Many have emailed me asking me how to make money as a street photographer, so I decided to create this no nonsense guide. Included are the basics of business, and how to market your work.
Part 1: Is it worth it?
This is the part where I will try to dissuade you from making any money from street photography. Why? Cuz it's not only hard but you don't need to make any money to be a successful street photographer to begin with!
Success is simply a matter of getting to do, and liking what you do. Does it really matter if you make money? No.
You can have your regular job and be a successful street photographer. Money or galleries do not legitimize your work in any way. Crappy stuff gets sold and gets hanged in galleries all the time! If you want to validate your work, look to yourself and enjoy it yourself, the dough isn't necessary.
Still want to make money? Good. There's sacrifices involved. Have that idea that if you leave your day job and be a full time street photographer, you'll have more time to shoot? The opposite is actually true, you'll have less time to shoot. When you have a day job, you are more or less guaranteed income, provided you show up and do your appointed tasks, but if you are on your own, the pay is not guaranteed and REQUIRES loads of time to sell yourself. If all you want is more time to shoot, going pro is the sure way to go to have less. There's a reason why “Pro” is before “Photographer”, it's because you'll spend more time on the pro part.
Lastly, going pro is HARD. How hard? You'll be depressed and cry yourself to sleep wondering if it's all worth it hard. Not getting responses, not selling while bills are piling up, etc. Been there, done that. You better be resilient because you're gonna get punched. The only reason I'm still here is because even though I'm given to depression, I bounce back up afterwards.
But the question is it all worth it? You tell me, is it worth taking more time promoting your work than creating it? Is it worth working your butt off but making your own money? You answer that for yourself. I know of no contractor that will work unless he or she counts the costs, do so for yourself! You can be anything you want, provided you pay your dues…..
Still here? Great! let's get to the bottom of the business aspect of street photography. To do so, because most don't understand the inner workings of business, we are going to go to the begining.
The world's first business started as trading. I've got A cow, you've got a goat with a sac or raisins. I don't have the time or skill to get both, I'll trade you a cow for your raisins and goat. That's fine, but quickly we see there's a limit to the system, what if I want moreraisins and goats, but you don't want another cow? That's why money was invented, to permutate the value of something to a coin or a bill. So instead of being able to trade a cow, I can trade for money, the person who didn't want to take the cow can take the money and redeem that for anything he or she wants.
Part 2: How do street photographers make money
That's the basics of money. Now business is value creation in exchange for money. Let's take someone who makes pizzas. He or she creates out of soure materials (Bread, cheese, peperonni, etc) something new: A Pizza. They took the time not only to gather the primary ingredients but also the skills to create a pizza. That's valuable to me who don't want to do that, hence I pay them. That's called a product value creation.
There is of course multiple types of value creation, but what do street photographers bring to the table? Well, first things first we must understand that street photography falls under the umbrella of Fine Art photography. So making a living as a street photographer is making a living as a fine art photographer…all of a sudden it doesn't feel so lonely does it?
The first value-creation of street photographers is actually street photography as a service. That's pretty rare but some folks actually get paid to roam the streets and shoot. It's usually related to fashion and it's called street style. It's about going out and shoot the guys and gals that are uniquely dressed and getting paid by fashion magazines. It's not quite traditional fashion because it's more real life. Of course, it's a given to be in a big city for this, an indication that you might have a market is if there's dedicated fashion magazines limited to that city.
I will not talk about teaching street photography as a service because it's not really street photography, it's teaching and that's pretty much universal.
The second value creation is a product. Most Street Photographers will fall under that value creation. The two usual suspects are prints and books. There's other stuff you can do too, posters, shirts, stock etc. But the profit margins are low and you need to sell loads of these to live off them. While it can be argued that a book is hard to live off, it's really about the upsell. Businessmen write books not really to make money off of it, but to promote their consulting services and seminars. Photo-books are like paid-for marketing tools to eventually get prints from you. So for the remainder of the guide I will limit the street photography business to Prints and Books.
Part 3: Why street photographers make money
Street Photographers can make money trough prints and books. But WHY? What's the point?
Economic value is what customers find so valuable that they are willing to give up their money for. Fine Art is nowhere near a need, you don't NEED a print to survive, so it's a WANT. There's 3 economic values that customers would want a print or book for:
– Aesthetic appeal: Meaning they'll want it cuz it's beautiful, pretty straightforward.
– Status: Meaning they want it cuz it's going to affect how they look. Artists make names for themselves because it ramps up the status of their work. Ever seen people want a crappy painting by a famous painter? It might not be because of aesthetic appeal, but because of status…..other people will be impressed that this is a painting by a famous painter if you get it. Another example would be an expensive watch or bag, the owner buys that because of how they want to be perceived (as refined, high class, etc), they gladly pay for that status boost.
– Emotion: Meaning they want it because it makes them FEEL a certain way. The proliferation of Motivational Posters thrive on that economic value, people will gladly give up their money thave a poster that makes them feel a certain way.
By the way, just so you know, cost is the last thing to be considered on the consumers mind. And it's been proven that the higher the cost, the higher the pleasure derived from owning a thing. The economic values are universal to business, so ask yourself these 3 questions about your work:
– Is my work aesthetically pleasing? (At least to a certain group of people, look at Picasso) Is it well presented? (part of the aesthetics)
– Am I popular? (People will value your work more if you have a name. Just think about it, people pay more for Harvard because it's letterhead carried more weight than a no-name university)
– Does my work evoke emotions (When someone sees it, do they feel something?)
Part4: It's all about selling yourself
Now that you know your economic values, you have a basis to sell. You know what you have in your hands, and more importantly what value you bring to the world: You create something beautiful and something that evokes emotions. These need to be strong enough for the consumer to gladly give up their hard earned money….when someone-body gives you money, they are essentially saying, I value what you are offering more, than XXX amount of work.
Your status can also create value for the consumer, who will be more than happy to own a print from XXX famous photographer in exchange for money. But that doesn't mean your stuff is going to sell. Let's go back to the beginning again. I've got 500$ and I'm looking for a sheep, I encounter three sellers. One just has a sheep with the price on it, the second has the same, but he has a guarantee on it, but his stall is quite dirty. The third has the price, a clean stall, a guarantee, and a complete panel of testimonials from his past customers and a five star review from the magazine “Sheep Monthly”. If all three sheeps are the exact same, who do you think gets the business? The third one, one course.
Closer to our time-line, there's a beer company that made good money by having videos of their process. They use purified water, do this and that, etc. What they never tell you is that other companies did the exact same thing. But the one who used their process as a marketing tool got to be perceived as a purer beer. That my friends is marketing.
Back to photography. Have you ever seen super average photography get sold for a high price and wondering what the heck? I'll get some heat for this, but in my opinion, you don't even need to be a great street photographer to make sales. Not because I want to but because I see it everyday. I won't name names, but I've seen the most boring, entry level work get sold. That person's work has zero aesthetic and emotional appeal…..but he's got is status because he's popular. One economic value can overturn the other. You are own you own to make good work, but afterwards, the secret is Market, market and market.
The truth is, bad work well marketed will outsell good work badly marketed. I'd like to say that the work will sell itself if it's good but just look what that did to Van Gogh. If you want to go pro, you need to have a paradigm shift, it's not about the art, it's about marketing it. Hate it or love it, that's the way it is.
I talked to the a manager at Louis Vuitton store, I asked him, if LV ever came out with design that is for all intents and purposes a turd, would it still sell? He didn't bat an eyelid and told me yes. That also works for photography, look at Andreas Gursky's photograph. Try to do the same and be laughed at.
Next time you see some average photographs get sold, understand where the economic value is….The photographers making money out there are not the best, they are only on top of their marketing.
Part 5: Make a plan
No one would build a house without a plan, why should you go build your carreer without one? Make a plan, starting from the end and reverse engeneer how you are going to get there. Make deadlines (important!) and dedicate an amount of time everyday to build your fine art career.
Don't quit your day job, research galleries and other avenues like art fairs. If you have no time, wake up 1 hour earlier to get things done. Your mileage may vary but that's what worked for me. The trick is to do something everyday that's going to advance your career in the direction you want it. Research grants, apply to contests, etc. This part is short because only you know what you want, but it's the most important.
Part 6: Prerequisites
– If you want to sell your work, the most basic prerequisite is your website. Get your own domain name, and have a presentable email like email@example.com. Having your own domain and email showcases your professionalism. If you can create a logo and a brand around you with consistent colors and typography. Hire someone on elance for that.
– There's websites like Smug Smug that take care of the selling side for you. You decide if that's good or not for you. Alternatively there's prints on demand like MPIX pro and my favorite Digital Silver Imaging. You can use blurb for on demand books. You'll need a checkout system, like ejunkie or make your own Paypal buttons. As hosting, either use a platform specifically designed for Photographers like Smug Smug or Photoshelter, or get your own hosting, like 1and1 or GoDaddy. If you do get your own, you can install WordPress (some hosting can install in one click), and have a theme installed. If you want more visual control, install something like Photocrati or ProPhotoblog. You can get real cool results with your theme and installing Frontend Builder plugin.
– You'll need an artist statement. It's here to make people interested in your work. There's this artist, Joseph Beuys he made many things out of fat and felt, and many didn't understand it. But his artist statement really fleshed things out. He was in a plane crash in snow and got rescued by some locals, wrapped in fat and felt. This statement makes his crazy interesting doesn't it? What do you stand for? Why do you photograph?
– If you have a project, know that some projects are more marketable than others. The deeper the subject, the more touchy it is the better. Zun Lee‘s making a lot of buzz because of his portrayal of black fathers. It wouldn't have worked that well if was just fathers.
– You need to decide what route you are going to go….bypass the galleries or not? The galleries are not the guardians of the best art, they are businesses, and business operate on a return on investment, if they put you there, your stuff must sell or get out, and they will take a cut from the transaction. Alternatively you can also go directly to the person who will by from you on line or in real life.
– Crunch your numbers. If you need 40.000 to survive, and you sell your prints at $400 profit, you need to sell 100 prints in a year, about 9 per month. If you make a book, and make 35$ profit, you'll need 1143 sales a year or 96 sales per month to make ends meet. Crunch your numbers, know what you need to do.
At the end of the day, make sure you are ready to make a sale, that if someone pays you, you can deliver asap.
Part 7: Marketing
Now that you have your work, and that you have some prints to sell, the hard part begins: Selling it. Here's some tips to get you started. The whole philosophical part on top was only for you to understand what you are doing in order to find new ideas for yourself. But the grand plan is this: Create art, Create buzz, make sales.
1) Create a high traffic blog
Don't reinvent the wheel, Google fine art photographers, look at their blog and what they are doing, how they attract customers. 20% of their posts account for 80% of their traffic. Find these top posts and see what works and use it for your own blog.
Create interest in your work, blog how you think. Know your market, don't parket to photographers by having gear reviews but by having whatver content your potential customer is looking for. If you have a bunch of cat in the street images, have cat blog posts. Follow other artists and ask for guest posts, you'll get some of their traffic.
Educate your customers, lead them to the sale. Don't just put your images up, they are bombarded by images everyday, create a photoshop render of the work so that they can see themselves owning it.
2) Join online marketplace
How many eyeballs does your website get in the beginning? 30-100? How many eyeballs does marketplaces get? In the millions. Put up your prints and books on marketplaces like Etsy or Ebay. Remember, the Title is KEY and so are the tags. This painter makes 29.000 is sales on ebay.
3) Find them designers
What form of value are we selling again? Ah! Aesthetics, who needs that? Homeowners? Yes, but hunting down homeowners one by one….it's time consuming! You know what your best bet is? Interior decorators! Send them your portfolio or create blurb books as leave behinds (with your name and address please!) and DO tell them you'll send them a little mullah if something sells. Google for office or home deocrators, hook up with those in your area by searching craiglist or other local newspaper.
4) Market with your website
Go to Google, register as a business, give your address or your P.O.Box address. When someone searches your area, your name will pop up as XXX Photography.
You can market by location, “Somewhere, USA Fine art photographer” or market by style “Grunge street photography” or “Dreamy Street Photography”, etc.
Create blog posts with relevant keywords, if you have a killer piece from Las Vegas, How about a title including the location in the content? It will need words too BTW, Google will not link to you with a post with just an image. Mike Penn, interviewed in issue number 4, has a nice niche in the Philly area for example.
5) Do your own gallery
No galleries? No problem! Go to the busiest place of your city, print lose leaf prints and stick'em on a wall. The more you have, the more it will attract attention. To create buzz, you can give them away for free, or have them as a “pay what you want”, or stick the full price on them. Decide what will work best for you. Some artists started by giving away free pins.
6) Go street style
Grab your camera, go to the busiest street of your town every week. Shoot a bunch of images, get the emails of your subjects, send the images to them. Create a blog post with the location. That will drive traffic and buzz. The intent is to use the street style buzz to make yourself known and find exposure for your regular street work.
7) Approach magazines
Like Inspired Eye 🙂 Some pay, some don't. We personally don't pay but there's curators and other big wigs looking at it, Let's take a subscriber for example, Keith Goldstein contacted me, I featured him, I pulled a string, he got to be featured in PetaPixel, Gizmodo, FastCo, etc. It also adds to your street cred to be published somewhere.
That's something in marketing called social proof, getting featured will add to that. Cold call everyone who will feature. You make the first move, not the magazine or blog. Sorry to tell you, they are busy….so If you do not ask, you will not get anything. Also, send them and email or call, and then follow up once every two weeks. Take me for example, as a blog and mag editor, I get an avalanche of emails, and sometimes I plainly forget, or forget to respond, it's nothing personal. As tips when asking mags and blogs for interviews, ask politely (Could you please look at my work?), and take the pain to check the about page to learn the people behind the mag. Simple decency, I know but you have no clue how impolite some people are!
8) Social Media: Not for what you think
Careful on the Facebooks and others. It's easy to think the goal is to get more likes, it's really not, social media is known to have a low ROI (return on investment). Instead, use it as a networking tool, befriend collectors or potential clients, or even like I said above, home designers. You can use like Manage Flitter to target certain peole based on interest. You can also use LinkedIn for that too.
9) Put the vibe in the place
Ever went to a Subway? Look at the photography on the wall, it's probably all stock, so why can't you approach a mom and pop shop to put up your artwork there? Of course there's your website and price near the print. I wouldn't approach franchises like Olive Garden or whatever cuz these guys have to follow a visual guideline.
Be smart, put your France images in a french restaurants, send the place images that fit them. But there's also business places, hospitals, etc that would be more than happy to have. If you've ever been to the Ft Lauderdale airport, there's a nice large print of Clyde Butcher there, a Florida landscape photographer. That's a LOT of exposure, he's getting sales from this for sure.
Do small location based street work wt first. It pays to be a big fish in a small pond. Say you live in NYC, there's too many NYC shooters to compete with. How about, for the time being sticking to one part at first? Say Harlem, Upper East side, etc and sell some prints at local restaurants? You can use location based prints as a marketing tool for your other street work. What you can also do is print some books and leave them behind with the owners permission, of course place somewhere where readers can go to buy the book and prints.
10) Strategically give
If you study the social aspect of humans, you'll discover that there's some people you know that just KNOW people. Hyper connected, knows this guy that knows that guy, etc. They are called Mavens….give those people a print as a gift. Make sure you tell them that you are selling these if anyone is interested….
You can also give prints as prizes in local contests, to important people in your area, etc. Think where your images would get the most exposure.
Part 8: Caution
Now that you probably have some ideas for marketting, all I can say is tread litely, there's a dark side to marketing. That felt artist? It's been discovered that his artists statement was embellished, he created a mystique around himself. There's one artist, Andrea Frazer, her “work” was a video of a hotel camera, doing it with a collector who paid 20.000$ to be part of her “art”. Call it what you want, it my book that's called lying and prostitution.
Even online you have to be careful, there's one dude, he used piggybacking (name droping all the famous names like Henri cartier Bresson in order to draw attention to himself) to drive great traffic to his website, while that resulted in him becoming one the most famous street photographers, he is one of the most passionately hated, because most see his fame as undeserved.
Would you lie, lie down, use other people's fame to draw attention to you? They work, just like a sex tape works, but is it worth it? I don't think so. I think one should stay true to themselves and not sell out so that we are not highly regarded for an embellished story, doing a stunt, or using other people's names to bring our own up. Might thoughts at least.
That's all I have for you, I hope I helped you out. Make sure you know it's what you want to do, count the costs, and get working. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.
– Marketing fine art photography:
– How to find an audience for your work (Course)
– Making it in the art world
– 2014 photographers market (Like a yellow pages for galleries, art fairs, etc)
– Going Pro (Entry level book, non exhaustive)
– How to win friends and influence people (Stupid name, relationship 101)
– Personal MBA (Must read)
– How photographs are sold (Interview book)
– Best business practices for photographers (Textbook style, but goes into the unpopulars like Copyrights, etc)
– Complete guide to building your blog audience (free)
– Problogger (Blogging 101)
About the author
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