Selling Fine Art Photography Online: How To Increase Your Chances Of Success
(Photography by Jim Lipschutz)
Today’s topic is selling fine art photography online. Specifically, we’re going to look at why so many fine art photographers have a hard time making sales, and how you can increase your chances of success.
Before we dive in, I want to make it clear this isn’t going to be a discussion about what is and what isn’t considered to be fine art, although I do make the somewhat broad assumption that you know what you’re doing when it comes to photography and you also have a body of work for sale that would appeal to the right audience.
At the risk of being blunt, if your work sucks, then long term success is probably unlikely, regardless of how good you are at sales, so it’s important to keep on top of both the technical and aesthetic aspects of your photographic art. Of course, we’re dealing with a very subjective field here, and no single piece of photographic artwork is going to appeal to everyone at the same time.
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...
What Do We Mean By Fine Art Photography?
One question we should answer, though, is what I mean by fine art photography in the context of what I’m talking about here, so I’ll stick to a very simple definition for our purposes today:
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 also transcends many of the boundaries in traditional photography niches and it can 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
From my experience talking with lots of photographers over the last decade it seems like many people look at selling their work in the fine art space as an easy way of making money, but without having to deal with specific clients in a 1-on-1 sales environment.
Unlike pure portrait or wedding photography, for example, a fine art photographer can create images intended for multiple clients, none of whom they ever need to talk with personally because the actual sale usually doesn’t require the photographer to be physically present at the time.
Instead, their 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 can understand the motivation to get into fine art photography.
The ability to divorce oneself from sales makes fine art photography a very attractive genre to be involved in, something that I’ve confirmed time and again through actual conversations.
In other cases, photographers choose fine art as a secondary niche or an additional revenue stream, which they hope will add to the income they already get through the other channels they operate in. In those cases, the need to make sales in order to survive as a business may not be quite as urgent as it might be if fine art is their primary income stream.
But Not Everyone Is Going To Be A Success
Of course, the reality is, 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 either just scraping by or not making anything much from their work at all.
For example, not everyone is going to see the level of success Peter Lik discovered back in December 2014 when he reportedly sold a photograph taken in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon for the world-record amount of $6.5 million. Up 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, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here today.
Obviously, such levels of success are extremely rare, and it would be unwise to judge our own future success based on such outlying results.
So let’s get back to reality and talk about the situation as most fine art photographers experience it – what we might call the norm for our industry.
Selling Fine Art Photography Online: The “Normal” Way
If we go right back to the beginning, to the day when you first decided to enter the fine art photography market and sell your work online, how did you decide what you needed to do to make it all work?
Most new photographers tend to look around at what everyone else in the same field is doing, and use that information to understand what we might call the standard way of doing business.
What this usually reveals is 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.
With so many of these types of direct-sale websites around, it’s easy to think this is the right way to do things, an obvious notion further supported by the plethora of template-based websites designed specifically for e-commerce, such as those offered by Zenfolio, SmugMug, or PhotoShelter, for example.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those companies – 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.
What I’m talking about here 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 being used by fine art photographers, which I’ll get to shortly.
Then we have other types of online sales platforms, such as the online galleries offered by Fine Art America or Etsy and the like, where you’re just one of many artists being represented on the same website. Although you’re just one artist out of many, the sheer size and scale of those platforms can sometimes be to your advantage, as long as you know how to work the system, as it were.
Both online galleries and many of the template-based website solutions out there also have some kind of 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, right?
Essentially, then, that’s what most fine art photographers who are new to selling their photography online think of as the standard way of doing business.
Sounds like a great and convenient solution, doesn’t it?
The only problem with this approach is it doesn’t work in the vast majority of 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 sounds a bit ridiculous when you think about it, doesn’t it?
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 are so many people still doing it? After all, photographers aren’t stupid, so why is it so many blindly follow the “normal” way when it’s clearly failing?
The answer, I think, has something to do with the incredible power of the assumption that we have about this being the “right” way to do things. It seems such an obvious way of selling fine art photography online that we simply fail to question the validity of it or even its role as part of an overall marketing and sales strategy.
In short, setting up a sales website to sell fine art photography, and leaving it at that, has become the de facto way, and we’ve blinkered ourselves to any other possibilities.
But that still leaves the question of why most fine art photographers are seeing such poor sales online.
There are, of course, many possible reasons. For example:
- The photography itself is lackluster or uninspiring to begin with…
- The fine art qualities of the work are just not present…
- The photographer presents incoherent themes or a lack of a distinct artistic style…
- The site has disorganized portfolios and galleries that fail to express something specific…
- There’s simply insufficient exposure of the photography to the right audience…
That said, and assuming that your work is something people would actually want to invest in if only they had the chance, I think there’s another very 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?
Actually, 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? Why do people buy?”
Great questions, 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
Obviously, 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, or at the very least 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 most 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 back story, motivations, inspirations and what they’re aiming to express through their work.
This is where online galleries and template-based websites fall down!
In contrast to the brick and mortar gallery, web-based galleries tend to aim directly for the sale before the potential buyer has really had any chance to get to know the artist behind the work.
Of course, you might argue that the website has an “about” page, an artist statement, a photographer bio, or whatever else you like to call it, but (while that’s a good thing) I honestly don’t believe it’s anywhere near enough information for a first-time visitor to discover enough of a connection with the artist to move them into that buying frame of mind. While a good “about” page is important, it’s mostly what we could call pure “information” in most cases, and it doesn’t go deep enough to make a real connection with the visitor, especially in so short a timeframe as a single website visit.
Real relationships are built over an extended period of time, across multiple interactions, and in deeper ways than what we can do on a single image sales page.
Can An Online Gallery Ever Work To Sell Fine Art Photography?
This leads to the question of whether I believe in online galleries and sales websites at all, and 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 that has more of the essential elements found in the relationship development that we see in the brick and mortar gallery or the real world art space.
The exception to this, the one time when I can see an online gallery working very 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 already feel as if they have some relationship with them when they visit their website to look at their work or make a purchase.
But, for the rest of us who are struggling in obscurity, I believe we need something else in the toolbox to make all this work.
Separating The Art From The Photographer
The first thing I would advise anyone starting out in the world of fine art photography is to begin by physically separating the art from themselves, the photographer.
In general business terms, this is the process of separating the marketing functions from the sales process, and it serves to protect the relationship-building phase of any customer interaction from being contaminated, if you like, 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.
Because, unlike in nature, there is no safety in numbers when it comes to marketing.
What I’m saying here is that you must be brave enough to choose a different path to all the other photographers out there, the ones who haven’t stopped to think hard about what they’re doing or question the rationales behind what is considered the “standard way of doing business”.
They don’t know what you know from being here, which puts you at an advantage.
I’ll get into the “how” of it in a minute, but one other thing to understand is that it’s 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 have to be ready to invest time and effort into the 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. Without that, you’re no better off than with 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 marketing regardless of the solution you choose, and 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, we 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 details of the framework itself, the last thing I want to mention is 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 has more in common with the Wild West than the real world sometimes, and selling anything online is hard without first establishing your 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 many of the symptoms of sales resistance people naturally exhibit.
That authority is what you should aim to build, and it’s 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, or set of guidelines, that you can follow to create a marketing strategy that I believe will give you the best chances of success in the long term for selling your work online.
Because it’s based upon sound marketing principles, it should work well for most photographers, and it gives you room to personalize things and make it your own without looking like you’re just copying 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 brave new strategic marketing plan for selling fine art photography online is to separate the sales components from the marketing and relationship-building elements.
To do that, you’ll need a good-quality artist website and blog, and I recommend using WordPress to build those 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 piece of Internet real-estate, if you like.
If you need a hosting company, I recommend using Blue Host and they can even 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.
(Please note that, 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 fund the podcast and keep the site 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 encounter it.
The blog section will be where you post regular articles about your photographic journey, tips and ideas, and talk about specific images. This is where your personality as an artist – your story, if you like – will take shape over time. The one big tip I can give you here about your blog is not to worry too much about search engine optimization, but just take care of the basics and let your posts speak naturally to your audience.
It’s important, as well, that your blog posts don’t start to look just like sales letters for your work. Yes, you should link to a place where the reader can purchase a copy of a photo, and that’s what I call a secondary call to action, but don’t make that the dominant call to action on your site. We have something far more powerful for that, which I’ll get to in a minute.
This practice of using your website and blog in this way is a 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
Step 2 is to have an email marketing system in place so that you can pursue your new relationships with potential buyers over time via email, which has consistently been shown to be the most effective marketing channel we have available.
This means making sure you have 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 just try to go for the sale directly on your blog, I guarantee that your long term results will suffer as a result, so please don’t overlook this part!
If you don’t already have an email service provider, then my recommendation for photographers is to use Active Campaign, which is the system I used and am very happy with.
Of course, to increase the chances of people signing up to your list, you’ll need something to give 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.
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 going to be the secondary call to action that you want people to take, which will be to visit the sales part of your system when the time is right for them.
There’s no need to be impatient 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, and for that you’ll need a separate sales website. That could be another area of your website, of course, but it’s probably better to have it on a different domain altogether.
This is where you can really 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.
Why have a separate sales site?
Simply because this helps to prevent visitors seeing the sales stuff at the wrong time and helps to keep 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
So 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 to do, 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 now 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.
To sum up what we’ve talked about today, the basic idea here is that too many photographers are wasting valuable time and resources selling fine art photography online using what they see as the standard or accepted way of doing things, which is to simply have little more than a sales website.
Sadly, that doesn’t work very well, and a better strategy might be to mimic what happens in the real world by focusing on building and nurturing relationships with potential art buyers who are more interested in knowing more about you, 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 that 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 from you.
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.
Fine Art Photography: Resources
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By Cay Lang
Cay Lang’s Taking the Leap has helped thousands of artists jumpstart their careers and make real the dream of exhibiting and selling their work. An internationally exhibited photographer and teacher, Lang offers the wisdom of experience, combined with enthusiasm and gentle humor, to guide artists through the ins and outs of the art business.