Yesterday I read a plaintive G+ post by +Vivienne Gucwa, lamenting how difficult it was to monetize her photography on line. Her words resonated with me and got me thinking about my own on-line experience and the conclusion I had come to, that the internet was not the best place for a photographer to sell work. (It might be one way for a photographer to sell themselves, but that is a different thing.)
It’s basically very simple – photographers make pictures and pictures are brought by customers. Where are the customers; are they on-line looking for work to buy? Generally, no they are not. Customers are out buying pictures in shops and galleries (I’m not talking about commercial buyers of stock photos here). My own experience is that potential customers may well want to look through your portfolio on line but, unless they have had some prior physical contact with your work they are unlikely to buy there. Pictures are real tangible things, physical size matters (small or large), presentation matters, how it looks in your hand or hung on a wall matters – these things are hard to judge on a computer screen. Some of my best selling pieces, don’t even look like my best work when displayed on a computer. Lastly, even I wouldn’t buy a picture on line without seeing it physically, so why would I expect anyone else to?
I am not a Luddite. My own internet presence includes a personal website, a blog and profiles at redbubble, 500px, Facebook and G+. I invite people to look at my work online but I don't try to sell to them there. My personal portfolio site has this on the front page, “This site is for looking; not buying. Should you have an overwhelming desire to purchase an image, please visit my portfolio at ...”
Nearly all my work is sold through a small rural gallery. Maybe I will expand my outlets further down the track but I have been selling cards and framed pictures every month this year from a location that has less than 500 physical visitors per week and displays work by a large number of artists. In the same period I have had one internet sale - because one of my existing ‘fans’ had seen a picture they liked on my Facebook page.
Here's another strange thing; my pictures can be brought on-line as greeting cards for about $2.50 each. I have sold absolutely none through this method. Instead, I buy them myself on-line and sell them through the gallery at $7.00 each. On average I have 2-3 card sales a week; not enough to pay the bills, but it's money for little effort - I just have to keep the shelves stocked - and I am learning what people like and what they don't.
The takeaway for me is that the internet is a great place to showcase what you can do and it’s the best way to get your portfolio ‘out there’ and available to any eyeballs that may want to see it. It’s a great place to share and discuss your work with other photographers; it’s also a great place to spend the time you should be using to make pictures! BUT it’s not a great place to meet real customers and sell your pictures – for that, the old fashioned ways are significantly more successful. As I heard a photographer say once, "Ah, redbubble (or any other large art web site) another haystack to hide your needle in."