Can photographers make money from their art?

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Matt Bennett

Does creativity sell? Do artistic images make a profit?

Are your most creative and artistic images saleable?
Are your most creative and artistic images truly saleable?

For many keen amateur photographers, it’s tempting to dream of making a living from your art. Let’s face it, being able to indulge your creativity – and getting paid for it – is a pretty appealing proposition.

But is this a dream that often comes true? Can photographers make money from their art?

That’s not to say that becoming a professional photographer isn’t viable, because of course it is, but how many professional photographers regularly make a profit from their most artistic and creative images – the images that they loved to shoot when they weren’t trying to earn a living from their camera?

The reality is simply that the images that many clients and customers are most interested in spending their money on are usually often not the images that, as a creative professional, you are most artistically proud of.

This is not because most customers and clients don’t appreciate creativity. When mum and dad return to a professional portrait studio to view, select and purchase images from a recent family portrait shoot, they will almost certainly be very impressed and excited by the artistic and creative work that they are shown – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will mark these photos out to buy.

Similarly, wedding clients may be delighted to have some really creative and artistic images in their wedding album, but when it comes to choosing the big enlargements to have on their wall, they’ll very often stick to more conventional bride-and-groom portraits.

The bottom line is that, while people admire striking and creative photography, they often prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to what they actually want to pay for.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, people don’t necessarily want to put something on display in their home that is going to attract too much attention and become a talking point every single time someone comes to visit.

Art is always very much a matter of taste and, the more creative and edgy something is, the greater the chance that a friend or family member won’t like it. If you’ve spent money with a professional studio on a big print of your wedding day, the last thing you’ll want is for the most important people in your life to dislike it or question your decision.

The other key factor is that, in the customer’s mind, pure creativity is probably not at the top of their list of priorities. When it comes to portraits, for example, people will often be particularly concerned with getting what they consider to be an ideal image. This usually means perfectly exposed, professionally composed, with the subject(s) looking at the camera with a pleasant, happy expression.

In fact, taking a creative portrait usually involves deliberately subverting several of these ‘ideals’. For example, ‘professionally composed’, in the eyes of many customers, doesn’t include artistic cropping. If you present them with a portrait of their son or daughter in which half of their face is cropped out of the image, though they’ll probably think it looks cool and interesting during the viewing, there’s a very good chance that they won’t want to order a print of it.

It’s certainly not uncommon for photographers who have just turned professional to find themselves feeling frustrated by the fact that conservative and conventional are often the watchwords by which customers and clients make purchasing decisions.

And the same applies to shooting landscape imagery for stock libraries. DP recently spoke to a landscape photographer who regularly contributes images to stock, and she emphasised the fact that you really can’t apply very much creative license at all if your work is to be accepted and, going forward, sell.

Are you a professional photographer and does this sound familiar? Do you disagree with this? Have you ever been a paid for professional photography – did you stick to more conservative options?

Post your thoughts and comments here! We want to know what you think!


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    • Interesting post. I’m working hard this year to use my creativity and make more original photos, but I can well imagine that mainstream sells more. Take the popular jetty-at-lake style image, for example. There are thousands out there, and I’m sure they sell very well. They’re open to interpretation, and suitable for all kinds of corporate use. But what’s more important to me at this stage, is to make photos that are recognisably mine. As a photographer I want to sell photos, but as an artist I want to develop my own style, and go my own way. Whether or not that pays off in the long run is yet to be seen.
      To answer the questions at the end. I’m not a full-time pro, but I sell work and commissions. On these occasions, I think I’ve been chosen due to my style – and that’s why I want to keep working in this way, and avoid being lost in the mainstream crowd.