store for photography… well, good luck.

    I’m not touching the photographers as hookers analogy.

  55. @51. Websites, portfolios and promotional material are tools necessary in order make an art buyer or photo editor take notice of your work and hopefully remember that you exist. Thousands of dollars go into creating these materials and when it works, the payoff can be substantial. The idea that by making your work available for free to an art director is going to translate into big jobs is for most totally unfounded. The idea that a substantial payoff can be achieved by marketing en masse to the average Joe without the average Joe knowing who you are is unrealistic. You are attempting to drawer a comparison where there is none.

    Also with no comparison is the Chris Anderson article to marketing photography. The reason King Gillette was able to give away razors and create a successful business was because they were totally useless without the blade, which is where he made his money. Not unlike Epson, who is able to sell printers at a fairly reasonable price and make their money on the ink. There is no second component when it comes to purchasing photographs, therefore, your notion is seriously flawed.

    The dot com bust occurred for the exact reasons I stated. And yes, there are radical changes in store for photography and should photographers heed advice about distributing their work for free, none of those changes will be pretty and in the least bit beneficial to them.

    You can’t possibly touch the photographers as hookers analogy because there is none. Please twist your own words, not mine.

    Photographs are widgets? I must remember to tell that to Nadav the next time I run into him.

    At least photographers who visit your blog now know where they stand with you.

  56. you’re missing the point altogether. allow people to look at your photographs for free and pass them along (post on blogs). i’m NOT talking about FREE commercial use as I’ve said many times here. you can’t convert free buyers into paying buyers.

    the second component that you seem to be missing in your gillette and epson comparison (which I never mentioned by the way because I know better than to use the past to predict the future) is the distribution. photographs are worthless without distribution. happily sitting on your hard drive or on your wall earning zero dollars. that’s why working for magazines and winning awards and using mailing lists is so good for business. use the internet to distribute yourself for free.

    we can debate this further as I’ve got more posts to come on this subject.

    yes, tell Nadav about the widgets.

  57. @51 Rob wrote: “Don’t kid yourself, photographs are widgets and all the normal laws of economics apply….”

    Maybe Rob, but I’m willing to bet that:

    There are widgets you’d never, ever, ever use.
    There are widgets that are ok as 1/8 page stock.
    There are widgets you might take a chance on.
    There are widgets you count on 3-5 times a year.
    There are widgets you absolutely L-O-V-E!
    There are widgets you just WISH you could get your hands on.

    Are they all really the same?

  58. I think we’re talking about two different ideas with regard to widgets, which is just a placeholder name for things that can be manufactured. I need a photograph and need someone to manufacture one for me or sell me one they’ve already manufactured. How is that different from buying a car? I base my decision on the intended use, marketing that effects me, influence from people I respect, track record of the company, price, color, shape, add-on’s…

    You’re talking about widgets as if they’re interchangeable. One is as good as the next. That’s not how I define a widget but maybe I’m wrong.

  59. Rob,

    “Widgets” sounds a bit like commoditization. I’m hoping that’s not how you see photography.

    I’m all for ways that I can make more money. I like your example of NIN because they used “free” to drive prices UP not down.

    That’s definitely more applicable to photography than razor blades….

    Though come to think about it, photographers who give away too much for free may find themselves headed for a razor blade…good point!

  60. Dear Rob and all.

    My personal opinion on this matter is that many discussions have all gone into personal points of view because of an incomplete reading of Wired’s reportage on Free.

    Sinking deeply into “free is wrong” or “free is beautiful” leads nowhere if we are talking of free for real, free like in nothing but Anderson is far from there.

    Everyone seems to have missed the term ” Crossed subsidizing” spread all over the Anderson’s text, as a key process to generate THE ILLUSION OF FREE to the consumer, while in fact, some other aspect of the business is actually covering the expense, and ultimately profiting.

    If photographers can not find their own way of giving away some
    -seemingly- freebie, with all Copyright protection included, which later translates into more profits, then I guess it is our lack of imagination.

    The digitalization of products and services should not necessarily work against us, but I can say for sure, that photographers still have to find a way to make this into a profitable venture, as our classic methods for doing business will eventually go away. This does not mean that we have to just accept each and every proposal on the road to give up images for nothing. Maybe that is the difference, free and the illusion of free is still something, while nothing only means nothing.

    Contests and companies asking to retain full ownership of the submissions take away from the photographer the alternative of cross-subisidize their images and services and therefore it makes no sense to go there. Instead, targeted submissions may actually become a business in itself.

    So Rob, if you are into this concept of asking shooters to send you their images, why not make it into a full virtual repping thing?

    You receive images from photographers, you edit the sample yourself ( you have been a successful editor, right?), you make your edit choice visible to targeted audiences( newspaper and mag editors to editorial shooters, art buyers and creatives for Advertising shooters, etc,etc), and those who get a job pay you a commission.

    This is an actual way to turn free into cash. You cross subsidize your business just as much as photographers do, for the profit of both.

    You turn your database of contacts into a cash cow and everybody wins. No more silly discussions about copyright, or rights-grabbing proposals or free like in nothing.



  61. Adobe just announced they are offering an online version of Photoshop, Photoshop Express, for free as a way to compete in the arena of online photo consumers (photo sharing) and photo management (shutterfly, photobucket, etc.).

    “Adobe says providing Photoshop Express for free is part marketing and part a strategy to create up-sell opportunities. It hopes some customers will move from it to boxed software like its $99 Photoshop Elements or to a subscription-based version of Express that’s in the works.”

    Not really something for nothing. They’ve got a plan.

  62. […] Adobe launches a free web based photo editor Photoshop Express (here). Thanks for the tip Mike (here). […]

  63. Re Photoshop Express: did anyone catch this rights grab in the TOS:

    8. Use of Your Content.

    1. Adobe does not claim ownership of Your Content. However, with respect to Your Content that you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Services, you grant Adobe a worldwide, royalty-free, nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable license to use, distribute, derive revenue or other remuneration from, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform and publicly display such Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate such Content into other Materials or works in any format or medium now known or later developed.

    Sneaky, sneaky…

    Here’s the link:

  64. The Stock Artists Alliance (of which I’m a member) contacted Adobe yesterday regarding the rights grab wording in their TOS and Adobe has stated it was not their intention, the wording describes actions they would never take, and the TOS will be changed.

    Boilerplate. You gotta love it.

  65. I’m on the fence regarding watermarking. One of the main reasons for doing it, is that if someone grabs a photo of yours and posts it on their blog or whatever, they rarely if ever give a credit. With MP3 file-sharing, at least everyone knows who the artist is.

    Whenever I do a Google image search of musicians I shot, I find my photos, unattributed, on other sites. If it’s a non-commercial site I usually tell them to remove it, or give me a photo credit and a link. If everyone did that I wouldn’t mind. What scares me is that my non-watermarked photos could be on thousands of sites with no way of anyone knowing I shot the photo. If someone finds one of my shots unattributed, they couldn’t ask permission or credit me even if they wanted to.

    Am I missing something here? If you don’t watermark, how will people know it’s your shot?

  66. @53, 54:
    Debra makes an excellent point that many people miss in all the discussion of ‘free everything’ — any business that makes money while giving things away is giving things away which aren’t their source of income. (Google gives away free searches, but their income comes from ads which are never free. Companies that will happily send you one or two of their product for free get their money from people buying product in huge quantities. A lawyer will give you a free consultation and makes money from the actual case. Fashion photographers shoot editorial for free or cheap and make money from advertising work.) This is something that I think Rob gets but which just about everyone else is missing entirely.

  67. […] A Photo Editor – A Thought on the Future of Photography and a great post suggesting that photographers embrace the digital properly (also via 2point8) (tags: photography future digital) […]

  68. […] future, creative ways to market, etc I’m going to try something new. Over on APE, a few weeks ago there was a reference to Wired’s editor, Christopher Anderson and his […]

  69. Codeine….


  70. too many people want free and free doesn’t exist. This author is talking rubbish. “free to remain competitive” is a nonsense there is no competition with free. His niavity is shown when he thinks fans or not that people will pay for images when they can copy them free. Any artist who put stuff on the web, unless under an explicit agreement without a watermark and or a copyright mark is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Ther are too amy greedy peole only to raedy to rip-off, plaragrise or otherwise gain pecuniar advantage without paying their dues. Where does this ridicuolous idea come from that just because a person is and artist or a photographer that he has to give up is rights and give away work. If the artist is worth his labour then he should be apid from square one, no arguement, done and dusted and thos who advocate thatthey should od things for free such as the author can go whistle in the wind.
    Anyone who aspires to be an artist or photographer who gives away his/her work holsds themselves in low esteem.

    “there’s no such thing as a free meal”

  71. To succeed, we have to put ourselves out there.

    It is a new day and we get our information and resources delivered differently. Visual Digital drives all of our information.
    If we worry, hoard & seclude ourselves. We will remain safely in the dark (ages).

    The crummy people that steal our work out of our portfolios would never be our paying customers in the first place.

    So…shrug it off and direct that nervous energy to setting yourself apart from the other millions of photographers.

    There is more than enough for all of us!

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