Finding an Audience for Your Photos
Intro Image: High rankings in Google Images have driven interest in this photo of mine, leading to a number of lucrative licensing deals for the image (and my related photos).
Every time I get together with a group of serious photographers, sooner or later the talk turns to how tough it is to make a living as a photographer, and how things are only getting harder. There’s some truth to this—but then again it has always been hard to make money as a photographer.
True, if you ignore the digital era trends that are ongoing and in place—and there will be more on the specifics of these trends later in this column—you will fall by the wayside and get lost in the shuffle. There is no doubt that the world is changing, and has changed irrevocably, and we all feel it. But these changes bring great opportunities, as well as challenges.
Taking advantage of these opportunities requires a change of attitude—as well as mastery of an entirely new digital tool set that has more to do with social media and marketing than with photography.
The purpose of this new series of columns is to help you with both of these aspects using digital era tools to find an audience for your photography. Come with me on this digital journey—I’ll be your guide through the sometimes perplexing digital maze while helping you find your unique photographic voice.
As a photographer, my work has been widely published and recognized, and I am the creator of two photography book series for major publishers. I have written a story in my blog, www.digitalfieldguide.com/blog, almost every day since early 2005. My opt-in-only email list has thousands of subscribers.
It is less well-known in the photography world that I am also the author of three books about Google, including Google Advertising Tools, now in its second edition, and the O’Reilly Media white paper about Search Engine Marketing (SEO). I have been a software developer and worked for technology companies.
I understand photography and the new era of digital marketing from both sides of the equation—photography and the technology of the Internet and social marketing. But nobody knows everything. To create a richer information mix for you to profit from—creatively and practically—I have interviewed outstanding photographers who have learned to navigate this digital world. They are all also excellent authors of books about photography. I asked them the questions that you might want to ask.
My interview subjects for this series of articles will include Michael Clark, David duChemin, Vincent Versace, and others. These professionals have all succeeded in different ways due to their creative entrepreneurial spirit, as well as their manifest gifts as photographers.
This first column sets the stage for a series of articles about finding an audience for your photography in the digital era. Subsequent columns will drill-down and cover some of the specific areas in much greater detail—but only if you care! Please let my editors at Photo.net know that this subject interests you by opening and reopening this article many times (only kidding!), sharing it on your favorite social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and—most important—using the comments feature to ask the questions that most interest you so I can try to answer them. Also, while you are at it, please comment to let me know which of the topics in this column you’d like me to drill down on.
The World Is Changing
The transition to digital, the rise of microstock, the race to the bottom of certain kinds of stock photography prices, and the demise of some large magazines have made life difficult for many photographers. There is increased competition from amateurs. In some areas there are fewer opportunities, and the prices that one can charge for some kinds of imagery and assignment work have diminished.
But the lowered cost of digital than film, greater control of the production process from beginning to end, and easy access to vast new audiences have at the same time created great opportunities for photographers who are willing to go with the flow. Distinguished nature photographer Mike Spinak puts it this way in a recent blog story: “Despite the dire pronouncements, it’s not all doom and gloom… [P]hoto needs are rising, equipment prices are dropping, quality is rising, markets are opening up, and the friction which hinders transactions is disappearing. The world is constantly shifting, and there have always been those decrying that it’s the end of the good old days. In some ways, perhaps; in others, the opposite is true.”
Spinak hits the nail on the head when he notes that the world is always changing. No doubt, portrait painters decried the advent of photography as bad for business. Yet we live in especially interesting times, where the rate of change may be happening more quickly than it is easy to deal with. In this context, it’s worth noting the well-known (but probably apocryphal) Chinese curse—may you live in interesting times.
Taking advantage of the new opportunities, and not getting side-swiped by the changing environment, means understanding who you are and what your market is. Your market, as we’ll discuss, is better contextualized as thinking about your audience. You’ll also need to be able to use the tools that social networking and the Internet put at our disposal.
It also takes a willingness to nurture your entrepreneurial side. Yes, we artists and photographers need to be entrepreneurs—and your photography business is a business, with a crucial difference. If you run out of money, your photography will stall. But photography can never be solely about making money. There are far easier ways to make money. Vision, image making, community, and having something to say all play a role, too.
For example, if you are interested in publishing a book with a trade publisher, you’ll find these days that the publisher expects photographers to have what they call a “platform”—an existing audience who will buy your book. (You’ll find more information about getting a photo book published in two of my Photo.net columns, Creating Photo Books, and Creating a Photo Book Proposal.) Essentially, this arrangement proposes a kind of entrepreneurial partnership between a publisher and a photographer-author. You can use some of the social media tools that I explain to help build your own platform, applicable to book publishing and many other ventures.
Figure 2: After seeing this image of mine on Flickr, an art director at HarperCollins selected it for use as a wrap-around cover.
Swimming with the Fishes
If you were a fish, what kind of fish would you be? A shark or a minnow? Now that I have your attention, get your mind out of the ocean and think about your audience. As David duChemin puts it, “The tools we use and the way we use them depends on who we are and who our market is.”
In duChemin’s case, he knew he didn’t want clients who required traditional portfolios and email blasts, and he knew that he wanted to teach. His passion is to create “a community of learning photographers who’ve come to the place where they realize photography is about photographs, not about which gear you used to make those images.”
The last point—about caring about vision and photography rather than hardware—is extremely important. You need to know what it is about photography that moves and excites you, and then put marketing in place that reflects your best side.
Mindless marketing almost always fails. As Vincent Versace says, “There has to be a point where one has to get numb to the onslaught of bite size tidbits of paradigm shifting info”—which is why he takes care to only send emails to people who have opted-in to his email list “not every twenty seconds but when I have something to say or am doing a workshop.”
The trick is to find an audience for your work. If people genuinely care about what you do, then the rest will follow.
There is a confusion of market with audience when it comes to photography. One reason for this is the absence of any kind of objective measurement of how good a photograph is. Opinions are only opinions—whether uttered on Amazon, or on Flickr, or in print—and these opinions are only worthwhile when the commentator is truly knowledgeable and thoughtful.
It’s natural to seek validation from the marketplace—but don’t fall too far into this trap. In the words of writer Peter Beagle, “If you want to be an artist you have to learn to shrug your shoulders—a lot.”
Tools of the Digital Era
Photographer Jay Maisel has said, “People are more interested in the quality of their pixels than they are in the quality of their picture.” Obviously, although I love working with pixels, I come out on the side of the pictures—and the same kind of divide applies to issues like social networking and search engine optimization. Many people get caught up in obsessing about the minute details of meta tags and manipulating Facebook and Twitter. You can scheme your way to all the Facebook friends in the world, all the Twitter followers that there are, and to the top of the Google search rankings—but if you don’t have images that people want to see, and a vision behind the photos, then the social media and Internet trappings are meaningless.
As David duChemin puts it, “No matter what tools you use it all comes down to relationship.” Versace agrees: “My business is to a large degree word-of-mouth, granted 21st century word-of-mouth, but word-of-mouth nonetheless.”
My process works the same way. If I ask those who view my photos to be respectful of them, then I must respect my audience—and I’m prepared to take the time to dialog about photography with them.
For the most part, if you are going to maintain a presence on the Internet, you need a website—although some photographers manage with Flickr or Facebook pages. I don’t recommend trying to do without a website, because essentially a website becomes command central for you on the web. As Michael Clark says, his “website is home base for all of his marketing.”
You can use a pre-designed template intended for photographers such APhotoFolio, or build the site yourself using any web host.
A future column in this series will provide some tips on creating your website, and deciding what features are best for you and your audience.
Blogging is an extremely big part of my outreach efforts in finding an audience—but it isn’t for everyone. I blog not because I have to, but because it is an expression of my art—sort of a photography Daybook—it’s not just something I do for marketing purposes. I enjoy teaching, telling folks about how an image was made, and inviting them along on my photographic journey.
David duChemin has a similar sense of things. He says that his best business opportunities have come through his blog from people he didn’t even know were reading it—and who shared his outlook on life.
On the other hand, some photographers find writing a blog an unrewarding chore. These people should not bother with it, and should consider alternative ways to find an audience for their photos.
A future column in this series will examine blogging, and give you some ideas of how you might go about blogging if you would like to try it.
Figure 3: I was commissioned to create this series of book covers after the publisher became familiar with my work and my thinking through my blog.
Like blogging, Twitter also isn’t for everyone. Personally, I am an occasional Twitter user and I enjoy following others’ tweets. With four kids and an active photography and writing career, I simply don’t have the time to dedicate to serious tweeting. I do make sure my blog feed is automatically picked up by my Twitter feed—so people who want to receive links to my blog stories via Twitter can do so.
A number of prominent photographers have found Twitter an extraordinarily effective medium for developing an audience in pithy, 140 character blasts.
In a future column, I will talk about the best practices you can use to create a following with the social networking tools that Twitter provides. Along the way, I’ll share the secrets of some Twitter users who have used this medium to develop a truly massive audience.
Email and Newsletters
There’s almost no disagreement that emails—and email newsletters—are a remarkably effective way of reaching a target audience. With this in mind, you’ll need to make sure that your audience really wants your emails. The email list or lists you maintain should be opt-in only. You don’t want to send emails too often, only when you really have something to say. Also, you will want to make sure that your emails are both visually and intellectually interesting.
Adventure photographer Michael Clark sends out a quarterly PDF digital magazine that goes to more than 5,000 subscribers and clients. While he says that creating it is “a ton of work” and that he is “basically producing a magazine,” all the effort pays off. Not only do people love it, but each issue leads to assignment work. You can check out current and archived issues on Michael’s site.
Besides the need to send emails and email newsletters that are stimulating, with worthy content, and designed as a good showplace for your imagery, there are also a surprising number of technical issues to consider in email creation and distribution. Some of these issues are related to the nature of opting in, and the legal requirements caused by anti-Spam legislation.
In an upcoming column, I’ll talk about making emails that people will enjoy receiving, as well as dealing with the technical issues of creating these emails.
Figure 4: Following its inclusion in an email newsletter, I licensed this photo for use in an advertising campaign and as a very large size decorative photo mural.
It’s hard to think of building an audience using new media without thinking of Facebook. At the same time there’s good reason to be worried about some of Facebook’s policies regarding both privacy and usage of images posted to Facebook. Phrasing this a bit differently, a Facebook presence is essentially required—but you have to be a bit circumspect about how you use it. After all, your relationship with your audience is primary—you don’t want an intermediary such as Facebook to control the relationship.
Once again, Facebook works well for some photographers—and a future column will explain how to best use Facebook to build an audience. There’s no social networking tool like Facebook, but you need to truly understand the ins-and-outs—some of which may surprise you.
Photo-sharing sites such as Photo.net and Flickr are a great way to attract attention for specific images, as well as to a photographer’s body of work. Depending upon the kind of attention you want, specific techniques can greatly increase the “reach” of photos placed on Flickr. Furthermore, photos that rank high on Flickr will probably do well in Google Images searches.
A future column will explain how to get your Flickr Photostream noticed, how to increase the Flickr “interestingness” of specific images, and how to land images in Flickr Explore.
In addition, I’ll talk about image popularity on Flickr. What kind of images do Flickr users love, and can you “break out” of Flickr to find a more general audience?
I’ll also address the concerns and issues related to image theft from popular photo-sharing sites—you won’t believe some of the places my Flickr photos have appeared illegally on the Internet! I’ll share some of the details of how I’ve dealt with these situations.
With the advent of the digital photography and the rise of the Internet and social media, the world of photography has changed irrevocably. These changes bring destruction but also vast new opportunities. A key to successfully navigating your way through this “Brave New World” is understanding that you must find an audience—rather than a market—and understand the nature of your audience. With these insights you can then use the most appropriate digital era tools to reach your goals.
As Vincent Versace points out, sometimes the best tool is not a social marketing mechanism. He says that the iPad is “the best personal marketing tool ever invented.” Having his with him has led to assignments and print sales when he showed his portfolio. Also, he says that carrying an iPad seems much less “pretentious” than lugging a portfolio case around.
In this column I’ve discussed:
- Some of the changes in the photography world related to social media
- Why you should think about an audience rather than a market
- The importance of understanding your particular audience
- An overview of the social media and Internet tools out there, including blogging, Twitter, Facebook, participating in photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Photo.net, and maintaining an email list.
Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.
Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.
Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.