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Selling Over 500K Images: Lessons from a Lifetime in Photography and Graphic Arts

As I near retirement from commercial work, I reflect on my journey as a graphic artist, photographer, and businesswoman. With a small notebook and pencil, I decided, just for fun, to calculate a rough estimate of how many prints I have sold throughout my career. Print sales began with portraiture, wedding storybooks (albums), after-the-wedding sales, corporate special events, headshots, and trade shows. I am calculating paper prints here, not transparencies that went into color separation for media publication or what happened after digital cameras and website work took off.

Let’s use my largest market before digital imaging. Imagine working for 15 years as a wedding photographer. Your goal is to book three weddings a week; Friday nights at hotels and country clubs, Saturdays all-day at Southern churches with an average of seven bridesmaids (my potential client base) per wedding, and Sundays under a chuppah in the most beautifully decorated hotels with some of the kindest people I would ever meet. That was what I accomplished, and I was busy. If I estimate on the low end, I will use a 10-year estimate. The wedding storybooks contained 100-200 prints depending upon how many hours we were booked for. The average wedding booking was for five hours of photographing and would produce a 150-200 print storybook. Let’s go low again and average down to 150 prints per storybook. Using 1 (year) x 150 weddings (3 x 50 weeks) = 150 storybooks per year. Now let’s expand to the 10-year calculation, 10 (years) x 150 (weddings) = 1,500 storybooks  => 1,500 wedding storybooks x 150 prints = 225,000 prints.

The above amount does not count the parent albums and the very profitable after-wedding sales to friends and family. This was before digital; everyone bought prints at an average of $18 per 4×5 print. I am also not adding all the corporate and consumer portraiture, including babies and children from my wedding clients. Or all the family and professional portraiture from people finding me through these special events. For years I delivered gold-leaf framed family and children portraits in 16×20 and 20×24 sizes mounted on canvas as fast as the lab could get the lacquer to dry. So my estimate is truly a lowball.

After 15 years of success in the portrait and special event business, I decided to change course. Digital was on the horizon, and it was time to carve out where I wanted to be in the upcoming photo-graphic market. I have always been in the picture-selling business. It does not matter if it was paper prints, framed canvases, transparencies, color-separation films, camera-ready art, graphics, digital images, etc.

I made the right decision to stay true to the graphic artist that I am, as I easily went into web design and digital image-making without difficulty. I went back to school part-time and took computer programming. I learned Turbo Pascal, PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, CSS, & HTML and started exploring Photoshop when no one knew it existed. My strategy has always been to immerse myself in the field I will serve. I realized I did like coding enough to begin building attractive, well-designed websites with great-looking graphics for web commerce. I started my web commerce career in 2000, and the first web commerce site I designed and built had over 5000 different products; it continues as a web commerce site today, and I continue to be its webmaster.

Using paper and pencil again, I will estimate how many images and graphics I have created for web commerce work. This includes 90% product photography; the rest is business portraits, stock images from my portfolios, wall art print sales, and graphics made from my imagery. Since 2000, estimating and rounding off on the low end, I have worked on 50 websites. Some sites have over 7,500 products; some have less than 100. So to average this: 7,500 + 100 = 7,600 => 50% (7,600) = 3,800 => 50 (websites) x 3,800 (images) = 190,000 images.

Adding up the lowball estimates for prints, images, and graphics created for pay in my career comes to 225,000 + 190,000 = 415,000, but I will raise it a bit since I know there is much left out, (i.e., corporate events, after-wedding sales, studio portraiture, & more), and call it 500k. That is a lot of work, a lot of meetings with people, and a lot of having to appease many personalities! I loved it all and would do it again. When I think about 500k, it does make sense when photography and graphic design have been your profession for 40 years.

All the while, my work has always been important to me. While working in my busy Atlanta studio, I learned to depend on outside labs to develop my film and make my prints. My wedding storybooks were my best source of advertising, so they had to shine. Much of my work had to be shipped to a pro lab out of state that specialized in portrait printmaking. I had no complaints most of the time, but if you do enough business, something will go wrong sooner or later. When it went wrong, it was painful. Film damaged, lost, or destroyed. Try telling a bride waiting to see her Wedding Storybook the lab made a mistake on her film; “Here is their letter of apology.” I went through stuff like that. Granted, not often, but enough to know it happens and hearts get broken.

I went through big companies stealing my work and family members from portrait sittings doing the same. Whenever I had a client with a family member or friend who worked for a printing house, I cringed because anyone with access to sophisticated color separators, scanners, or copiers was not my friend. I had photo labs use my work in their advertisements, catalogs, and showrooms without asking first. Once when I ordered print envelopes from a printing house specializing in photography-related business materials, they decided my logo was marketable for their benefit. They used it in their catalog without my permission and refused to offer a discount, saying the recognition in their catalog was enough. Really? How was that supposed to help my studio get work? And nothing like opening up a new catalog only to see your logo and contact information printed on all kinds of office forms and stationery a year after it’s been in circulation. At least MWM Dexter offered an additional 1,000 postcards when given permission to use one of mine in their promotional packets, and yes, I would always take advantage of offers like that. So I learned not all businesses are run by intelligent people and to stop assuming they are.

Everybody wants a copy of your work if it catches their eye, but not everyone wants to pay for it, no matter how many or how big your copyright notice is displayed for them to read. Threatening to sue people for copyright infringement only gets you so far, and then you must hire an attorney. Doing that does not seem productive to me unless it would be worth at least a million or more in my bank account. I do my best to avoid negative situations in my business and personal life. Nowadays, I refuse to share my image files and film outside of myself.

For over a decade, I made prints for this website’s prints-for-sale offerings using Epson large-format printers and ImagePrint software. The software and hardware need updating, but I have no plans to upgrade the software or purchase another large-format printer. Nor will I send my image files or films to someone else for processing and printing.

Starting today, I will no longer offer prints for sale. I have had a great run of it, and I appreciate everyone that made a print purchase from this site. The time has come for me to move on, and my next move will be to self-publish a book of my favorite images. I may include a print with the book, but at this time, it is all just a thought. I have a few journeys to take with my cameras before I want to start the book project. Photography is now my hobby, and I have been looking forward to this for many years. Now when I shoot, it will simply be to share the beauty and wonder of what I see.