Part IV: Don’t Ask Why, Ask What?

Welcome to part four of my don’t ask why series. In part one we asked why not and in part two we asked how? In part three we asked when and now we…. Ask what? If you are confused already, you may want to go back and read the first three parts of this series. I’ll be here waiting for you….

Now that you are all caught up, follow along with me and I will do my best to share my experience with you and some of the knowledge I have gained along the way. The question I am asked more than any other about my work is what sells and why. Many photographers start out by photographing well-known locations. These areas are often close to their homes and easily accessible so they provide a great opportunity to learn the basics of landscape & cityscape photography and to begin experimenting with their creativity. Other photographers scoff at anyone who photographs well-known locations and do everything in their power to get away from the masses and photograph only the things they perceive as being uncharted territory or off the beaten path. I fall somewhere in the middle, leaning a little further towards trying to photograph recognizable locations, but still trying to get to new areas when I can. Why does it matter you ask? The answer is that it doesn’t, unless you plan to sell your work.

Photographic Fine Art Prints

In my experience, the images that sell are rarely the images we expect to, or hope to sell. Whether it is a large print for someone’s home or office, or an image to be licensed by a business to promote a product, people want and need to connect with the image first. That amazing light that you captured in the back country of the Cascade Mountain Range on your last hiking expedition may make for a great cover of backpacking magazine but not much else. Why? Because the general population does not connect with an isolated area in the mountains. Now take an image of the Golden Gate Bridge. How many people do think have a connection to that in some way? The answer is millions. Does that mean you should only photograph well-known locations? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that you should know who your target audience is, what to market to whom and why.

I am sure that many of you have seen at least one image of the world-famous Japanese maple tree located in the Portland Japanese Garden. Those of us who have lived in or around Portland have photographed this in all seasons for many years. My first photograph of the tree was captured in 2007. My images of this tree have always been great selling pieces for me. Some people purchase prints of this tree simply because it is beautiful and others because it signifies change in their personal lives.

I sell large (up to 40″ x 60″) Metal prints of select pieces of my image collection that range in price from $1000 to $1500. Three of my images of this tree are limited editions of either 100 or 200 total pieces. My fall version of this tree, Living Lightning has sold 90 of the 200 pieces in this edition with the majority of those being large metal prints sold this past year. That being said, people want a beautiful piece for a decent price that has value to them. Producing work and then offering it up for close to nothing will NEVER yield you larger numbers of sales. I have seen many, many photographers fall into this trap including some who produce very nice work on a regular basis. If you are not selling 24″ x 36″ canvas prints for $300, dropping the price of them to $150 is the worst move you can make. Two things happen when you do this…your customers devalue your work as a whole and you yourself devalue your work in your own heart. Your work has real value…if you believe and act like it does. In case you have not seen them before, here are my three versions of the Japanese maple tree.

In addition to offering Fine Art Prints, there are two other main avenues you can take to generate income from your landscape, nature & cityscape photography. The first being retail sales and the second being stock photography. Both of these markets can be difficult to break into for different reasons. Stock Photography is big business and the market is flooded with imagery. In recent years, the revenue that quality stock photography can bring has decreased greatly due to changes in the market, how companies do business and the sheer volume of available material. Even with all of those facts aside, some of the “rules” that we learn in photography do not translate well into stock imagery.

For example, you probably have heard of the rule of thirds by now and have heard that it is a good idea to “fill the frame” with your subject in an effort to create an interesting composition. These are both great points and are widely expressed for a reason. If your goal is successful stock imagery, you should consider throwing these rules out the window….well, partially at least. Businesses need open space when creating layouts and they do not want your image to be so amazing that it competes for attention with the product they are trying to sell. As I mentioned before, they want the image to connect with the viewer, so popular destinations do very well. The three images below have all done very well for me. The first image, titled The Bay Bridge at Night, has sold over 3,000 copies online and in stores nationwide like Target & Kirklands. The second & third images are both in my Limited Edition collection and have sold well as fine art pieces and as stock photography.

The third area of potential revenue is the area of retail sales. Getting your work from its folder on your desktop to the retail shelves of your nearest Target or Bed, Bath & Beyond is not easy but can be done with hard work, a little luck and the right imagery. I currently have 3 images in the retail marketplace and 3 others in the pipeline as we speak. These types of prints typically sell at lower price point, but yield higher returns due to volume. Successful images in this area are composed of a combination of popular destinations and completely unidentifiable ones. For example, Golden Gate and New York bridge imagery does very well in retail. Ocean imagery works very well, but only if it is unrecognizable. As much as most of us love amazing mountain imagery, it does very poorly in my experience. Again, retailers want their customers as a whole to be able to connect these pieces with a trip to the beach, not a trip to a specific beach. Because of this, a long flat stretch of beach with no identifying landmarks is usually desirable. Retail art buyers also follow market trends very closely and these trends are based on colors and feelings. Entire store collections are based on these trends. It is crucial to understand how these trends work and what they are looking for in a piece. If retail sales are an area of interest for you, you can start by paying attention to what is currently being sold in your neighborhood stores. Stay tuned for the final part in this series titled Don’t Ask Why…Ask What Now? where I will share many of the ideas that have worked for me and how you can get out there and start selling your own work.

Thank you for taking the time to read & follow my blog. For those interested, Fine Art Prints of my work can be obtained through my website at http://www.aaronreedphotography.com and my imagery can be licensed through Tandem Stills & Motion here at https://tandemstock.com/browse?q=aaron+reed . I also offer in the field workshops & photo tours in Oregon, Washington & California and more information can be found here at http://www.exposurenorthwestphotography.com

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.