Photographers have three choices when selling photographs. They may be commissioned to shoot for a client, aim for the mass market, or choose to sell fewer high-quality collectible images with a narrower focus. There are good reasons why you should consider the last option.
This morning, I came across the site of a semi-professional landscape photographer whose work does not appeal to me. I find their subjects bland and uninteresting. Also, I think they have poor photography and development skills. They grossly oversaturate their images, have unwanted distractions in many of their photos, and all other images have poorly applied special effects.
There are two ways to look at this. Should we think it’s good? They’re happy with what they’re doing, and people are buying their prints and presumably happy with them. It doesn’t matter what I think of the photos. My tastes are different, and it would be a shame if we all liked the same thing. Alternatively, I might be mad at the person for selling second-rate products to unsuspecting customers who don’t know better.
One thing we forget as photographers is that we live in a bubble. Therefore, we judge our work against other photographers whose images we see on websites and magazines. However, most ordinary people do not spend their time in this bubble. Moreover, they will have little idea of the artistic merits of one photographer’s work over another. They don’t have the same knowledge you might have to judge the skills of the photographer. So if they see an oversaturated photo of a sunset, they’ll think, “That’s pretty!” and buy it.
The appreciation of beauty is a basic feeling; it’s easy to be attracted to her. It takes little brain and no education to understand that a sunset is pretty.
It’s not just limited to landscape photography. When it comes to people photography, popularity usually results from the attractiveness of a model. Models, photographers, advertisers and fashion magazine editors all know this. The latest Swiss watch is much more likely to sell if worn by a beautiful person with what is considered a perfect body than if I were on camera. The depiction of scantily clad women in photography elicits an even more basic emotion of sexual desire. This leads to another debate about the objectification of the female body, which this article does not address.
Wildlife photographers recognize it too. An image of a bird on a stick is considered something less than a bird showing unusual behavior, but it will be widely liked by many people because the bird is pretty.
Is there anything wrong with photographers selling pretty low-quality photos? Is our judgment on the work of others purely subjective and therefore meaningless? After all, in my articles I usually encourage photographers to do their own thing and not be swayed by fashion.
Or are shoddy photographers selling second-rate products to unsuspecting customers who don’t know any better? After all, I was approached to fix wedding photos taken by someone else. Also, a new client of the studio told me that he now knows that the pretty picture he paid for a year ago wasn’t so pretty. So, I know how I would answer these questions. The general public, who don’t know any better, are getting ripped off.
We are faced with the problem that the market is flooded with many more photographs and photographers than there are potential customers. Moreover, one can walk into Ikea or click on an online store and grab some great photo prints for a song. We work hard, learn our skills, invest thousands of pounds in equipment, buy insurance on our kit and toil every hour of the day to deliver good service and create exceptional art. Yet we can be sidelined by the cheap, unsophisticated, and crude work of unskilled people with a camera.
So how can we compete against this undemanding clientele who are satisfied with the work of poor quality suppliers? We make our photos collectible.
There are a few exceptions, but when you look at images from collectible photographers, instead of being pretty, they are provocative. The desire to own the photograph is driven by an intelligent understanding or interpretation of it, not by its vivid colors.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to study collectible work. Look at any of the Magnum photographers, old or new. Next, examine photographs posted on art websites such as Widewalls. Most of the images depicted there have little to do with beauty.
So what makes a collectible photograph?
First, the subject and execution of the image must be unique. There’s no secret formula here, and copying someone else’s work or the latest trend won’t work. It needs things that set it apart from the roughly 1.7 trillion photos that will be taken this year. Then it requires superb execution. That doesn’t mean blindly following composition rules or exposure guidelines. Instead, it just has to look right. It’s hard to define, but it’s all about a personal style that will appeal to a collector.
Additionally, the image should generally be part of a cohesive body of work. This could mean having a similar developing style, color scheme, subject matter, lighting, composition, camera angle, etc. It doesn’t mean you’re bound to take such images forever, and it doesn’t require all of your work to be similar. However, collectors expect you to produce a collection that works together.
Unlike other works of art, identical photographic prints can be reproduced multiple times. Just as philatelists want rare stamps in their collection, a philaphotographologist (yes, I just made it up) won’t be interested in something widely available. Therefore, collectible photos must be limited in their production. Collectors want rare prints. It is acceptable to produce other editions. Like books, each edition should be limited in number and each print individually numbered. The first editions will always have more value.
Collectors want to prove the provenance of their photos. The easiest way is to provide certificates that are hard to forge, numbered and signed.
Reproduce photos using media that maintains that uniqueness. A high quality print on a gallery grade backing will make it more attractive to collectors than a cheap print from your local supermarket.
Then it’s just a matter of finding a way to sell your photographs. That requires a whole other article.
Two other benefits come from the sale of collectible photographs. Each yields a greater potential financial return for less effort. As a result, you spend your time and energy producing fewer high-quality photos. Second, you can shoot whatever you want instead of having a commissioning manager dictate what you shoot or trying to please the masses who are happier with oversaturated landscapes.
Are you tapping into the collectibles market? Or are you frustrated with low-quality competition? If so, it would be great to hear about your experiences.