Why You Should Stop Working So Hard and Start Selling Your Photos to Collectors

Why You Should Stop Working So Hard and Start Selling Your Photos to Collectors

Photographers have three choices when selling photographs. They can be commissioned to shoot for a client, aim for the mass market, or choose to sell fewer, high-quality, collectible images with narrower interest. There are good reasons why you should consider the last option.

This morning, I came across a semi-professional landscape photographer’s website whose work doesn’t appeal to me. I find their subjects bland and uninspiring. Furthermore, I think they have poor photographic and development skills. They hugely oversaturate their images, have unwanted distractions in many of their photos, and every other image has poorly applied special effects.

There are two ways to view this. Should we think it’s okay? They are happy with what they are doing, and people buy their prints and are presumably pleased with them. It doesn’t matter what I think of the photos. My taste is different, and it would be a shame if we all liked the same thing. Alternatively, I could be angry at the person for selling second-rate goods to unsuspecting customers who don’t know any better.

One thing we forget as photographers is that we live in a bubble. Consequently, we judge our work against other photographers whose images we see on websites and magazines. However, most ordinary people don’t spend their time in that bubble. Furthermore, they will have little idea about the artistic merits of one photographer’s work over another. They don’t have the same knowledge you may have to judge the photographer’s skills. Therefore, if they see an oversaturated photo of a sunset, they’ll think, “That’s pretty!” and buy it.

Appreciation of prettiness is a base feeling; it is easy to be drawn by it. It takes little brain power and no education to understand that a sunset is pretty.

That’s not restricted to landscape photography. When it comes to photographs of people, popularity usually results from a model’s attractiveness. Models, photographers, advertisers, and fashion magazine editors all know this. The latest Swiss watch is far more likely to sell if sported by a beautiful person with what is considered a perfect body than if I were in front of the camera. The depiction of scantily clad women in photography brings about an even more basic emotion of sexual desire. That leads to another debate about the objectification of the female body, which this article is not discussing.

Wildlife photographers recognize this too. A picture of a bird on a stick is considered something less than that of a bird exhibiting an unusual behavior, but it will be widely liked by a lot of people because the bird is pretty.

Is there anything wrong with photographers selling low-quality, pretty pictures? Is our judgment on another’s work purely subjective and therefore meaningless? After all, in my articles, I usually encourage photographers to do their own thing and not be influenced by fashion.

Or are poor-quality photographers selling second-rate goods to unsuspecting clients who know no better? After all, I’ve been approached to fix wedding photos shot by someone else. Also, a new workshop client told me they now know that the pretty picture they paid good money for a year ago isn’t so great. So, I know how I would answer those questions. The general public, who knows no better, is being scammed.

We face the problem that the market is flooded with far more photographs and photographers than there are potential customers. Furthermore, one can walk into Ikea or click on an online shop and pick up prints of great photos for a song. We work hard, acquire our skills, invest thousands of pounds in equipment, buy insurance on our kit, and toil every hour of the day to give good service and create outstanding art. Yet, we can get pushed aside by cheap, unsophisticated, crass work from unskilled people with a camera.

So, how do we compete in the face of this un-discerning customer base that is happy with the work of low-quality providers? We make our photos collectible.

There are a few exceptions, but when we look at the images of collectible photographers, instead of being pretty, they are challenging. The desire to own the photograph is driven by an intelligent understanding or interpretation of it, not by its bright colors.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to study collectible work. Look at any of the Magnum photographers, old or new. Then examine the photography published on fine art websites such as Widewalls. Most of the images depicted there have little to do with prettiness.

So, what makes a collectible photograph?

Firstly, the subject matter and the execution of the image must have uniqueness. There is no secret formula here, and copying someone else’s work or the latest trend won’t work. It needs elements that set it apart from the 1.7 trillion or so photos that will be shot this year. Then, it requires superb execution. That doesn’t mean blindly following any compositional rules or exposure guidelines. Instead, it must just look right. That’s hard to define, but it is all to do with a personal style that will appeal to a collector.

On top of that, the image usually needs to be part of a coherent collection of work. This might mean having a similar development style, color palette, subject matter, lighting, composition, shooting angle, and so on. It doesn’t mean you are stuck with shooting such images forevermore, and it doesn’t require your entire body of work to be similar. However, there is an expectation by collectors that you will produce a collection that works together.

Unlike other works of art, identical photographic prints can be reproduced many times. Just like philatelists want rare stamps in their collection, a philaphotographologist (yes, I’ve just made that up) won’t be interested in something widely available. Therefore, collectible photos should be restricted in their production. Collectors want rare prints. It is acceptable to produce further editions. Like books, each edition should be limited in number, and each print individually numbered. First editions will always be more valuable.

Collectors want to prove provenance for their photos. The easiest way is by providing hard-to-forge, numbered, and signed certificates.

Reproduce the photos using media that helps maintain that uniqueness. A high-quality print on a gallery-grade medium will make it more desirable to collectors than a cheap one from your local supermarket.

Then, it is just a case of finding a way to sell your photographs. That requires a whole other article.

Two other benefits come from selling collectible photographs. Each one gives a bigger potential financial return for less effort. Consequently, you put your time and energy into producing fewer, high-quality photos. Secondly, you get to photograph what you want instead of having a commissioning manager dictate what you shoot or trying to please the masses that are happier with oversaturated landscapes.

Do you tap into the collectibles market? Or are you frustrated by low-quality competition? If so, it would be great to hear about your experiences.

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14 Comments
David Pavlich's picture

I've sold prints for several years. I did the printing and made the frames and mounts. It was a self sustaining hobby. I wasn't trying to impress artists or other photographers. I sold prints that appealed to those 'outside the bubble'. Wildlife was my best selling prints, far and away because non-bubble people like wildlife. Sure, it has to show some good qualities, otherwise people wouldn't want them in their homes or offices. One of my better selling groups was some gawdy, over the top HDR stuff. That really gets the purists upset. But, as I said, purists weren't my customers. Common folk like carguys, mechanics, airplane buffs, or wives of said common folk bought them.

I make no claims that my stuff was of the collectible genre. I did it because it was fun and it paid for my goodies. I wish I had the talent to make collectible work, but I don't. But, it was good enough for my class of customer. And just to add to the discussion, this is my best selling print:

ad ventureous's picture

Cool shot.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a glorious photo.

David Pavlich's picture

Thanks for you kind words! Pure 'right place, right time' photo. I was photographing birds and this lovely lady appeared. What makes it unique is part of her ear is missing. Probably bitten by a sibling or rival during a sparring event.

Jan Steinman's picture

"Therefore, if they see an oversaturated photo of a sunset, they’ll think,"

"That will go well with my sofa!"

I supported myself for five years in the fine art photography market. It was sorta fun. Although hardly lucrative, I managed to pay the bills with it.

There was a camaraderie among us photographers, who would see each other at various shows, festivals, and other venues.

One time, a photographer I knew rushed over with a big grin on his face, and proclaimed, "I just found out there's a third-party market for my work!"

"Cool!" I said, imagining something of his had been purchased by a big gallery or something, "How does that work?"

"See that print over there?" he said, pointing at a $300 print, "A guy just told me he got it at a garage sale for $10!"

Ah yes. The glamorous life of the fine-art photographer.

One of my lowest selling prints was of a dead seagull on a rocky beach. I considered it "quirky," and I did sell a few. One guy said he was getting it for his mother-in-law, who liked to lie on the beach.

Another print I sold had a gnarled tree, surrounding a huge rock with its roots. I titled it, "Letting go." Someone who bought it said they were going to hang it in their bathroom.

I agree that it is good to have a niche. Mine was translucent prints, that you hung in a window. It was totally unique over the years I was in business.

One thing I found out was that people who went to art festivals and bought expensive prints already had nice views out their windows that they didn't want to cover up! OOPS!

But I sold a lot of prints for bathrooms to people who didn't want to put in curtains or frosted glass.

I considered my competition stained-glass artists, more than photographers, and I'd hang out in their booths to observe their sales and marketing techniques.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a great idea, Jan. Someone's going to see that and start doing it. Did you take out a patent?
Thank you for the comment.

Jan Steinman's picture

I was told it was "obvious" and thus, non-patentable. Or we'd have to make the patent so specific that it would be simple for people to change one step and get around it.

Wanna run with it? I'll tell you all my secrets for a free print of my choice. :-)

First "secret:" figure out how to display it so it shines. Otherwise, they just look like too-dark prints.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I wouldn't have the time, but I bet there are people out there who are looking for great business ideas.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ivor,

Thanks for the idea. I spent several days, back in 2015, photographing a Bighorn ram with uncommonly massive horns. The next year, he was found dead and taken into custody by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. They had his horns officially measured a couple years later. Turns out that he shattered the world record by quite a bit. So I have a nice collection of photos of the all time world record Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.

As I read your article, I kept thinking, "what have I shot that could be marketed as collectible?" Then I remembered this special ram. I suppose I could make a limited run of enlargements, printed on metal. And then I could try to figure out how to market those prints to those who would be interested in such a ram - most likely the super-obsessed wild sheep hunters who spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to be able to hunt these majestic animals.

Selling such "collectible" prints could work, if I can ever stay in one civilized place long enough to respond to emails and answer phone calls and fulfill orders. But if I travel to places with no internet connection and no cell service for extended periods of time, I can imagine that I would just piss off a lot of people who inquire about the prints, but never get a response from me.

Maybe I could use computer editing to over-saturate these photos, and use a sunset sky replacement, so that they could sell for even more!

Michael Holst's picture

You should consider selling that print. That's a subject that no one can shoot since the record holding ram is no longer living and and getting that image infront of hunters with the story behind it would probably sell a few prints.

Set up an online shop with an auto fulfilment print shop and you won't have to do much when someone wants a print. Customers buy whatever predetermined sizes you've offered and the shop prints and ships for you.

Tom Reichner's picture

Thanks for that suggestion, Michael. I do have a Fine Art America account, but haven't used it for a long time. Guess it's time to dust it off, upload some more images, and try to promote it a bit. Used to do pretty well there way back in 2014 and 2015. Just wish that with metal prints they would offer more finishes than just the glossy one ... that was kind of a deal breaker for me and is the reason I stopped using them.

If any other auto fulfillment shops offer just as good as a value as FAA< but offer metal prints in more finishes (like matte), then I would highly consider starting a new account somewhere. But they have to offer the same bang for the buck that FAA does when it comes to metal prints, or it won't be worth it for me.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a smashing photo.

One way to consider selling the print is to find a gallery in Montana that would host the work, if there is such a thing. Or, sell it through the national park for a commission? I bet you love your off-grid time. That appeals to me a lot.

Alex Armitage's picture

Still trying to figure out how to sell low quality, sometimes pretty pictures. When is that article coming out? lol

Ivor Rackham's picture

That made me laugh!