A small ruckus emerged on a private Facebook group a few weeks ago when one photographer raised objections over another photographer’s pricing of a $40 Instagram print. In the words of photographer #1:
“Great photographer but clueless about freelance and valuing one’s work.”
Photographer #2 responded:
“I try to make my work affordable, so, that my Facebook friends can enjoy my photography…”
Photographer #1 contended that $40 was below market rates – i.e. other comps in the industry – and that by “blast[ing] it on [social media]” it was sending a bad message about the value of photography.
So how much should an Instagram (or any cameraphone) photo be sold for?
This ain’t fine art
What defines “art” is in the eye of the beholder, but fine art photography – that is, photography that the “art world” says is fine art – has a narrow definition. Christie’s Sara Friedlander, Head of Evening Sale, says a few parameters create value in the fine art photography world:
- Size & scale
- Hype and institutional support
The average professional photographer’s Instagram print has none of these qualities. We can surely debate the artistic merits of an Andreas Gursky print (or a Peter Lik print for that matter), but one cannot question the historical pricing and resale market for the established fine art photographers like Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, et al.
Industry pundit Dan Heller believes the buyers of photography falls into three main camps:
- Art collectors: Affluent and educated, the art collector’s main interest is the investment potential of the piece.
- Art aficionados: Varying range of education with limited funds. This broad category includes the highly educated without the means to purchase as a “collector” as well as the “wanna-bes” who have limited knowledge and inconsistent tastes.
- Consumers: Little knowledge of photography, but will open their pocketbook if they like what they see, and if the price is inline with their expectation/experience.
Photographer #2 has a decent following on Instagram, but she doesn’t sell prints for a living – and thus there is no free-standing market for her work. It’s fair to characterize her audience as “consumers.”
Photographer #1 believes that industry comps need to be considered.
- Matt Eich, a well-known photojournalist, sells Instagram prints for $100.
- Aaron Huey, a National Geographic contributor, sold Instagram prints for $100.
- Magnum Photos held a “Square Prints” sale with prints for $100 (note: the images came from photographer archives and were either “unpublished” or “unnoticed”).
- Brooklyn-based Daniel Arnold sold images appearing in his Instagram feed (note: they were not limited to iPhone photos) for $150 for a 4×6 print.
Photographer #1 also pointed to a few websites where photographers were selling prints for several hundred dollars.
The Voodoo of Pricing
On Inc.com, Lawrence L. Steinmetz, co-author of How to Sell at Margins Higher Than Your Competitors: Winning Every Sale at Full Price, Rate, or Fee, states, “The first thing you have to understand is the selling price is a function of your ability to sell and nothing else.” Steinmetz uses the analogy of a Rolex and Seiko watch – arguing that the Seiko is a better timekeeper for a fraction of the price, but Rolex marketing commands a higher price.
Other authors have more prosaic advice. Alan Bamberger of Artbusiness.com says, “When you don’t have a record of consistent sales in a particular price range or sales have been erratic and you’re not quite sure how much to charge, setting your prices the way real estate agents set prices on houses is one of your better options. They base home prices on ‘comparables’ or what similar houses in the same neighborhoods sell for.”
Bryan Caporicci advocates “measurable pricing” which takes into account COGS, or cost of goods sold. In a pure financial definition, COGS includes not only the direct costs of producing a product (e.g. paper, ink, etc), but the labor as well. Using his calculation, which takes into account a theoretical annual wage of $60k, an 8×10 print should be about $90.
Whether or not $90 makes sense as a floor is debateable, but Caporicci’s advice does beg the question, “Is it worth your time?” If sales and fulfillment are totally automated, then the COGS is limited to the printing and shipping costs. But if a photographer is fulfilling, signing and shipping, her time has a monetary value that must be considered in light of other opportunities (whether business or leisure).
Jen Bekman of 20×200 believes the issue boils down to how a photographer values his/her time. “My guess is that she’s not getting much ROI selling prints that cheap because she’s either spending a good amount of time producing them herself and/or high percentage of her sale price is paying to have the print produced.”
But Bekman acknowledges the practical realities of being a photographer, “I don’t see [selling photos for $40] as a logical avenue to building a viable long-term business and/or art career, but sometimes you just have to pay the rent!”
Does $40 Hurt the Market?
Downward price pressure results from a surplus of product. A well-known photographer pricing her Instagram prints for $40 might influence others to reduce their prices, but in truth, the volume and visibility of Instagram-related prints sales is dwarfed by consumer photography purchases through postcard, poster and other bulk images sales – the types of products that might be found on art.com, where $40 would be considered expensive.
Is the talent and experience of Photographer #2 worth more than $40 per print? In some ways, it’s the wrong question to ask. Is it a beautiful photo that a consumer wants on their wall? Is it a gritty photojournalistic image that doesn’t serve well as wall art? What will the market bear? Who is the audience?
What is the value of Instagram Photography?
Whether $150 or $40, one thing is very clear. The value of an Instagram print is limited. Part of the reason is practical: The app doesn’t allow outbound links on individual posts, thus the friction in the sale is very high. Outliers aside, the average photographer simply isn’t going to sell much on Instagram because Instagram isn’t designed nor optimized for commerce.
On the other hand, Instagram is optimized for 1) acquisition of followers, and 2) displaying images. The people who are “winning” on Instagram are rarely photographers – rather, they are celebrities or social influencers. A photo on your feed is virtually worthless. But the same photo on the feed of a social influencer with a million followers has real monetary value (it’s alleged that top social influencers are making $2-10k per post).
@beautifuldestinations solicits photos from other accounts that hashtag images with #beautifuldestinations. The images are reposted to the 4.6+ million followers on the @beautifuldestinations Instagram account. But the account is merely a marketing outlet for BeautifulDestinations.com, which is a social media consultancy that pairs brands with social influencers on Instagram (specifically users having more than 1 million followers). Want to jump start your hotel’s Instagram? Hire Beautiful Destinations, and they might 1) post an image of the property on their account, 2) invite multiple social influencers to your hotel, 3) charge you thousands of dollars for quick acquisition of followers. Photography is the currency, but it’s not fluid. It’s more like bitcoin – requiring the expertise of people in-the-know to really monetize the asset.
Using Instagram as a sole mechanism to sell prints is unlikely to generate regular revenue for a photographer. The audience isn’t specialized enough and the buying process is full of friction. Savvy photographers can still make a solid revenue stream from print sales, but this requires a rigid exercise in audience identification and a solid marketing plan, which hopefully positions the work as a Rolex rather than the Seiko.