I’ve read articles by a number of photography business gurus arguing that if you want to make decent money from stock photos or prints, you need to find a niche that isn’t already saturated with images. They advise photographers to shoot model-released lifestyle photos or still lifes, for example, and to stay away from travel and nature — because everyone shoots travel and nature.
That might sound logical enough, but is it true? In four years of marketing my work, I have sold pictures through stock agencies of heavily photographed locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gateway Arch, the Mall of America, and the San Francisco skyline. And I don’t even spend a lot of time shooting iconic locations like these.
You know what I think? I think you can still make money selling the photos you want to shoot — if you know how to market yourself.
Here are five tips for selling your photos in any niche:
1. Keyword your images thoroughly.
I have looked at a lot of images on many different sites, and the one thing that amazes me is how poorly most photographers keyword their images. Take the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. If you only include the most obvious keywords — like the name of the bridge and the city — how can you expect anyone to find your images among the thousands on sites like Alamy, Corbis or Getty? I include more than 30 keywords on my Golden Gate Bridge images — including words like “iconic,” “landmark,” “sunsets,” “mountains,” “landscapes” and “coast.” That puts me ahead of the majority of photographers adding images to these sites.
2. Provide detailed caption information.
I’ve found that nature photographers often like to keep their specific locations secret, so they might label an image in general terms such as “Zeus’ Lightning Rod, Colorado Plateau.” Unfortunately, this is a good way to keep your images a secret from the public — because photo editors want details. You need to provide location specifics, as well as any relevant scientific information, if you expect to sell your work to textbooks or guide books, for example.
3. Focus on a niche within your niche.
I live in Southern California and have spent a lot of time photographing scenic locations in my area as if they were the Yosemite Valley Overlook. As a result, I have generated a healthy revenue stream from shoots that have cost me little in the way of travel costs. A recent print sale of Southern California scenic locations, for example, has netted me several thousand dollars.
My original motivation for focusing locally was pragmatic: I was out of school with not much money in the bank. I knew that photographers generally ignore the region — even though there are more than 15 million people here. That’s a nice market for prints and stock.
4. Optimize your Web site and make your archive available to search.
The Internet has opened up the photography market to new buyers around the world. People who haven’t traditionally purchased through photo agencies are now searching online for pictures — and are often buying them directly from photographers’ Web sites.
Most of the direct sales I’ve made in the past two years have involved the use of PhotoShelter at some point in the process. Usually the buyer finds my Web site, then searches through my archive. Or I’ll send a lightbox after some consultation and complete the sale off-site, negotiating via e-mail or phone. Customer service is the key to selling direct.
5. Protect your rights.
While the Internet offers new opportunities to market your work, it’s also made it easier for people to steal your images — so you have to take steps to protect them. If your photos are floating around in cyberspace without watermarking, or downloaded off some subscription plan, then you have lost the ability to manage the use of your work.
Even if you take precautions and license your photos on a rights-managed basis, however, people will sometimes use your images without permission. And in those cases, you need to stand up for yourself.
For example, the other day, I walked into a grocery store near my house and saw a large painted mural of one of my images. It had been painted to match my photo to the smallest of details. Given that I had never licensed the image, and that it shows up on the first page of Google Images for that location, I am pretty certain that this is an unauthorized commercial use of my image. I am still exploring my options on this one — but let’s just say that I plan to do something about it.