14.4 Selling Bird Photos

The idea of making a living by taking and selling bird photos—i.e., spending most of your day photographing birds and then spending a small fraction of your time selling the photos for a considerable profit—is a wonderfully quaint illusion that is both very attractive and potentially very difficult to fully dispel.  The problem isn’t that bird photos can’t be sold for profit, but that doing so consistently over the long term in a financially sustainable way seems to be the privilege of a lucky few.  Certainly, the prospect of trying to pay a mortgage and feed a growing family by selling the occasional lucky shot is more than a bit terrifying.
    Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to sell your bird photos, as long as you’ve got something that somebody somewhere in the world would really like to own.  Depending on how much time (and money) you’re willing to spend, larger or smaller numbers of sales of your works may be correspondingly feasible.  Whether this translates into an actual profit, after subtracting all of your costs (whether including equipment costs or not), is another question.
    For digital photos, one option with much promise is to sell them via the internet.  There are now many web sites (ImageKind, SmugMug, ArtistRising, to name just a few) that will both host your photos and fulfill print orders from internet customers.  These businesses use a print on demand model: they don’t actually make the physical print until they receive an order from a customer.  When the order comes in, they print the image at the requested size, frame it, and ship it directly to the customer. 

Fig. 14.4.1 : Selling photos via ImageKind is a snap.  Once you’ve uploaded high-
resolution image files, customers will be able to order prints in any appropriate
size, with or without a frame and/or mat.  They can also print canvases.  Other
companies provide similar services, though most charge the photographer an
ongoing maintenance fee.  As of this writing, ImageKind still offers a free account
with very, very few practical limitations, and their product quality is very good.

They handle the financial transaction (i.e., charging the customer’s credit card) and send you a check when your earnings have exceeded some minimum amount.  I’ve never had any luck with this model, but others have, and it’s certainly worth looking into.  Note that some outfits charge a yearly or monthly fee, so that in order to be profitable you’d have to make at least enough to cover that cost.  More information on internet hosting sites is given in section 16.1.
    A rather different approach to internet-based sales is the so-called stock photography option.  When commercial organizations (e.g., magazines, advertisers, book publishers) need a photo of a particular type (such as an ocean sunset with some seagulls flying by), they typically fulfill that need by visiting a stock photo agency and performing a search through their archives for a suitable image.  If one is found, the requester pays a licensing fee for the use of the image.  A portion of that fee is then paid to the photographer.  Such royalty payments for individual photos can range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, but are typically very small.  However, successful stock photographers with enormous portfolios on file with a stock agency can rack up sizeable quarterly payments if their images are used frequently enough.

Fig. 14.4.2 : Selling your photos to stock agencies can potentially
generate significant revenue.  Some of the drawbacks are that
the submission process can be frustrating, the types of photos you
take may not be in demand by an agency or its clients, and any photos
that are purchased aren’t likely to end up on anyone’s wall or to show
up in National Geographic magazine.

    Submitting images to a stock agency isn’t trivial.  They tend to have very strict image quality requirements, and the agents responsible for accepting or rejecting submissions can be highly fickle.  Also, certain types of photos, such as those of bald eagles, are in such great supply that all of the ongoing demand can be handled from images already aquired long ago; thus, even the world’s most beautiful shot of a bald eagle can be rejected by an agency simply due to their already having more eagle shots than they need.  Note that stock photography is very different from fine-art photography: stock photos are mostly used for illustration or for backgrounds in advertisements (such as for beach resorts, tropical cruise lines, realtors, etc.), not for producing wall art.  A stock photo needn’t be aesthetically pleasing all, as long as it has value as an illustration.  For photographers obsessed with capturing the beauty of nature in aesthetically pleasing images, the idea of stock photography can be a bit of a turn-off. 
    In terms of physical (i.e., non-internet based) sales of photos, there are a number of potential venues.  Though they all have certain barriers to entry, some are easier to overcome than others.  One of the easier venues to get into is the art fair.  Though some art festivals are juried, meaning that a panel of judges assesses your work before deciding whether to allow you to participate, many are not.  For the latter events, the only barrier to entry is typically a registration fee, which I’ve seen range from $40 to $65 (US); fees for prestigious, big-city shows (in New York City, for example) can be higher.  Obviously, for the event to be financially worthwhile, you’d have to make enough sales to recoup the entry fee and any other costs incurred in preparation for the show. 

Fig. 14.4.3 : My photos on display at an art fair.  Every fair is different.  This one was
spread out over several city blocks, with the art being displayed in stores, theaters,
cafes, and dedicated galleries.  Setting up your display takes a lot of work, and then
standing there for eight hours while greeting hundreds of viewers takes even more energy.
Even if you don’t make much money from sales, listening to people praise your work is
gratifying in itself, and noting which photos seem most popular can be useful later.

    Note that sales precipitating from art shows can sometimes happen days or even weeks after the show, when visitors to your booth (who took your business card) contact you to arrange for the purchase of a particular piece.  Sometimes prospective buyers just need more time to think about a big purchase (a $300 or $500 canvas, for example).  These are the people you most want to ensure have your business card before they leave your booth.  If you don’t yet have a business card, it’s the first thing you should look into.  Colorful, glossy business cards with your name, email address, and the web URL of your online gallery are extremely cheap nowadays; I get mine from OvernightPrints.com, but there are many other companies that can print them quickly and inexpensively for you.  Having at least several hundred of them on hand at an art show is a good idea. 

Fig. 14.4.4 : An attractive business card may be a
greater asset than you realize.  Anything that can
spark a discussion with the potential customer is
a valuable tool.  Remember that buying art isn’t
like buying underwear.  Customers want to know
something about you and your process; any infor-
mation you give them can increase the perceived
value of the works you’re trying to sell.

Leaving the back of the card blank is a good idea, so that you or the customer can write notes on the back (such as a price quote).  I also recommend using your best bird image as the background for the card (on the front of the card, but behind the text), so that people can instantly remember where they got the card, later when they come across it at home.  Having a striking image on the card itself can also trigger more conversation when the customer takes note of it while standing in your booth, keeping the customer there longer and giving him/her more time to ponder your work.  For many art collectors, the desire to own an artist’s work is partly a function of their interest in the artist, in addition to the aesthetic value of the work itself.  Engaging the customer in conversation about your work can help to plant you and your work into the customer’s memory, possibly leading to sales at a later date. 

Fig. 14.4.5 : In addition to your large, framed prints or canvas wraps, it’s a good
idea to have some smaller items for sale at more modest prices.  While the number
of people willing to cough up $300 for your larger works may be limited, the number
willing to part with $15 for an 8
×10 may be much, much higher.

    In addition to large, framed prints or canvases, it’s a good idea to have some smaller, cheaper items for sale.  There are a number of possibilities here.  The simplest is to just have some small prints on hand, preferably wrapped in a clear, protective packaging such as those sold under the name ClearBags; you can also just buy a large roll of clear plastic wrapping from your local art store (e.g., Michael’s) and then wrap this around each piece and close it off with scotch tape.  Since unframed / unmatted prints are flimsy and prone to being bent or torn, it’s best to provide some firm backing.  Many people use matboard for this purpose, but I prefer to have my prints mounted onto masonite or styrene, because it gives the piece more heft and makes the customer feel that they’re getting more for their money. 

Fig. 14.4.6 : Masonite prints are both economical and practical.  They’re
more durable than loose, paper prints.  They feel more
solid than
matted prints.  They can easily be framed, or simply propped up on a
table or desk as-is.  When selling them, you should package them in
a clear, protective enclosure to protect the front surface from scratches.

Another option is gatorboard, which is an especially strong type of matboard.  Some pro photo labs can affix your photo permanently to one of these types of substrate, for a nominal fee.  Once it’s placed in a clear plastic package, it’s relatively safe for transport by customers.  I also like to put a sticky label on the back of each of my prints, with my name and web site address printed on it, in case the buyer later wants to contact me about buying some more pieces.  An especially nice option is to use the extremely inexpensive gold-leaf
address labels that you can order from any number of online outfits.  I use a company called 123print.com, which allows me to customize the label online when placing my order.

Fig. 14.4.7 : Gold-leaf address labels are an attractive and inexpensive way to
sign the back of your works and remind buyers where they can go to get more
photos from the same artist.

    As mentioned previously, art fairs can require an enormous amount of work, and can result in a disappointing number of sales.  At a recent show I netted about $95 (US), which after subtracting the $65 registration fee left me with a $30 profit for 11 hours of work (not including prep time before the fair)—far less than
minimum wage here in the U.S.  When I factor in the cost of the easels and other miscellaneous items purchased specifically for the show, I ended up having spent more than I earned.  I also ended up with lots of unsold pieces which I paid to have manufactured.  Gauging the number of prints to have manufactured for an upcoming show can be very difficult.  I’ve found the forecasts of festival organizers (in terms of the expected number of visitors) to be rather unreliable.  Public turnout can be affected by too many variables: the weather, proximity to holidays, the scheduling of competing events on the same day, and even the price of gasoline.
    Even if the crowds do materialize at your booth, there’s no guarantee that they’ll buy anything—even if they absolutely love your work.  During the last show in which I displayed my work, the overall reaction of the visitors was so emphatically positive that I began to feel embarrassed by all the lavish praise.  And yet, if I had a dime for every person who came by and effusively praised my photos and then walked out without buying even a $10 print, I’d be rich enough to run for public office.  Keep in mind that different art festivals see different demographics in their attendees.  Working-class people simply don’t have the disposable income to spend on nonessentials such as
expensive artwork—especially during a recession.  For this reason, it may be important to know beforehand what type of clientelle can be expected at a show before committing yourself to participate (i.e., before sending in the entry fee).
    Note that some art shows will even demand a certain per-sale fee; I was recently approached by an organizer of an event in which artists were obligated to pay 15% of their proceeds—in addition to a $40 registration fee—to the organizing entity.  On top of these fees you’ll also need to take into account any sales tax that needs to be paid.  While some artists advertise their prices as
$xxx, plus sales tax, it can be simpler to just incorporate the tax into the marked price.  If you then round up to the nearest whole dollar, you don’t need to worry about carrying around a pocketful of heavy coins. 

Fig. 14.4.8 : Don’t forget about sales tax!  In many states, artists selling their art
at art fairs are required to collect and remit sales tax for all transactions.  In order
to do so you’ll generally need to obtain a
tax ID, which in some districts you can
register for online.  (In the U.S., your
tax ID is sometimes just your social security
number).  Contact your state’s department of revenue for specific guidelines.  In some
cases you’ll need to formally register a business in order to obtain a tax ID.

    If there aren’t many art fairs in your neck of the woods, you might consider setting up a booth at a flea market and trying to sell your bird photos there.  This may be an especially promising option just prior to the holidays, when people will be on the lookout for unique gifts.  Not all flea markets are dirty, low-class affairs: in semi-affluent neighborhoods you can sometimes find a weekly market—such as an extended farmers’ market that includes local arts and crafts—with booths available at reasonable rates.  Seasonal craft shows are another option worth considering; I’ve often seen a local photographer selling matted prints at the bi-annual craft sale held at the local botanical garden.  Just keep in mind that outdoor craft shows bring their own challenges, especially in regards to natural elements such as rain and wind.  Such shows typically require merchants to provide their own tents and tables, which has been a limiting factor for me (since I drive a compact car).
    One venue that I particularly like is the gift shop.  At a local museum where some of my large canvases were on display for several months, the gift shop manager agreed to stock some of my prints, and this resulted in a number of sales.  Note that gift shops are typically highly constrained in their available display space, so they must, understandably, assess a commission on sales of artists’ works—sometimes as much as 40%.  Every gift shop is different, but it’s worth inquiring at any such shops in your local museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and parks, to see if any will consider selling your prints.  Though you’re unlikely to accumulate any significant profits through these venues, by affixing a label with your name and web site address to each item, you can use these venues to increase your exposure and generate more traffic to your web site; if you’re set up to sell prints over the internet, the increased traffic to your web site may result in greater profits than direct sales at gift shops and art shows.

Fig. 14.4.9 : A gift shop selling my prints (upper left) at a local museum.  Seeing your
photos for sale, for the first time, in a posh gift shop is a thrill.  Profits from sales in gift
shops can be rather meager, due to the hosting shop’s commission.  Remember that gift
shops are often small, and their display space can be very precious.

    Though there are commercial art galleries that also sell photography—even nature photography on rare occasion—I’ve had no luck with these to date (possibly through an extreme lack of persistent effort).  What entices me about these venues is that the clientele must obviously expect higher price tags than the flea-market crowd, giving some hope to the thought of actually making a solid profit from the occasional sale.  What leaves me rather more hesitant is the character of the so-called art I’ve seen on display in some of these places.  More generally, I’ve found city art circles to be rather light on the inclusion of nature-themed works, so I suspect that art shows and galleries located in cities may be a difficult sell for the aspiring bird photographer.
    Wherever you do finally decide to try selling your avian art, there remains the issue of deciding how to price your works.  I like to think in terms of two separate product lines: the relatively inexpensive prints priced under $50 (US), and the more costly framed pieces or canvases starting at $100 and ranging up to $500 or more.  For the simple prints (whether loose or mounted on masonite or matboard), since they’re intended mostly to generate exposure and the potential for future sales of more expensive pieces, I recommend pricing them in line with whatever other artists in your venue are charging for similarly-sized items.  I generally add a markup of between 10% and 100% on these, depending on the venue and the expected clientelle.
    For the more expensive items, such as large, framed prints or canvases (i.e., gallery wraps), a good rule of thumb is to price each piece at roughly three times the manufacturing cost, and then to adjust upward or downward depending on other factors, such as the popularity of the piece.  Based on  the limited data I’ve been able to collect so far, lowering the prices on these higher-end items doesn’t seem to result in more sales, and indeed, the conventional wisdom in art circles is that offering extremely low prices is a bad idea.  At a recent art fair I started out applying a 200% markup (as per the above rule-of-thumb) and then gradually reduced the markup over the course of the fair until I had reached 0%, and found that the price made absolutely no difference in sales—people lavished my photos in (undeniably genuine) praise, but refused to buy the larger pieces at any markup level, including 0%.