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.