Scenery for sale: Making a profit from landscape photography
Ever since they met on a scenic mountain pass in Colorado more than 10 years ago, Doug Bennett, M.Photog.Cr., and Laura Bennett, M.Photog.Cr., have been on a journey together. Photographic hobbyists turned professional landscape photographers, the Colorado Springs couple has clicked their way through life, building up successful nature and landscape photography businesses along the way. Now mostly retired, Doug and Laura look back on what it took to find a foothold in outdoor photography. For both Doug and Laura, earning income from landscape photography has been an exercise in combining the right opportunities with a careful consideration of the market forces that affect sales. Laura began selling landscape prints at craft and art fairs, first partnering with another photographer who sold wildlife images, and then being joined by Doug at these fairs. Doug started by selling landscape prints to coworkers and friends before securing a sales arrangement at a gallery in Colorado Springs. Additionally, the couple has provided large-scale prints to firms for office décor and conducted photographic workshops throughout the country.
Doug’s work with the gallery helped propel his nature photography into a significant income stream. Early on, Doug sold prints here and there as a sideline, and one day someone bought a print of Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The customer took the print to the highest-end gallery in the city to get it mounted and framed. The gallery owner asked where he got the print, then contacted Doug. After reviewing more of Doug’s work, she offered Doug a sales arrangement where she would buy his prints and then professionally mat and frame them. The arrangement worked well and also taught Doug a great deal about what sells well when it comes to landscape art prints:
- Go local. If you’re selling in Colorado, for example, most customers want prints of Colorado, not Wyoming or Utah. For local gallery sales, focus on local sites.
- Provide an escape. Prints with great lighting and warm tones sell well to customers living in colder climates. In particular, warm-toned autumn scenes are popular. On the flipside, warm-toned images don’t appeal as well to customers from hot areas. Folks from Phoenix, for example, prefer cooler tones. Everyone is looking for an escape from the normal, it seems.
- Convey history. Photographs that bring out a sense of a place’s history are consistently strong sellers. For example, images of steam trains sell well in Colorado, as they’re reminiscent of the area’s frontier and mining past.
Enter photo competitions. Doug’s images that did well in PPA image competitions also did well in gallery sales. In particular, images selected for the PPA Loan Collection were almost always among the best sellers in the gallery.
“The gallery owner kept very close track of my success in print competition as it was a selling point,” says Doug. “She wanted to create a gap between me and the huge number of other local landscape photographers approaching her to sell their work. Customers, once educated just a bit on PPA and the International Photographic Competition, took pride in their purchase knowing it was a Loan image from PPA. Still, the customer had to love the image, and that attraction was the prime determinant of a sale. But an image being an award-winner helped seal a few deals.”
Craft fairs and art shows
On the fairs and shows side, Laura’s analytical nature, combined with her photographic creativity, helped create a successful sales model. She used a spreadsheet to track everything regarding sales, including the common elements in a selling photo, pricing strategies, and what specific products sold (magnets, bookmarks, note cards, matted or framed prints, etc.). Some common themes arose:
- Keep it local. Local attractions were the most popular.
- Go wide. Panoramas were consistently among the best sellers.
- Standardize your mats. Matted prints sold better when fit to standardized frame sizes.
- Even better, frame it. If the price was affordable, customers always preferred a framed piece over one that was just matted because no work was needed to display it.
- Make it affordable. Pricing levels are key to making money at shows. “Especially at craft fairs, we priced very competitively,” explains Laura. “Volume selling is essential for success at these shows.”
- Be competitive. Photographic competition success was a factor. Customers noticed the higher quality, and award-winning prints carried extra status.
- Skip the glass. Framed prints with glass were heavy to transport and set up for a weekend show. “We started selling metal prints using the matting and stroke lines used in PPA print competitions,” says Laura. “People loved them, and they were very easy for us to transport and setup. And no mat cutting for us!”
- Consider demographics. Craft fair attendees differ from people attending weekend art shows. Art show patrons expect a higher end product along with a higher price level. Craft show attendees responded to products at a lower price point.
- Be the best option. It’s important that your work be noticeably better than the competition’s. At most shows, there are a lot of choices. “In our opinion, our work sold so well because the quality was simply better due to our dedication to improving our work through print competition,” says Laura.
“Conducting workshops is where the best economic opportunity exists, in our opinion,” says Doug. “With the advent of the DSLR, there came along a huge group of folks who bought these cameras and wished to improve their photography—and be taken to unique places to shoot.”
Workshops have always been an important part of the business plan for the Bennetts. Aside from producing a revenue stream, on-location workshops can offset or completely pay for the cost to travel to interesting locations. Once there, the Bennetts could create more imagery for eventual sales.
These days, the Bennetts have streamlined their workshop offerings to one event each fall in Southwestern Colorado. Whereas teaching amateur shutterbugs has been a lucrative pursuit, Doug and Laura now limit their workshops to PPA members. “PPA members already know their camera and much about photography, so we’re able to start the landscape photography instruction at a much higher level,” says Doug.
The right mix
“If you are thinking of making a living selling prints, don’t quit your day job right away!” advises Doug to those considering landscape photography. Instead, do your research, establish a market, and build your business with good fundamentals.
Visit galleries and art shows to see what sells. This activity isn’t so you can chase trends or copy successful photographers. It’s to understand what kinds of images consumers want to purchase. Once you’ve gained that understanding, work to develop the skills, knowledge, and credentials required to produce that type of imagery at a high level. “The focus should be on technical excellence and artistic expression,” says Doug.
“If you can master that and produce work that’s noticeably better than the competition, then you’ll see the difference in your sales.”
RELATED: Enjoy a gallery of Bennett landscapes
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.