Life Lessons Learned in Selling my Photography as Art

Taking something that you love to do and making it a money-making endeavor fundamentally changes your relationship to it and will require way more from you than you think. If that is something you want to do, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself: “am I really ready for that?"

I started hanging my work in local galleries and public spaces many years ago, but it wasn't until I officially formed my current business and started selling my work at art festivals in 2011 that I truly began to understand the above statement.

I remember my excitement entering that first art festival in my hometown. I had an inexpensive canopy that had been bought on Craigslist, some homemade display walls, and a collection of framed work from my gallery and coffee shop appearances along with some new metal prints. And, of course, high hopes for a big weekend. 

I ended up doing pretty well too. At least, pretty well for my standards at that time. I finished the weekend having sold over $1,000 of my own art, and that felt really good. It was more money from my artwork in a single weekend than I had made from gallery appearances for many years prior. I thought to myself that I had really found the ticket. At the conclusion of that festival, I promptly applied and got accepted into two more for the summer. 

The next one, in a fairly affluent area, was a sure bet to be just as good or better than my first, or so I thought. About midway through Saturday of that second festival, which was set up in an asphalt parking lot in the heat of July, with no customers walking through, I had the realization that perhaps it was not simply as easy as just getting myself accepted into an art festival and watching the money come in. Not all festivals are created equal. 

The third festival that year was on a beautiful September weekend. The weather was much nicer, with slightly better sales, but still not sufficient to make a profit. But at this point, I had already formed an LLC, gotten business insurance, a sales tax license, bought a canopy, spent money having work printed, and bought a utility trailer to transport my stuff. I was in too deep to stop now. So, I licked my wounds, regrouped, and the following spring, began planning the summer shows I would apply for. And thus began my career selling my work as art. It’s been a wild ride, both gratifying and frustrating, and ultimately humbling. Here are some lessons I have learned along the way.

Talking to customers in one of my early festival apperances.

Build relationships with other artists: one of the things I’ve learned along the way is to make friends among my peers. Some of my best artist friends are other photographers. Even though we are competitors in a sense, we are also kindred spirits. I have gotten a great deal of encouragement and useful input from these people and not just other photographers, but artists of all kinds. Plus, if I concentrate on developing my own style and look and don't worry so much about what other people are doing, it's much less of a problem.

Give up my ego: no matter how talented and capable I think that I am, there are lots of other talented and very capable photographers out there that I'm competing with for spots in the better art festivals. I can’t afford to let my ego get bruised if I don't make it in. I just learn what I can from people who are further along in the journey and keep believing in myself and keep shooting the things that are most inspiring and important to me. That's what will make it fulfilling, and ultimately, that passion will show through to my customers. 

Have thick skin: if I post an image on social media, I only see the likes, and I don't see how many people just pass it by. When I have my work on display in a public space, I get to see all of the people who stroll on by my booth without giving it a second glance, or even worse, go cruising through my booth making some dismissive comment about my prices and walk on. It can be disheartening at times, especially when there are not many sales being made, but I have found that staying upbeat about who I am and what I do is crucial. 

One of my best sellers. A simple view of Aspens in the fall, printed as a big triptych.

Be willing to be where I am: at some point, I had to realize that I am where I am. I may not have the fancy double booth or gigantic prints that some of the other photographers do, but I was and I am learning and developing my work and presentation as I go. I’m a long way from where I started, and I’m learning what fits my style

An iPhone panoramic of my booth at a festival

You never know for sure what people will like: I've experienced many times hanging up work that I personally really like, maybe for technical reasons or the personal challenge of getting that shot, and having it receive a pretty lukewarm response. On the other hand, sometimes, images that I think are just ok are the ones that people are really drawn to and want to buy. I've learned to not argue with that and give people what they like. 

Don't take a bad show personally: on those long weekends where people just aren't buying my stuff, it can be really hard to remind myself that it doesn't necessarily mean that I need to hang it all up (metaphorically). It's just that, for whatever reason, this crowd is just not connecting with my work. Sometimes, the only thing to do is to pack up my stuff and look forward to the next show. 

Don't compare myself to others: what constitutes a good show for me might only be a barely break-even show for someone else. I do best when I don't worry about how well other people are doing and just focus on what I'm doing and what I need. 

These are just a few of the lessons that I've learned along the way as I've endeavored to sell my work as art. I think there are valuable lessons here for me not only as a photographer but for life in general.

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37 Comments

jim hughes's picture

Wow. Great piece, thanks.

I've thought a lot about doing this. I have a friend who's an artist and does these shows, so I go to a lot, and I know how much work it is.

The closest I've come is selling greeting cards and coasters at a couple of holiday shows.

It's very, very difficult to actually make any money this way. But talking with people who like your work is great.

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks, glad it was helpful. Yes, it's a challenging avenue to pursue, but it can be very rewarding as well. Best of luck if you pursue it.

John Nixon's picture

Good article. 👍 I did a couple of solo exhibitions a few years back - great fun but nerve-wracking on opening night!

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks. Yes, opening nights can be nerve-racking for sure, but fun too.

David Pavlich's picture

Good article! The best advice you've given; have thick skin. If you take sales or lack of sales as some sort of condemnation of your work, selling prints will never be fun. I was selling at a couple of galleries, but it's been a little hit and a lot more miss with the Covid invasion. I sell at a craft/farmer's market from early summer through Christmas and make enough to support my photo habit. :-) Last year, I barely broke even as foot traffic at the market was way down.

But, I'm retired and do this for fun and, as mentioned, to support my habit. If you're doing this as a major source of income, it becomes very difficult due to the fact, as mentioned in the text, that there's a LOT of very good competition out there. My bit of advice which is from experience; shoot and print local stuff. I live in Winnipeg now, but have a lot of work from when I lived in New Orleans. The stuff that sold well in New Orleans did not do well here. The New Orleans stuff that did sell here pretty much sold to people that had either lived in New Orleans or had visited and had some good memories.

Last bit of advice and I'll shut up, good wildlife shots sell very well.

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks for the input. I agree about the local thing. I live in Colorado and most of my festivals are in the summertime in resort towns. Thus images of Colorado are my biggest sellers. I have a few wildlife images but I don't really call myself a wildlife shooter by any means. But you are right, it is popular.

J.d. Davis's picture

UHM....no. Craft fares (even if you have thousand dollar weekends) are not "ART" - because:

People who buy "Pretty Art" are in reality buying souviners, usually at 50 bucks a pop.

Convince me I'm wrong

David Pavlich's picture

We all have our opinions. Funny thing...I call myself a photographer, but many of my customers call my stuff art or call me an artist. Of course, what would a 'souvenir buyer' know.

Just curious there, J.D., do you sell your prints?

J.d. Davis's picture

Glad you asked - 90% of my work is commercial, sold as electronic files. 10% is 'just for fun' and never shown or sold.

I did spend a delightful afternoon with a friend ( a weaver ) at an art fair, watching her sell and observing photographers get 15-50 dollars a print. I think the highest price per print there was 125 - framed.

I had fun, but would never consider it a serious income stream.

No, I do not have a web presence, I have an iPad, and charge a day rate. Also charged are ancillary services such as assistants - pre and post production, and licensing fees.

Thank you for your question.

Ed C's picture

Starting your post with the pretentious "UHM" speaks volumes about you. Presuming WHERE something is sold determines if it is art or not is ignorant at best.

J.d. Davis's picture

Not sure where you hang out, but I've never seen a real Picasso at The Old Town Art Fair in Chicago, or a 15 dollar unframed photograph at Eden Fine Art Gallery in NY.

Location-Location-Location, it makes a big difference!

UHM...sorry, you have not convinced me!

David Pavlich's picture

So...if I have a print at a craft fair that sells for $100, it's not art, but if the same print sells for $500 at a nice gallery, it's art?

J.d. Davis's picture

I have a napkin signed by Andy Warhol (framed) on my wall...he never said it was art - others did.

I won't be drawn into the 'what is art' argument - that is for others.

David Pavlich's picture

Okay, but you did make a reference to what you think is or isn't art in your third reply:

"... but I've never seen a real Picasso at The Old Town Art Fair in Chicago, or a 15 dollar unframed photograph at Eden Fine Art Gallery in NY."

But I get it. Art is subjective. One person's souvenir is another person's piece of art.

J.d. Davis's picture

Nope - not taking the bait

Loraine Moreno's picture

You said to convince you you're wrong but you're not open to discussion. 🤔

J.d. Davis's picture

Asking for input not a debate.

Robert Mann's picture

J.d. Davis = troll with an attitude. Why be so vindictive and combative? Do you need a sense of personal authority so badly that you’ll crush other people’s sense of optimism to get it. Why don’t you go away and troll another corner of the ether?

J.d. Davis's picture

Gee, Bob, what could have been seen as a lively discussion has now turned into name calling?

It is a shame that you are offended by this, do you need a hug?

Ed C's picture

Exactly.

Spike Hodge's picture

Thank goodness

BubbA Gumphy's picture

UHM, not taking the bait. I've had worked exhibited at museums and galleries, shot for magazines, and I've done "art shows" and frankly sold more there than at a gallery. Over the decades artists too numerous to mention have sold their work wherever they could - work that was not consider art by the UHM crowd. One guy, whose name might ring a bell, Vincent Van Gogh, only sold one painting during his lifetime. And it wasn't sold in a gallery or museum. UHM I guess it wasn't art.

Professionally I find it beyond strange that someone who works in the commercial field only has an iPad and no web presence in the year 2021. Heck people like Joel Meyerowitz, who certainly wouldn't need a website, or shouldn't have ever have needed to have pages in publications like American Showcase and Comstock back before the internet took off, have websites.

UHM, I'll never convince you that you're wrong. You're too bunkered down, But I don't think you're convincing anyone here that you're right.

J.d. Davis's picture

Hey Bubba - thanks for the input - and UHM sarcasm, I shall take your words under advision.

Casey Chinn's picture

Your post reminded me that early in his career, Picasso sold prints through the Sears catalog. This, of course, was something heavily frowned upon by the "UHM" art crowd. But it helped him become a household name, which in turn drove the price that his work could command sky high.

J.d. Davis's picture

"From a tiny acorn comes the mighty oak..."

Your anecdote reminds me of the merchandising campaigns of many contemporary art museums; particularly those that feature now dead but still popular artists.

Often those galleries sell placemats, coasters, posters and "T" shirts with The Scream, or Haystacks, so that people can feel a connection to the artist.

So, UHM...I guess what goes around comes around.

And I do UHM, thank you, UHM for perpetuating this UHM conversation...UHM ~ it is quite droll!

Ed C's picture

Very nice article. Thanks for all the observations. I hope everything goes well!

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks so much. Glad you liked it.

Bruce Hargrave's picture

Great article Casey - thank you! Have you tried selling your work online? I have a Shopify shop and it's clearly much easier than dragging physical products to craft fairs but what I don't get is the instant feedback that you do and the chance to speak to my customers before and after they buy.
This interests me greatly - thanks again!

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks Bruce. I have tried and do sell a bit online. It has never been a consistent source of income for me, but this past year it was the only place that I sold anything. Sometimes selling online works against me at the art festivals because people will ask me if I have a website, and when I say yes, they take my card and promise to check me out and make an order later. I've learned that almost never happens. I did a few virtual festivals this past year and had very few sales from that, but at least I didn't have to schlep my stuff around, and the cost of entry was free or very low. In-person festivals are coming back in Colorado this year though, so we will see what kind of buying mood people are in.

Loraine Moreno's picture

Did you need to start a business, or how did you know it was time to start it? How did you know how to start a business? What benefits does having a business provide over just selling? Oh, and how does one start showing in galleries? That could be another article. I like to take pictures, I'd like to make money from them. I don't know how to start.

Casey Chinn's picture

Wow. Lots of questions. This may be another article for sure. Keep an eye out for that.

I will say, as far as starting a business, the benefits are that, unless you keep everything under the table, you need to collect sales tax, you need to file a Schedule C with your income tax, and you need to have insurance especially if you are doing outdoor festivals. Some art festivals ask for your business name as well. Ultimately it all comes down to your comfort level with operating above board or being under the table. If it's a sale here and there I wouldn't worry about it personally, but as you start generating more sales it's a good idea.

I had help starting my business with a small business resource center where I live. You could probably do a search and find something like that near you.

As far as galleries, I would find ones you think would be a good fit and approach them. You could also look at artist co-op type galleries. Sometimes they are easier to get into, and you develop relationships with other artists in the process. They usually require a time commitment for sitting the gallery, so that is a consideration, but they take less of a commission on sales. Hope that helps.

Spike Hodge's picture

Great article and oddly encouraging.

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks. I'm glad it was encouraging anyway.

John Sammonds's picture

Best article for a long time thank you.....

Casey Chinn's picture

Thank you so much John!

Bryan Lowry's picture

What I found back in the days of doing art fairs is to keep it simple. If it took more than 15 minutes to set up it was too much. One big metal print in the back to draw people to my booth and bins of prints for people to browse through.
I did well. Sales also came weeks or months later via my website. I had a large banner as a table skirt with my website noted and people just took photos of it vs the expense of passing out business cards. The larger metal print orders came via my website. The large 30 x 45 metal print in the background showed how well they printed large.

I considered my monthly (It was one Sunday afternoon a month) display to be a live business card. One of the galleries I sold at was right down the street but closed that day so I could promote it too.

Most of my inventory for the fair came from another place I sold at as they were set up right next to me and their place was closed that day. The key was very low overhead. I did this for years. The money from it bought any needed camera gear but I was mostly able to save money.

If I were to do fairs these days I'd have a 50" TV displaying my work as a slide show with video mixed in and sell grab-and-go small prints. 8 x 12s in an 11 x 14 mat. I did that once at a special Christmas art fair and it was a big hit.

Keeping it simple is what worked for me.

Don't jump into these fairs spending tons of money. Do a few starting with a simple setup and get a feel for what is really needed vs overkill. Keep everything out of reach from little kids :-)

Casey Chinn's picture

Thanks Bryan! I appreciate your experience and insights. The T.V. ideas has been suggested to me, but I haven't tried it yet. So far, the large metal print in the back of the booth has worked well for me too. And I end up selling it a lot. It will be interesting to see how it has changed this year after a year off from live festivals due to Covid.