Why Your Photography Prints Aren't Selling

Selling your photographs as prints for someone's wall is both a gratifying experience and a useful revenue stream, but it's not easy to do. So, why is it so difficult to sell prints?

From the first time I printed my work I knew I needed to get good at it. By that, I actually mean good at preparing the files for a professional printers to turn into something I can hang on my wall. My first effort — which coincidentally I discussed recently — was awful; the exposure was wrong, the colors were wrong, the contrast was wrong, and what I'd decided to print it on was terrible too. Over the years I've honed each one of these necessary preparations and I've got a brilliant printing company that I trust. However, I very rarely sell them. Usually, my prints are for me, gifts, or for my clients as part of a job (or another form of a gift.) I do sell one-off prints to private clients as art rather than photo prints and I'm not sure that's particularly relevant here.

You see, selling prints of your photographs is difficult. There are so many fences to hurdle before you make regular sales, I honestly wonder how those photographers who are tremendously successful at it, manage it. On the photography side, you need to create beautiful images — average won't cut it, and they have to work as printed files, which not all photographs do. Then you have to find a market that has similar tastes to you. Then you have to cut through the ocean of noise that is all the other photographers selling prints and not only be seen, but build a formidable reputation and client base.

In this video, Evan Ranft goes through what he sees as the key reason most photographers can't sell their prints, and in my limited experience in the area, he's perfectly on point.

Do you sell your prints? How did you succeed in that area? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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28 Comments

Toby Seb's picture

Testing this out for myself. Launched my website today. If you like Black and white landscapes, check out my prints for sale@ https://avadhutgita.myshopify.com/

Nick Rains's picture

Please take this in the spirit it's intended - as constructive criticism. The gothic typeface is very hard, almost impossible, to read. Anything, anything at all, that acts as a barrier to the whole 'user experience' needs to be removed or redesigned. Easily readable text is hugely important.

Toby Seb's picture

No worries. The typeface is on purpose as a nod to the style used by many blackmetal bands, which my photos are inspired by and my target audience is a fan of.

Brad Smith's picture

it may be on purpose, but if the design doesn't allow your customer to access your site in a meaningful way...it's just bad design.

Steve Sondheim's picture

You're definitely hitting that Burzum vibe. ;)

Toby Seb's picture

Thanks, Good to hear !

Pete Myers's picture

Since you asked at the end of the article....

I have been a fine art photographer by profession for the 27-years. My comment would be that the reason why most prints do not sell is because they are simply What You See is What You Get photos. Even if extraodinary works, they are not going to sell because they do not challenge the buyer's mind to see the world differently. Art is about inducing visceral feeling to the viewer---seeing, and feeling are two different emotions from a photograph. WYSIWYG is about seeing.

Also, if one looks at the works of past masters, what becomes crystal clear is that only a handful of their photos will obtain significant recognition from their life's work. With Adams, I can name seven of his photos off the top of my head---one having been photographed on 35mm film as a snap (which the art critic at the NYT liked the best at his MOMA show, go figure).

I would say the number one issue with photographs is a lack of intimacy with the subject. The fear by the photographer is not showing all of if, when showing only some of it leads to intimacy. Think of it this way; if you photograph some one you love in full, we know what they look like. If you photograph just their hand, we know an intimacy about them. It is no different in nature, among ruins or with models.

The 35mm snap by Adams was so successful because of its intimacy with his two subjects. No doubt a visceral moment behind the lens, and one that took a lifetime to achieve.

Toby Seb's picture

It certainly helps that the phtography tiggers emotions, just like the Old master paintings.

bbetc's picture

I had a show and didn't sell one picture out of a dozen. I think part of the reason was because of my pricing but I was required to matte and frame each picture. I would have had to sell three pictures to break even. I've since sold some pictures at shows but basically just broke even so I now simply donate prints to charity auctions.

The internet has to be a big slowdown for sales; after all, one can find a photograph of most anything on the web. Also the widespread use of cellphones means that almost anyone can take a picture. Before digital cameras, I used slide film, which I had to buy and also pay to have processed and printed. Things have changed.

microteck's picture

There are dozens of ways to sell an Ice Cube to an Eskimo. You just need to learn how. I'm not a great photographer but I sold well over 2,000 cameras in my 14 years in the business. In fact, I sold the same camera brands/models for more money than the competition and still beat the competition. I don't care about Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Adorama, B&H Photo or anything else on the Internet. They don't know the secret in selling Ice Cubes to an Eskimo.

Here's a few freebies. There is little that hasn't been done, seen or sold before. But there is only one you. So know what you are selling and who you are selling too.

Toby Seb's picture

I think finding ones nich and nich audience will help.

Dan Donovan's picture

I think to be successful selling fine art prints, you need to have a unique vision in the way you see your subject. If the prints compare to photos on the internet or taken by a cellphone, then it is not unique enough.

Howard Shubs's picture

Before there were cell phones, there were Instamatics and Brownies. The cell phone cameras just make it more instantaneous.

Stephen Berry's picture

I'd argue that it's not necessarily that it's instantaneous - at least not directly - but that there's a complete over-saturation of imagery.

We're bombarded with images so much of the time; smart phones, tablets, TV, posters, billboards, mail, everywhere on the internet... as a collective we've become so desensitised to imagery that most of the time it simply doesn't register more than a cursory glance.

I judge images by the 5 second rule. If any image holds your eye for at least 5 seconds you know it has something special. Otherwise it just gets lost in the tidal wave of pixels that you're pummeled with wherever you look.

I don't think I've ever taken a photograph that could hold that much attention, but I know my favourite photos definitely captivate.

That being said, there is a very real difference between looking at a digital image and a physical print...

bbetc's picture

Yeah, Brownies with not-exactly-sharp 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 inch prints. I know nothing about Instamatics.

I rate very few images on this site. I look at the new posting every day and occasionally something catches my eye and will get rated on the higher end. I will comment on images I think could be improved in groups to which I belong but I don't rate them; after all, what I see may not be what others do.

David Pavlich's picture

Depends on how much you push your product and what your client base is. I sell prints to people that aren't photographers in the sense that they work hard at getting a good shot. Most of my sales are wildlife, nature, and HDR/tone mapped shots. And, most are sold in person, ie shows or markets. My internet sales are sparse by comparison. But, I don't push my internet stuff because I don't particularly care for shipping prints.

I price my stuff to match my notoriety (I haven't been discovered :-) ) and my customer types. If you want to make a living at it, you had better be really good and get a name. I'm retired, so it's a self sustaining business for me. I should add that I print my own and make my frames/mounts.

bbetc's picture

If you don't cut your own mattes, you are mostly stuck with using standard-sized frames. Also, if you frame your pictures, people looking for wall hangings might not care for the one you have chosen. It's definitely an advantage if you are skilled at matting and making frames as you can give potential customers a choice. I did my own printing but I would wait for sales in art supply stores, etc., to buy frames at 40-50% off. I do mostly wildlife--birds, whales--but does the average person want to buy such things unless it is very unique? Who wants to buy a picture of a dragonfly? I'm well past retired and I don't need to sell pictures but there was a time when selling some would have helped me expand my equipment.

David Pavlich's picture

I also have a matte cutter. :-) However, my best selling prints aren't framed in the conventional sense and it's for the exact reason that you mentioned; the frames can clash with one's interior decor. So, as you can see with the attached, I make the majority of my sales with this mount style:

microteck's picture

Beautiful photograph.

David Pavlich's picture

Thanks for your kind words! That's an Episcopal church in Covington, LA. It was actually an experiment with a texture program from Topaz. Kinda' looks like it would work as an album cover for Black Sabbath. All it needs is a raven in the frame. :-)

Charles Mercier's picture

I had a talk with a local photographer 25 years go. He catered to outdoor, nature photography. Of course, things have changed with the internet but he sold film, cameras and developed prints. He had a bunch of prints for sale and told me that he hardly sold any. With photos - even great ones - easily available on line and in magazine and you can buy super high quality posters for about $25, very few people are willing to shell out $200-300 or more on a photo. It's a hard sell and it's not all your fault. Along with all the other photographers out there also, it's a tough business. Good luck!

bbetc's picture

That would work...if I had the tools and ability to make something like it. I had to take a semester of wood shop in the eighth grade and we had to complete a simple tie rack before we could go on to something of our choice. I was still trying to even out the dimensions with a hand plane when the semester ended (and now I live in a high-rise apartment building, which doesn't lend itself to setting up a wood shop). As for matte cutting, it was cheaper to have someone cut them for me than doing it myself. Thanks for taking time with the suggestions, though.

Don Althaus's picture

...and all of this may be true but, lets face it, you can have the perfect photograph but if it doesn't go with the Davenport...

Howard Shubs's picture

My photo professor was named Davenport, so your post was a bit of a wrench to my brain.

Chemical Lens's picture

I'm a lomographer and I learned photography on film and in the darkroom. I recently watched the movie Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield and while it's a comedy there is a scene wherein he took the professor to "school" about being successful in business. Retail is difficult no matter the medium and it is more than having a beautiful product.https://www.chemicallens.com/

John King's picture

Because the supply has exploded: taking photographs and printing photographs has never been that easy and accessible. Prints are commodity which is in unlimited supply.

Eli Jordan's picture

Case in point-
I recently participated in a community market event in my hood, Little Five Points Atlanta. I sold many pics of the L5P content than any other. Had a very good day, to my surprise, considering it was my first attempt at selling. I knew the pics of the area would sell far better than my Costa Rica pics, hence, I printed more of them. Friends were telling me, “you will sell the crap out of these at a real festival.” I responded, “Only if they are buyers from our neighborhood. I need to broaden the repertoire/appeal before I invest in a festival booth.”

Rex Hadro's picture

The great advances in computer monitors also affects print-sales. Who buys printers only to get stabbed by the price of ink? Who prints anymore for the most part? Fine art? What is that opposed to 'regular' art? Bigger printer? That won't cut it. Just because you took ten days busting butt, dollars and time to make a print? No one want's to spend a grand for another's work. Should've become a Letter-carrier or stayed a landscaper, Digital made everyone a 'professional' photographer. Gone are the Kings when film was the sensor. Everybody is a King. Devaluation galore. Naw, they'll get one of their own done at Walmart and settle for that. Let's not forget the phone. The phone is now good enough. Mediocrity is the new virtuoso. Competition is so great today as opposed to the analog days, no? Si. Because of that, photographers have gotta push the quality of their imagery infinitely beyond the stratosphere. Offer something that nobody else is and make it as unreachable to others who'd want in on your game. Accept that your work is just not good enough to wake the dead. Those dead are the folks that are in the market for nothing but the best and stellar imagery. Them is the dead I'm referring to. If it was, you'd be adding to your bank account. Famous words of Sal Cincotta, "Innovate on your imagery or die!" Treat it like a song. If it ain't a hit, it won't fit.