I am doing a single cover and an album cover for Horn and Holland. this is the final version for the single. It went to the printer this morning.
I was talking to a friend with a gallery who had to answer the question posed by a potential customer. Afterwards, I decided to write out an explanation of the economics of an art photographer from the perspective of my most recent sale. Here it is:
Larry, you said that you had a customer ask why a photograph was so expensive, so I thought that I’d write out a brief walk behind the economics of being an art photographer.
I’m a pretty established photographer in many ways: I’ve been doing this on and off for over thirty years, routinely exhibit at galleries, and occasionally in an art fair. Nevertheless, I sell about a dozen pieces a year, mostly smaller unframed pieces.
However, the piece I most recently sold was larger, framed, and more expensive, so I’ll use that as an example.
I sold the piece for $250. Of that $99 came off the top for professional matting and framing. I could save some money by framing myself, and I’ve tried that route, but frankly I don’t have the equipment, the space to work, or the aptitude to do as good a job as a professional and I don’t want to spend the time learning the techniques or doing the work. That leaves $151.
I paid a commission of 50% of the remainder to the person who sold it. It is a high commission rate, but it is after framing expense so as a percentage of the total it is in line with what I’d expect to pay at most galleries. Some galleries charge a membership or display fee and a lower commission, some just a percentage, but this is in the ballpark of what I’d pay on most sales. That leaves me with $75.50 from this sale.
I print myself, with a high end printer (10 colors of expensive archival ink cartridges and nice paper). I’d estimate it cost $14 to produce the print and get it to the frame shop for drop off and pick up. That leaves me with $61.50.
Most of the shoots I do are done with makeup artists and models that are working for use of the images I produce, but this one was not. I paid the body painter and the model each $50. I also provided the body paint (probably about $5 worth) That leaves me with negative $43.50. You could argue that the entire cost of the model and painter shouldn’t be allocated to this photo, but unlike other shoots I’ve done with these same people this was rather uninspired and I really doubt I’ll get any other sales from this shoot.
Now, out of my $43 loss on this shoot I need to cover some of the fixed expenses that I have. My camera and lenses are about $4,000. Most of my work is in studio, my studio strobes cost about $2,000. I work with really large files, and do very complex edits. My computer was another $2,500. I pay $10/month for a subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom.
I don’t pay for studio time, instead I trade labor, editing senior portraits, shooting weddings, etc. but if I did the going rate is $30/hour. I’d guess that the average shoot is three hours and I do 30-60 shoots/year. So, while most photographers would have lower computer expenses (and possibly a less expensive camera since I do a lot of low light work) than I do, they’d have higher studio costs if they’re doing studio photography.
I’m not going to begin to calculate my losses from damage to frames during transport to and from shows, the cost of business cards, website hosting, and printing flyers for shows. Nor am I going to detail the costs of a display system that I built to hang work on at the East Lansing Art Festival (where it rained) or the cost of memberships that I have in 4 arts organizations but there seem to be new costs every time I turn around. So, I just sold a photograph for $250. It’ll contribute to my annual loss, that runs a well into the thousands of dollars every year. I’m happy though, because I love knowing that a piece I produced spoke to somebody enough that they want it to hang on their wall. That is why a photograph is so expensive.
Sometimes I am not very good at publicizing my triumphs. I am about to exhibit in the Mid Michigan Art Guild Fall show and realize that I never posted that this photo won second place in the spring show. Better late than never.
I was pleased to have an article on how to do projection photography published in issue 6 of Midwest Model Magazine.
The Mid-Michigan Art Guild is a fantastic group of artists. I will be exhibiting a piece in this show. Look forward to seeing you all at the opening.
I am fortunate to be in a position where I can lose money on my photography year after year (and I do) but I feel guilty about spending the amount of time and effort on it when I could do something that contributes more directly to the well being of my family. I am very good at business. I have an MBA. I've had three successful careers. I've owned businesses. Nothing I've tried has been remotely this hard to make money at.
I think about this a lot.
I have four basic goals. One is to make something beautiful and unique. Two is to have others see and enjoy what I make. Three is to leave those who I encounter while doing this better off from their interaction with me. Fourth is to make a little money for all of the effort that I put in.
There is a set of trade-offs there. If I decided to prioritize making money over making art, I could shoot wedding, senior portraits and boudoir. I know lots of photographers who do those things well and love doing it but that would suck all of the joy out of it for me. I’ve been told that there is a much bigger market for landscapes, conventionally lit nudes, and commercial photography than for the types of photographs I create but I don’t think that I would make art that is as unique and moving (at least to me) if I did that.
If I prioritized making money over doing right by those who I work with, I could try to convince models that they’d make a lot of money if they just paid to have my beautiful images in their portfolio. I’ve seen people seeming to make a reasonable amount of money with that approach but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
There is a balance between making art, making money, and having people see and enjoy my work. Doing gallery shows and art fairs, submitting to magazines, posting to Facebook, and marketing all take time that I could use to shoot and edit.
So, I have a Patreon account which I promoted a bit with no success. I sell, but not at the levels that I would like. I bend over backwards to treat my models right and try to give back to them by shooting things that they are interested in in addition to the things that I want to shoot, making prints, submitting to magazines that they want to be published in, etc.
To those who say that I could spend more time on everything; marketing, promotion, and art, doing so would have a trade-off too. I need some balance in life. I have a wife, a family, and other interests. If my only goal was to make a living as a photographer sacrificing those might be a reasonable approach, but even if I did nothing but photography success would not be guaranteed. There are many talented artists, not just photographers, but musicians, painters, sculptors, and more who devote years to their craft without achieving commercial success.
The balancing act that I do would be much easier for me if it were easier to make money as a photographer. Alas, it is not likely to change any time soon.
I am often asked a variation on the question “Where do you get your inspiration?” or “How can you be creative?” It’s not a question that I have a three second answer for but I’ve thought about it a lot and compiled this answer to how I get my most creative photos and I believe that anybody should be able to follow these ten steps to get fantastic creative results.
Step 1: Learn Your Tools
I started with a camera when I was fourteen or fifteen. Much of what I did was experimentation with the camera that I appropriated from my father. I didn’t experiment blindly, I read about the technology and my father explained a lot of it to me. Nevertheless, don’t underestimate the value of formal education in both theory and technique. I found that I got much better results after I took a class at Oakland Community College. I learned enough darkroom chemistry that I built a darkroom at home and spent a lot of time taking photographs. At that time I photographed everything but was already drawn to particular themes that I am still exploring today: Vibrant color, people, and long exposure photography.
Step 2: Imitate
This is more of an exercise to get your creativity flowing than an attempt to create finished works. If I gave you all of the paints, brushes, and canvas needed to make the Mona Lisa, could you make a copy that I could not tell apart from the original? I doubt that I could. I often see things that I try to imitate. I think about the techniques used and then use them as a jumping off point. I intentionally allow myself to stray from the original. Often I don’t imitate a famous work, but I’ll show you a couple of famous works where I knocked off the concept. My version of the Vitruvian man uses fire and my version of the scream is just an excuse to use a photo I snapped of a model laughing that I thought looked like it belonged in the scream. It is the playing with imitation that is the jumping off point for getting a new set of techniques or concepts that you can make your own.
Step 3: Learn More Tools
I am always learning new tools. When I resumed doing photography a few years ago I learned digital photography. Although many of the concepts carried over from film I learned new things, including autofocus, new sets of camera controls, and file types. I added Lightroom and Photoshop to my arsenal of tools. I am constantly learning more, either extensions like the Nik collection or just new features and techniques in Photoshop. I took formal courses at Lansing Community College and although I knew a lot going in, doing so let me fill in some gaps, gave me an independent assessment of where I was weak, and helped me consolidate what I’d already learned.
Step 4: Experiment
I love to try new things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I’ve had photographers tell me that the difference between an amateur and a pro is that the pro doesn’t have bad shoots. My answer was that the only way never to have bad results is to never push yourself to try things that are so hard that they might fail. My biggest challenge has always been getting models and one of my big fears is that models will see me experimenting, decide that I’m an amateur, and not shoot with me again. So, I often try easier things with new models. I shouldn’t and so fight against it. There will be a lot more detail on this topic in my essay on The Things I Keep Relearning as a Photographer. Suffice it to say that trying to do harder things is well worth failing every once in a while. I had a photo in my head that took thirty years and four tries to get right, but now that I have the technique down it has produced great results.
Step 5: Try to Salvage Failures
I had a shoot scheduled with a body painter who was also a photographer and a model who I had never shot before. The model didn’t show up for the shoot. I was pretty upset so the body painter suggested that we ask a model that she was scheduled to shoot that afternoon if she could start earlier and squeeze in a body paint shoot. The model agreed but didn’t have transportation. We picked her up and started painting. By that point in time though, we were behind and they had another shoot to do. So, instead of the body paint we’d planned, leopard spots that would cover pretty much everything we just had time for a line of spots from her left shoulder to her right ankle. The photos were much too explicit for my taste. I told the model that I’d retouch whatever she wanted, but that they weren’t the artistic shots that I was looking for.
A couple of weeks later I went gallery hopping in New York with my wife and we looked at a lot of photography. I was struck by some photographs that would have been similarly explicit, but were tamed by photoshopping textures onto the skin. I can still picture many of the pieces with dried cracked mud or paint giving texture to the skin and turning the pictures from erotic to elegant. If they can do that, I can salvage my shoot I thought. I came back to Michigan, added astronomical images to my shots and six months later one was hanging in a high end gallery in Columbus.
I took a profile shot of a model at a group shoot, coincidentally held at the home of the same body painter, to do one of those faces that can be seen either as a straight on face or a profile, depending on how you look at it. I wondered why they almost always were of males, and so I tried it with a female (and now I understand). Six months later I took some shots of trees outside my house to experiment with high dynamic range photography. The trees shots were OK but nothing special. Five months after that I decided that there must be something that I could do with the HDR tree shot that would be worthwhile. I added the tree shot to the profile picture to get one of my favorite double exposure photographs. The model came in for another shoot with me a few weeks later and I took more headshots and have been working on doing a series with all four seasons. I like three of the four.
Step 6: Try Many Things
I know that at my core I am about beautiful color on the human form, but I will photograph flowers, nighttime scenes, glamor, stop motion, and many other things. I know that my core technique is colored light in studio, but I’ll photograph outdoors, in window light, or even in fluorescent lit hallways. Typically these forays into other genres and techniques produce work that I’m not particularly proud of, but sometimes I get a great shot and often the techniques I learn or elements of the shots that I take make it into my best works.
Step 7: Create What Excites Your Mind
When I took one of my photography classes, our professor, Ike Lee an inspiring photographer who truly loves what he does, would give us challenges every week. Go and photograph circles or rust or red. Some people would come back with amazingly beautiful and creative results. Usually, to put it kindly, I’d come back with mediocre stuff. It is not that I am not creative, it is that rust and circles don’t excite my mind. Sometimes I can take a challenge like that (the Mid Michigan Art Guild also has one every month) and create some phenomenal stuff. I took the challenge “white on white” and created a couple of nice pieces, using white light on white fabric and models in high key photographs. The reason that I rose to white on white but not red is that in one case I photographed what I have found makes my artistic brain excited and in the other I photographed cups and fire trucks.
Step 8: Find Great People to Work With
There are a huge number of people that make my photography happen. I already mentioned other photographers, teachers and mentors, but there is also a whole community of models, makeup artists, and body painters. Models bring ideas to shoots, and my shoots sometimes can be a back and forth, with each of us suggesting new ideas. I also collaborate with other artists, including a couple that I have only met online. I’ve worked with a body caster in Kansas City and a painter in Virginia.
Step 9: Combine Concepts
Try to combine concepts. I often composite photographs together that were originally standalone concepts. Here are a few examples.
Step 10 Extend Your Technique
Keep refining what you do, learn more tools, create more works, fail more times. The results will get more interesting.
These steps obviously don’t need to be done in order, but you can try them that way. By the time you get to Step 8 you’ll be producing great results. Drop me a line and let me know how it works for you and what other ideas you have.
I am pleased that "Sonja in the Machine" won second place in the 12X12 show at Framers Edge in Okemos. It will be on display through the end of May 2017.
I currently have three pieces on display at the Okemos Library, one piece at Framers Edge, Okemos, and will be exhibiting in the emerging artist tent at the East Lansing Art Festival, May 20 and 21.
I now have a Patreon account, offering another way to connect with me. Become part of the community and enjoy exclusive photos, behind the scenes information, patron discounts, and even art to hang in your home.