Photographers: The Basics To Selling Prints

May 30, 2017

Photographers: The Basics To Selling Prints

Note: I'm the founder of Axe & Hammer, so I will try my best to keep this article unbiased and will only do a plug for A&H at the very end.


Selling prints is alluring.


If you're a serious photographer, chances are you have thousands of decent images on your computer and chances are you could use thousands of something else in your bank account. Assignments and portrait sessions come and go, but they don't really keep you financially secure in the long-term. Hourly income never does. You need to do something scalable, or at least that's what all the entrepreneurs are saying. Scale, scale, scale. Less work for more income. For scale to be possible, however, you need to sell something besides your services.

This is why stock photography sites have blown up over the years. You upload some photos, forget about them, and hopefully a steady profit starts trickling in. This is also why the stock photography market is so saturated... because everyone knows this trick. Nowadays, it's nearly impossible to get your work noticed and, even if you did, the margins are extremely slim (think single digits for each photo purchased).

Well, if you can't make a living selling digital images, can you make a living selling physical images? I'd argue that in today's world, you can.

Selling physical prints, however, is more complex than selling digital files. You have to take into account all the production difficulties that don't come with stock photography, like the printing of the photo, the assembly of the frame, the shipping, the returns, etc. Plus, there's a lot more variability in the quality and pricing of physical prints than digital files.


How do you sell prints online?


For those who have sold prints of their photos before know that in our day it's seemingly simple and impressively complicated to do so. Yes, there are services that will do all the production for you (more on that later), but which service do you use? Which formats do you print? On which medium? How much do you charge? Who do you market to? How do you market?

When you start selling prints, you transition from being a photographer to a production specialist, a business(wo)man, a marketer, an accountant, a programmer, and a bunch other specialties you never thought you'd be. So, for all of you talented, but broke, photographers out there, I'll try to cover the basics:

1. Production: how do you make and ship your prints?

2. Pricing: how much do you charge?

3. Marketing: how do find your customers?




1. Production


First and foremost, don't do it yourself. There was a year-long stint in which I attempted to create my own prints. I found a quality printer in my city and would print through them, but I would do all of the mounting and framing myself. Yes, the margins are great, but the amount of physical labor it takes to produce quality products is huge. Especially if you have a full-time job. The single worst part is packaging and shipping prints. Imagine an extra hour of work just packaging and then an extra $50 out of your pocket just for shipping.

Today, there is an assortment of services that'll do the production and shipping for you at a very reasonable cost. More or less, these services fall into two categories:

Option A: Printing vendors


Examples: BayPhoto, WHCC, Loxley Colour, EZprints, etc.

These vendors do the printing and shipping, hard stop. Each vendor has an assortment of products that you can choose from (paper prints, fine art prints, metal prints, wood prints, on and on...). You simply download their ROES (Remote Order Entry System), choose the type of product you want and plug your photo in.

We've used both BayPhoto and WHCC and the service has been superb with both - 2-3 days turnaround for the production and quick and relatively cheap shipping (think $20 for a framed print instead of the $50 I was paying at UPS). Plus, most of these vendors will allow you to dropship, meaning they'll package your print without any of their labeling and send it wherever you want (i.e. client's address). I say this loosely, but generally the quality of the print and products is higher with these types of vendors. They're in the industry more for the photographer than the consumer, so their standards are dictated by photographers, not consumers. With that being said, generally their products are a bit more costly, as well.

In short, using one of these printing vendors will cut out all the production work for you. You can create and ship prints using quite literally seconds of your time. The issue, though, is that none of these services find clients for you. Which brings me to your second option:

Option B: Full-service stores


Examples: Society6, Art.com, Fine Art America, RedBuddle, etc.
If you've ever considered buying or selling prints, chances are you've bumped into one of these sites. Full-service stores do everything the printing services do plus one step - they'll actually sell the print for you, too. All you do is upload a few images and boom!.. you have sales.

Now, before you jump out of your chair and upload your images everywhere, let me explain the disadvantages of these services:

First, just like the stock photography industry, these shops are very saturated. Fine Art America, for example, has literally millions of images for sale. This is indicative of their success, of course, but even if your photography is drop dead gorgeous, the chances of it being found by someone browsing for artwork are very slim.

Second, you have very little control of your pricing. Yes, most of these services will let you price your items and dictate the margin that you make, but keep in mind that your images are displayed among everyone else's images, so there's always a benchmark for the customer. For example, if I want to price a print at $100 and the ten prints next to mine are all priced under $50, the chances that a customer will choose your print go down. It's like if Ikea suddenly made one chair worth $200 when the rest are $20... regardless of whether the expensive chair is worth the money, the fact that it's next to a bunch of cheaper chairs will cut its value. In other words, while it may seem like you have control over your pricing, in reality you're more or less forced to conform to that site's pricing benchmark.

Third, and this one's a bit harder to gauge, your personal brand may be impacted. When you sell through a full-service store, your work appears only for those customers already browsing those sites. Additionally, your work only appears next to the other work on that site. The combination of these two factors force your work to be attributed to a certain brand that you may not want. Here's a metaphor: let's say you're selling a car, specifically a Mercedes. You wouldn't put it in a shop next to a bunch of Chevys because the people going to that shop expect Chevys. In reverse, if you're selling a Chevy, you wouldn't put it on a Mercedes lot because people going to that lot expect Mercedes. Get it? On the other hand, if you sell through your own online store using a printing vendor, you have full control of your brand, how you display your prints and which audiences see your print.




2. Pricing


Be it a Van Gogh or a postcard, pricing art is hard. There's no exact science. But there are a few methods that can help you at least narrow a range which you can shoot for.

Margins:

What are your margins? In other words, how much are you making off each print after all the costs? This will at least create a price floor for you that you don't want to go under.

You can find all the production and shipping prices pretty easily using the vendor and service links above. Use a Google Sheet to do the math. If your production, shipping, taxes, and advertising costs add up to, say, $100 for a print, then you probably shouldn't charge less than $100, and most likely more so you can feed and house yourself, too.

Market:

How does the market value your work? In other words, what are other similar photographers charging for similar work in similar mediums? If you're able to find similar work at a lower price, chances are your customer can, too.

A good method is writing down (using Google Sheets) a handful of competitor prices for similar work and then finding the average. See below for a Price/Inch calculation that'll help compare across sizes. Let's say you find 10 competitors and find that the Price/Inch for similar work ranges between $0.30 and $0.50, then pricing yourself within that range may be a good idea.

Customer:

Who are you selling to? In other words, whom does your work appeal to and how much are they willing to pay. This is the demand side of the equation.

Let's say you're a well-educated fine art photographer who is on the leading edge of the art scene. Your work most likely appeals to art collectors (which are usually wealthier), and thus, you should charge what galleries do because your audience can afford it. If you shoot more simple edgy subjects that appeal more closely to college students and young urbanites, then you would want to price more competitively.

This isn't easy, but if you can find your audience and figure out what they're willing to pay, then you're golden.

Hint: to price across sizes, use the following equation for price per inch:
Price/H*L
Example:a 20"x30" print that costs $200 is 200/20*30=$0.33 per inch.




3. Marketing


Now, you've picked a production process and priced your prints... here comes the hard part. You somehow have to get your work in front of your ideal audience. Not only do you have to get it in front of them, you also have to quickly and efficiently show exactly what you're selling. You have to show or describe in detail the quality and content of your work. On top of that, you also have to somehow form a bond with the customer so they have a reason to buy from you specifically.

Full-service stores (Society6, RedBubble, etc.) do a lot of this for you because they already have a brand and a constant, specific audience. If you think your work fits the brand these services portray and your pricing is similar to theirs, then selling through these channels may be a great idea. They'll post ads and work their SEO magic (Google) to get people to their site, and those people have a chance of purchasing your print. You can then supplement that traffic by sending people to your profile page specifically using your traffic channels (Facebook, Instagram, your mother's book club, etc.).

If you use a printing vendor, selling becomes exponentially more difficult. First and foremost, you must have a platform to showcase and sell your work, since none of the printing vendors display their clients' images. There are many ways to do this, such as Squarespace, Wix, Shopify (on which A&H is built), etc. Or you can take an easier path like selling directly through Facebook or Ebay. This all depends on how much control you want, how much you want to spend and how much work you want to put in. For any of these methods, you'll need to create images of your prints to show your customers, you'll need to write descriptions and you'll need to configure the site to be easy to navigate.

Then, you have to somehow get people to your online shop, by yourself. There are, of course, a million ways to do this. If you have a robust Instagram page you can post your store link and ads on there. If you know some popular bloggers, you can have them showcase a print of yours and send them to your link. Heck, you can stand on a street corner waving with your shop URL on poster board. After that, you'll also have to answer customer questions, provide returns, create some legal documentation to protect yourself, the list goes on and on. Shopify provides a ton of resources for all of this in their guides section. All in all, if you decide to go down the more difficult path of selling your prints yourself the way you want to, expect the level of effort and time to be much higher.




Conclusion


There's no exact science to selling prints online. The methods I mentioned above are just some of the ways you can start, but there may be plenty of others. Which route you take is completely dependent on three things: your photography, your audience and your resources (time & money). Regardless of which route you choose, with enough effort and research, I'm confident anyone can find the right audience and methods to sell prints online.



Axe & Hammer pitch:

Okay, I promised to save this until the end. Axe & Hammer is an online print collection I built with an associate in 2016. We partner with photographers, curate our favorite images and then sell high-quality prints of those images. As it relates to this article, A&H falls in between the two methods of selling. We've cut out all of the hard work around building a website and driving traffic, but have retained the quality production techniques and brand value. We use BayPhoto for our printing and get a discount from them since we buy in bulk. Thus, our production costs are lower than they would be for a BayPhoto client.

The process for the photographers is just as easy as it would be on any of the full-service stores - simply upload your favorite photography and we take care of the rest. The difference, however, is that we handpick our photographers and limit the collection to a certain number of photographers at any given point. This way, when you sell through A&H, your name and brand stay intact. Plus, the price point isn't diluted by lower-end artists, so we're able to produce higher returns for photographers. Finally, we allow you to share content on our site and we'll always link back to your site, so there's potential gain for visitors for the photographer, as well.

Even if you have a decent following or you sell prints through your own website already, we've made our contract super flexible, so you can try selling through A&H and back out at any time if you don't see as large of a benefit as selling yourself.

We've tried to combine the best parts of both worlds, and then some. That's our pitch... see all of our benefits here.

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