Understanding Photo Income Streams

The uses of photography are broad and therefore the markets are broad. Apart from understanding the markets, it is also beneficial to understand the possible income streams that can be derived from different markets.

Five possible income streams
Selling time
Selling products
Selling rarity
Selling use rights
Securing funding

Five possible income streams

One of the keys to not merely surviving but flourishing as a photographer is to develop multiple income streams. Professional photographers I engage with who are struggling for the resources to follow their passion are often battling because they have just one or two income streams and they seem stuck there. They do not seem to have the vision for anything broader and, if they do see other income streams, they often feel it is a denigration of their creative soul to be earning an income in such a way.

The reality is that if you are to survive as a professional photographer today, and if you are to have the resources to pursue what you are truly passionate about, then that often involves being open to, and actively developing, multiple income streams, not all of which you will be equally enthusiastic about.

Figure 1 below provides an overview of five possible income streams relating to various markets - selling use rights, selling time, selling products, selling rarity, and securing funding. This illustration is far from comprehensive, but it might help you to identify possible income streams that may be available to you, but which are currently lying dormant.

FIGURE 1 Photographic markets arranged by income stream

Selling time

Selling time was certainly one of the first ways of creating an income stream out of photography. Figure 2 shows some of the markets that are reached from selling time or expertise.

For many professional photographers commissions and assignments are their bread and butter. Assignments can vary greatly. In South Africa a large number of semi-skilled photographers earn their living on weekends doing private functions, weddings and funerals. On the other end of the scale are photographers who undertake major commercial assignments for multinational companies or editorial assignments for international publications.

But assignments are not the only way that photographers sell time. The vast number of amateurs who are picking up a camera for the first time has been seen by some professional photographers not as a threat, but as an opportunity. Running training courses may be a viable income stream for you and can be pitched at multiple levels, depending on your experience.

Selling expertise in photographic services such as digital darkroom work or even fine art printing or publishing may also be a viable income stream if you are technically advanced and are able to reach a market. That market, nowadays, can be around the corner or around the world depending on your access to high speed internet.

Your photographic expertise may also extend to printing. A number of photographers I know have an income stream printing products of various kinds having invested in the machines that can do that. If you are in a city or country where there is a gap in the market and you have a passionate interest in the production of excellent photographic products, perhaps this is the time to do a business plan, raise the capital and set up shop.

FIGURE 2 Here are some of the markets that are reached primarily through selling your time or expertise

Selling products

Selling products is also one of the ways of gaining an income stream that has been with us from the beginning of photography. Primarily this has been selling photo prints. Wedding photographers provide prints to their clients. Portrait photographers also primarily provide prints.

With the digital world, the simple provision of prints has morphed considerably. Wedding photographers, for instance, may provide images in digital form on a DVD or as online galleries. They may even provide a print-on-demand book.

Prints are only one of the products that photographers have found markets for over time. Figure 3 shows some of these markets. Calendars and postcards and other printed matter has been the mainstay of some of the photography businesses we work with. In gift shops mugs, t-shirts and numerous other products such as mouse pads can all be found with photography as the main driver of design. The decor market has also been using photography for years whether it is posters or framed prints for walls or prints on curtains or bedspreads.

Usually these products are produced in partnership with a business that specializes in the production or printing of such products. More and more, however, the production of products has become accessible to the high street camera shop where large format printing, printing onto canvass and other means of presenting products has become commonplace. In countries where this has become generally available, the market for printed products from professional photographers would naturally shrink. This is because the production of such products has now been put into the hands of amateurs. That means amateur photographers can compete with you in the provision of products. It also means that buyers can get their own pictures made into a product. It is hard to compete in this space when personalized products are available.

Which raises the last point we want to make about products. If you have a great interest in the technology associated with photography, you may find that you can branch out into selling photographic equipment as one income stream. Particularly if you have made a name for yourself, leading brands may be interested in you promoting their brand and making equipment that you recommend available for sale via your web site. Often these partnerships involve you earning some commission, or they may simply include the sponsorship of camera equipment.

Read more in the books section and READ MORE IN THE PRINTS SECTION

FIGURE 3 In the digital era selling products has spread rapidly from primarily selling prints to numerous other printed and digital products, some of which are mentioned here.

Selling rarity

Selling rarity is often put together with selling products. This is because selling rarity usually involves selling a photographic print or a framed photographic print, although it may also include selling a book as seen in Figure 4. All are physical products. Yet their markets are fundamentally different. Unlike when selling a normal published book or a decor print, when you are selling a fine art print or a limited edition art book you are not primarily selling a product, you are really selling rarity. The principle is that the rarer an item, the more valuable.

Of course, the price that a photographic print can fetch is also directly related to the reputation of the photographer or artist. This is why selling fine art prints or limited edition art books is usually an income stream that is gained at the end of a long and distinguished photographic career. This is because buyers are primarily purchasing rarity for the investment value that rarity represents; they want to be certain that your work is not just a passing fad, but has genuinely enduring quality such that their investment will generate a consequent return once they decide to sell the print that they purchased from you or from your gallery.

Of course this is not always the case and some young photographers whose work is extraordinary, or who have a unique vision, have been able to break into the art world even though they do not have a substantial body of work. Most have done so, however, by focusing exclusively on the art world to the exclusion of other income streams. They tend not to be able to sell their work for various uses, whereas senior photographers with a lifetime of work, depending on their gallery or agent, may have often earned the right to sell the same picture for a number of uses, whether editorial or fine art.


When you are selling to fine art markets what you are really selling is rarity

FIGURE 4 Rarity is primarily sold in the form of fine art prints printed in such a way that they have longevity.

Selling use rights

Although picture libraries have been selling use rights to images for decades, the business has really come into its own in the digital and internet era because those innovations made the transfer of images to users anywhere in the world within seconds possible. Figure 2 showcases some of the markets that are reached primarily by selling use rights.

Images that are made available for use rights sales are known as 'stock images' and the industry around them is often called the 'stock industry'. The commission earned from the sale of use rights is also often referred to as a 'royalty'.

The sale of use rights started when picture libraries began to market take outs from photo shoots. The market's appetite for this relatively inexpensive way of acquiring professional images (as opposed to the expense of commissioning a photographic shoot) has grown exponentially in the past few decades such that it is now safe to say that the majority of the world's imagery is traded in this way.

There are various economic models for selling use rights, but essentially as long as buyers do not require exclusivity to an image, they are able to purchase the image at a fraction of the cost of commissioning a shoot. Photographers, on the other hand, maintain ownership of the copyright of the image and are able to make ongoing sales of the same image again and again.

While most of the world's images are traded in this way, this market has also recently become flooded with a tsunami of very talented amateur photographers who have cameras that do most of the work for them in capturing high quality images, and who are out to make some money on the side or simply get published. Because of this, the stock industry has seen massive and very rapid shifts over the past half decade with significant players going bankrupt and large mergers happening to consolidate most of the world's stock imagery in the hands of a few - mega agencies such as Getty and Corbis in particular. If stock is going to be a valuable income stream to you as a professional, then it requires some careful thought, focus in the right areas and wise collaboration with those who can represent your work best.

Many professional and amateur photographers have quite rightly seen stock sales as a passive income stream and part of their pension. If you get it right, stock sales can contribute a significant amount to your income every month without you having to lift a finger beside the initial preparing and loading of the image to a picture library. You do need to bear in mind, though, that the number of images of yours available in picture libraries is very important. You need to grow your stock of quality images online consistently. It is only when it is several thousand strong that you will start to see a significant income stream established.


FIGURE 5 Here are some of the markets that are reached primarily through the sale of use rights.

Securing funding

The final potential income stream is that of funding. Figure 6 shows two basic types of funding that we have identified.

Project funding is usually sought after you have developed a project idea that either works to benefit the funder directly, or is in support of a cause. Funders will usually only come on board if your project is seen to further what they are wanting to accomplish, or what they are wanting to associate with.

Funders can be corporations, government, non-government or not-for-profit organizations or even individuals. The key to gaining funding for large projects is to put yourself in the shoes of those in the organization you are approaching and ask what you can do that would further their organizational goals or brand. Research is critical here. You are wasting your own time and that of the potential funder if you are not absolutely in tune with their aims and goals.

For small projects, individuals, groups or communities may be your source of funding. That community may even be online. Micro funding web sites such as Kickstarter.com are making access to like-minded persons who are willing to give something toward your project much more possible.

Grants are another way to secure funding. Grants are initiated by funders who often nominate an amount they are willing to pay out to the best submission. There is a significant element of competition here and to secure a grant you have to fight off other photographers going for the same money. Of course, you do that by performing better than they do. A grant may be to support you in a project of your own making, it may require you to create a project in line with a particular theme determined by the granter, or it may be open ended and seek to support you in your goal to develop a body of work that you are passionate about. Of course, grants cannot be relied on as a regular income stream in any way. They can, however, act as seed capital for completing a significant body of work from which you may be able to create other income streams.

FIGURE 6 Project funding and grants are usually related to larger, more significant projects or the production of a body of work. Websites such as Kickstarter.com, however, have made the funding of smaller shorter-term creative projects more viable