Statistics are cold and impartial. They care not for the stories or experiences behind their truths. They just are. As I look back at some of my year one statistics, I’m proud of some of the numbers and I’m frankly embarrassed by some of the others. But, the numbers don’t lie; so, at least, the ESPN folks tell me. Once I got past the gut shot that some of these statistics landed—and some of them definitely landed–it was time to push all the useless excuses and white noise that so easily floats into my mind back down into a deep dark hole and move the hell on. I took a good long look no doubt; I’m not ignoring the numbers because I don’t like them. But too much time spent looking at less-than-inspiring financials and I’m going to open the door even wider for self-doubt. Don’t get me wrong, there were a series of really amazing moments in year one and I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish. But I can’t sustain another year like it. On the other hand, I’m incredibly blessed–or whatever word you care to substitute there–for the opportunity to be doing outdoor photography full-time…to share a common medium with those folks I follow and admire in this industry…to have the chance to add my own interpretation—to be inspired and to create—while living a life out of doors amongst great beauty. For those reasons alone, year one, no matter the numbers, was a resounding success and a dream realized.
Activity, Statistics & Insights
To begin, 2014 saw the creation of my first website and then, because I enjoy torture, my second! WordPress became my go-to content management system and for a noob like myself to graphic & web design, I’ve been really pleased with the functionality and opportunities WordPress has afforded me to get myself and my work out there into the public. I’m constantly finding features that I want to implement and drawing up ideas that I hope I can bring to graphic life in the future!
On the social media front, 2014 was my first full year with a business page on Facebook. Organically, I’ve managed to continue a slow upward growth trend. The overall numbers won’t even show up as a blip compared to the industry leaders, but I’ve got a handful of really great folks who are active and engaged with my work and I’m greatly appreciative to each of them for their time and feedback. Content—particularly blog-type content—has drifted from originally being seated on Facebook directly, to being hosted offsite on my own webpage and linked indirectly through Facebook and other social networks. This will allow me more control over the content as a whole, and to worry less about the whims of Facebook’s ever-changing content and privacy rules. If one social media network wasn’t enough, I also joined Google+ and Twitter in 2014, figuring content could just as easily be shared on multiple platforms as it was on one. So the juggling routine began—what did I post where and when?!
Below you will find some of the basic findings that I came up with over the course of 2014. I didn’t include the exact earnings or quantities numbers this time around because, frankly, some of them were kind of embarrassing. However, I found the included data interesting to review and perhaps some of you guys and gals will find it helpful or at least interesting in your own photography efforts. My earnings this past year came primarily from three sources: (1) publishing, (2) licensing and (3) fine art prints.
On the business front, I managed to luck into paid publishing opportunities in seven out of the twelve months of the year, a 58% hit rate. I say luck because really, no matter the quality of the photograph or the effort to achieve it, the power to control its use in any particular publication at any given time is completely outside of my control unless I’m the one pitching the article to the magazine (which I did not in 2014). Publishing clients included Our State Magazine, WNC Magazine, Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Northern Virginia, Smoky Mountain Living and the National Park Service (unpaid publishing opportunity). Paid publishing opportunities comprised nearly 15% of my annual income this past year, greater even than income from fine art prints. This was a welcome and unexpected surprise in year one of my photography business. I do, however, realize that I can’t count on or expect this sort of production or opportunity going forward; relying upon something mostly out of my own control would be foolish. Publishing is not going to be a reliable source of income for me to build a business upon. However, I believe that the exposure of my work that publishing grants to a wider and more diverse audience—especially in my first year of business—is extremely helpful in building up my credibility as a working photographer. I appreciate each and every opportunity I had in 2014 and sincerely hope that my images helped to honestly and accurately promote the stories with which they ran. 2014 also saw my first personal interview as a full-time photographer, a feature that ran in the pages of Smoky Mountain Living’s August issue, which was a surreal opportunity for sure! Two images were published multiple times by different magazines in 2014, making them my most published images of the year: (1) Southern Appalachian Roan Highlands highland meadows in spring and (2) Grandfather Mountain reflecting calmly in Price Lake during the blue hour of morning and the setting of a summer super moon.
Licensing comprised the largest segment of my income for 2014. I was able to secure opportunities through licensing for my images to be used on the cover of a book; the cover of a manufacturing catalog; merchandise tags for an outdoor product; annual donor gift cards; invitations; and so on. Go figure that the largest segment of my income in 2014—licensing—is also the area that I felt weakest and the least prepared for in terms of pricing, negotiating and projecting a professional image. 2015 needs to see an increased knowledge base about all areas licensing, including not only direct licensing but also the age-old and hotly contested debate about microstock licensing and it’s worthiness in a portfolio of potential earning sources. I lost a lot of business winging it with licensing this past year. Most of the time, I gave away my images for less than I probably should have—and I knew it in my gut when I did it. On the other hand, I lost my fair share of opportunities when I asked what I believed was a fair price. For instance, one potential client, a professional portrait photographer wanted to use one of my landscape images for a backdrop image throughout the year for his corporate clientele. I decided, since this wasn’t a one-time use like I was used to seeing with my work, that it was only fair that I get a small percentage of every portrait taken using my image as the backdrop (I was, essentially, part of his product each and every time he sold a headshot with my landscape as a backdrop). I asked for an estimate of the number of headshots the client would normally take in one year and the average nominal fee they charged for each headshot using the background. I then quoted the individual a license fee estimate (less than 5% of the profits that were projected to be generated through the use of the backdrop with my photograph) for a one-year license period. I never heard back again! That was the norm more than the exception. However, in truth, it felt better to be rejected than to accept a licensing offer where I felt that the use I was granting with my image was far more valuable to the receiving party than the fee I was being given in return for creating the image in the first place. There was a delicate balance between needing to earn and not wanting to be taken advantage of in 2014 in terms of licensing. 2015 needs to see a much more concerted effort on my end to become better at licensing images as it appears to be the largest segment of my business, at least for the time being. Licensing comprised nearly 75% of my annual earnings in 2014 and was the largest single category of income that I tracked.
My most licensed photographs in 2014 by quantity were:
Fine art prints (all mediums) were not an area of strength for me in 2014. Without the infrastructure to do my own printing and shipping, I sold primarily through the largest online internet retailer, Fine Art America. Driving traffic towards my portfolio on Fine Art America was difficult as I was just getting my own webpage sorted out for the majority of the year, and, let’s face it, my following (social media outlets included) is pretty small in comparison with most established photographers and the level of trust in my product is equally small as a new business startup. Utilizing a search engine that grants exposure based largely upon sales and some magic combination of likes/favorites etc., I was unable to secure new eyeballs for my photography portfolio directly through the Fine Art America buying community that was otherwise unfamiliar with my work. Thus, I did not experience much traffic to my print portfolio on Fine Art America and my fine art prints, as such, were not a very large part of my overall earnings in 2014. Fine art prints comprised roughly 10% of all earnings in 2014, the smallest earning segment I tracked over the year. To survive and succeed in this business, I must find a way to become better at the sale of fine art prints.
My most viewed fine art prints in 2014 (it seems that views did not correlate with sales; not sure what to take from that!) were:
My most purchased fine art prints in 2014 by quantity sold were:
My top earning fine art prints in 2014 by dollars earned were:
Photo Tours – unlike workshops, photo tours without formal educational components could be the quickest and most efficient way to get out into the field with interested parties and expand my network. Photo tours would allow me to capitalize on a robust knowledge of natural environments from the mid-Atlantic down into the Deep South, placing participants in some of the most inspiring landscapes at the times of best photographic opportunity. Opportunities exist for both individual and group photo tour packages. This is a priority for early 2015.
Photo Workshops – on-location training with formal educational components, photo workshops could provide a unique opportunity for me. In a recent past life, I taught at the college level (unrelated topical material), and I’ve been both exposed to and tested on the research of learning and teaching at the highest academic levels. That knowledge applied to the art and craft of outdoor photography, could potentially create a premium service for those who desire either introductory or advanced level seminar learning experiences that are mixed into field adventures. The investment component is larger in terms of time to develop formal materials and the rental of classroom/conference room space (compared to photo tours), however, the payoff could be greater in terms of a richer experience for both the participants and for myself. Opportunities are best suited towards small to mid-sized groups when it comes to photo workshops.
Art Shows – there’s no better way to get my work in front of new potential buyers and fans than displaying at local and regional art and craft shows. This has been a great desire of mine for some time now. However, art shows would require the greatest initial investment of all near-term options for me: inventory, pro-panel display components, payment infrastructure, packaging, branding etc. At this point, the only way I can begin art shows would be through pulling a note from the bank, a route I would prefer to avoid. On the other hand, the potential upside is the greatest in terms of earnings, exposure, and complimentary value to other service offerings such as online sales, tours/workshops, etc.
Calendars / E-Books / Self-Publishing – as I learn some of the self-publishing technologies on the market, there exists opportunity to create projects and stories that are more accessible and less elitist compared to fine art prints. This is the area of greatest interest to me personally for the aforementioned reason.
Grand Adventures - go big or go home sorts of outdoor adventures, documented on camera and accompanied by written word. I’m not talking day-hikes or weekend drives with these, but more immersive, long-period, outdoor expeditions that would feed content back into all of the above existing and potential income sources, not to mention fulfill some personal goals and desires. More to come on these possibilities as I figure out how to make them happen!