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Finding an Audience for Your Photos

by Harold Davis, January 2011 (updated June 2011)

Column Series Intro | Using Email to Find an Audience | Harnessing the Power of Flickr | Using Twitter to Find an Audience for Your Photos

Intro Image: High rankings in Google Images have driven interest in this photo of mine, leading to a number of lucrative licensing deals for the image (and my related photos).

Every time I get together with a group of serious photographers, sooner or later the talk turns to how tough it is to make a living as a photographer, and how things are only getting harder. There’s some truth to this—but then again it has always been hard to make money as a photographer.

True, if you ignore the digital era trends that are ongoing and in place—and there will be more on the specifics of these trends later in this column—you will fall by the wayside and get lost in the shuffle. There is no doubt that the world is changing, and has changed irrevocably, and we all feel it. But these changes bring great opportunities, as well as challenges.

Taking advantage of these opportunities requires a change of attitude—as well as mastery of an entirely new digital tool set that has more to do with social media and marketing than with photography.

The purpose of this new series of columns is to help you with both of these aspects using digital era tools to find an audience for your photography. Come with me on this digital journey—I’ll be your guide through the sometimes perplexing digital maze while helping you find your unique photographic voice.

As a photographer, my work has been widely published and recognized, and I am the creator of two photography book series for major publishers. I have written a story in my blog, www.digitalfieldguide.com/blog, almost every day since early 2005. My opt-in-only email list has thousands of subscribers.

It is less well-known in the photography world that I am also the author of three books about Google, including Google Advertising Tools, now in its second edition, and the O’Reilly Media white paper about Search Engine Marketing (SEO). I have been a software developer and worked for technology companies.

I understand photography and the new era of digital marketing from both sides of the equation—photography and the technology of the Internet and social marketing. But nobody knows everything. To create a richer information mix for you to profit from—creatively and practically—I have interviewed outstanding photographers who have learned to navigate this digital world. They are all also excellent authors of books about photography. I asked them the questions that you might want to ask.

My interview subjects for this series of articles will include Michael Clark, David duChemin, Vincent Versace, and others. These professionals have all succeeded in different ways due to their creative entrepreneurial spirit, as well as their manifest gifts as photographers.

This first column sets the stage for a series of articles about finding an audience for your photography in the digital era. Subsequent columns will drill-down and cover some of the specific areas in much greater detail—but only if you care! Please let my editors at Photo.net know that this subject interests you by opening and reopening this article many times (only kidding!), sharing it on your favorite social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and—most important—using the comments feature to ask the questions that most interest you so I can try to answer them. Also, while you are at it, please comment to let me know which of the topics in this column you’d like me to drill down on.

The World Is Changing

The transition to digital, the rise of microstock, the race to the bottom of certain kinds of stock photography prices, and the demise of some large magazines have made life difficult for many photographers. There is increased competition from amateurs. In some areas there are fewer opportunities, and the prices that one can charge for some kinds of imagery and assignment work have diminished.

But the lowered cost of digital than film, greater control of the production process from beginning to end, and easy access to vast new audiences have at the same time created great opportunities for photographers who are willing to go with the flow. Distinguished nature photographer Mike Spinak puts it this way in a recent blog story: “Despite the dire pronouncements, it’s not all doom and gloom… [P]hoto needs are rising, equipment prices are dropping, quality is rising, markets are opening up, and the friction which hinders transactions is disappearing. The world is constantly shifting, and there have always been those decrying that it’s the end of the good old days. In some ways, perhaps; in others, the opposite is true.”

Spinak hits the nail on the head when he notes that the world is always changing. No doubt, portrait painters decried the advent of photography as bad for business. Yet we live in especially interesting times, where the rate of change may be happening more quickly than it is easy to deal with. In this context, it’s worth noting the well-known (but probably apocryphal) Chinese curse—may you live in interesting times.

Taking advantage of the new opportunities, and not getting side-swiped by the changing environment, means understanding who you are and what your market is. Your market, as we’ll discuss, is better contextualized as thinking about your audience. You’ll also need to be able to use the tools that social networking and the Internet put at our disposal.

It also takes a willingness to nurture your entrepreneurial side. Yes, we artists and photographers need to be entrepreneurs—and your photography business is a business, with a crucial difference. If you run out of money, your photography will stall. But photography can never be solely about making money. There are far easier ways to make money. Vision, image making, community, and having something to say all play a role, too.

For example, if you are interested in publishing a book with a trade publisher, you’ll find these days that the publisher expects photographers to have what they call a “platform”—an existing audience who will buy your book. (You’ll find more information about getting a photo book published in two of my Photo.net columns, Creating Photo Books, and Creating a Photo Book Proposal.) Essentially, this arrangement proposes a kind of entrepreneurial partnership between a publisher and a photographer-author. You can use some of the social media tools that I explain to help build your own platform, applicable to book publishing and many other ventures.

Figure 2: After seeing this image of mine on Flickr, an art director at HarperCollins selected it for use as a wrap-around cover.


About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »

Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.

Article revised June 2011.

Readers' Comments

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Will Davidson , January 25, 2011; 02:56 P.M.

Excellent article, clear, easily followed and timely-Looking forward to the next addition!

Will Davidson

Nadia Aikins , January 25, 2011; 03:39 P.M.

This is fantastic!  Definitely want to hear more about all of this.  Personally, I'm especially interested in the emails/newsletters column, and hearing how you've dealt with illegal use of your photos.  Please, please continue with this wonderful info!

Terry Klippenstein , January 25, 2011; 06:04 P.M.

I've heard about the value of social networks for photographers, but don't understand how to make the most of them. Looking forward to more on that, and on how to establish an audience. 

Bill d , January 25, 2011; 09:25 P.M.

I enjoyed your article very much.  Am very interested in learning how one could apply this information to a photography gallery coop.

Krystian Safjan , January 26, 2011; 02:37 A.M.

I have read this article with great attention and there are issues that stimulated my curiosity: dealing with illegal use of photos shared in Internet, using good-old emailing to promote your photography and considerations on strategies for increasing visibility using Facebook (taking into account their policies for usage of posted photos. Looking forward for continuation of this topic!

Karin De Winter , January 26, 2011; 07:01 A.M.

Very intresting article, and promising series ! Am especially looking forward to in depth comments on the sharing sites and social media section as regarding to expanding of audience, but also concerning copyrights and interaction. Best regards.

Andrew Boyd , January 26, 2011; 10:30 A.M.

Great article...and with lots of teaser material about what's coming! You've really gotten us drooling for more!


Doug Williams , January 27, 2011; 11:50 P.M.

Excellent intro, I am looking forward to the rest. One idea I got after reading this was how things have changed. Not only film v. digital but that one does not have to live in New York or Los Angeles to make a living as a photographer. I live in a very remote area of Northern California. Can you say a little about how these new ways of seeing and being seen can effect how people in remote areas can develop a  large audience beyond the fact that the internet allows your work to be viewed by many more people than would be able to see your work otherwise.



Harold Davis , January 28, 2011; 12:49 A.M.

Thanks everyone for all the great comments, feedback, and suggestions! Keep it coming. I'll try to address as many of the issues raised in future columns as I can---they are all relevant and useful.

Gerard Monteux , January 28, 2011; 11:42 A.M.

Excellent stuff!  Tell me more about how to BLOG!


Gerard Monteux


Hancock, ME

Wayne Melia , January 30, 2011; 12:14 A.M.

Thank you.

Excellent article, as usual from you. Looking forward to more.

Juliet Chase , February 01, 2011; 12:23 P.M.

Thanks so much for this - I'm looking forward to the rest of the series! It would be really helpful to know more about the title image (the plum blossom) in context of the techniques to come-so many stock photo sites say "no more flowers! and even where they are allowed they can get lost easily,  so details would be much appreciated.

Harold Davis , February 01, 2011; 01:26 P.M.

Blogging and Stock

Thanks for the comments. Gerard, I will go into mechanics in a future column, but the key thing in blogging is to have something to say, and to speak from the heart.

Juliet, thanks for your comment and suggestion (that is, that I should write a column in the series on licensing and stock). I am anti-stock. To clarify, stock sales can work for someone who has been doing it a long time and has a huge library. However, portions of the industry are involved in a classic "race to the bottom." More importantly, once you classify your work as "stock" it is no longer "art"---and you've lost your differentiator, the most important reason for creating it, and a key lever in the ability to license it. More on this in a future column.

Sri Reddy , February 24, 2011; 04:56 P.M.

Wonderful article.. I am very new to this but surely love to see my pictures appreciated. I would like to know how to get my Flickr Photostream noticed and also Photo.net portfolio?

Jeff Clow , March 29, 2011; 01:23 P.M.

Nice recap of how you've used the new world order of the internet to make your stuff stand out in the crowded marketplace, Harold.

And it doesn't hurt that you take darn good photos.....

Phil Connor , August 04, 2011; 10:22 A.M.

A great, great article ... I'll be interested in all subsequent articles in the series .. thanks for sharing ... looking forward to the next installment already ...

Monica Jones , August 05, 2011; 10:45 P.M.

Great intro. I am interested in learning more about how using Flickr or Photo.net can lead to interest in licensing deals and assignments etc. Thank you!

James Doherty , January 23, 2012; 03:23 P.M.

Excellent article! I look forward to reading more about Social Networking for Photographers. Thank you.

Jean Halter Clink , February 10, 2012; 10:32 A.M.

I really appreciate your articles, and your understanding that your audience is not primarily looking for a market or a place in the stock photo business (which might be just right for some folks as a way to put food on the table).

Your photos are stunningly beautiful and I hope to learn from your blog and the critiques of the others on this website.

Harold Davis , February 10, 2012; 11:50 A.M.

Thanks Jean I reeally appreciate your comment!

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