The Fine Art Photography Business
The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.
I am interupting my ongoing series on Vision to publish this essay on the business and marketing aspects of fine art photography. This is a topic I write about regularly. If you are not familiar with my writings on this subject, I am the author of Marketing Fine Art Photography. Often referred to as a 'manual' on the business aspects of fine art photograph, this book is regularly featured in the top 10 books on photography business on Amazon.com and it has earned excellent reviews on since its publication. If you are new to the subject of marketing photography and have not read this book yet, I recommend you take a look at it.
This essay does not duplicate the contents of my book. Everything in the essay you are reading here is new and different, following my publishing practice which is to avoid redundancy as much as possible.
1 - Introduction
Fine Art Photography differs from other types of photography in that the purpose of the artist creating a fine art photograph is to express himself or herself rather than please the demands of a client. Unlike a commercial photographer who operates under contract, a fine art photographer creates images without being contracted by anyone. The artist’s only requirement is to fulfill his vision and please himself in the process. While the challenge of the commercial photographer is to fulfill the contract they signed with their client, the challenge of the fine art photographer is to convince clients to purchase artwork whose purpose is purely aesthetic and to do so after the artwork was created.
The differences between commercial and fine art photography are not always clear and as a result a certain confusion exists in regard to the relative purpose of these two types of photography. Knowing the difference is important because it informs how each type of photography is marketed. Commercial photography is not marketed the same way as fine art photography. While some similarities are unavoidable, the foundation of the two marketing approaches are very different.
2 - What will make you successful
Being successful in selling fine art photography is not related to your level of motivation or to the quality of your artwork. Rather, it is related, and in fact absolutely dependent, on knowing how fine art is marketed. In other words the theories on which this marketing is based, together with the techniques used to implement it, are the keys to success.
When I started selling my work I was just as motivated as I am today. In a way, I was probably more motivated. I was hungry. I wanted to succeed. I wanted this to work. However, I must say that when I started I was far from being as successful as I could have been. Why? Because I knew nothing about marketing. To me, marketing was putting a price tag on a work of art and, occasionally, telling people that it was for sale. Most of the time it was simply waiting for someone to see the price tag and buy the work without interacting with me. I had no knowledge of marketing theory and, of course, I had no knowledge of the marketing techniques I could use to multiply my sales. I was totally dependent on my work selling itself, and dependent on stores and galleries, to provide what I now call ‘mercy marketing’ for my work.
3 - Why I do this
I decided to start my own business to gain financial independence while doing what I love. Some may say that I wanted it all. I won’t object to that even though at the time I did not see things that way. When I started I simply wanted to do what I liked while making the same amount of money I made as a graduate teaching assistant. I had no dreams of being wealthy. Doing what I loved was better than doing work that I no longer enjoyed. If I could make the same amount of money doing what I liked instead of being an underpaid and overworked grad student then the benefit was unquestionable.
At the time I made roughly $600 a month as a graduate teaching assistant. I divided $600 by 30, the number of days in a month, and this came to $20 a day. I told myself that if I could make $20 a day selling my photographs I would be in the same financial situation except I would be doing what I liked instead of what I was forced to do. Certainly, I would incur production and business expenses, but when I started my business those were minimal. I was printing everything myself to minimize printing costs, I was not travelling to avoid travel costs and I was not buying advertising to reduce business expenses to a minimum. All in all my main expenses were paper and ink.
At the time I was selling my work through local galleries and nearby National Park giftstores. While the income was low, I soon found out that making $20 in sales per day was not difficult. It amounted to $125 per week, which was the price I asked at the time for a 16” x 20” photograph. Therefore, if I sold one 16” x 20” photograph I had reached my financial goal for the week. I also sold packs of notecards for $5 per pack. Selling 4 packs a day, or 25 packs per week, also allowed me to reach my goal. Often, I sold a combination of both cards and photographs, and I was soon able to reach my income goal consistently. I could then do one of two things: try to sell more pieces or create new products. I found out that doing both was the best approach because both were necessary to grow my business. I needed to sell more to increase my income, and I needed to create new products to diversify my offerings and reach a wider audience.
As I built my business, doing what I loved was soon merged with creating financial independence for myself. I found that these two goals worked hand in hand. As I created new products and reached a wider audience, I realized that I was taking control of my income. How much I made was no longer dependent on ‘the boss’ or on ‘climbing the social ladder’ or on getting promoted. Instead, how much I made was related to the products I offered to my audience. If I wanted more money, all I had to do was create a new product, enlarge my audience, or do both at the same time. The amount of extra money I made was dependent on the success of this new product and on the size of my target audience. The more popular the product and the larger the target audience, the more money I made. The great thing is I was doing all this while continuing to do what I loved, which was creating fine art photographs.
There are misconceptions about what is financial independence. Before starting my own business I believed that financial independence was having enough money to not have to work. Certainly, it can be that. If someone has enough money and never has to work another day in their life, they certainly are financially independent. They do not depend on anyone to provide them with income and they can do whatever they please with the money they have. Unfortunately, to be part of this group you have to either be born wealthy or retire with sufficient residual income, neither of which was my lot. I had no money whatsoever, and I was far from being able to retire. In fact, the way things looked at the time I could not consider retiring ever!
However, I soon realized that there was another form of financial independence, one that had eluded me because so far I had been an employee. As an employee my income was my salary. To make more money I had to either climb the social ladder, a slow and often frustrating process, or get a new and better paying job. In other words, someone else was in control of my income. I was not in charge of how much I made. If I needed more money next week, there was little I could do except cut down on my expenses or borrow money.
As a self employed person however my income was dependent on my actions. If I needed more money I could create a new product, offer it to my audience and increase my income that way. I did not need to be retired or have enough money to live on to be financially independent. All I had to do was take advantage of a situation that favored free enterprise as form of income, rather than depend on climbing the social ladder to increase my paycheck.
I soon found out that one thing controlled my success when offering a new product to my audience. This one thing was marketing. Creating a new product was important. Offering it to my target audience was also important. But marketing this new product to convince my audience to buy it was even more important. In other words marketing was the critical factor that determined how well my new product was going to sell.
Monument Valley Moonset
Panoramic images often become bestsellers
4 - Why do you want to do this?
I assume that you are reading this essay because you are either selling your work or considering doing so. For these reasons, and to make things 100% clear, I need to mention that selling fine art is difficult. There are much easier ways of making a living. Therefore knowing precisely the reasons why you want to do this is important. Knowing these reasons will sustain your efforts and will provide the necessary motivation to overcome the difficulties you will face as you move forward selling your photography. Knowing the reasons why you want to do this will make the difference between being interested in doing this and being committed to doing this.
if you have not done so yet, the simplest way of answering the question "why do you want to do this?" is to list as many reasons as you can think of about why you want to make a living selling your photography. In doing so be as detailed as possible and explain the logic behind each reason. Why is each reason important? Why does it matter to you? What led you to think this way? Knowing precisely why you want to do this will give you the strength and the motivation to overcome the difficulties that lie ahead.
5 - Using time wisely
Let's return to the matter at hand. If something defines your income and can potentially make you financially independent, you have to give it your attention. I therefore involved myself in an in-depth study of marketing. It soon became clear to me that creating new products and offering them to my audience was not enough to generate financial independence. Myself, as well as all the artists I knew, were constantly creating new work and offering it to our audience. Yet few sales were made. In fact, sales were not made for every new piece, far from there. While I was making enough sales to meet my daily income goal of $20, doing so was not going to make me financially independent. It matched grad student income, which was my original goal, but it did not put me in a financially enviable position in the least.
The main problem was the use of my time. I spent a lot of time to perfect a work of art before offering it to my audience. If it did not sell, or if it did not sell in large enough quantity, I spent even more time perfecting my work and correcting things that only me could see. I did that because I believed that my work did not sell because it was not good enough. The results were disappointing. Spending more time perfecting my work and making it 'better' did not result in better sales. While it did result in artwork that I was proud of, I have to be humble and say that in regard to sales it made no difference whatsoever.
Clearly, something was amiss. Offering new and better products to customers was not enough to generate sales. Something else was necessary and this something was marketing. The problem was that I did not understand marketing. My studies were in the humanities. I studied art, writing, philosophy and rhetoric. While I had a Bachelor and Master degrees and was ABD, having worked my way to PhD dissertation level, I had never taken a single business class, let alone work on an MBA. Marketing was something new and foreign to me.
However, disappointment has a positive side: it gives you the incentive to make things better. Disappointed by my lack of sales I decided to study marketing carefully. I looked long and hard for examples of fine art photographers marketing their work successfully, but did not find any that I could relate to. Most were not doing any marketing and those who did were so far beyond me that their marketing was too costly and too complex for me to implement. I therefore sought to simplify things and design a simple marketing system that I could use at low or no cost because I had very little money.
It dawned on me that there was three main elements in the buying/selling relationship: me (the artist), my product (the photograph) and the client. The question was how do these three elements relate to one another. At first, I thought that photography was what brought them together and this is why I put my efforts into making my work better. However, this did not work because I was wrong. The element that brought all three parties together was not photography, it was marketing. Photography was the larger context into which these four elements –artist, client, artwork and marketing- operated. The puzzle was complete. The answer was mine. To improve sales I needed to improve my marketing, not my photography! While having great photography was important, improving the quality of my work would not generate more sales. To increase my sales I needed to increase the quality of my marketing, not the quality of my work.
6 - Don’t get it twisted
Improving the quality of your work improves… drum roll… the quality of your work --- surprise! Improving the quality of your marketing improves… drum roll… the quality of your marketing… second surprise!
In other words, they each affect what they are supposed to affect. Working on your photographs increases their quality and has no direct effect on your sales. Working on your marketing increases how much money you make and has no direct effect on the quality of your photographs. To be successful you need to work on what you want to affect. If you want to improve the quality of your photography, work on your photographs. If you want to improve your sales, work on your marketing.
My problem was that I got it twisted. I thought that I would improve my sales by improving my photographs. I believed there was a relationship where there was none. I had to straighten my understanding of the process. While creating better photographs is important, doing so will not increase my sales. To increase my sales I needed to work on my marketing, not on my photographs.
This understanding is applicable to any product. All we need to do is change the terms being used:
Improving your product improves your product. Improving your marketing improves your sales.
Pushed to an extreme this process can lead you to fame or fortune. On the one hand, if you focus on improving what you want to sell, it will lead you to create the perfect product or service, be it photographs, clothes, bags, cars or any of the multitude of things one may want to sell. Your product or service will be equal to none. You will receive accolades and awards, you will be praised for the quality of your work and people will envy your technical skills. However, you will most likely remain poor and you will forever wonder why riches did not follow the professional accolades that came your way.
On the other hand, if you focus on improving your marketing it will lead you to create the perfect marketing system, one so attractive and convincing that people in huge number will come to you and purchase what you have to offer. You will then have the luxury of controlling the volume of sales by the price and of deciding how much you want to work and how much money you want to make. You will be able to control your income by creating new products and marketing them. At first your products or services may not be the best, and you may even know of better products out there, but if you reinvest some of the money generated by your superior marketing skills to improve it, you will, in short time, have a product that others envy. It may or may not gather awards, depending on whether awards matter to you, but it will sell continuously because of your marketing.
Eventually, both product and marketing need to be improved. However, they need to be improved equally. The mistake I made was to improve my product constantly while totally ignoring my marketing. The result was a great product that few people knew about. It was also a product for which no buying incentives were given.
Over time, by focusing on improving both your marketing and your product, you can have it all: a fantastic marketing system, a product that your clients desire, and a product + marketing package that your competitors envy. For these reasons I recommend that, unless you want to remain poor, you focus first on your marketing and second on your product. Improving your product requires money and only by generating sales will you have access to this money. However, improving your marketing requires little more than study and planning, and for this reason a great marketing system can be constructed with relatively little money. Start there, then use part of the money to improve your product. Doing so will make you even more successful because product improvement is expected. There is more to be gained financially from improving a product over time than from offering a perfect product right away.
7 - How digital photography changed the game
When asked why I became successful I say that digital photography made me wealthy. It did because when I started my business nobody was selling digital photographs. Photographers were afraid of what was then a new medium and one unknown to them. There was a lot of criticism levied against digital, such as the fact that digital images, the most significant being that digital photographs were not as good as film photographs, that digital prints would fade, that digital images were manipulated. All this, plus the fact that the technology was in it’s infancy and that few people were able to create professional results consistently with it, meant that digital was pretty much out of the question for photographers making a living off their work.
I saw this very differently. To me, digital photography was a fantastic opportunity. It was a chance to do something different from what everyone else was doing. In fact, digital photography was the only viable opportunity available to me. In the film world all the ‘slots’ had been filled in and hardly any room was left. People had made a name for themselves in all the major areas, be it publishing, print sales, workshops, tutorials, stock sales, shows, etc. While it would have been possible to try and compete with them, doing something new in a medium that had been around for a very long time was challenging and costly. On the other, with digital doing something new was easy. In fact, doing something new was inevitable because everything had to be done. The medium offered a wealth of new creative and business possibility, but hardly anyone paid much attention to the it and few were professional trained it its use.
One of my assets was that I was coming out of a university –MTU, Michigan Technological University- for which, as part of my PhD studies, I had created the first digital photography course. This course was so cutting edge at the time that my syllabus had been published by Harper Collins in a publication titled ‘Digital Course Compendium’ the purpose of which was to offer examples of how digital technology could be used in college-level classes. I had also been creating digital prints for 3 years when I started by business, and felt very comfortable that these prints not only excelled the quality of film-based print but offered me more control and a far lower cost of production.
One of the most important assets in regards to this last point was that with digital printing I could make a single print, test the market to see how well a specific image sold, then make more prints if the image was successful or retire the image altogether if it was unsuccessful. On the other hand, film-based photographers who made chemical prints, had to make a large number of prints to get a competitive price. They could not make a single print without incurring very high cost of production and were therefore limited as to their market testing abilities. Facing no such limits I was able to test the market continuously and assemble a best-selling collection of images in less than a year, a process that would have taken me 5 years or more if I had been doing chemical prints.
Today digital processing has become the norm and chemical prints have become a niche market rather than the standard approach. Digital photography and processing have massively lowered the cost and difficulty entry barrier to selling photographs. As a result many who could not afford the expenses associated with film based photography are not able to create, print and sell photographs created digitally. Being primarily hobbyist who do not need to make a living selling their work, these amateurs compete essentially on the basis of price by underpricing established professional photographers.
Today, no artist desiring to make a living selling his work can compete with amateurs and photo enthusiasts who do not need to make a living selling their work and who offer their work at ridiculously low prices.
In order to compete and make a solid income you have to offer more than those who do not need to make an income and do things that amateurs do not do. If you don’t do anything different from these amateurs you will either earn as much as they do or earn less than they do. Either way you will not make enough to have a successful business, or a satisfying income.
Here is a short list of the disadvantages professionals face and of the advantages that can give them a competitive edge over amateurs:
- Low entry barrier to create photographs and offer them for sale
- Inexpensive cost of digital cameras, printers, software and consumables
- Price undercutting by amateurs who do not need to make a living selling their work
- Amateurs willing to give it away for free or sell it for very little money
(no professional can compete against free products)
- Amateurs willing to be published with the only reward being having their name mentioned. This approach is worthwhile to some amateurs because they have no intent on making a living from photography but getting credit gives them an ego boost that is often more satisfying than being paid.
- Amateurs willing to not declare their income, or declare only part of their income.
- Creating images demonstrating a unique personal style rather than a generic style
- Creating images with powerful message and vision instead of superficial interest
- Acquiring business skills
- Acquiring Marketing skills
- Acquiring mounting, matting and framing skills or using of professional mounting services
- Offering large and very large print sizes
- Being able to offer a professional shipping service. For example, delivering orders on time, packing artwork professionally, replacings lost or damaged orders quickly, etc.)
- Offering solid warranties (money back, framing, fading, etc.)
- Offering customized and personalized work
- Offering a solid after sales service
- Focusing on quality and not quantity
- Offering professional customer service
- Gaining leverage
- Being a member of and being involved with professional organizations
- Being published in respected professional publications (not just self-publishing)
- Gaining a good reputation (integrity, peer reviews, etc.)
- Working with respected professionals
8 - How artists are perceived
I had to face another problem besides not being familiar with marketing. I also had to deal with how artists are perceived by customers, galleries, art buyers, art publishers and others, because these perceptions worked against me as an artist in business and affected my relationships with customers. Over the course of my career I discovered that artists are seen by many people as being:
- Bad business people.
- Poor if not destitute (hence the term starving artist)
- Looking for an easy way to make a living. Not hard workers.
- Passive. Preferring to let things be rather than take action when necessary.
- Easy to take advantage of when negotiating. For example, some artists are willing to negotiate down to nothing to make a sale.
- Wanting to be liked and accepted at all cost even if this causes them to lose money or engage in bad business practices.
- Not operating their business as a business.
- Not knowing the cost of doing business or the cost of producing their work.
- Not making rational decisions, business or otherwise. Sometimes going as far as having a child-like attitude.
- Having unrealistic expectations for their work.
- Unable to reach win-win compromises. On occasion preferring not to do business rather than reach a win-win compromise.
- Unaware that their behavior is causing them significant loss of income.
- Unwilling to stand up for themselves.
- Not interested in making money.
- Feeling guilty about making money.
- Willing to change their policies to please customers even if doing so is detrimental to them.
- Willing to do everything customers ask even if this means wasting money and time.
- Afraid to be taken advantage of, a belief that often makes artists defensive and suspicious.
Certainly, having these character traits is a serious problem because they result in business practices that are detrimental to the realization of a solid business income. For those who have them the outcome is the incapability of running a business successfully over a long period of time.
However, while these character traits are present in some artists, they are not shared by all artists. Personally, I believe I did not have most of these character traits. I knew that because I could prove these assumptions false through my actions. Unfortunately I had to expect people to think I had some, if not all of these characteristics.
9 - The positive characteristics of artists
I realized that I needed to watch out and be ready to act and defend myself against these assumptions. As I contemplated my options I realized that myself, as well as other artists, are not just filled with flaws. Artists do have qualities that can be used to succeed in business. These include:
- Boundless creativity
- A genuine passion for their work
- Not driven solely by the desire to make money
- Attention to detail
- Thinking outside the box
- Desire to talk about their work
- Willingness to try new things and take chances
- Personable and willing to talk about their work
- Enthusiastic about their work and life
10 - Approaching business successfully as an artist
From these reflections I concluded that to be successful as an artist one has to watch out and counteract the negative character traits listed in section 7. The way to do this is to:
- Understand how artists are perceived and what risks this entails
- Know what your weaknesses and strengths are
- Remedy to these weaknesses by behaving like business owners when doing business
- Use your strengths to compensate for your weaknesses
- Be active. Don’t let others take advantage of you.
- Take control of the selling process
- Get rid of the guilt artists associate with making money and with marketing their work
- Let go of the artist’s obsession about getting praise for your work
- Let go of trying to be accepted at all costs and of being friends with everyone you meet. You have to say no at times and if that makes you unpopular with some people so be it. There’s no way around it if you want to make money
- Hire an accountant to do your tax return and the complex aspects of your accounting
- Hire a marketing expert and schedule regular consultations to check how well you are doing
- Acquire salesmanship, negotiating and marketing skills
- Have a great product priced adequately
- Being willing and able to attract customers and convince them to buy your products or services
• Not changing your business policies to make a sale
• Not doing everything people ask you to do
11 - Conclusion
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay reading my book Marketing Fine Art Photography will help you start your photography business.
Another tutorial that will help you is my new Advanced Marketing Mastery Workshop on DVD. This tutorial is similar to attending my 2 days Advanced Marketing Seminar, except you do not need to travel and you don’t have to remember everything in 2 days. You save travel expenses and you can study at your own pace. Details are at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Articles-DVD-Marketing-Advanced-SPO.html
12 - About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com . You will receive 40 free eBooks immediately after subscribing.
I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can reach me directly by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org