Don’t Ask Why…Ask Why Not?

Eternal Beauty

The most frequently asked questions I receive from friends and strangers alike surround how I market myself & work, what works and what doesn’t. I am blessed that I am able to generate a moderate income from my photography without traveling to the ends of the earth, neglecting the personal relationships in my life, or giving up all hope of retiring one day…..hopefully WITH health insurance.

A few years ago when I realized that I COULD actually generate an income from my photography (thanks for buying those prints Mom!), I thought long & hard about the path I wanted to take and if I wanted to attempt to make this a full time profession at all. I quickly decided that as much as I love photography & the great outdoors, traveling to the ends of the earth 200+ days out of the year, away from friends and family, all without the security of a full time job was just not for me. Aside from the overall risks personally and financially, I just didn’t want to lose the most important part of photography to me…the simple joy that it brings me. As much as we all love to fanaticize about our passion leading to undying fame and untold riches, quitting your job, cashing in your 401k and hitting the road in your Honda Element may not be such a great idea. I mean, if it was THAT easy, I would have tore the sleeves off my jean jacket and started talking with an Australian accent a long time ago.

This brings us back to the question at hand. You jumped in with both feet and bought that shiny new Nikon D800 or 5D3. You have the tripod, the filters and a lens for every occasion. You have Photoshop, Lightroom, Nik, OnOne AND Photomatix and you STILL aren’t as popular as Trey Ratcliff. You are drowning in +1’s, likes, hearts & glitter graphics and even hash tag entire paragraphs online and still….no one is buying your work. This is the point at which most photographers start asking themselves why and questioning whether or not their work is good at all. The question should not be why….but why not?

The images that your photography friends like and the ones you personally feel are your best images are NOT the same ones that will be selling to real customers. Take that glorious sunrise image you captured from the top of Mt. Rainier that you are sure is going to be a hit. The question you need to ask yourself is what can this image be used for? Sure, it could be used for Washington tourism, or to sell climbing gear or some other mountaineering product but the list is short and very limited. The second problem is that the better your composition is (in the eyes of yourself and your fellow photographers) the less desirable it is as a marketable image. Customers need space for their products and information. Your perfectly crafted image does not allow for that. Now ask yourself how a picture of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco may be used. It can sell California tourism and anything associated with California. It can be used to advertise almost any business in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Because it sits in one of the world’s most popular destinations, it can be used for airline & auto industries and almost any aspect of travel in general. The possibilities are endless.

The same is true for fine art prints. 15% of my photography revenue last year came from selling prints. I expect that number to rise to 25% this year. These prints are VERY rarely the images I am most proud of or the ones I would choose to hang in my own home. People need to connect to a piece before they purchase it. It needs to evoke an emotion for them. I’m not talking about a simple emotional wonder of the beauty of a landscape; I mean a deep personal emotion. They are buying it because their youngest child goes to school there, or because they got married there. They are buying it because their fondest memory was created there during a vacation taken with their mother just before she passed away. Sometimes they are buying it simply because it matches the colors of their home and looks good over the back of their couch. I sold a collection of ten 30” x 45” canvases a few months back for over $5,000 and all of them were abstracts. I see you reaching for that macro lens!

The point I am trying to make here is that you can find success in your own backyard without giving up your stability, your free time or your family life. You can continue to enjoy your own personal photography and generate revenue from it on the side without being a full time photographer.

I have decided to take more time to share the things that I have learned in the past few years as a photographer on this blog. Stay tuned for the second installment of this post tiled don’t ask why….ask how? This will come in the next few days and will hold a wealth of valuable ideas on how to market your work. Till then, if you would like to find a personal connection with one of my images or are interested in high quality imagery to help promote your business please visit my website at http://www.aaronreedphotography.com and if you want to spend some personal time with me learning more about photography and how I do what I do, please consider one of my in the field workshops at http://www.exposurenorthwestphotography.com Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read this article. If you have specific questions that you would like answered in a future article, please leave them in the comments below.

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24 responses to “Don’t Ask Why…Ask Why Not?

  1. Nice work, Aaron. Great points made here that mirror my own experiences. People simply do not buy a print unless they have a personal connection to it somehow.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts and insights. Now, off to tear the sleeves off my jean jacket…..

  2. Well written with some great points. I have been selling photos the last couple years for tourism and you’re spot on. The photos that I like and would hang are not the ones being purchased. They like the ones where they can put print next to the subject. I enjoyed the whole article though.

  3. Great post Aaron. Photography for me is the Ying to my daily Yang. It provides a great balance and enjoyment. I think that photography would become tiresome full-time, and lose a lot of the enjoyment. It’s like if you do a two-week photo epic driving around and hiking just chasing the perfect frames (as I did a couple of weeks ago). Photographer fatigue sets in and I need a break. I would dread starting to hate the thing I love.

    Photography seems to be one of those few hobbies/passions where people around you expect you to monetize your efforts. Sure I paid a lot in glass and PC hardware, but it’s paying for itself in the enjoyment I get out of it. I would trade ten thousand animated “seen in Top Photographers Group” gifs or the like on Flickr for a few earnest comments from someone I really respect telling me how much they like the photo. Sales are a bonus.

  4. Excellent post Aaron. The part about what sells is especially true. Every photographer is always trying to populate their portfolio with Psychedlic sunsets from exotic places. The truth is those images are passed up many times by editors and art buyers in favor of more mundane recognizable and realistic images.

    There is so much more to earning a living in photography than sharing images online and chasing +1 and Likes. In fact in my opinion these venues have next to zero value in being a successful photographer.

  5. Your photography is fantastic and this is a great post – look forward to seeing your next post in the series. I think your experience resonates with many photographers trying to make the choice of how\if to monetize their artwork. I’m also very curious about your experience with Tandem Stills & Motion and general licensing as well .

  6. Love the post Aaron. Your choices seem to mirror mine exactly although it took two decades and a birth of my son for me to come to the same conclusions :) Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts to words

  7. Great blog Aaron! What you said here totally resonates with me, and I am sure many other of us amateur photographers. I look forward to the information that you are generously sharing with the photographic community.

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