The Problem with Selling Photos on Instagram

The Problem with Selling Photos on Instagram

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:

  • Uniqueness
  • Provenance
  • 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.

Audience

Industry pundit Dan Heller believes the buyers of photography falls into three main camps:

  1. Art collectors: Affluent and educated, the art collector’s main interest is the investment potential of the piece.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”

 

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Comparables

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).

Affordable Art?

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.

Conclusion

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.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 16 comments for this article
  1. Tom Martin at 5:20 pm

    Once again, well-said. Practical and sensible advice. I get tired of some photogs criticizing the wedding photographer, for instance, for doing a $250 wedding because somehow that lower figure will drive the more pricey shooter out of business – or at least diminishes the value of photography. If we think in terms of different market levels – like Honda versus Range Rover – then we can get a handle on reality.

  2. Priscilla at 8:03 pm

    The sex of photog #2 is male not female. This error whether purposeful or accidental is reinforcing a sexist stereotype of undervaluing women in a professional capacity especially when all your itemized comparables are men. You should amend the article to appropriate the correct sex to photog #2.

  3. Allen Murabayashi Author at 8:38 pm

    Seriously? This is how you choose to express your outrage?

    It’s a conscious choice to use the female pronoun generally to thwart 500 years of male pronoun dominance in print.

    • Priscilla at 8:59 pm

      This isn’t just about sexism. It’s about accuracy as a writer and being truthful in what you’re communicating to the readers. You sought out authoritative figures in the art community to comment on this situation, you found comparable sales of other photographers selling Instagram photos, and you kept the sex of photog #1 ambiguous (yes, I know photog #1 is female); so, follow through with your due diligence as a writer. No one asked you to take up the feminist cause by shirking the male pronoun. If that’s your choice perhaps you should put a disclaimer on pieces you write to provide proper context.

  4. Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images at 3:20 pm

    Hi Allen:

    Good post, but I’d like to point out that Dan Heller seems to have pretty much abandoned the Photo Industry – having become almost totally silent over the last number of years. And although he came from a business background and never once had to *make a living* doing photography, his business acumen is about 10,000 times more sound than camera advice being dished out by the likes of a Rockwell. I think from that position, he’d very easily side with the person opting to sell at $40… perhaps who doesn’t *need* to make a living, or simply out of the choice of that’s how they choose to operate in a free market economy.

    During the decline of the stock market of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, I can’t tell you how many times in various professional forums and communities I talked about the importance of valuing one’s work. The end result is that photographers see value very differently, and even now that holds true in the print market. Just today on Facebook I saw a photographer with over 100k followers say they sold a 48×72″ print on Fine Art America – when I checked the price to buy that size print from him, it was a bit over $500. IMHO, that’s 1/2 or 1/3 of what a decent ‘market’ price would be… but who am I to tell them what they should charge?

  5. Matt Selby at 5:05 am

    It’s an Interesting debate, and one which I’m sure will never cease. It’s not just instagram prints, its the entire photography market in general. I can agree with the argument raised my photographer #2 but in todays society, there’s a crazy increase in so called ‘photographers’ who’s only objective is to ‘undercut’ in order to get work, this has definitely had an impact of peoples perception of ‘professional photography’

  6. Marie at 6:09 pm

    Great post! Though, I caution any hotel looking to build a legitimate Instagram following against trying that kind of ‘get popular quick’ scheme using influencer accounts. Without real engagement, the influencer game ends up being a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

  7. J.R. at 11:23 am

    I often wonder where some of these people get their comps. Certainly not in the galleries I visit in Texas and New Mexico, where some very nice photos by local or regional names can be had for under 100 bucks, often under 50. Also, these arguments rarely make a distinction between “art” and “decor.” Seems to me photographers selling online are mostly in the latter market. Their comp is the print bins at Hobby Lobby and Walmart, not New York art galleries. The question is not “can you price higher?” but “can you produce cheap enough and move enough volume to make it worth the effort?”

    You also have to “comp” to the state of the US economy, where many aspiring photographers support themselves at $8 or $9 an hour jobs. . To an artist taking home $300 a week from a full-time job at MacWhattataco a $40 print sale is a pretty nice bump to the weekly budget.

    I see a lot of pricing advice based on $100,000 annual income when most of the young photographers I know are thinking “If I could make $15,000 a year I could quit my day job.”

    • Mavi at 9:30 am

      If I want to share my photography with a purpose to start having an income, could you please guide me? To be honest I want to make profit, with my photography, I am not the best,but I cinsider my self good. Than kou

  8. Kruno at 9:33 pm

    Art.com and FineArtAmerica.com are websites and those similar to them that simply have a better model for mass market when it comes to fine art photography selling at the affordable prices.

    You can try to go solo at decent prices: Andy Lee, landscape photographer is a great example of some of the things mentioned in this blog post. Find him on Instagram @andyleeuk or his website: http://www.andylee.co

    But where the real money is being made, you have to forget about art and be a full blown marketer/salesman. Often this means selling your soul and at the point please, stop calling yourself an artist. Is insulting.

    The only thing I would comment is the Vimeo embedded video. Richard Prince is great example or as of all people Damien Hirst said; “Art is about life and the art world is about money.”

    What art market is good at judging is what is good for the market, not necessarily what is good for the artist or the art itself. The art market functions much like any other market. Art market has not interest in increasing knowledge about art for the knowledge sake. It doesn’t even have interest in art for art sake. It has interest in art market for profit sake. Common good and morality are not the primary interests if its even an interest at all, much like in any capitalistic market the goal is to increase profit and continue to drive sales with whatever means necessary. Often the practices are unethical and even illegal, especially in the contemporary art market which is unregulated.

    Andy Warhol was right when he said: “Art is what you can get away with.” because it captures the essence of what the art world has become. Think about contemporary art market as simply well oiled money making machine that is unregulated, and thrives on marketing schemes. I has virtually nothing to do with art, would be naive. Quite divorced from an average person selling prints of their fine art photographs. Rules are quite different, so I’m not sure that the video really helps the article. Perhaps you can replace it with a more relevant one.

  9. The Broke Dad at 2:48 am

    Before I read this post I had no idea something like this would generate such a heated debate. I have been considering trying to sell some of my images, clueless as to how to go about doing that still, but I felt if I could get even $5 for one of my pictures I would be doing well. I would never have thought putting a price of $100 on one of my photos to be even something that would even generate much more then a laugh from anyone. Yes I can totally understand an legitimate and trained photographer or artist asking a fair price for their work and maybe $100 is what they consider fair but they are trained or accomplished artists, people will pay for their work regardless if I am selling my amateur stuff for $5. I am not going to damage their profit margin with my photos. Yes my photos look amazing to me, but to someone who has the money to spend on real art they can tell the difference between what I do and what a professional does. At least I feel like they would be able to tell.
    Well thanks for sharing this, makes one think for sure.
    The Broke Dad

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