Making money from photography is becoming increasingly more difficult. Quite by chance, I have stumbled upon a system of selling my images that has proven far more effective than anything else I've done. This is how I do it.
In a perfect world, I'd love to be a full-time surf photographer traveling the world to exotic oceanic locations for a company like Patagonia. My base salary would be set, bonuses would be written into the contract, and all my gear would be regularly updated to the latest and greatest. Alas, the world is not perfect, I am not a full-time surf photographer, and I pay for everything myself. Until recently, I was making very little from selling actual prints or downloadable images to people and had become rather disillusioned with it all, so I experimented with my business model a little and have had some pleasantly surprising success — so much so that in the last six months, I've sold more images to individuals and businesses than I'd done in the previous couple of years combined.
The Use of Client Galleries
Client galleries are not new by any means. However, in talking to other photographers, especially those who do wedding photography and family portrait photography, it appeared to me that most photographers I knew were using client galleries with clients who had already paid the photographer for their services (as you'd expect when they're called client galleries). If you're not familiar with client galleries, they are usually galleries on a website that you can hide from the general public but make visible to paying clients via a secret URL or password. Once you've given the secret URL and/or password to the paying client, they can go in and have a look at all of their images and choose a few for purchase. They are very useful, and as I touched on earlier, they are most common when you've done a wedding shoot or something that has dozens and dozens of photos available for selection.
However, I thought about the potential for using client galleries in a different way. Where I live in Japan is a hotbed for surfing talent, so whenever I put my surfboard away and pull the camera out, I am never short of amazing surfers to shoot, whether they're shortboarding, longboarding, or surfing giant waves during the annual typhoon swells. Once I'm done shooting and I get back home and start the sorting and editing process, I tend to create folders based on location and surfer names. As I've lived here almost 15 years, I pretty much know all the surfers or their family members, so it's an easy way for me to categorize them. Thus, over time, I found that I had many, many folders of the same individuals surfing at different locations.
Unfortunately, I'm a horrible salesperson and marketer, so whenever I saw those surfers on land or in the water, I usually created an awkward, contrived conversation wherein I'd let them know about images I had of them and how they should contact me if they were interested in buying any. Such conversations would inevitably leave us both feeling uncomfortable and scrambling for a dignified exit. Predictably, I never heard from any of them and I never made any sales. I hate putting any kind of sales talk on people face to face, so I decided I'd try something different. I had nothing to lose because I wasn't selling anything anyway.
Therefore, instead of just creating folders full of great surfing shots of particular individuals on my hard drive then leaving them there to gather virtual dust or perhaps uploading a few to my social media channels, I decided to create client galleries on my website for each individual. It wasn't really any extra work except for creating the actual galleries, because I'd already done the sorting and editing of the images I liked. I just had to create a private client gallery for each individual, name it, then upload the photos I already had. Here is an example I created of a local surfer during a recent swell. As you can see, this particular gallery has 23 images inside it.
Once I've created the gallery, I set it to private and give it a password so that it's not visible to the general public when they view my website, and I also give it a simple URL name, as you can see in the images below.
The website I use to do all of this is Pixpa, but there are lots of other sites, such as Zenfolio, that also offer various client gallery options. Choose whatever suits your needs, but just be aware of how much space you're given for your client galleries. Pixpa gives me 5 GB of free space, and I can pay to add more. I only upload low-resolution images to my website, so 5 GB has been more than enough hitherto.
The Selling Process
This is where the surprisingly pleasant results have come. During the creation of the client galleries, I don't contact any of the surfers at all. I just edit the photos I like, save them as low-res images, create the client galleries, set them to private with unique passwords, and then upload the photos. Once I've done all of that, I will then contact the individuals on their social media channels, most often Instagram in my case. In those messages, I just tell them about the client galleries I've created for them on my website and let them know how they can access them to have a look at the images. There isn't any sales talk at all. You can see an example below, and though it's written in Japanese, it simply says what I described above: how I created a gallery for them, how they can access it, and what password they need to use.
For reasons I cannot explain, the response to this method of contacting people has been brilliant. The open rate for the client galleries has been 100%, but more than that, about 75% of the surfers I've created client galleries for having written back and asked how they can get some of the images. At that stage, I let them know that I can't give away the images free, but I do give them a price list for single images, sets of images, downloadable images, or physical prints of images. To date, about 40% of those surfers have gone on to make a purchase, usually a downloadable image. Once they make payment, I simply give them access to the full-resolution image. Initially, I just did this with individual surfers, but recently, I have used the same process to contact brands. This has led to a de-facto relationship with a small wetsuit brand here in Japan in which I provide them exclusive images of team riders.
Why has this method proven more successful? Honestly, I don't know precisely, but if I had to guess, I would say it's a combination of two things. Firstly, people don't like being "sold to" unexpectedly. These days on Instagram and Facebook, every third or fourth post is a sponsored post trying to sell us stuff. On YouTube, we have to endure ads cutting in every five minutes we're watching something. People are assailed with sales all day, every day. I think the last thing they want when they go for a surf or for a walk in public is a photographer coming out of nowhere and trying to sell the images.
Secondly, I think it's the thrill of seeing a client gallery exclusively dedicated to them. It might be pure narcissism, but I think people really get a buzz out of clicking a link, entering a secret password that only they know, and being greeted with a whole bunch of images dedicated to them. I'd like to think the images are of a pretty high standard, too. When you factor in these two things (and perhaps others I haven't considered), people I've dealt with have been more open to spending money on images. Compared with what I was getting before, my growth in sales using this method has been huge, and I highly encourage it.
Client galleries can be used in different ways. I've used them to create mini portfolios of individual surfers or team riders for brands. I don't make the galleries public, and I think the exclusivity of this system has contributed to their success in generating sales. You do need a website that allows you to create private client galleries, but it's a much better system than simply writing "DM for Prints" on your Instagram profile. It has been for me, anyway.
Finally, though I've talked about surfing in this article, you could apply this system to anything really. I'm currently working on a project taking images of a few hotels in the area and hope to generate sales with those hotels using the methods I've outlined today. Just adapt it to whatever your context is. If you have any comments or questions, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.