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A Surprisingly Effective Way to Make Money From Your Images

A Surprisingly Effective Way to Make Money From Your Images

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.

Client Galleries as seen on my website

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.

Summing Up

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.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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While the way you sell via client galleries is effective for the type of subject matter that you shoot, it is not something that can be effective with all kinds of subject matter.

I photograph wild animals and birds (that nobody owns, obviously) and sell somewhat successfully via stock agencies, and via some direct sales to publishers and some interior designers. But I do not see how unsolicited client galleries could possibly be any more successful than the open galleries that I have already curated and displayed publicly.

Yes, there are certainly limits, of course. In terms of people, you can adapt it to whatever subculture you want: cyclists, parasailers, surfers, car racers etc etc. Birds might be a bit tougher.

I use Pixieset to create password protected galleries for my clients. They have a section that allows clients to order and pay for prints and downloads. I can see incorporating some of these ideas into my work.

Excellent. I hope it works out for you

In my personal context it's not really an issue. Magazines etc usually ask for exclusivity rights or 'no prior publication' assurances. If an individual buys a print from me I either print it for them or they download it and print it themselves. Either way, it's not getting published anywhere. For brands, it's a bit different, because they might use the shots in sales pamphlets or whatever, but I get more from brands for the images to offset potential losses from publications....

Japan is awesome for this type of Shooting because there are so many surfers in close proximity. I was ww.japansurfphotos.com back in early 2000's I used a clunky old gallery that a mate created but then i switched to Smugmug which worked really well too.

Ha did you do a podcast with Odell Harris? I think I listened to it not long ago. You had a flag or banner on the beach advertising yourself and your site? That was pioneering for those days!

Super article and such a great idea.

Just one caveat for those of us in the UK and Europe. The General Data Protection Regulations mean that we must seek prior consent from the subjects if we are handling their data in this way, such as uploading images of them, adding names and other personal details. There are some exclusions to this law. Also, some other EU countries also have strict privacy laws which might even inhibit the shooting of images of people in public places. It's worth checking locally to see what is allowed.

Thanks! I'm not up to date with such European laws but wouldn't laws "which might even inhibit the shooting of images of people in public places" preclude almost all photography that involves people, especially sports?

I believe the regulations that Ivor is speaking of aren't meant to prohibit images of people from being uploaded, but it is more about the specific information, such as the subject's names, being given along with the uploaded images.

To me, it seems a little creepy to take photos of someone and then upload them to a website with the person's name right there. Yes, it still seems creepy even if the photos are only viewable to those with a password, and even if the only person who will have access is the subject him/herself. And especially creepy to make galleries of a person without talking about it with them first.

But that opinion is based on American culture - over in Japan people may be totally fine with behavior that to us is creepy. I think that the culture you are in permits you to market photos in a way that would be difficult to do in other parts of the world.

Interesting position. As I touched on in the article I already know all of the surfers having lived here nearly 15 years. They know me when I shoot in the water, on land, or just see them out for a surf.

Is it any different from taking a bunch of photos of an athlete then tagging them on Instagram?

I think it depends on the athlete. If it is "just a guy", or just an ordinary young woman, who likes to do a bit of surfing in their downtime, then many people would consider that to be a little odd, or even creepy.

But if it is someone who is very serious about their surfing, and is somewhat known publicly as being a good/serious surfer, then it is completely different.

But if you're photographing some local housewives who just like to take a surfboard out a few times each month for a bit of casual exercise, then yeah, many people here in my country would find it creepy if you make a gallery of that person on your website and try to sell the photos to her.

Tom, whether it's acceptable to upload images or not here is down to the circumstances. I've had long conversations with the Information Commissioners Office about this topic. This is how I understand it works.

If I were an amateur photographer, there is exemption. I can pretty much photograph anyone in a public place, although there are some restrictions.

As a professional photographer, I have to be more careful. I need to get permission to use the images of couples I photograph at weddings before I post them online, and I need the couple to make their guests aware that they will be photographed and the images may shared. It is impracticable to exclude people from the shot.

I can shoot street photography and post that online and share the images, as art is exempt But, I mustn't say "This is Joe Bloggs walking down High Street in Newtown." I also need to be a little bit careful if I am photographing people in life-changing circumstances. I have a photograph of someone being arrested, but it is shot at an angle where the person isn't identifiable. I've also altered his features in Photoshop to hide his identity.

I also run photography courses. Although I invariably end up photographing my clients, I cannot use the images without their consent. That would include trying to sell them the photo.

There are lots of exceptions to the rules. After speaking with the ICO, I wrote a blog post about it a couple of years back on my own site. If you Google me and GDPR you should find it. I think the ICO also have information about it on their site.

Thanks Ivor. The thing that stands out mostly to me here is about sharing. I assume that refers to “making publicly visible”, as in social media, your website etc...?

It’s all very grey isn’t it? If I take an image of a surfer doing something amazing on a wave and post it, that surfer will always say thanks and repost etc etc. On the other hand, if I were to take a less than flattering shot of the same surfer falling off, I’m not sure I’d get the same reaction.

It probably comes down quite often to whether the subject likes the image or not, as evidenced by one of the Kardashians/Jenners furiously scrambling to get an image taken down recently in which she had no makeup or some such.....

Iain, not necessarily :) . There are exceptions to the laws for pros. Journalism, art and using images non-professionally are allowed exceptions. The last of those is a gray area for pro photographers as when we post images we are probably always promoting our business too. I always consider whether a court would accept my reasoning for using an image without permission. I don't think any of those reasons would hold up if I tried to sell my images to sports person.

Also, at sports events with an audience, there is a reasonable expectation that folks will be photographed.

Saying all that, I am not a lawyer (thank goodness - my head hurts just thinking about this) and I always tell people to take local professional advice. For example, I believe a couple of states in America have implemented similar laws.

I really enjoyed reading about your experiences selling images. Nice to see a positive and helpful article for once that doesn't just click through to a youtube video. And I think your approach is great - it's food for thought, that's for sure.

Thanks, glad you found it helpful

*clicks on pixpa link*

Ooh an affiliate link...

Thank you for this, Iain. Beautiful images, and brilliant ideas.

May I ask what size you use when uploading low resolution images?

I don't like to be untrusting, but in sharing image galleries with clients, I'm trying to decide what the best method (size? 1600 pixels on the long side? smaller?; whether to watermark the images, or trust that they will actually purchase rather than screenshot them–not that they'd be large enough for printing, but for devices and social media...).

I just bought your ebook after seeing your magnificent images, and am excited to learn and explore!

Hi AJ. I tend to keep images at around 500KB or close to mostly. I explain that they won’t be able to print at that size etc etc. The site I use also has right click/Save prevention, too.

I actually have a few saved messages up my sleeve for the back and forth so I don’t have to type them again and again. This is mostly because I’m dealing with Japanese clients and I don’t want to keep asking my wife if my grammar is correct!! But it saves a tonne of time, too.

Typically, it only takes a few back and forths. I have had a few people take screenshots and there’s nothing you can do a about that really. However, they can’t upload to their socials anyway coz I know them all and that’s where I contact them haha!

If they’re just going to keep them on their phone, meh, whatever....I don’t see the point of that really coz they have access to the gallery anyway!

One thing I’ve also found really helpful as well is that I actually keep an A3 size printout in my car (not of them, just a standard surf shot with great colours). I keep it tucked away and if I see some guys/girls at the beach (after the initial contact dance) then I can quickly pull that out and show them what a print will look like. Seeing it physically really helps.

And thanks. Let me know if you need any help!

Very helpful—great ideas and techniques.

Thank you, Iain!