This page is about the opportunities of printing your photographs on all kinds of useful or decorative objects, from obvious things like t-shirts and mugs, to more prestigious decor items.
Introduction to the products market
What kind of products?
The range is almost as big as your imagination. Modern technologies mean photographs can be printed onto almost anything these days, and images printed on paper or vinyl can be stuck onto an even wider range of products in a durable fashion.
Figure 1: Found amongst a shelf full of handbags of all types, this photographic product is an excellent example of a way of selling your image to somebody that would not necessarily ever buy a photograph.
Examples of recent money-spinners that did not exist a few short years ago, are iPad and iPhone cases. Examples of older products that are now fashionable to have printed images on are skateboards and surfboards. Hollywood celebrities have made printed pet clothing popular. Old standbys such as mugs and postcards are likely to remain popular.
Figure 2: Online print-on-demand (POD) retailers like Zazzle enable you to upload your photographs and to have them printed on a huge variety of products. The most expensive part of this would be having those products shipped back to your own country. It is better to use a system like this for international buyers: you could market the products through your own website and then have all the orders managed, printed and shipped by the POD retailer, with the profits coming to you. The benefit is that you only pay the production costs when each item is ordered by the buyer. The retailer takes this cost off the total purchase price and sends you the profit.
Who buys them?
The key to this market is that it is much broader than people looking only to buy photographs. Now you are opening yourself up to all those who are interested in both practical products with some decoration on them, to those who simply want a good-looking gift for somebody.
Figure 3: Printed fabric is such a staple of the Majority World. Today's technologies mean you can now have your images displayed in buyer's homes just as prominently as if they were on the walls.
How do I access those markets?
Never before have Majority World photographers had so many opportunities to sell their products to an international audience. A range of online sites now make uploading your images very easy. Using the Print-on-Demand (POD) model, these sites provide you an existing market and no upfront costs: a buyer from the USA, for example, goes online to buy a gift, decides on the product (for example babies' clothing or a greeting card or a mouse pad) and then selects an image (hopefully yours) and pays online. The company then pays you the royalty for your image.
Figure 4: POD retailer Spoonflower will print your images onto fabric, which they then sell online.
What kind of images work best?
While fine art is so much about the mind and the imagination, product images are really simple and powerful and uncomplicated. Usually it is about feel-good: images that make the viewer smile or laugh or dream. When you are starting out, go with what you know works best, but then do it with your own signature style. Babies, dogs and beautiful landscapes are obvious and safe choices.
Figure 5: These drinks coasters, calendars and small block-mounted images are all examples of the type of imagery that sells well in the cost-conscious decorative and gift market: they are small, colourful and full of feel-good. None of these is an award-winning image or would be deemed as fine art - hopefully you can make enough money from selling popular products such as these to fund your time invested in more high-brow artistic endeavours.
Case study: Ed Suter
Ed Suter is a South African photographer who has made a name for himself in a very over-traded market by producing a range of table mats and coasters with his photographs printed on them. Why would a serious photographer do something like that? What are the benefits?
Figure 3: Ed Suter talks about how he marketed himself as a photographer through producing table mats and coasters with images printed on them.