How to choose the right photography products to sell

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on February 23, 2013

in This is Business

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With all the Internet’s photography product vendors at your fingertips, which prints and wraps and wall clings are the right ones for you to sell?

All of them!

And none of them!

Okay, okay, I swear I’m not trying to cheat here.

PTP reader Chase G. told me he was having trouble deciding what of the plethora of photography products he should offer to his clients. Between just the big boys – Miller’s, White House Custom Color, and the dozen other labs that advertise in photography magazines – there has to be hundreds of product options for photographers to sell to their clients.

When we talk about products like this – print sizes, coatings, frames – my mind immediately goes to the laminated price sheet so many photographers hand their clients during a sales session and then say, “What do you want?”

“What do you want?” is a great question to ask.

But you should have asked it two weeks ago.

You should have asked it as part of your very first discussion with your client.

It can be hard to steer the conversation that way initially – almost always, the first words out of a potential client’s mouth are, “What do you charge?” Or even more fun, “What do you charge for an 8×10?”

Bless their hearts, the vast majority of your market has no idea what they want. They have an inkling of what they think they’re supposed to want, but as my friend and fellow photographer Jessica says, they don’t know what they don’t know.

No more than I knew what I really wanted or the questions I should have asked the first time I walked into an Indian restaurant, a bubble tea lounge, a car dealership, or a swinger’s club.

Okay, I’ve never been to a swinger’s club, but I’ve drifted into some bars that surely left me wondering about the patronage.

But I digress!

When a client asks, “What do you charge for an 8×10?”, they aren’t really asking what you charge for an 8×10. They are, in the most ego-protecting way they know how, telling you they are lost souls in need of a gentle guiding hand.

And honestly, that’s your job. That’s why they’re willing to pay you – not just for your talents behind the camera, but to be their go-to expert for all things photography.

You need to be a photographer. You need to be a consultant. You need to be a social media guru. You need to be an interior decorator. You need to be a tech support dude or dudette. You need to be a psychologist. You need to be a teacher.

Want to earn clients for life?

You need to be a friend.

You need to be that friend who is better versed in photography than anyone they know, and always gives the best advice – who to work with, what kind of wardrobe to wear, what the photos should look like, what to buy, where to hang it or upload it, how to get the most out of their professional photography experience.

How do you do that?

Throw out your price sheet

There are three levels of sales experience:

  1. Purely passive. You let the client lead the whole experience, ask all the questions, and make all the decisions.
  2. Passive aggressive. You hand the client a price sheet and say, effectively, “Here, I’ll give you this much – now you do all the work. I have very little confidence in my own understanding of what I sell, I’ve never even seen most of these products in person, and I’m nervous, and oh gosh why didn’t I just upload the photos to SmugMug and let you order from there?”
  3. Compassionate. You start with, “What do you want?”, and you take the time to listen, ask more questions, understand, and apply your expertise to help your client get the most out of their experience with you.

It’s the difference between the McDonald’s clerk who asks, “Do you want fries with that?”, and the waiter who can ask you three questions to give you a perfectly suggested meal from the menu, down to the sides and specific preparation. And when you take that first bite, you never could have dreamed how much you’d love queso on your chicken fried steak (a revelation I experienced just last week at Lulu’s in San Antonio).

Guess which level I’d suggest you aspire to?

It’s hard, I understand – especially if you haven’t done it several times before, it’s hard to sit down with a client, show them your art, and then rely wholly on your compassion to guide them down the path to the perfect photography order.

That order can look like anything. Some clients will want a lot of small prints. Some will want big wall hangings. Some will want frames, some will want wraps. A whole lot will want digital. And even then, what can they do with those files on CD after you hand it to them?

What would a friend do?

What would a part time professional photographer do?

Know your products.

Don’t talk out your arse.

If you’re able, experience a given product first-hand before you try to sell it (have you ever seen a Wall Cling in the wild?).

Barring this, at the least call your lab and visit with them about the products you want to know more about – most pro labs are exceptional at this, because it’s in their best interest for you to be better able to sell their products. Ask if they can send you a sample package, or offer a studio sample discount. Ask if they will be at any trade shows in your state this year.

Be an advocate on behalf of your clients – do the research before you try to sell them something you have no experience with.

Picking your products to sell

The first step is to know what products are out there.

The second is to research, experience, and ask lots of questions about those products, so that you’re best able to match your clients’ needs with the options out there.

The third step is to introspect.

What do you like?

How do you experience photography?

What’s hanging on your walls?

What’s your computer desktop wallpaper?

What photos of your family are you sharing on Facebook?

Do you like digital or prints? Framed wall hangings or gallery wraps?

It’s important to understand that, as an artist and a business owner, you’re going to mostly draw in clients who are a lot like you (if you’re marketing yourself authentically).

When a client asks me, “What do you charge?”, I surely tell them – and then I ask, “What kind of shoot are you looking for?” … “What kind of look are you going for?” … “What do you want to end up with after the shoot – files to share on Facebook? Prints to send to relatives? Prints to hang on the walls?”

Over half my “selling” is done before the end of my first conversation with a client. If I’m doing my job, I should have a very good idea of what my client wants to end up with, both artistically and tangibly.

I’m a big digital fan – I love sharing photos on Facebook. I love the Likes and the comments from friends and family when I post a new photo of my kids or wife. I love flipping back through all the photos I’ve posted and seeing how much the kids have grown, and remembering our great life experiences together.

In my home, I love big gallery wraps. I love the pride and joy I feel when I look at the beautiful faces of my kids on those wraps. I love how often I look up from the living room couch, see those wraps, ever present, and smile. I’ll often stop in the hallway to study the wraps hanging there, just admiring my family, and being grateful for them.

For me, for James Taylor, these are the two primary ways I experience and enjoy professional photography. I would never buy an 8×10 – too awkward, takes up table space, too small to hang for me. I would never buy a framed portrait – too stuffy, too expensive; get that ornate carved wood pretentiousness out of here. I would never buy a coffee mug or mouse pad with my kids’ faces on it – that’s just silly.

But that’s just me.

I can’t tell you how many 8×10’s, framed portraits, coffee mugs and mouse pads I’ve sold over the last 14 years.

But those don’t make up the majority of my sales – not even close.

Know what does?

Digital files, mostly for sharing on Facebook.

And gallery wraps for the home.

Your personality shows in your art. It shows in how you conduct your business. It shows in your marketing, in your smile and handshake, in your business card, and how you carry yourself with a camera. It shows in every decision you make about your camera, your post processing, your sales session, all of it.

It makes sense then that the people you shoot are quite often going to be a lot like you. Not all of them, not even close, but the majority will have the same sensibilities you do.

Sell products that you love.

Sell products that excite you.

Be well-researched about as many other photography products as you can be, even if you would never buy them yourself.

Know what you charge for the products you offer, especially the ones you plan to recommend to a given client. You should have a good understanding of what your favorite vendors charge for most common products, so you can make up a price on the spot if a client throws you a curve ball. Don’t worry about getting it wrong – you can’t get it wrong, you are in charge!

Your job as a salesperson – as a friend – is to connect the dots between what your clients want, what their budget is to that end, and which products will give them the most long-term enjoyment of the art you’ve created for them.

This is another one of those ways to out-do your competition without spending a dime. It’s another way to create value for your clients out of thin air, and give them a great experience they can’t find elsewhere.

Next Steps

  • Do your research. Visit your preferred lab(s) online or in person and study their product offerings. Recognize that what they’re pushing may not be what your clients want, or what you want to sell. Find products you love, study them, call the lab and ask questions about them. Request samples. Study the costs. Get an idea in your head of what you feel you should charge (4x to 5x cost for most products, excluding inexpensive prints). Learn everything you can about a variety of photography products so you can be an educated advocate on behalf of your clients.
  • Put a shout-out on Facebook to your friends and ask them to tell you what their professional photography experiences have been, and what they ended up buying. If you have a nice following of fans for your business, post a contest asking folks to upload and tag you in a photo of how they enjoy their family portraits – as wall hangings, desk frames, wallets, even a picture of their Facebook photo album. Pick a random winner for a free photo shoot, and enjoy the fruits of both good market research and a new family to add to your portfolio.
  • Brainstorm session: Get out your pen and paper, and make a Pro-Con sheet for all the photography products you can think of off the top of your head. Write down every Pro and Con you can think of for every product you can remember. Be extensive. Think realistically how people view, interact with, and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) every product on your list, and write those thoughts down. This will let you really put into words what you like and don’t like about all the products your clients could want, and it gives you an easy list of talking points for those products. File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa February 24, 2013 at 2:30 pm

James, can you clarify this: “Get an idea in your head of what you feel you should charge (4x to 5x cost for most products, excluding inexpensive prints)” I’m struggling to understand pricing and I like your starting point of no session fee, no minimum purchase and prints start at $10. But I get lost once I start to think beyond prints or even larger sized prints. The more I price out some of the products I’d like to offer, the more I realize that, to make a profit, I’d have to charge decent prices for, say a metallic 16×20 print (those are really neat, aren’t they?!) I just wasn’t sure what would be a reasonable markup for a beginner vs. just extortion LOL. If a large canvas print cost $100, for example, including shipping and such to order, how much do I charge in addition to that for the cost of the art on the product? $400? I don’t think I could ask for that with a straight face LOL. Help.

As for what I like, I love large wall canvas (especially collages and portraits in landscape sizes), love digital images (for facebook, etc) and I love “little” photo products, like sets of postcards and accordion albums that you can carry anywhere. As a mom, I must say, I felt pretty lame when other moms popped out their wallet sizes and I had nothing to show LOL – so that just seemed like a requirement haha.

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Dave February 27, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Lisa,
Pricing was the hardest part for me as you don’t want to do this for free and yet you don’t want to price yourself out of your demographic market. I’ve been to a few live seminars and as far as online, the one and only ‘tutorial’ I’ve ever purchased was a CreativeLive event with Sal Cincotta since he went deep into the business of photography (… HIS business model including pricing), not just shooting techniques. I’ve revised my price sheet several time over using him as a baseline and what I ended up with was 10-20x on small prints and 2.5 -3x on large expensive items such as clusters and canvas wraps and still meet all my criteria. That way if I screw something up and have to eat a reprint I still break even or turn a small profit. If I’m perfect, I’m ahead. You can look at my posted pricesheet on my website if you care. Hope this helps a little.

Sorry James, Couldn’t wait for your reply :-) still a big fan of yours.

Dave

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor March 11, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Thank you for your comment and readership Dave! By all means, feel free to share your good advice any time! More perspectives only serve to better season the writing I do here on PTP.

I greatly enjoyed visiting your portfolio tonight! You do great work, such a wonderful variety!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor March 11, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Thank you for your comment Lisa! I’m glad you’re enjoying the site!

Metallic prints are very cool! When clients want to go big with their print, I always push them toward metallic. My style of art fits great with that printing.

There is no reasonable mark-up – it’s all just a game, truly. You can look at what other photographers in your area are charging if you want to be competitive or in the same range, or you can just make it up. It doesn’t really make a difference.

I sell mostly digital nowadays, but when I do have a client who wants to buy a large print or canvas directly from me, I just take my cost and multiply by four. A better or more aggressive artist might go times six, or times eight. I think the minimum would be double your cost – that way, saints preserve us, if you have to reprint the order, you won’t have lost any money.

If folks think you charge too much, they can always buy the digital file and do the print themselves. Almost universally, my clients either want a great deal, or they want the best product. Frugal buyers love buying my full CD of hi-res files because the discount per image is so steep. My clients with larger homes and more desire for wall art love a satisfaction guarantee and white-glove treatment. They’re both worth about the same in per-client profit.

Don’t be afraid to quote a client hundreds of dollars for a big print or canvas – they’re not inexpensive, and if they want the biggest/best option, clients have to be ready to pay for it. Don’t forget, all those chain studios like Kiddie Kandids, Target Portrait Studio, Sears, and so on, have average sales in the hundreds of dollars. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that they represent the lower end of our industry, and as such, you truly are worth more because of the custom art and experience you create for each client. Be humble, but don’t sell yourself short.

The average American spends $380 a year on tobacco, $400 a year on outdoor gear (hunting, fishing, cycling), and $435 a year on…alcohol. Again, don’t sell yourself short. If a client wants to buy your biggest, best product, you don’t have to feel bad charging them a fair price. No more than the sales manager at the Mercedes dealership feels bad for throwing me out on my ear when I want a top-of-the-line sedan for the price of a compact coupe.

A lot of these problems should be solved before your shoot even starts – your clients should know your prices, and you should know what they’re looking to end up with from this shoot. Every client is different – some want digital, some want to share on social networks, some want big wall art, some want wall groupings, and so on.

Knowing what your client wants, and managing their expectations based on their budget, will put both you and your client on the same team when it comes to the sales session.

I hope this helps! Let me know what your decide to do!

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Allison March 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I just wanted to tell you thank you so much!! I have wanted to start “doing photography” for awhile now, but didn’t really have any idea where to start. After some prodding from a few friends I decided to actually do it and spent about 2 days trying to come up with a name. I stumbled upon your site and decided to use my own name, per your suggestion, and now I have a facebook page, email address, tax ID number and a potential new client! I also love that you are from Texas. I grew up in a small town near Lubbock and now live in a small town near Abilene and I love it. One of my concerns living in a small town, though, is competition. I teach high school and one of the other teachers also has a photography business. She and her husband do most of the photography for the school, like the sports and events and everything. I don’t want to step on their toes necessarily, but I know she told me they just do it for the tax break or something like that. Anyway, I don’t want to hurt her feelings but I don’t know how to approach that or if I should even worry about it at all.

If you do look at my facebook, I have a few pictures posted up there. Mostly my daughter’s pictures and my siblings’ pictures from when I did their senior pics. I have some engagement pictures I took not too long ago, but I’m waiting until they sign the model form release to post their pictures. Any feedback is helpful :) I think I tend to get a little too “edit-y” in my pictures because I love playing with my photoshop, and ever since I took a black & white film class in college I have been obsessed with black & white pictures.

Sorry for the long-windedness. I do actually have a few questions as well. I have been putting my watermark/logo on my digital images and I was wondering if you leave that on when you print pictures for people and/or give them the disc with the finalized images or if you remove it?

Also my tax rate here is 7.25% and if someone were to spend $100 on pictures, they would owe me a total of 107.25 right? Just a straight tax on purchase?

Using the same scenario above would you need to put the $100 in your business account and then the $7.25 in a separate account for taxes? I’m not sure how to handle that part.

Thank you so much! Your blog has really been a God thing…I found it right when I needed it :)

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 27, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Allison! I greatly enjoyed visiting (and Liking!) your Facebook page tonight – you make lovely art! It’s easy to see your clients love working with you, the expressions are natural and lovely.

Don’t worry about launching your own professional venture, even if a friend or colleague does the same work. The market is huge, even in rural areas and small towns. In fact, you’re more likely to have a large swath of residents who don’t buy any professional portraiture services at all – so the market is ripe for inspiring, enthusiastic new faces behind the camera.

Congratulations on taking the steps to get your photography business legal and running the right way! You’re already miles ahead of all the folks still twiddling their thumbs and “thinking about it.”

As for your fellow teacher, you might even ask her out to lunch to pick her brain about being a professional photographer in your area. Many photographers don’t like to share their ‘secrets,’ but many like myself are more than happy to help.

It’s a win-win: if she says yes, you can accelerate your learning and understanding of the market; if she says no, she sees you as a threat, which means her business and art are ripe for study to see where her weaknesses are, and thus, how you can better serve your market (and, perhaps, her clients). You don’t have to be overt or cutthroat, but if her prices are too high, or her art is too weak, or her personality is too abrasive, or her products are too old-school, or her digital sharing rules are too draconian, there’s an opportunity to reach out to your market in a way she cannot or will not.

In looking at your art, again, your subjects obviously love working with you, and that’s truly half the battle: great expressions, drawing personality out of a subject, can be very, very hard for some photographers.

If I were to offer suggestions, I would say:

– Always keep in mind, “The Eyes Have It” – great exposure on the eyes can make or break a photo. If your subject’s eyes aren’t sparkling, look at your photo and consider where your light is coming from, then pose your subject so their face is toward that light. Avoiding shoots during midday can help give you great, low-to-the-horizon light to work with.

– I would simplify your logo – the neon green can clash with the colors in your photographs.

– Go easy on the vignettes – too much dark shadow in the corners of photos makes the vignette look forced and unnatural.

– If you’re having trouble with photos where your subject and background blend together too much (can’t distinguish dark hair from dark background), turn your subject around and put their back to your light source, creating a great hairlight / silhouette of light around your subject. I do this with almost all of my photos.

– It does look like you add a lot of contrast to your photos; study and practice shooting close, simplifying your background, and making your background complement your subject. Starting with cleaner images will reduce how much photoshop you have to do later. Adding too much black/shadow/contrast to your photos can make your subject’s eyes disappear, lose their sparkle, and/or similarly-toned clothes blend into each other, making your subject look like a cutout, or larger than they actually are.

– Always expose for your subject, not your background – blow out the background if you have to, but make sure your subject’s face is well-lit and the eyes are bright and full of life.

– In my opinion, this is one of the best photos in your Facebook portfolio: http://bit.ly/12QSTvz. The face is beautifully lit, the image is sharp, the clothes look great, the background is simple and complementary, the angle is fun, the eyes are bright and sparkling – a really beautiful portrait. Drill down on this – learn how to make this photo over and over and over again no matter who you’re shooting, then learn it so well that you can make this photo no matter where you’re shooting. Once you’ve mastered this shot, do it over and over again for every client, and expand out – add another great photo to your repertoire, and study+practice it until you can’t not make it on command. Sooner than you think, you’ll have an arsenal of great shots at your disposal.

Again, please consider all of this a kind critique – you’ve got some really great shots in your portfolio, and draw great expressions from your subjects. The better your art, the better the experience you create for your clients, the greater a blessing you are for them – and thus, the more likely you are to get repeat business, bigger sales, and the invaluable referrals that make up the bulk of most successful photographers’ clientele.

Keep up the great work!

I do not leave my logo or watermark on my images when clients buy them. I subscribe to the idea that if I do a great job, my clients won’t forget my name. I do ask clients to tag me on Facebook when they post my photos online, but it’s not a requirement by any means.

I Am Not a Lawyer (or CPA), but your tax numbers look good to me. My sales tax rate here is 8.25%, so a $100 sale would run $108.25 with sales tax.

It was explained to me by a rep with the Texas State Comptroller’s Office that they really like to see sales tax money kept in a separate account. That may have changed in the past 14 years. I do not believe it’s a requirement, so if you want to avoid the monthly account charge, you can keep all your business money together and pay yourself out of that – but sales taxes collected are on behalf of the state, so they’re not to be spent. Their web site is great, and they’re happy to talk with you for free by phone or e-mail – any questions you may have, don’t hesitate to ask them. It’s in their best interest and yours to be on the same page.

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog! Thank you again for your readership, and please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Chase Griffith March 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Wow, great article! Thank you so much for the advice! I have come to find that I have more fun introducing new products to my clients, Like a pano of them with their arms stretched out, or vertically with them jumping with the sky and clouds as a background. I do offer the normal set of prints, and even a little canvas as “Standard”. But I find it fun to surprise my clients with new ways to print things, and usually they have all been more than grateful to break out of the “8×10″ box.
But I would not been able to get to being the “Gentle Guiding Hand” if it was not for your initial advice! Thanks so much James!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 27, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Chase! I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site tonight. Alaska is such beautiful country – my friend named her son after the Kenai Penninsula after visiting there for her honeymoon. I hope to visit in the future, and if you’re willing, I’d love to work with you while I’m there!

Surprising clients is absolutely a fantastic way to get them excited about your work together – that makes lifelong clients, and for great referrals. Anything that excites you as an artist will more often than not excite your clients as well.

I’d love to see one of your great panos or vertical shots! Would you e-mail me some examples to James@banderaoutlaw.com?

Thanks so much for your readership, and please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Amanda May 5, 2013 at 2:16 pm

I wanted to start by saying thank you. Your passion and humbleness is quality. So, here is my question, I live in Georgia. How do I find the company to produce gallery wraps prints in general? Do I just truck on down to CVS for prints? Does anyone still print on matte paper and how do you, personally, like gloss vs matte? (off subject)

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words Amanda! I truly appreciate you taking the time to write.

I use Miller’s Imaging for all of my prints and canvas, but I’ve also used Simply Canvas with great results. White House Custom Color has a great reputation as well.

I may be a bit of a neanderthal, but I don’t have any preference of gloss versus matte. In my home, we have equal numbers of framed prints and lovely canvas wall art – my preference is for the latter. As for as my photography sales go, almost all of my clients purchase digital files on CD.

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Jeff Reglin June 13, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Found your blog today, great information. My son (17) and I are looking into starting an online photo business for wildlife and nature photography. Does any of the advice or suggestions you offer change for that type of business as compared to the portrait business plan? There is a lot of good posts on here and I have a lot of catch up reading to do.

Thanks again
Jeff

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Jeff, thank you so much for your comment and kind words!

I’m afraid my expertise and advice are almost exclusively within the portraiture arena.

Wildlife and nature photography enjoy a passionate group of photographers, often with specialized equipment and buyers – magazines primarily, perhaps also stock and microstock. As I understand it, it’s a challenging field to enter – but don’t let that deter you! I think it’s awesome that you’re working with your son – you’ll create amazing memories together, no matter what hurdles you have to leap to reach success.

You can also turn the niche on its head – instead of ‘being where everyone else is,’ follow the idea of Owning Your Zipcode. If you’re going to be a wildlife and nature photography duo, be the best wildlife and nature photography duo in your neighborhood, in your town, in your community. You might find buyers (of both stock and commissioned work) in the form of your local bank, your local professionals (doctors, lawyers, financial planners, CPAs, etc.), your local gun store, restaurants, etc. Don’t take aim at being the best in the world (yet) and becoming overwhelmed by the scope, but be the best in your area and Own Your Zipcode.

With learning, practice, failure, and lots of shooting, you will grow as artists and as business owners – the more your persevere, the more inevitable success (however you choose to define it) will be.

I hope this helps! Please do keep me posted on your successes and advetures! And if there’s anything more I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

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