Simple answer, you can but it’s probably the hardest photography genre to make money at.
I take street images because I love it, I could make a lot more by doing weddings, product or studio work. It’s the love of it that keeps me going, if it were the income I’d have given up years ago.
Most street photographers have jobs that sustain them; street photography is what they do for love. If you were to give up your job for the art, consider this. To generate an income from your art will require you to do more promotion than photography. This comes as a shock to many, the amount of hours you need to put into the marketing side is far greater than the time required to get out shooting, if that’s not for you then you are unlikely to make it. Even if you do make it it’s unlikely to make you rich and hard just to make a living.
You need to be visible. That involves creating and publishing a constant flow of fresh material. Accumulating a following takes time, sometimes years, your followers though, are the ones that may possibly be your customers.
Customers for what though? You need products and services. Your products will be prints and books, your services commercial shoots and possibly teaching and workshops (if you are interested in my courses click here). Teaching though is another art to master, not all great street photographers make great teachers.
If you develop a particular style, you can attract commercial work from those who love your style. These commissions may not come often but for me they are a joy. I get a thrill out of taking images of people in my own style and getting paid for it. I get asked to do portrait shots for business people and personal portraits in my own style.
I was commissioned to cover people at Chelsea Flower Show last year, again in my own style. It’s very competitive though, there are so many photographers out there now, and many are prepared to sell themselves cheap to get the job. You have to work out what you think you are worth per hour and stick to it. Work out realistically how many hours it will take you to prepare, travel, shoot and post process the images and stick to your rate. Do not undersell yourself; even if all those around you seem to be willing to do it, you will only get disheartened.
As mentioned before, selling photography products and services will depend on how you promote yourself. With so many photographers out there competing for business, you need to be the one that stands out.
First of all you need a great website, one that shows your images off to their best potential. It should rank well in Google so you will need to learn the basics of good SEO, although that has changed radically in recent times. The site needs to be fast. Google loves a fast site. The fastest sites are custom built but most photographers do not have the budget for that. WordPress is often the answer, but WordPress is notoriously slow. If you are using WordPress, use a theme by a reputable theme designer/developer, one that gives great support if you have any problems. Keep the plugins to a minimum; these will slow your site down. There are WordPress dedicated servers you can use. I am going to re-host my site soon to take advantage of the speed gains. They will store your plugins and some of the functionality elsewhere on their server, greatly improving site speed.
Take care with your titles and urls. Have a good think about what you are offering and what people would type into Google to find a service like yours. Make sure that these keywords are prominent on your site, in headings and titles as well as body text, but it must not seem un-natural, write like a human.
You need other sites to link to you. Link building used to be a dark art, now it is white as the driven snow. Google is looking for natural links, people who are linking to you because you are relevant, interesting, creative etc. It’s not easy, the quality has to be really good. Think about what your potential customers would like to see or read, what they would find inspiring or useful to share with others.
Google knows if you are using a CMS system like WordPress. If you are, they expect frequent updates and will reward you if you do this, but be careful. Remember what I said about quality; if it isn’t worth publishing don’t publish. Gone are the days when publishing for the sake of an update did you any favours, it’s about quality not quantity.
Your site should also be designed to look good on mobile. That means it should be responsive (change appearance the smaller the screen). There are some great responsive themes out there to choose from, if you need something tailor made, expect it to be expensive. Search results on mobiles are different from the results on a desktop; good quality responsive sites will usually outrank un-responsive ones.
Note: don’t forget to add alt tags to your images. Also make sure all of your Social Media profiles are easily accessible, and that you have visible share links to all the biggest networks on your posts.
That’s your website sorted! Now you need a strong social media presence. Again it’s about quality not quantity. Basic rules are, don’t take on more than you can chew. Decide which platforms will be most useful to you; maybe choose ones you already have a following on. If you take on too much it can take up all of your time, you need to be able to respond to people. Only post you best stuff or share things that you think your audience will be interested in. Never post for the sake of it, it’s OK to take time off now and again. If you want to join lots of photography communities try Google+, if you want to build relationships try Facebook and LinkedIn. Flickr is a lot less popular than it used to be but it is all about photography, so if you are posting a constant stream of good images it’s worth updating. Instagram, however, is on the up and up so it’s worth having a profile there.
If you need to build links the only valuable way is to offer really good content to the best photography sites. They will be inundated by people trying to get published with poor quality content, so you will need to be personal with your approach and let them know you have something worth publishing. Be different with your approach, I’ll leave that up to your imagination. If you can show examples of great content you have written it will help, and if you can demonstrate that you have a big following that might help too. Publishing the best content on your own site works too, by using social media to put your content out there, you are more likely to attract organic links to your site.
You may be thinking that it’s the photography itself that will determine how well a photographer will do financially. To a point that’s true, you have to be a good photographer to make it, but consider Andreas Gursky’s image “Rhine II” which sold for $4.3 million back in 2011.
It was a record back then but has now been surpassed by Peter Lik’s image Phantom sold to a private collector for a $6.5 million last year.
I doubt that if I took identical images I would be able to sell them at all! It’s a fact, to make any money out of photography you have to be well known. I’m not saying you need to be as famous, but you need to be well known for your art, and that takes time and perseverance.
As I have been in the digital marketing business for so long, I have always advocated using digital marketing for photographers. Often I hear the same mantra, I don’t do all that stuff, I hate Facebook and Twitter, I won’t get involved. A few might get lucky but most will fall behind. It’s one of the few things in our grasp that we can learn to control, that we do have access to. Anyone rejecting it completely is, in my opinion, putting themselves at a huge disadvantage.
It can be overwhelming; it’s difficult to know where to start, (see my last post Being Human in a Digital World). I recommend taking one step at a time. Set yourself goals and deadlines. Be mindful of the trap of continuous notification checking and addictive update making. Use social media a networking tool to find and communicate with potential clients, publishers, galleries etc.
Getting out there is not just about being online though; nothing beats seeing your art on a wall. Consider organising an exhibition, this is something you can do with other people. Look around for exhibitions; see what other photographers are doing, and think about how you might approach your own or shared exhibition.
Some awards and competitions are well worth entering. Winning the RHS photographer of the year 2014 competition was the best bit of marketing I think I ever did. I was linked to and mentioned (Google will note mentions as well as links) all over the world. The front page of MSN and Yahoo, magazines and newspapers, even a TV appearance the list is so long I won’t even bore you with it. Beware of some competitions with an entry fees though, check out their credibility, I see a lot of awards run by dubious organisations these days.
Magazines are often crying out for great content, most will have an email address to contact for editorial. Don’t send them jpgs though, better to send a link to your work, images clog up their accounts, a link to a dropbox folder is usually good. Make it tidy, interesting and to the point, the easier it is to publish it the better chance you have.
In short, you cannot wait around to be discovered, you have to work out what time you have, set some goals, make a plan, and use every way you can to increase your exposure, on-line, on walls, in magazines, and in books.