One of the most common questions I get from other photographers is, “How did you start working as a professional photographer?” To answer that question though, I think we first need to define what it is to be a professional. The first misnomer we need to dispel with is the classic convention of what a professional photographer is. By the standards of the mid twentieth century, only a small fraction of today’s photographers would qualify as pros, even amongst those who are earning a full-time income from their photography. In the age of the internet, everything has changed. But first, let me assure you that this article is not about using social media to share your photography (though I do encourage you to do so). Whether you are into wildlife, landscape, street, portraiture, or any other genre of photography, this article is meant for everyone who is looking to earn a little extra income from their photography and to publish more effectively to a larger audience. This article will illustrate a few creative means of get your work out there and in front of more people, and not just with social media.
Ok, so what is a professional anyways? I define a professional as a photographer whose income consists either entirely or at least substantially from their photographic services and/or products. And within that definition are two different categories, services and products. Photographic services would include being hired to shoot weddings, commercial photography, real estate, or any other situation in which you are either hired or contracted as a photographer. And products would obviously include things like selling prints, photo licensing, and traditional publishing. But, the definition of photographic products can also be expanded to include a huge range of products like workshops postcards, merchandise, ad space, ebooks, coffee table books, and others. For this article, we will focus on the photographic product side of things and increasing your audience size.
Why Monetize At All?
This is a great question for anyone whose aspirations don’t include hustling their pants off to someday become a full time professional photographer. But, the truth is, monetization is not just about becoming a full-time professional. It is about everyone who could use a little side income. It is about funding that next big photo trip or piece of equipment. It can be about retirees having a business that utilizes a photographic passion. But, mostly, to me, it is about growing my audience size. I’ve met many hobbyist photographers who say they do not promote their work anywhere. And to me, this is sad because these people pour so much passion, time, and money into their hobby. I believe that all photographers inherently crave to have their work seen and appreciated. And in this digital age, there is no guarantee anyone will ever see your work. There isn’t going to be some big box of negatives in your attic for your descendants to find. As a digital photographer, I know that every image I’ve made that isn’t sold, printed, or uploaded to the web in some form will most likely be lost forever after I am gone. Therefore, I print and frame my images as often as I can, and I am constantly working to reach a larger and larger audience so that my work has a life of its own, whether I make money from it or not.
This brings us back to how I got my start. I first began calling myself a professional when a large percentage of my income came from selling my photographic services. Before I felt I’d earned this designation though, I was already shooting real estate, weddings, and events around my city, as well as my own brand of street photography on medium format film. During this time, I spent many years working in a film production studio as a film editor and photographer. I was initially hired only as a film editor, but after the studio owners became aware of my side work as a photographer, they began having me shoot production stills, marketing photos, portraits for talent, creating scenic backdrops, and pretty much any other situation that called for a still image. This was a great opportunity for me, because we were working on such high profile projects, from feature films to network series to international ads. Because of this, I received photographic credits in publications like The New York Times, The Oregonian, and an array of production magazines and film festivals. And, it was around this time that I started calling myself a professional photographer, even though, at the time, I wasn’t really selling any photographic products.
Now, things are very different. For one, I no longer work in the film and television industry. And, I lean far more heavily upon selling my photographic products for my income. A great deal of my earnings comes from teaching workshops in the field, which is true for many other wildlife and travel photographers. Even renowned National Geographic photographers Franz Lanting and Steve Winter make a large portion of their income teaching workshops and giving lectures to other photographers and nature enthusiasts. Another large portion of my income comes from selling photographic licenses to businesses. I live on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, and several lodges and guide services in Costa Rica pay me for the right to use my photographs in their marketing materials. The rest of my income comes from selling the occasional print and selling my services as a photographer for lodges, travel sites, and the occasional destination wedding. But I, just like you, am looking for ways to expand the range of products I offer and increase my audience size.
To do this, we are going to think about some less obvious means of, firstly, increasing your audience size, and then offering that audience the ability to purchase your products.
Increasing Your Audience Size
I think one of the most common pieces of advice you will see when googling articles on monetizing your photography is to start a blog. I know that to certain people, the word ‘blog’ might be an ugly one. In truth, I hate saying the word blog. But, just because blogging might have some annoying connotations around it does not make them valid. In truth, blogs are an incredible way of reaching out to a range of like-minded people around the globe. With the right approach, a blog can be an excellent means of both publishing your photography as well as creating content that will drive internet traffic to your website. This brings us to the first step in creating a blog…
Step 1: Start a Website
I know that most of us are not web designers. But, the great thing is that now we don’t have to be. They days of having to learn to code in HTML and CSS just to have a simple personal website are long gone, gracias a Dios! There are a range of services out there now with visual editors that makes designing a website easy and a lot more fun! I remember puling half my hair out fighting with the HTML editor in Wordspace. Now though, I use Squarespace (there are also other services out there like wix.com). My hair may not have grown back, but I enjoy updating my website now. I pay a small fee (like $120/year), and I can easily create and edit a template specifically designed as a photographic portfolio site. You can check my layout at http://ben-blankenship.com. I also encourage you to look at other photographer’s layouts to find inspiration for your own. I emulated the layout of one of my photographic idols Brent Stirton, for instance.
As you will see on my site, you don’t need much more than a few pages of your favorite photos, your contact info/social media links, and the most important part, the blog!
Step 2: Start the Blog – Pick a Direction
This article is going to be full of platitudes like this; “don’t be scared of your blog!” For one, you don’t need to write that much; you’re already a photographer! If you’re sharing images on Facebook or Instagram, you need only post those same images to your blog as well now. Your blog should definitely include some writing as well, though. When thinking of content for your blog, try and pick a specific audience you are trying to reach. For instance, if you are a wildlife photographer from the Pacific Northwest, this could be your angle. You could write about your experiences photographing the wildlife of your home region. Another great angle would be writing about one’s experiences as a retiree and photographer. Many clients I see in workshops are retirees, and there is surely an enormous audience of baby boomer photographers and photography lovers out there waiting to discover you.
The angle I am working with right now is Life on the Osa, which focuses on living in Costa Rica’s far southwest as well as working as a photographer in this remote region. As you publish your blog posts, share those posts with your friends and family as a start, via email or Facebook or word of mouth. For me, the bulk of my audience comes from expats living in Central America and those who are interested in doing so. When I first moved down here, I found a Facebook group called Gringo ExPats Living in Costa Rica. As I published posts about my experience living here, I shared my posts to that group page and others I found relating to similar topics. Pretty soon, I began receiving subscriptions, comments and shares. My audience began expanding quickly! This is how all of my photo licensing clients discovered me. They began reading my blog posts which exposed them to my wildlife photography, which they identified with and wanted to use for their own marketing purposes.
Other great types of content relate to reaching other photographers. For instance, did you buy a new lens this year? One of the most popular video types out there on YouTube are product reviews, especially open-box reviews, where you literally record yourself unpacking a new product and describing what you see. Seems silly I know, but we’ve all watched one or two right? So, when you get that new lens, camera body, tripod, or other piece of equipment, this is a great opportunity to grow your audience.
I know I said that we weren’t going to focus on social media platforms like Instagram, but we must mention it here for a moment. As we all know, Instagram is all the rage amongst photographers, and many I know rely heavily upon it as a means of sharing their work. But, consider this; Eric Kim, professional street photographer and blogger deleted his Instagram account because he said it was a distraction, even though he had over 60,000 followers! He said that, upon analyzing his web traffic, he only received maybe 20 people clicking his bio link on his home page per week. But, through his blog, he has received a huge number of professional referrals.
His referral breakdown goes like this:
Time Period 2008-2018
Now, that is not to say that Instagram and other social media platforms are not useful. It is just to illustrate that they cannot be solely relied upon as your primary means of promoting your work. I absolutely encourage anyone wishing to monetize their photography to utilize all social media platforms, but to rely mostly upon your website and blog for driving traffic and generating income.
Designing Your Products: Prints
So, now that you’ve begun building an audience, it’s time to think about what you want to sell. The obvious thing for wildlife, landscape, and travel photographers would be prints. But, do be aware that even though this is one of the most traditional means of earning income from your photography, it is also probably the most challenging. Absolutely do your best to market your prints, but understand that even the best photographers in the world sometimes struggle with selling prints. Don’t let your sales of prints be a litmus of how well you think your photography business is doing.
As far as marketing your prints, it is always a good idea to include some information about purchasing prints on your site. But, I encourage you to keep it somewhat vague. You should absolutely state that prints are available for sale on your site, but do not list prices. Simply ask that prospective buyers email you with the title of the print they want (yes, you need to title all your photos on your website).
Your reply to this email should provide them with three different price options, a premium, a mid-level, and a cheap option. The principle behind this is called “framing.” The basic principle of this is that people don’t inherently know the value of something, and need to have it “framed” as a means of comparison. The premium print option could be a signed, numbered print on canvas or metal, mounted or framed. The mid level could be a signed print without mounting, and the cheap option could be just a paper print without signature. By doing this, you help the viewer envision what they want and usually automatically crave the priciest option.
This brings us to another principle that should apply to all of your products. Always offer 100% money back satisfaction guarantee. This removes a lot of the risk for buyers. Because they already know what they are buying more or less (an image they already like), and we are delivering exactly what they are ordering, the occurrence of refund requests will be next to none, and the benefit will far outweigh the risk. Plus, this will help motivate you to do the best job possible in preparing the print.
As our audience grows, so too does the list of potential products that you can offer. I’m not going to delve too deeply into listing out ways to package and sell your photography, but I will encourage you to be creative and think outside the box. Sure, coffee table books and high end prints are fantastic. But, they are expensive as well. Consider creating some inexpensive products to go with them. One of the products I am designing for use down here on the Osa are postcards. The driving force behind the economy here is ecotourism. And, I want to offer unique cards featuring local wildlife of the Osa to be sold in the local gift shops. This is also a great means of promoting the sale of my full-size prints.
I know that many of us do not live in areas where tourism is such a driving force, but many of us do live in or near major cities. Back to my Pacific Northwest photographer example, I used to live in Portland, OR. And there were several stores in the city that sold locally themed products like clothing, post cards, art, posters, and other items. A series of postcards featuring local landmarks, wildlife, or natural areas would have done gangbusters there, and I’m sure someone is taking advantage of this idea already.
Another, and more straightforward means of monetizing your photography would be to upload your work to stock photography sites such as Shutterstock, Getty, or Dreamstime. Now, let me first say that I have a fundamental disagreement with the business models of sites such as these. For one, they make purchasing photography so incredibly cheap for their clients that the amount of money that the photographer receives is often miniscule. This, in my opinion, lowers the perceived value of high end photography. As a general rule, you can expect to receive as little as a few cents for a simple usage license. But, for other license types, you could receive as much as $100 for one photo. The trick to making a significant bit of money from licensing sites is to upload A LOT of images. This can be time-consuming, as each photo must be titled and posted with a large range of key words so that the image can be easily searched for on the site. But, once you’ve uploaded an image, it can potentially be licensed again and again.
The Real World
Now, we are going to step outside of the digital world and into the real one. As someone who has been the featured artist in a few shows, I can say that is an incredibly rewarding and exciting experience, even if it does not end up yielding you a ton of money. But, it does require s significant investment on your end, as you will be printing a selection of your work out of your own pocket. But, I highly encourage anyone interested in having their work displayed on the walls of a gallery or business to make this investment. And this is an investment that you can keep on utilizing. You can hang the same series of photos multiple times. And, you don’t need to sell the display prints, but instead sell copies of each print which you can make as you receive orders. And again, this is a great time to use that three tier pricing system.
First though, you need to select which images you wish to print. This can be really challenging for many photographers, because as photographers, we all have our attachments and biases towards images that most likely do not reflect their perceived beauty to an objective viewer. But, there are some key principles and tricks that I use to make this easier.
Most importantly, the prints you make should work together thematically. I cannot stress this enough. As a business owner or art curator, I am looking for work that tells a story and is of a unified vision and aesthetic. For instance, if I were to just want to show my favorite wildlife shots, I’d end up with photos from Africa, Central America, and the U.S. To a potential audience, seeing an image of a giraffe hung next to one of a sloth just doesn’t work. Pick your theme, and help that narrow down your focus when choosing which photos to print. If you are a wildlife photographer, then pick a region from which to pull your photos. Maybe its the American West, the African Serengeti, or the jungles of Central America. But it could also be about a certain type of animal. If birds are your passion, then a series of photos of “Birds From Around the World,” would absolutely work.
I try to pick around 20-30 potential selects, and from there, I am going to ask for help! What I like to do is create a DropBox folder with all of my prospective choices and send a link to the folder to a few people whose opinions I respect in terms of identifying high quality images. I ask that they select their ten favorite images. I’ll do this with around three to four people, and will then cross-compare their choices. Even if you weren’t going to print the selects, this is a great experience in discovering which of your photos might resonate best with people.
Now that you’ve selected your top ten images for a potential show, it’s time to print and mount. This section absolutely deserves its own article, which perhaps we will get to writing soon. But for now, just know that your prints need to be of the highest quality and artistically mounted. If you’re not crafty and up to the challenge of doing this yourself, fret not. Many printing companies offer mounting as part of their printing services. For instance, if you want to print on canvas, then having it stretched around a frame and mounted shouldn’t cost too much extra. Other options are to print on metal or glass. Metal prints are expensive, but they have the longest potential life span for an individual print. And this is important, because you’ll be, hopefully, using the same prints again and again. But, there are multiple mediums on which to print. Just know that they need to look top notch in terms of quality and that you’ll want to be able to reuse them.
So, now that you’ve invested in your prints, it’s time for some legwork. An obvious place to display your work would be in coffee shops, cafes, and other establishments that have a rotating roster of art on their walls. They will often accommodate an opening night and are a great means of expanding your audience. Most curators working for cafes and coffee shops do their booking via email. So, do your research and get in touch with them. Include in the email a link to see your ten selected digital images, as well as a shot of one of the images printed and mounted so they can see the quality of the print and mount. Also, be sure to include a link to your website. Having a website helps to establish yourself as professional and not just some art student looking to hang their thesis project. Your show should have a title as well as a brief synopsis of your vision. Also, plan on writing and displaying a brief bio and headshot at the show.
If one of these establishments agrees to show your work, make sure to have high quality business cards printed and available at the show. This will be the primary means that potential buyers will have for contacting you to order a print. And remember, each print should be titled and have a brief description printed and posted next to it on the wall.
With this collection of prints, you should explore multiple venues for displaying it. For instance, in my hometown in Tennessee, there is an annual arts crawl. Proprietors open their doors to the public who tour from business to business to see the work of many artists. This is a great way to get your work in front of people interested in art and who are potentially ready to buy something!
The idea of monetizing your photography can be a daunting one, especially in today’s vast field of photographers. And it is true, there are more photographers than ever before. But, there is also a greater demand for high end photography than ever before. With the advent of digital media and marketing, businesses require a constant flow of new materials to work with. For me, the equation is simple. If I work hard to increase my audience size, to reach more and more people, then professional opportunities abound. Whether it be selling a print or being hired to travel to Africa for a month, it all comes through my own diligence.
Remember, the size of your goals should be reflected in the amount of work you put into achieving them. If it’s your goal to make the cover of National Geographic, then you need to outwork 99.999% of every other photographer out there. But, if your goal is to earn a little extra income from doing something that you already love, it doesn’t take too much effort to start that process. And to me, it is all about having that website and generating content.
And, if websites and blogs aren’t your thing, then think about making an investment in yourself by creating a collection of prints of your work. This can be used again and again, and you will be creating an archival record of your photography to be enjoyed for years to come.
And if that doesn’t interest you either, then consider uploading your work to stock photo sites. This requires no investment of money and only a medium sized investment of your time. Remember to upload as many images as you can. Because, even if you don’t get rich doing it, it’s always exciting to see a little money come in from licensing an image, as well as potentially seeing your work out in the world somewhere.
You’ve invested thousands of dollars and countless hours into your craft. Doesn’t the world deserve to see your beautiful work?
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com