“Music is a loss leader to sell t-shirts.” One of the numerous truisms spoken by photographer David Strick in a recent interview on the Candid Frame podcast. “You have to be entrepreneurial about creating a persona that is unique enough that people want to pay for it.”
As an art photographer, it’s more in my interest to create products that people want to buy, rather than booking custom photoshoots. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to book custom photoshoots- it’s just the inherent difficulty of creating art with people who may or may not have compatible visions as the artist. It could go like an office worker hiring a director to make a movie featuring the worker and their family and friends. Alternatively, the film gets made on the basis that ancillary licensed products like toys, t-shirts, gift sets etc. defray some of those production costs.
It’s also a fact that people will spend money on small tangible goods before they get to “life experiences” or commission creative works on their own. The average person doesn’t know how to approach photographers or artists unless there’s a specific door, like the mall photo studios, or some kind of common site like Living Social which typically has the bottom-of-the-barrel photographers.
What can photographers make?
1. The first and most obvious product is prints. Flat representations of an image that can go on a wall but, unless they spectacularly add to a room’s decor, are often no more enjoyable than they are on a screen. For a photo image to compete with a screen it has to be either uniquely printed (such as with metallic inks or on specialty paper) or on different scale to the screen, for example, very large to dominate a room as artwork, or card-sized to be considered as a treasured gift.
Framed work sells for a much higher price than an individual print, but it’s also a bigger beast to ship in the mail and kind of risky to have it arrive in good condition.
2. Shirts, mugs, jewelry and other chochkies. Basically you are transforming your art into something utilitarian and mundane, or to put it another way, making art affordable and useful. In my gallery experiences it’s always come up that small things sell more frequently to the layman. “People spend on things under $50 without thinking,” as one gallery artist explained to me. “It’s when you go over $50, they have to start thinking about how much they really want something.”
3. The book/ the pdf of the book. In 2014 half the book market was self-published, and the barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. The primary issue is building up an audience large enough, and giving enough pre-market buzz to a book, to entice people to care when the thing actually comes out.
4. Alternative process pieces. What differentiates these kinds of works is they are one-of-a-kind type of prints, for example, polaroids or Fuji Instax instant film prints, or hand-coated cyanotype or van dyke editions.
5. Experiences – generally “I’ll help you shoot/ edit” kinds of things. The experience-as-product comes from providing a setting that isn’t possible without you- lunch, models, access to exotic locale, etc.
6. Unique tools for photography, for example, custom gobos or modified 4×5 cameras. Recent DIY cameras I’ve come across include one made from Legos and another from a 150 year old Tibetan skull.
Making products isn’t the only way to make money in photography, but the old adage of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” reminds us that many baskets are necessary for many eggs. Let products sit comfortably alongside your commissioned shoots or gear flipping or sponsorships or retouching gigs.