(Photography by Jim Lipschutz)
Selling Fine Art Photography Online Is HARD
Would you agree that selling fine art photography online is a lot harder than you expected?
Most photographers like yourself tell me the same thing, and the next question is always:
How can I increase my chances of success?
Before we dive in, I want to make it clear this is not a discussion about what is and what isn’t fine art. However, I do make the broad assumption that you know what you’re doing when it comes to photography.
I also assume you have a body of work that appeals to the right audience. At the risk of being blunt, if your work sucks (or is even just average), then long term success is unlikely—regardless of how good you are at sales.
If You Prefer Audio
There’s an audio version of this article from my podcast, if you prefer to listen:
Selling Fine Art Photography Online
Does your website suck at selling fine art photography online? Discover why most photographers get poor sales and what to do instead to sell more work...
I’ve also written a detailed book on this topic, which you can find on Amazon: Check out Selling Fine Art Photography by Nigel Merrick.
What Do We Mean By Fine Art Photography?
One thing to consider is what I mean by fine art photography in the context of this article.
I’ll stick to a simple definition for today’s purposes:
The way I see it, fine art photographs are purchased mainly for personal, aesthetic, or decorative reasons, often hung on the walls of the home or office, or displayed in books or some other printed form.
Fine art usually transcends many of the boundaries in traditional photography niches.
It can also encompass a variety of photographic genres. For example, landscapes, portraits, nature, abstract subjects, and even commercial work can all find places in the fine art world, along with many others.
Everyone Wants To Be A Fine Art Photographer
I’ve talked with a LOT of fine art photographers over the last decade.
From our discussions, a few people try to sell their work in the fine art space because they see it as an easy way to make money without dealing with specific clients in a 1-on-1 sales environment.
Unlike pure portrait or wedding photography, for example, a fine art photographer creates images intended for multiple clients. They never need to talk with them personally because the sale doesn’t require the photographer and client to be physically present together at the time.
Instead, the work can be sold through a website or a brick-and-mortar gallery without the photographer’s involvement in the actual sales conversation—a great situation for anyone who feels at all uncomfortable with the in-person sales process—so I understand why fine art photography is so attractive.
In other cases, photographers choose fine art as a secondary niche or an additional revenue stream.
The hope is it will add to the income they already get through the other channels they operate in. In those cases, the need to make fine art sales in order to survive as a business may not be as urgent as it might be if fine art was their primary income stream.
Not Everyone Will Succeed
Of course, not everyone who gets into this business will succeed at selling fine art photography.
There are some notable exceptions, but for every successful photographic artist, there are many more who just scrape by or make hardly anything from their work.
For example, few will enjoy the level of success Peter Lik discovered in December 2014 when he reportedly sold a photograph taken in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon for the world-record amount of $6.5 million. Until then, the most expensive photograph sold was one entitled Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, which went for just over $4 million in 1999. The artistic merits of the actual photographs concerned are debatable in both cases, and many people are left scratching their heads at the sheer magnitude of the amounts involved.
Obviously, such levels of success are extremely rare, and it would be unwise to judge your own future success based on such outliers.
Instead, let’s get back to reality and talk about the situation as most fine art photographers experience it—what you might call the “norm” for our industry.
Selling Fine Art Photography Online: The “Normal” Way
Think back to the beginning, to the day when you first decided to enter the fine art photography market.
How did you decide what you needed to do to make selling your work online a success?
Most new photographers tend to look at what everyone else is doing to get an idea of the standard way of doing business.
This usually reveals a system whereby photographers build a website with galleries, slideshows, and image pages where potential customers can see their work and conveniently order prints in various sizes and finishes, and purchase other related products.
Sounds reasonable, right?
It’s easy to think this is the right way to do things, a notion further supported by the abundance of template-based websites designed specifically for e-commerce, such as those offered by Zenfolio, SmugMug, or PhotoShelter, for example.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those companies by the way.
In fact, they all serve a great purpose and may indeed suit your needs, especially if you want something off the shelf where you don’t need any degree of technical know-how, like you would if you were building a website from scratch.
This isn’t meant to bash those solutions in any way—in fact, as you’ll see, they have a real part to play.
What I’m more concerned with is how those solutions are used by fine art photographers.
Then you have other types of online sales platforms, such as the online galleries offered by Fine Art America or Etsy.
In those cases, you’re just one of many artists being represented on the same website. Although you’re just one artist out of many, the size and scale of those platforms can sometimes be to your advantage, as long as you know how to work the system.
Both online galleries and many of the template-based website solutions also have a connection with printing labs, making it easy for people to buy your work without your direct involvement in any part of the process, other than getting paid, which is always nice 🙂
Essentially, then, this is what most new fine art photographers think of as the standard way of doing business.
Sounds like a great and convenient solution, doesn’t it?
The only problem is that it doesn’t work in most cases.
I’ve verified this many times over through discussions with photographers who tell me they have their work online, I can see it’s of a very high quality, and yet their sales completely suck.
Why Most Fine Art Photographers Experience Poor Sales
On the face of it, what I just said might sound a bit ridiculous.
I mean, here we have an Internet filled with thousands of websites by photographers all over the world, offering their photos for sale—if the system doesn’t work, why do so many people still do it?
After all, photographers aren’t stupid, so why would so many follow the “normal” way if it’s clearly failing?
The answer is connected with the incredible lure of the assumption most of us have about this being the “right” way to do things.
It seems such an obvious way of selling fine art photography that we simply fail to question the validity of it, or even its role in an overall marketing and sales strategy.
In short, setting up a sales website to sell fine art photographs—and leaving it at that—has become the de facto way.
Beyond that, we’ve blinkered ourselves to other possibilities.
But that still leaves the question of why most fine art photographers see such poor sales online.
There are, of course, many possible reasons:
- The photography itself is lackluster or uninspiring…
- The fine art qualities of the work are just not present…
- The photographer presents incoherent themes or no distinct artistic style…
- The site has disorganized portfolios and galleries…
- There’s insufficient exposure of the photography to the right audience…
That said, assuming your work is something people would invest in given the chance, I think there’s another big reason why most photographers experience low sales:
People buy from people and, more importantly, they buy from people they like and who they can relate to in some meaningful way…
This marketing principle sits at the foundation of any successful photographic business, not just fine art photography.
It’s true for portrait and wedding photographers, pet photographers, and even those who operate in the commercial arena.
It doesn’t matter what you do.
Now, more than ever before, success in sales is built on creating and nurturing relationships with people.
What does that have to do with selling fine art prints online?
Quite a lot.
When I started my photography business here in Memphis, one of the first things I did was make a lot of connections with the artist scene here in the city.
I joined various artist groups and became friends with several well-known gallery owners. I even had a few one-man art shows of my own, but I also created a very successful business photographing paintings for local artists and then printing giclee prints for them to sell at their own shows or at art fairs.
One favorite topic of discussion with the artists was:
“What makes people invest in art?”
A great question, but the answer from the gallery owners themselves was always something like this:
People love to know more about the artist behind the work. Once they feel like they know the artist and their personality, it’s much easier for them to relate to the work itself. That makes them much more likely to invest in it…
Brick And Mortar Galleries vs. Online Galleries
In the real-world environment of a brick and mortar gallery, people visit because they’re looking to invest in artwork for their home or office.
At the very least they have an interest in seeing the work of the artists being represented in the gallery.
Usually, they’ll have the chance to speak directly with the gallery owner or the sales staff about the kinds of things they’re looking for, and what inspires them etc. They can also get the story of the artist during those same conversations and learn more about who they are.
The successful real-world galleries rely on this simple strategy to make more sales, which is why any gallery owner worth their salt will ask their represented artists for as much background information as possible—for example, their backstory, motivations, inspirations and what they’re aiming to express through their work.
This is where your online gallery and template-based website fall down!
In contrast to the brick and mortar gallery, web-based galleries aim directly for the sale before the potential buyer has had any chance to get to know you, the artist behind the work.
You might argue that the website has an “about” page, your artist statement, a photographer bio, or whatever else you like to call it, but (while it’s a good thing) I don’t believe it’s enough information for a first-time visitor to make a connection with you and move them into a buying frame of mind.
While a good “about” page is important, most of the ones I see are pure “information”.
They don’t go deep enough to make a real connection with the visitor, especially in the short timeframe of a single website visit.
Real relationships are built over an extended period of time, across multiple interactions, and in deeper ways than what you can do on a single image sales page…
Can An Online Gallery Work To Sell Fine Art Photography?
This leads to the question of whether online galleries and sales websites work at all.
The answer is, “yes, I do believe they can work, and they’re clearly an essential part of any online sales process.”
But, they obviously require something else to support them, something with more of the essential elements for relationship development that we see in the real-world brick and mortar gallery.
The exception, the one time when I can see an online gallery working well without much else in the way of a supporting framework, is when the artist is already independently well-known.
For example, Ansel Adams or Peter Lik are already familiar to many, so people may already feel as if they have a relationship with them when they visit their website to look at their work or make a purchase.
But, for the rest who struggle in obscurity, I believe you need something else in the toolbox to make all this work.
Separating The Art From The Photographer
The first thing I advise anyone starting out in the world of fine art photography is to physically separate the art from themselves.
In business terms, this is the process of separating the marketing functions from the sales process. It serves to protect the relationship-building phase of any customer interaction from being contaminated by the more self-serving elements of the sale.
Make no mistake, this is not for the faint-hearted photographer, or anyone who prefers the safety of running with the rest of the herd.
Unlike in nature, there is no safety in numbers when it comes to marketing.
You must be brave enough to choose a different path to all the other photographers who haven’t stopped to think hard about what they’re doing or question the rationales behind the “standard way of doing business”.
They don’t know what you know from being here, which gives you a strong advantage.
I’ll get into the “how” of it in a minute, but another thing to understand is this a long game, not a short game.
In other words, this takes time, just like it takes time to get to know people in the offline world.
There’s no “easy” button here, and you must be ready to invest time and effort into building these relationships.
Sounds a bit like dating, doesn’t it?
That’s because, in some ways, it is.
It’s still up to you to woo your clients and market your own work if you want potential customers to find you. Otherwise, you may as well adopt the old “build it and they will come” mentality, which we all know leads to an online presence more like a ghost town than a bustling marketplace.
In fact, you’ll need to engage in intelligent marketing regardless of the solution you choose.
That requires things like content creation, search engine optimization, email marketing, social media marketing and other strategies to get your photography in front of the right people.
As I said, you need to step up to the plate and be strong about all this, because it’s not easy.
The Importance Of Building Your Artist Persona
Before I move into the framework details, I want to mention the importance of building your online persona.
This is how people will get to know, like, and trust you online, leading to eventual sales.
The Internet is a fickle place, and sometimes has more in common with the Wild West than the real world.
Selling anything online is hard unless you first establish some level of authority.
Think about Ansel Adams or Peter Lik again—regardless of whether or not you like their photography, they both have a certain level of authority in their field that counteracts any sales resistance people naturally feel.
Building your own authority is by no means as difficult as you might think, nor do you need to be famous to make it happen!
All it takes is a little creative effort.
The Basics Of A New Strategic Framework
What I’m about to describe is a framework you can follow to create a marketing strategy that will give you the best long-term chances of success for selling your work online.
Because it’s based upon sound marketing principles, it works well for most photographers, and it gives you room to personalize things and make it your own without looking like you just copyied what everyone else is doing.
There are 4 basic parts to the process:
Step 1: Separate Your Marketing From Sales
The first step in our strategic marketing plan for selling fine art photography online is to separate the sales components from the marketing and relationship-building elements.
For this, you’ll need a good-quality artist website and blog.
I recommend using WordPress to build these on a domain that you own and control.
That is, I don’t recommend using one of the free blogging platforms out there, or even a blog at WordPress.com.
Instead, get yourself a domain name and website hosting, and then install the WordPress software, together with a good quality premium theme.
This is your personal piece of Internet real-estate.
If you need a hosting company, I recommend Blue Host with their simple 1-click WordPress install. They can also take care of registering your domain name etc. For WordPress themes, you can’t go far wrong with the Genesis themes from StudioPress or the collection of themes from Photocrati.
(In full disclosure, some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase using them. This does not affect the cost to you in any way, but the commission I receive from such purchases helps to keep this website ad-free.)
The website portion of your new site will hold all the static pages and evergreen content—stuff that’s relevant to your audience regardless of when they read it.
The blog section is where you post regular articles about your photographic journey, tips and ideas, and talk about specific images.
This is where your artist personality—your story—will take shape over time.
It’s important that your blog posts don’t look like sales letters for your work.
Yes, you should link to a place where the reader can purchase a copy of a photo, what I call a secondary call to action.
But don’t make the sale the dominant call to action on your site because you have something more powerful for that, which I’ll get to in a minute.
This practice of using your website and blog in this way is part of what we call a content marketing strategy, which will form the core of your marketing plan.
Step 2: Develop An Email Marketing System
Next, you need to have an email marketing system in place to pursue your new relationships with potential buyers over time.
Email has consistently been shown to be the most effective marketing channel you have available.
This means placing sign-up forms on every page on your website and blog—this is the primary call to action I mentioned in the last step.
If you skip this, and try to go for the sale directly, I guarantee your long-term results will suffer as a result, so please don’t overlook this part!
My ONLY recommendation for an email service provider photographers is Active Campaign, which is the system I use every day and am very happy with.
To increase the chances of people signing up to your list, you’ll need to give something away in exchange—what we call a lead magnet—and your imagination is the only limiting factor in finding something your audience will love that makes them feel closer to you and your photography.
In my book, I show show you exactly how to create the perfect lead magnet in less than one day using resources you already have.
Once you have subscribers on your email marketing list, you can send out informative and interesting emails once per week, for example, where you highlight a blog post and use that to send visitors back to the blog.
Only this time, it’s the secondary call to action you want people to take, which will be to visit the sales part of your system when the time is right for them.
It’s important to be patient here—it may take many emails or some time on your list before people start to think about buying from you, but they will.
Step 3: Selling Fine Art Photography Online
Until this point, we’ve been concerned with building your authority and online reputation, and helping people to get to know, like, and trust your artist persona.
Now it’s finally time to include the sales part of the process.
For that you’ll need a separate sales website.
This could be another area of your main website or blog, of course, but it may be better to have it on a different domain altogether.
This is the appropriate place to make use of those template-based websites and online galleries, for example Fine Art America.
They’re really good at doing everything you need to display work and make a sale, so it makes sense to take advantage of that.
The key, as I’m sure you can see now, is to make this part of a bigger system so that people are primed and ready to buy when they land on the sales site.
A separate sales website prevents visitors seeing the sales stuff at the wrong time.
It also keeps them focused on the important thing, which is to get more involved with you and your personality.
Further reading: How To Sell Fine Art Photography (an interview with Karen Stiles)
Step 4: Promoting Yourself And Your Photography
You now have a website and blog for building your authority and to show off your personality as an artist, and you have a means of building up a marketing list for email purposes.
From there, you have the mechanics of the sales process taken care of by a third-party website or gallery.
The only thing left is to promote yourself and your photography to get the word out and start generating a following and, hopefully, sales.
This is where you put the power of search engine optimization (SEO) to good use, as well as social media marketing through those networks where your target market are most active.
SEO is actually easy, once you know a few basic essentials, and there are lots of resources for that on my website and elsewhere.
Remember, too, that social media is all about being yourself and sharing content with your followers that they would love and find useful—it’s not about being too self-promotional.
Of course, there are other channels as well, such as YouTube, podcasts, guest posting on other blogs, as well as offline methods of getting attention, such as self-publishing a book.
But another important channel that’s often overlooked, and even avoided, by many photographers is paid advertising.
When done properly, for example, Facebook ads can be a good source of qualified visitors, many of whom are likely to turn themselves into email subscribers if your lead magnet is attractive enough.
Don’t make the mistake of using paid ads to send people to your sales pages, though—you know better than that after all we’ve talked about here, right?
Instead, use ads to promote your blog posts and articles and especially your lead magnet—the return on investment (ROI) for your ads should primarily be new email subscribers you can start to build relationships with.
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To sum up what we’ve talked about today…
Too many fine art photographers waste valuable time and resources on what they see as the standard way of doing things, which is little more than a sales-based website.
Sadly, that doesn’t work very well.
A better strategy is to mimic what happens in the real world by focusing on building and nurturing relationships with potential art buyers who want to know more about the artist before they’re ready to actually invest in the art.
To do that, you need an artist website and blog that connects with people and gives them content they can relate to. From there you encourage those people to add themselves to your email list so you can stay in touch with them over time and help them get to know you better.
To actually make sales of your photographs, you can use a template-based website or join an online gallery such as Fine Art America, so that you have somewhere to send people when it’s the right time for them to buy.
Finally, you need to grease the wheels, as it were, by promoting your artist website and blog through social media, SEO, and other channels, including paid advertising.