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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  Business & The Web

Web-based Photography Business

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 12156
1 Introduction  (492)
2 First Steps  (1102)
       2.1 Join Existing Websites  (809)
              2.1.1 Sales: Very Basic  (322)
       2.2 Outsourcing Web Development  (698)
       2.3 Building Your Own Website  (393)
              2.3.1 The Easy Way  (785)
3 Deciding on Design and Content  (1713)
4 Search Engines: The Holy Grail of Web Traffic  (325)
       4.1 Making Your Site Important  (419)
       4.2 Back to Basics  (458)
5 Images Online: Promote them!  (664)
       5.1 Watermarking Images  (242)
       5.2 Sold Images  (201)
6 Sales: Payment Methods  (874)
7 Communication/Contact with Visitors  (305)
       7.1 Emailing: Newsletters and Announcements  (599)
8 E-Commerce and Shopping Carts  (1491)
9 Summary (264)

This page has 35 images dated from
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1 Introduction

Business on the Net
horizontal, screenshot, screenshot, photograph
In this era of digital imaging and information technology, some sort of presence on the web is absolutely mandatory for every photographer. Whether it's just a simple portfolio page with contact information, or a full-blown storefront, you not only have to use the web, but not using it can hurt your business. Imagine going to a doctor that doesn't believe in X-Rays. That's how most people feel about photographers that don't have a website. Depending on the type of photography you do, the web may play a larger or smaller role. For some, it may act as a business card or a portfolio; for others, it can be an entire online repository where orders are fulfilled.

The sword cuts both ways. While the advantages can be considerable, following a poor strategy in implementing an online presence can be costly in time, money and lost opportunity. So, it's imperative to understand your objectives ahead of time. This doesn't mean you have to know how it's going to look and function from the beginning; you can and should approach this slowly, in a step-wise fashion. What appears simple and easy at first can be overwhelming, so try not to bite off more than you can chew.

Scotland in Black and White
england, europe, scotland, trees, tunnel, united kingdom, vertical, photograph
Note: I do not discuss the technical details of how to build websites. Entire books have been written on that subject, and simple research yields many that can quite helpful. My only word of caution, however, is to be discerning in your sources. More specifically, looking to other pro photographers as role models can be fraught with problems. First, most pros who have nice-looking websites may not necessarily be doing good business there. More often than not, successful photographers these days became so well before the days of the web, so by the time they implemented a web presence, they already had an existing business that could not only finance the effort, but they had the photo assets necessary (not to mention name recognition) to justify a more prominent placement. Most books written by photographers on the subject also fall into this category as well. While there's nothing wrong with that, they often pitch themselves as having secrets to success that really don't exist. The web is an inherently difficult and volatile business model, and there are no proven strategies that can be easily mimicked. As my favorite saying goes, "if it were that easy, everyone would do it."

A better way to learn how to build websites is from sources that are not trying to sell a business model. Books that teach about the technology and the paradigms behind the web are the most useful because you can apply them to whatever business model you're developing. Also keep in mind that photo businesses vary dramatically from one to the next, and there is no one-size-fits-all methodology for them, let alone how you build or design a website.

Rising above it all
europe, hikers, silhouettes, switzerland, vertical, photograph
Let's start by addressing the most common questions people have when they consider using the web for their photo business:

  1. How long does it take to develop a good website?
  2. How many images does it require before you can get online sales?
  3. How good do images have to be to sell them?
  4. Can I expect to make a living online?
  5. Can't I just have a gallery of pictures where people click on a shopping cart and order them?

It may not surprise you to know that there are no answers to those questions. There are no formulas, no quick equations, and most of all, no empirical data to support sweeping design formats that are proven to garner a successful website. Therefore, one person's experience should not necessarily be held up as a model for others to follow. That said, there are small, more subtler guidelines based on emerging findings (that span many industries, not just photography) that support the notion that certain design elements are more effective than others. Like any science in an emerging field of study, it's easier to identify what doesn't work than what does, such as unsolicited emailing, to name an obvious one. However, even just a few short years ago, these very techniques were thought to be the best tactics for drawing web traffic. The challenge is to find those "known" techniques, and to utilize them (or avoid them) in combination with the your particular business type. This type of analysis must be individualized for each photographer. Professing a "formula" for success at this point would be selling snake oil. This fact may disappoint those who seek quick and easy solutions, but if you read this chapter carefully and thoughtfully, you'll see there is some diamond dust in the coal.

Serving Japanese Food (1)
(Takayama, Hido, Japan)
asia, foods, japan, japanese, nagase, serving, takayama, vertical, photograph
For context, I'll present my story: I started my website in 1996 after I placed some poor scans of my vacation pictures online for friends and family to see where I was and what I did. (See The Yucat&aactute;n, Peninsula, Mexico.) Needless to say, it never dawned on me to consider a career in photography; I did it for fun. But, as time went on, my interest in photography grew along with my photo skills. The one thing I had going for me was a strong software and internet background, so I knew how to develop websites using a plain text editor. (Back then, that's all you could do.) The other advantage was that I actually bothered to use the internet, at a time when every single pro photographer and interest group said that the internet was not only a bad model for business, but were dubious as to whether you could make things worse for yourself because your images would be available for anyone to steal. Because I wasn't really serious about business, I didn't care if people "stole" my images, I basically ignored these warnings. Ironically, as I'll elucidate later, it was this very act that propelled my photos, and then my website, into broader public awareness. This, as it turned out, is what created my business opportunity.

Because this ill-perceived notion by professionals about the web, I had very little competition on the net in the mid-1990s, allowing my business to grow at a much more accelerated rate, than if the professional community had adopted the net sooner. On the other hand, I wasn't a very good photographer either, so it sort of leveled the playing field. But this is also what taught an invaluable lesson: quality is not as important as other factors when it comes to the photo business.

As I became a better photographer, and increased the quantity of images, my business spiked upwards in 2000; I was getting about 2000 visitors a month to my website, with about $1000 a month in sales. Now, in December 2004, I get about 10 thousand visitors a day which has over 18,000 images. These photos represent a small percentage of my entire photo collection, which exceeds 300,000 images. (I never expect to put them all online.) I add about 5,000 pictures to my collection every quarter; when I'm not traveling, I manage to get another several thousand a year in various local shoots and personal projects.

That's my story, but it is by no means representative of the typical one as there is no "typical" story yet. I do not necessarily pitch my experiences as the secret to success, because I know it's not that simple. However, there are things to learn from what I've gone through, along with general lessons, which are all discussed here. One of those first lessons is to understand what people do when they come to your site, why they're there in the first place, and what frame of mind they're in.

Rosengarten Valley (4)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, dolomites, europe, horizontal, italy, rosengarten, valley, photograph
First, the premise of your site is not like that of amazon.com, where most people already know what they're looking for and just want to buy it. The exact opposite will happen for you: if people come to your site, 99% of the time, it's because they stumbled into it. Hence, they are not in a buying mood. While the impulse purchase may happen from time to time, it's an extreme exception that you should not depend on for sales. Most importantly, you can't push them into this mindset by designing your site with a pushy selling style. It will not enhance those rare impulse buyers; they only turn people away. Worse, you may deter potential clients that may want to license images or hire you for an assignment. We'll get back into visitor mindset again later.

As for timeframes, getting your site up and functional depends on how much you want to do (just a portfolio, or do you want to sell pictures?). This is why it's important for you to have a sense for your overall business objectives first. The options for getting your images online are many, so the long-term timeframe cannot be pinpointed. However, since it's easy to get images online in some manner within a few hours, it may be merely pragmatism that you get the quick and easy work out of the way first, and then re-examine your web strategy as your business evolves. It can take a day to get a basic website up that has your name and info, and it can take years to have a full-fledged shopping site. The wide spectrum in between will come in stages.

For these, let's discuss some options for how you can get started:

Flowers on Wall (3)
(Aix en Provence, Provence, France)
aix en provence, colors, europe, flowers, france, green, nature, provence, vertical, walls, yellow, photograph
The simplest way to get your images online is merely to use existing websites that feature the work of photographers. Here, you aren't really building a site at all; just getting your images onto other, more established sites. This means that you must either have your images in digital format already, or a plan to scan film.

Since most sites allow you to customize and populate "your area" of the site with your own photos and contact information, this beginning step is "good enough" for even the most skittish beginner. Most are free to use (you only need to register), ranging from well-known names, like Yahoo (www.flickr.com) and Microsoft (http://photos.msn.com/), as well as more focused sites, like www.photo.net and www.smugmug.com. There are other specialty sites as well, for wedding photographers, portrait shooters, fashion (for both the photograph and the model), and so on. A simple web search yields many options. The two drawbacks to using photo-forum websites are:

blue-bullet.gif Customers will not find you.

While you may get a lot of visits from other photographers that also share the site (and it's rare that photographers buy others' work), no one else will find you. Most traffic that comes to a typical website is the result of people submitting keywords to search engines. But, search engines do not index photo sites like this, so people looking for pictures online are not likely to find yours.

blue-bullet.gif You can't sell your pictures.

Dan and Penny (6)
(Greenbrae, California, USA)
august, dans, horizontal, parties, penny, personal, photograph
These sites are designed for photo enthusiasts, not business, so you're not going to appeal to the typical photo buyer. Not only will the appearance be non-business-like, but you won't have business infrastructure, like a shopping cart system for taking orders.

Neither of these "drawbacks" are a surprise—these sites aren't designed to be anything more than this. It's sort of like buying a car: you have to know ahead of time that you have to know how to drive and where you're going. You don't expect to buy a car and just get in and be driven around by it. Sure, you can hire a driver, but you still need to direct them. The same is true of these websites for photographers: know what you're buying. I suggest them because they are great for getting started, but you have to spend more of your time marketing yourself through more traditional, non-internet methods. How you do that depends greatly on the kind of business you're running. A wedding and portrait business might do well with newspaper and phone book ads than a website for advertising and generating business, but that doesn't dismiss the importance of having a web presence. Here, a site would be used as a sales support mechanism, though. That is, customers will do their "due diligence" on you by looking at your site. If you don't have a site or any sort of presence, that could work against you.

Whatever you do, I strongly advise against putting your images on photo sites for which you implicitly grant "usage rights" to the company that is hosting your photos, unless you are given some sort of commission in return. That is, some sites will use your images for commercial use, and give you a commission when your images are used. While it's a great idea, the business model is unproven as yet. (That said, I've got my eye on the trend—it could be promising.) Even then, not all sites are equal. I've seen an emerging number of sites that sell cards and other trinkets that have photos in them, and pay the contributing photographer a royalty based on the number of images sold. You should read the license terms of any given site before joining up, and also probe discussion forums for independent accounts from others who may have experienced the site.

Galapagos Flycatcher (2)
(Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador)
birds, ecuador, equator, flycatcher, galapagos, galapagos islands, horizontal, latin america, miscellaneous, photograph
A similar (but not entirely identical) brand of website as the above is the photographer community website. Again, the usual suspects are well-known and highly visible, such as Microsoft Photography Forums (http://groups.msn.com/browse.msnw?catid=124), There are hundreds, perhaps thousands more, as they come and go as rapidly as the internet evolves. You should always use a good search engine to find sites that suit your tastes. As with all these sites, you can display your photos, but the real benefit to the "community" sites is that you can interact with other photographers through discussions, question/answer forums, and photo critiques. (In fact, even if you don't post your own photos, these sites are good for this reason anyway.)

As is always the case with online communities, be a critical thinker: not everything that everyone says is gospel, or even true. You are advised to spread your time among many forums to gather the broadest set of possible truths.

As I noted, most photo community sites do not allow you to sell your own photos. There are some exceptions to this, and one is www.shutterfly.com, which is one of many that do the following: you sign up as a "professional photographer" (which requires an application and approval process). Once accepted, you then upload your photos and set your own prices on prints. You can direct people to your gallery on their site, and visitors can place orders themselves for the size and format of each print. The advantages are clear: you don't have to build a website, and you don't have to be part of the ordering or printing/delivery process. Customers pay shutterfly directly, who will print and ship orders. You'll get your check after each month's worth of sales. (This applies to prints only—they don't handle licensing of photos.)

All sounds good right? Well, there are drawbacks, and it doesn't apply only to Shutterfly; just about every site that does this sort of thing suffers these drawbacks. The main one is that these sites are designed for one kind of shooter: the "event photographer." For example, if you just shot a wedding, you could just upload your pictures to the site, and then tell your clients to go there to order all the prints they like. You don't have to do anything beyond that. Unless you're that kind of shooter, the usefulness of such sites is limited. Paper sizes are fixed, and styles are limited (often to only one of glossy or matte finish), which may not match your artwork. Customer service—like the rest of the site—is really designed for consumers, not pros, so you're not going to get the kind of attention you may need to help your customers, if there's a problem. And, once again, search engines never index those sites, so you're never going to be seen by anyone whom you don't explicitly inform.

Tree vw Bug Building
(Ashland, Oregon, USA)
america, ashland, bricks, bug, buildings, colors, green, materials, nature, north america, oregon, plants, red, trees, united states, vertical, photograph
Eventually, you may find the above options either too limiting, or inappropriate in other ways, which means you need to have your own website, complete with your own domain name. There are two ways to accomplish this: do it yourself, or hire someone else to do it.

First, a general statement about outsourcing that applies to any and all businesses: You often hear about large companies saving lots of money by outsourcing work to foreign countries with cheap labor. As a byproduct of that, many contractors pitch themselves as workers with focused expertise that can save a company money. But there's a fine line between short-term and long-term savings, and this isn't just limited to money. There's time an efficiency to consider. In reality, small companies who outsource do it far more than they should. People assume that business is just a set of widgets stuck together in the right way. It doesn't work that way; companies succeed because individuals within them have particular motivation and loyalty that cannot be reproduced by those whose compensation model is built on an ever-expanding workload that maximizes hours paid. It's not that people are dishonest; it's just the wrong kind of incentive to start a working relationship. And yes, such outsourced workers can do a good job, but a good company outsources only the most basic tasks—those not mission-critical to executing a business plan. Accountants and lawyers perform important tasks, but they don't produce the actual service or mission-critical tasks that differentiate a company from its competitors. Those tasks should not be outsourced.

So, when it comes to outsourcing the job of designing and building your website, the decision has everything to do with scope: Are you designing a complex shopping site where your success or failure is dependent on how well this site works? And if so, how cost-effective is it to hire someone else, vs. learning to do it yourself, or hiring someone as an employee (where they aren't always on the lookout for the next paying client, as most contractors tend to be)?

Alternatively, if you're just looking to build a platform to display your own photos and provide contact information, then in this day and age, personal websites are easy and cost-effective to do yourself. There are free products that produce very good websites. Adobe's "Bridge" can set up a fairly simple page of images in a few minutes; their paid-for programs are increasingly more useful. In fact, you can say that of any modern web application these days. But, anything more than that, and you will probably find that finer details become increasingly more important, requiring more of your time and attention to oversee development. There eventually come a cross-over between whether you're actually saving time and money using and outside developer, or whether you should do it yourself.

If you're undecided, or feel you want to start with one and migrate to the other, here's what to be aware of: the more you want to do, the further outside of your skills or interests you drift. If you intend to follow through, great, but there comes a point where it may make sense to outsource the job to a web designer. But buyer beware: this path comes with risk.

To begin, understand that both photographers and web designers are artistic in nature, in which case, there may be control issues. You may think you want to step back from the process and let the expert do his work, but this is rarely sustainable. Sure, the first part of the job goes quickly and smoothly because it's just a matter of setting up foundations (the site's structure and basic functionality). This is why outsourcing the job is adequate for photographers who do not depend heavily on the web, or have very ambitious plans.

In the spirit of the step-wise approach to developing the web part of your business, it may make sense to hire an outsider to do the initial groundwork, with the understanding that you will eventually take over. How soon that happens is more dependent on your technical aptitude, or your willingness to develop it.

Being Your Own Boss
(Tokyo, Kanto, Japan)
asia, black and white, couch, horizontal, japan, self-portrait, tour group, photograph
When I got started in this business, building a website required technical knowledge and programming expertise, so I learned HTML (the language that describes what a page page looks like) and edited it by hand using a standard text editor. I also had to program the back-end functionality, so that when someone clicked on a shopping cart icon, it would do the right thing. Yes, it's a lot of work and took a lot of time, but it turned in to a very nicely customized solution that served exactly my needs. And, because I wrote it all, it's very easy (and free) to maintain.

Today, with automated software pre-built for you, building a website, even from the ground up, is not hard anymore, nor does not necessarily have to cost a lot or take a lot of time. As we'll soon discuss, there are ways to get sites up and running instantly, and for free. But the "price" come in the form of limitations, flexibility and perhaps performance (bugs). In the end, there is a tradeoff between these; the more you assume control and responsibility for your website, the longer it'll take and the harder it will be, but the longer-term benefits may outweigh them. Conversely, taking the easy way out in the beginning will get you up and going quickly, but your growth will stagnate sooner.

For those with a strong technical background, I enthusiastically recommend that doing it yourself. For everyone else, I recommend it so long as you feel comfortable with whatever tools are available. As time goes on, more and more tools (and websites) are increasingly becoming available to do this task, each requiring less and less expertise and effort. When I originally wrote this article, there were no such tools. A few years later, there were simple tools that non-programmers could do easily, but not your average consumer. Today, there are numerous tools that can be used by virtually anyone. As a consequence, however, other issues come into play that may or may not make any one of them worthwhile.

If you are not going to have a major web presence, you may opt for a minimalist site that you can do using most word processors today, and uploaded to a web service provider. Let's review some options:

The Easy Way:
Have Someone Else Do It
(california, USA)
apr, babies, boys, check, diapers, infant, jacks, vertical, photograph
Most internet service providers (ISPs) give you web space and tools to create web pages as part of your service agreement. If you go to your ISP's home page, you'll probably see a member login link, where you'll see information on how to create your pages.

One of the pitfalls of going this route is that you website is under the banner of some other larger organization, and you'll be limited in how much you can build the site and grow it with your business. To break out of those restrictions, you can go towards a web hosting company, whose business it is to host websites like yours for a monthly fee. This is what I do. I have used www.peer1.com in the past, but now use www.serverbeach.com, but these choices are entirely arbitrary. I neither recommend for or against them; there are many in the field, and prices and service offerings change daily. In my case, I choose to administer my own server, so I chose companies that offer such solutions. But the downside is that you won't have the easy, sexy tools like those from AOL and Earthlink to build your site. What's more, it requires a moderate amount of technical expertise to know how to administer your own site. Here, you're entirely on your own. That said, if you have the technical know-how to administer a web server, you've got more than enough skills to use some evolving products that are designed to build photo web sites. One such product is http://gallery.menalto.com/, which has the added benefit that it's free. You can only use this product (and those like it) on web servers that you administer. You can't integrate it onto your AOL account, for example.

Other programs that go even further include www.PicturesPro.com or www.Pickpic.com, each of which provide shopping cart interfaces to existing photo sites. Are these for you? I'll answer that question with a question: do you know what PHP and MySQL are and how to configure them? If so, then yes, these programs would be very suitable. If not, you may need to consider other options for enabling your website to sell photos. For that, see the section on e-commerce below.

Narrow Alley
(Sorano, Tuscany, Italy)
alleys, europe, italy, narrow, sorano, towns, tuscany, vertical, photograph
If you're going to host your own site, the first thing you'll need to do is choose your domain name. I recommend using a name that's easy to remember, and especially one that's associated with you. I chose to use my own name, simply because it's the easiest way for people to remember my site name. This may not work if your name is hard to say or spell. On the same note, people with extremely common names may find their name already in use by another site owned by someone with the same name. In these cases, you have the arduous and frustrating job of finding a good, creative name to use as your domain name. This can take many days before you're happy, so get started soon.

There are plenty of professional level tools that let you build websites from the ground up. Adobe's Dreamweaver and Fireworks, or Microsoft's Expression Web (http://www.microsoft.com/expression/products/overview.aspx?key=web) are typical examples of such tools, and are probably the most common for those who build larger web sites, whether they are individuals or professionals.

However, those programs are really generalized for any kind of site, and while they may be robust and powerful, it's sort of like riding a motorcycle. You may not need all that power and flexibility if you don't need it—you could easily go beyond your capabilities and be worse for wear. As noted earlier, there are more and more tools specifically for photographers, and many are worth looking into. Examples include:
red-bullet.gif  http://lightboxphoto.com
red-bullet.gif  http://www.ktools.net (PhotoStore)
red-bullet.gif  http://www.imagefolio.com

Each of these has features and capabilities that are geared specifically to photographers, but they vary considerably in feature sets and what level of technical skill you have. (Some are easier than others, and PhotoStore actually offers the service of doing it all for you, including the web-hosting part.)

In summary, the time and attention you devote to your website should be in proportion to its importance to your business. In other words, never hand over critical business tasks that generate income to others. Things like tax and legal issues are not revenue-generators, so hand those off to professionals as needed (but make sure you know what they're doing). If your web space is part of how you generate income, you need to have tight control over this process. If the web is not mission-critical—for example, it's just for your portfolio—then having someone else build it is fine.

Pooches and their Many Moods
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, sammy, vertical, yawn, photograph
Numerous books have been written on the tasks of web design, and many more will be written before you're done reading this. Most are very good in general design aspects and technical details, but none address the niche of a photography website. What may be good design for some sites (even most sites), may not necessarily be appropriate for a good photo site. In that spirit, here are some fundamental guidelines that should apply to a well-designed website (all other advice notwithstanding):

checkbox-big.gif Keep the quality of your images as high as possible.

Because you're a photo site, it's plain obvious that bad images degrade the experience of going to your site. What constitutes a good or bad image is the hard part, because it's entirely subjective, and there's no way anyone can figure that out for you. However, the underlying issue is saleability: what images can be sold? Remember, you yourself are solely responsible for what you think are good images. How good your self-assessment is will ultimately be told by your sales figures.

checkbox-big.gif Quantity is just as important as quality.

Populating your site with as much good content as you can is critical. The more quantity you have, the more content search engines have to index your site. This translates directly into more traffic. But, the more quantity you have, the more important quality becomes. More of a good thing, in this case, is good. But more of a bad thing can be disastrous. So, beware of just throwing a lot of content on your site because you have it.

St. Pats Fisheye (2)
(New York City, New York, USA)
america, fisheye, horizontal, new york, new york city, north america, pats, st patricks, united states, photograph

checkbox-big.gif Use reasonable Image Sizes

More people in the USA use high-speed internet access via DSL or Cable Modem than dial-up. What's more, serious buyers are usually in companies with even faster internet access than home users. The days of designing sites optimized for low-speed modems are gone. The size of the thumbnails you use for low-res images don't have to be all that small, but they shouldn't be too big either if they're together with other images on a single page. The issue is a matter of site design, not the speed in which a page loads. You can dilute the quality of a page with too much "noise," just as you can under whelm the visitor with too little to chew on.

checkbox-big.gif Navigation should be easy.

You'd be surprised how painful it is to come up with a design that makes it easy for a complete idiot to use a website. Visitors do not read plain instructions, or see the menu bar across the top, or realize that an icon does what you think it does. There are some de-facto standards, such as using a shopping-cart icon to represent a purchase point, but there are very few of these rules to rely on. So, as you go through the design process, expect to make changes frequently as you discover the "use" habits of your visitor base. (If you've hired a designer, keep your costs in mind here, and don't necessarily believe they know best. If that were the case, every website on the net would be designed identically.)

People often make the mistake of designing their site with their own web-habits in mind, or based solely on artistic reasons, where design prevails over substance or usability. My most important rule of thumb is this: going from any one part of your site to another should require as few clicks as possible.

checkbox-big.gif Have good content besides images, if possible.

Photos are great, but if you can add something (of substance), then it can help. If you can write, give advice, provide helpful links, tell stories, or make your site useful, your site just becomes more popular. What's more, search engines have more content by which to index you. (We dive into this later.)

checkbox-big.gif Don't have a "login page" before accessing content.

Also, don't require people to "register" for anything (except, perhaps for opt-in newsletters, etc.). Statistics show that sites that require registration or any sort of "agreement" to enter are abandoned by a margin of three to one. Similarly, don't have an opening "splash page" (an intro screen or photo) whose only purpose is to offer the user a "click to enter" button. It just wastes time.
Portraits 13 (b&w)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
animals, beach dogs, black and white, canine, dogs, portraits, square format, photograph

checkbox-big.gif Avoid reliance on Flash.

Flash is fine for aesthetics, it's really just style over substance. It's not that I advise against it, but sites that have no other access than to view them with Flash are statistically prone to lose more visitors than they keep. One reason for this is that Flash is not well indexed by search engines, so you're unlikely to increase your traffic from those sites. And they account for up to 95% of most photographers' visitor traffic.

Also, as the internet becomes more accessible across non-computing devices (like touch-screens, phones, etc.), not every aspect of the traditional mouse/keyboard based UI will be present. In short, be judicious about using flashy technology, and try to assure that your site has cross-platform compatibility.

checkbox-big.gif Don't use pop-up windows (ads, slide-shows, etc).

It should go without saying in this day and age that pop-up ads on websites are a sure way to lose customers. Because of this problem, people use pop-up blockers to prevent any window from coming up, including those that aren't ads. You may be tempted to use extra windows to display images separately (such as enlargements, slide shows or other material you really want the user to see), but the user's browser is more likely block them, and you won't know it. So, keep everything in the same browser window all the time.

Also, do not resize windows. The user has his browser at a size that he likes to use. You are not to change the size of the window if you want to keep this visitor.

checkbox-big.gif Don't be pushy.

Nothing turns off people more than a hard sell. Don't use big fonts, flashy graphics, exclamation points, glaring money-saving offers, and by all means, don't design your site as if you expect the person to buy something right off the bat. Providing a shopping cart icon next to each photo is sufficient.

Miracle Mile Buildings (1)
(Chicago, Illinois, USA)
america, buildings, chicago, horizontal, illinois, mile, miracle, north america, united states, photograph

checkbox-big.gif Identify yourself without being arrogant.

Obviously, you want to let people know who you are, and you should provide as much contact info as you can to be informative. Many people advise putting up a bio or resume, but be conscientious about how you portray yourself. Referring to yourself in the third person often appears pretentious. Example:

    "Dan Heller started his photo business from his modest, rat-infested studio apartment that didn't even have heat or running water. Yet, through his artistic craft and enduring love for photography, he has become the successful artist for which he is beloved today..."

See how stupid that sounds? Don't do that. Humility is a very attractive quality, and talking about yourself in the first person underscores that quality. Example:

    "I started my business at home at a hobbyist and eventually found my inspiration in my travels."

This sounds much more believable. The one occasion where you should write about yourself in the third person is when you are writing text for someone else to print about you. If you're going to hang your pictures in a café, or on someone else's website who is featuring your work, those are the times to do it.

checkbox-big.gif Be active in the community (forums, etc.).

Being active on the Net, discussion forums, newsgroups, photo-related websites, and outside photographer communities (photo clubs, etc.) not only helps your career and knowledge evolution, but also gets you noticed. Whenever you participate, your name is out there, and search engines figure this out fast. Of course, there’s a twist to this. You actually have to contribute good, useful, interesting stuff. Posting ad nauseum without substance tends to get your name weeded out, which hurts your rankings. Also, your reputation can evoke bad things to be written, which also get indexed. You may not be running for governor someday, but you still need to be conscientious of what you put out to the world.

checkbox-big.gif Don't worry about letting people use your images.

Stealing is one thing, promotion is another. While you want to protect yourself from theft, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater by prohibiting or discouraging people from downloading your photos. If you warn people not to download your pictures, you just might be discouraging a graphic designer from using one of your images as a mock-up for an ad layout they're going to propose to a client. This usually turns into big business, and you don't want to stand in the way of that.

The money to be made in this business comes from customers who license high-resolution images for use in some sort of media (print or digital). Worrying about downloaded images is putting a huge amount of effort into a slim segment of the business model that yields little money at all. Sure, you can and should sell low-res images to people who license them for web use, but that business will come, protections notwithstanding. That said, you do want to watermark your images (using your image editing software) to put your name and website on your low-res images, so that you and others can identify your images. This is the extent to which this issue should occupy your concerns.

Don't forget that you're a photographer, and the web advertises you. While it was never my intent, it turns out that one of my most effective marketing strategies is to let people spread my images around. These are like free ads that lead people back to my site. (25% of my web traffic is via links from non-search engine sites.) As long as your images have an identifying copyright mark that incorporates your web address visibly, you're going to get a reasonable return of traffic. Private use of my images is the greatest conduit for getting those images in front of the eyes of buyers. Those buyers are either from commercial sites that want to use images for licensing, or individuals who buy art.

(Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA)
america, north america, snow, square format, united states, winter, wyoming, yellowstone, photograph
I've mentioned copiously throughout this chapter the value of search engines. These account for 75% of my traffic, but most new sites rely on search engine traffic exclusively. For example, go to www.google.com and type "photos of sunsets" and look at the first page of results. Most people will look at this first page only, and as they visit each one, they either find what they want, or they search again using different search terms. If you advertise or engage in other self-promotion that brings people to your site, that's great. You should do what you can to optimize this kind of visibility. However, nothing you can do will yield the kind of traffic that comes as a result of a highly ranked placement on search results pages like this.

Therefore, the question that most people ask is, "what are the secrets to getting search engines to rank me higher?" That's not an easy answer. Problem is, whenever someone thinks of a sneaky way to artificially raise their site's rankings in search results, everyone does it, leveling the field once again. The easiest thing to do is simply buy advertising space on the search engines so that you are guaranteed placement. But, that can be costly, and if your business isn't general enough to appeal to a wide demographic, you could be paying for a lot of traffic that doesn't turn into sales.

There are ways to help your site improve its rankings, but there are no guarantees. Whatever there is to learn, it's all abundantly available on the Help pages of all the major search engines. You don't want to buy into those email offers that will submit your website to the top 100 search engines for some number of dollars per year (a simple task you can do yourself). Note: getting your site indexed is not hard. Getting it ranked highly is.

Wide Open Beach (5)
(Carmel, California, USA)
beaches, california, carmel, horizontal, open, west coast, western usa, wide, photograph
Assuming two sites are identical in quality, quantity and design, we cannot necessarily assume they are ranked equally by search engines. The reason for this is that rankings are also set by how many important sites link to it. Read carefully: it's not just the total number of links, but the number of important sites. This distinction illustrates how important it is to promote your site, but not just anywhere—you need to get it linked to on other important sites. More often than not, these sites are highly-trafficked sites, like photo forums, discussion boards, news sites, industry associations, trade groups, or even high-profile clients. When you license photos, request clients to link back to your site. If you participate in photo critiques or reviews, your website should be part of your signature. If people see you from there, and they talk about your in new discussion groups, your rankings go up.

This "secret" is not really a secret, per se. However, there is a penalty for implementing it wrong. For example, "link-back programs," (where sites agree to exchange links with as many sites as possible) attempt to raise the rankings of sites artificially by merely cooperating with others to maintain reciprocal links. Since this adds no value for those who are searching for legitimately good content, this scheme doesn't work. In fact, sites with "artificially high linking" are ranked lower than sites that don't participate in such schemes. Although my web logs indicate that about 75% of my traffic comes from search engines, those engines are more likely to rank my pages higher because the sites that link to my page are also ranked highly.

Now, let's not fool each other: getting important sites to link to yours is really, really hard. But, as with the other items noted, it's the natural by-product of good content, and active participation in other net activities discussed above. If your images are visible and people want to use them, if people are talking about you, if you are talking to others, and you are doing everything else associated with building your broader business model, then important sites will eventually link in your direction. How long this takes is anyone's guess. Some people are better at self-promotion than others. It took me about three years before any of the pages on my site created enough interest to rank highly. And even to this day, not every page on my site is highly ranked.

ylw-text.gif magnifier.gif
The Ghost Town of
Bodie, California
antiques, bodie, california, dept, fire, ghost town, square format, west coast, western usa, photograph
Content comes in three basic forms: quality, quantity and design. First and foremost: quality. The fact that I have marketable material that appeals to the broader general public is pivotal to my success. In my case, I also try to have as much diversity as possible. If I were to only have black and white photos of abstract swatches of cloth, I probably wouldn't have the traffic and interest that I do now. But even diversity isn't enough—it has to be "good." Yet, judging that isn't easy, because it isn't consistently the same for everyone. Lest we forget the first rule of artwork: "to each his own." There is a reality about what does and doesn't sell, but it's not always easy to grasp due to cultural and artistic variances. At the end of the day, it's whether your notion of what's good matches those who visit your site. It should be stressed that you should be honest with yourself about the choices you make in what you put online. Be proud, but realistic.

Next is quantity. Whoever said, "too much of a good thing is bad," never designed a website. Having quality images is one thing, but it's the volumes of them that attract more and more traffic. Similarly, uniqueness helps. By that, I don't necessarily mean that images are unique from other photographers; what I mean is that you should strive to have photos that are unique from each other. I've seen people post 25 pictures of the same, great looking image, but this isn't helping. (An example of this is on the page, Camping out and the Mandarin Hotel, San Francisco, California.) So, combining quality and quantity only makes sense if the net sum of it all is a unique enough package that holds visitors' interests.

Now that we've covered quality and quantity, it's time to focus on actual design. That is, organizing the images coherently with an intuitive navigation so people can find what they want with the fewest number of mouse clicks. How does this affect your site rankings in search results? Remember, if other people link to you, your rankings are higher. Other people will link to you if you have a site that's attractive, but useful. Design involves aesthetics, but that's something photographers almost always put ahead of functionality, so I should warn not to neglect functionality, which can make or break your site's popularity. (Many photographer media organizations have awards for web site design, and the winners are almost always those with great-looking and impressive design work, but whose functionality is so limited, that it bring very little actual business... that is, to the photographer. The web designers usually fare pretty well.)

(New York City, New York, USA)
america, gabe, new york, new york city, north america, streets, united states, vertical, photograph
In keeping with the spirit of the previous section, here's the lesson: When it comes to promoting yourself, your greatest asset is your photography. Use them to promote yourself. As you will soon learn, I am rather liberal about how I allow my images to be used on the web, including allowing people to download/access my images, and how I make no attempts to stop this. Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting that you don't protect your images or make no effort to stop unauthorized use. (I'll address that later.) I'm just saying that, in the grand scheme of things, there are tradeoffs that must be considered before choosing to keep your images in a locked box. Before going further, I strongly recommend copyrighting your images. This is an amazingly simple process, discussed in Starting a Photography Business. I've seen a lot of resistance to putting high-res images on websites, leaving only the smaller thumbnails for visitors to see. The motivation for this is born out of the concern that images will be "stolen." Understandable. So the question then becomes: how big do your images have to be before they become "worth stealing?" Also, it's not just a matter of size, there are other usability considerations as well. Let's address the size issue first.

Long ago, I felt that it was important to keep people from downloading "bigger" pictures in violation of my copyright. When people complained that they just wanted to see them bigger, I wrote it off as a reasonable tradeoff between allowing photos to be seen "well enough," and having them stolen. But, the impact on business never really hit me till I got an email from someone that said, "we can't use your images to layout a page we're considering for an ad campaign, and time is tight; can you get us a higher res image to use as a prototype?" Because I was away on assignment, I couldn't get to this right away, and they had to go somewhere else.


Punishment for Downloading Images
(Havana, Cuba)
black and white, caribbean, childrens, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, people, schoolgirls, south america, vertical, photograph
So, I started linking my low-res images to a higher-res version of the image, and I placed my copyright mark on the side. (See Starting a Photography Business for more on how and why such techniques are used in conjunction with your business.) This "higher resolution" image was only 550 pixels in the long dimension: big enough to see in detail, but nothing that could be copied for print use. I felt I was happy that I was now able to accommodate a potential client's workflow by allowing them access to what they needed so as to close business. The better lesson had yet to occur: bigger images encourage longer visits, more page views, and more interest, all of which translate to more business. The average time people stayed on my site increased from two minutes to thirty. Pageviews per visit went from twelve to 35. About a month later, orders for prints not only increased, but became a lot less erratic, and have been ever since. What's more, the rate is consistent: I've found that the amount of traffic, the number of emails and the number of orders directly and proportionally increases with the number of high-quality/desirable images on my site.

Best of all is efficiency. Rather than having to deal with every request for a high-res image, the work is already done, and I can spend my time more doing other things. I don't need to monitor every potential client; just respond to those who order. In other words, Don't irritate your real potential customers. They shouldn't need to contact you to download comps, and if they do, you've inserted an annoying and unnecessary (and worst of all, time-consuming) step into their workflow. Worse, they're interfering with your workflow. (If you have time to deal with constant requests like that, you aren't spending time doing far more important things.)

Killaloe Houses (3)
(Kilaloe, Shannon, Ireland)
county shannon, dublin, europe, horizontal, houses, ireland, irish, killaloe, long exposure, shannon, shannon river, photograph
There are various ways to "mark" your images so as to identify them as yours. The obvious method is to use a visible watermark, which is a copyright symbol, name, or other identifying features, digitally superimposed on the image itself. (You see this on all my images.) This is not only useful for identifying the image's owner, but makes the image less useful in any commercial context. Because someone can "crop" the watermark out (by cropping the image), some choose to avoid this by placing the mark on the center of the image. Problem is, doing so often interferes too much with the image's aesthetic, making it (subtly perhaps) less desirable. I actually had a client that bought one of my images over that of another photographer because his was too difficult to see.

How much to "obscure" the image to protect it from being "stolen" in a usable way, and how much to leave it unimpeded so as to maximize the image's saleability is a cost-benefit analysis. Me, I choose the minimal imposition in favor of happier clients. If a client requests a series of even higher resolution images as samples, I'll send them larger versions, but with the watermark in the center. This tradeoff only goes so far. I trust the client, but images can find their way into the hands of people I don't trust. Print-ready high-res images are definitely worth protecting.

Sunsets in Tanzania
africa, sunsets, tanzania, vertical, photograph
So much of this discussion has revolved around the issue of protecting images (and websites) from clients before they buy. So, what can you do to protect images after they're sold? You have to deliver a clean image, right? And once you do, it's out there. How do you know your client is going to protect your images from being stolen by someone else? Or that it won't somehow end up floating around the net, into other companies' hands, or be used by the same company in ways they didn't license? The awful answer is: you can't. This business is all about trust. You can protect yourself with legal language in license agreements as deterrents, or using digital watermarking to make sure you can track images on the web. But, as stated before, web use isn't going to bring in the big dollars, thereby hardly making the time and effort as worthwhile to the bottom line as other business-building activities. The best thing you can do is make sure you have a good working relationship with the company that licenses your photos. (That, and make sure you work with people who don't give you the creeps.)

Bay Watch Sign
(Da Nang, Vietnam)
asia, bay, beaches, danang, horizontal, signs, vietnam, watches, photograph
When designing your site, the highest hurdle you'll face is that of taking payment. At first, it appears easy: just get a phone number and call them to arrange for a check. But then, you figure people like using credit cards, not to mention the sense that the easier you make it, the more the sales come in. There is some truth to the notion that "ease of payment promotes sales," but, as has been the case with everything we address, it's not that simple.

One can certainly do lots of "good" business on the net without accepting credit cards. Implementing the technical side of credit card payment has its pros and cons, so your decision isn't "if" as much as it is a matter of timing. If the overhead and technical barriers of accepting credit cards is holding you back, checks are (and will be) just fine. In fact, I only just started accepting credit cards in June, 2003, well after I'd past the milestone of $5000/month in print sales back in 1999. Until that point, everyone sent me checks, and even though people would ask if I accepted credit cards, I can't think of any serious buyer that didn't purchase because I didn't accept cards. Sure, I may have missed some spontaneous "impulse purchasers," but then, I also don't use price points that spark an impromptu purchase. So, for me, that artifact didn't apply. Again, my business model may not match yours. If you sell lots of low-priced consumer products, then accepting credit cards should be on your list of necessities for your site.

Horse Shoe Panoramic
(Iguazu, Argentina)
argentina, falls, fisheye lens, horizontal, horses, iguazu, latin america, panoramic, shoes, water, waterfalls, photograph
The key ingredient here is discerning the difference between an impulse purchase, and a consultive sale. In an impulse purchase, a credit card makes it quick and easy, so anything that interferes with this process disrupts that impulse. If it's quick and easy, there are people who will buy. This isn't the case for the consultive sale, where people want to talk and discuss an item before they lay out the big bucks. Once they decide, sending a check or using a credit card is usually irrelevant.

When the time comes that you want to take credit cards, there are two ways to go about it. First, there is the merchant bank approach. This is just like any other bank, but instead of their clients being everyday people like you and me, they are businesses. (The larger consumer banks also offer merchant banking services as well.) So, if you are a business, have a tax ID, and have a resale license from your state's franchise tax board, you can apply for a merchant banking account. With this account, you will get the necessary tools to accept credit card payments. That's great, but it also sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? We'll get back to that in a minute.

Legs and Hammock
(Nassau, Bahamas)
bahamas, capital, capital city, caribbean, chairs, cities, hammock, horizontal, island-nation, islands, legs, nassau, nation, resort, royal bahamian, sandals, tropics, vacation, photograph
Another payment option is Pay Pal. This is a convenience that many find useful, because you can avoid much of the administrative overhead of this part of your business because you'd be paying Pay Pal to do it for you. But there's a price for this convenience. The way it works is rather simple: rather than your accepting credit cards, Pay Pal interfaces with the customer and takes payment on your behalf, depositing the funds in your account (minus their fees). What those fees are varies, but it can be as high as 3% of each sale. That's not bad, actually, especially for not requiring any of the licenses and forms that a standard merchant bank would require. What's more, Pay Pal's fees have been drifting lower as competition with the merchant banks heats up. (Note: when comparing rates to merchant banks, keep in mind that the "low" rates that banks charge are usually for "card present" transactions, where you swipe the card with a reader. Rates for internet transactions are going to be much higher, which makes Pay Pal's rates not seem to bad.)

Granted, you eventually have to get licenses and permits for your business anyway, but when you have to do that is sort of sketchy, much the same way that there's a wide grey line between when you're a "real business" or just an elaborate hobby that happens to get a little income. Hobbies don't require licenses. (For more on this discussion, see Starting a Photography Business.) The point is, you can begin by taking credit cards through Pay Pal before you get those licenses, and then move over to handling your own transactions as the fees justify it. But, regardless of where you finally end up down the road, beginners should almost assuredly avoid running credit card transactions entirely until a stable and moderately consistent sales trend is established. This has nothing to do with fees or anything else; it's a matter of biting off more than you can chew in your site's initial development. You can can delay or even prevent your site from ever getting going if you try to deal with too much. Don't worry that you may be losing sales because you don't take credit cards; you're not missing anything in the beginning.

Love Your Customers...
(Venice, Italy)
closeup, couples, europe, italy, kissing, people, venecia, venezia, venice, vertical, photograph
Bringing people to your site is one thing, keeping them is harder, and having them come back is the hardest. This is why it's important to provide a quick, unobtrusive way to get feedback from them, to be responsive to them when they do contact you, and most of all, to be able to maintain contact.

A great way to solicit feedback on your site is to have a feedback form, a page where people can type anything they like and click a "submit" button, which emails their statement to you. Sure, they can send email, but people seem to be drawn to forms. (I've found that feedback forms generate more feedback than email links at the rate of 15:1.) Once you've bought into the "forms" idea, options open up. You can have people rank images or reply to surveys—people LOVE voicing opinions. The simpler the form, the better: "check boxes" and "lists" get even better return rates because people don't have to type. Very early in my web-life I had a checkbox under every single photo where people could check whether they liked it or not. This not only generated good feedback (it keeps people longer because they like the interactivity), but you can also get an accurate sense of how many visitors you get. You may not know the percentage of the total traffic is filling out the forms, but you do know that the more you get, the higher your traffic is growing. One valuable lesson I learned was that there is almost NO correlation between images that were overwhelmingly praised or disdained with higher or lower sales. (I rarely see any sales from what I think are my best photos, and I'm often nodding my head in disbelief when people buy really mediocre pictures.)

..But don't screw them
artsie, europe, horizontal, horses, portugal, signs, western europe, photograph
People love contacting photographers about their work, and it's your duty to reply to each and every one of them. Anytime someone asks a question, I reply to it personally. If they have a comment, I almost always reply to those too. Of course, you have use your time judiciously, which is the hard part. (You can't and shouldn't reply to every 4th grader who asks whether sand in the Sahara Desert really was shipped in from Arizona, despite a joke I once had on my website.) When I answer emails, it's amazing how much positive feedback I get from people that simply say, "wow, I never thought I'd get a response from you!" I can appreciate that—I'm offended (and bewildered) when I email a photographer about how much I like his/her work, and they simply don't reply. It shows arrogance, even if that wasn't their intention. This begs the question: does replying to email generate sales? No. But, it is good PR, and as your career evolves, so does your reputation. It's very important to maintain humility throughout your career in this field.

I have an "opt-in" email list that I use to keep in touch with those who want to hear from me. But be careful: in these days of spam and other unsolicited email, you can kill your business if you don't handle email properly. If you do send bulk messages out, make sure you only send to those who want to receive them. What's more, give clear instructions on how to get off your mailing list. (Some who signs up will forget by the time you get around to a newsletter, and then think they're getting spam.)

Jill (b&w) (2)
(Millenium Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA)
america, black and white, bricks, chicago, crown fountains, glow, illinois, jills, lights, materials, millenium park, nite, north america, rain, umbrellas, united states, vertical, weather, photograph
Unsolicited emails increase your chances of having your entire domain added to spam registries' blacklists. These are used by most spam filters on most major ISPs, from America Online and hotmail, down to your local neighborhood portal. Once on such a list (and there are many registries), any message you send, even your legitimate ones, may be filtered before your recipient even knows you sent it. Getting off those lists is extremely difficult, so tread carefully in this area. If you had thoughts of getting one of those bulk email programs, or even accessing mailing lists of photographers, galleries or other sources, think again.

Sending unsolicited, but individually personalized email to lists of art directors and photo editors is another story. Here, you don't have to worry about being accused of sending spam, but you will probably be ignored. There are success stories of photographers who solicit business this way—I know of one person who tried for four years using this method when his jackpot was finally hit: he got a big contract with a major department store, and they shipped him around the country shooting events, models, and other on-location spots. All of this yielded him about $20,000. Great gig, but he had no other business at all for four years. On average, he could have probably invested his time more wisely elsewhere.

It takes time for an opt-in email list to grow, but these people invariably become great contacts for continual feedback, support and even critique. Many may become clients, too. I send out a newsletter once or twice a year, and most people tell me that isn't often enough. (Truth is, I just don't have the time.) If you update your site with new images often enough, that might be a good excuse to reach out to your email base.

image (3828)
(Stinson Beach, California, United States)
california, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, prenup photos, stinson beach, wedding, west coast, western usa, photograph
When people think of a shopping cart, they think of how the websites of retail companies work: visitors place a number of photos into the cart, prices are automatically calculated, a payment screen is provided, an invoice and/or receipt is created, and the product is delivered. In the case of a photo site, this means either that a high-res images is shipped to a printing service, or it's made available to download to the client. The advantage is that all of this is automated, convenient for the customer, and easy on you. However, this technology comes at a price: it's complicated.

No wonder then, in a recent conversation with a colleague about why he doesn't sell stock images on his website, he said he was looking at some packages that do shopping carts, but added, "I could not devote any time to really figuring them out until I did my newsletter, shored up some business, and finished a couple of projects."

There are two problems with this response: The simpler one is the false impression that a shopping cart is actually necessary in order to do sales, which itself implies a general misunderstanding of how people buy stock images. I'll get to that shortly. But the broader problem—and perhaps a more important one for career-development—is that people should do projects that have the longer-lasting benefits first, and save the short-term projects for later. A newsletter is short-term because it only generates business within the next few days. Implementing a sales mechanism into your website has a longer time-horizon, because it generates revenue long after you've completed the task.

Hokitika Drama Building
(Hokitika, New Zealand)
buildings, drama, hokitika, horizontal, new zealand, photograph
Of course, there is another reality to contend with. My colleague's economic condition is one many can identify with: he needs money now, and projects that have longer-term payoffs don't pay today's bills. This is where career-planning is important. You shouldn't get yourself too dependent on short-term income; you need to build a business infrastructure early on so that, over time, it generates business for you while you're doing other things. Otherwise, you'll find yourself in an endless cycle of constantly chasing short-term (and often low-paying) business opportunities, and your business never grows. (For more on this, see Photography and Business Sense.)

This is where e-commerce comes into play. It's not only important to have it, it should be done as soon as possible. Every visitor to a site that doesn't have a shopping cart is a potential missed opportunity. (True, some people will still contact you to ask about buying, but these will buy anyway—it's everyone else you need to think about.) The good news is that building a very basic, bare-bones ordering mechanism sufficient for most visitors is easy.

Why is "basic" good enough? Unlike the perception that most photographers have about stock photography—that millions of monthly visitors go to the websites of major stock agencies to buy millions of images—most real people don't buy photos that way. Stock agencies generally focus their marketing efforts on traditional advertisers and media companies, who have very particular and precise business models. This, as opposed to buyers that end up on most photographers' websites who landed there as a result of a keyword search from a general search engine. These users don't need multiple photos; they usually only need the one that they were looking for. Also, unlike media outlets who need photos "right away", most users don't; they're happy to wait a few hours, a day, or often longer. Therefore, most photographers don't need the degree of sophistication that most shopping cart applications have for websites. And, that level of automation, as my friend at the beginning of this article points out, requires considerable time and effort to figure out, and then integrate into an existing website. (That is, unless if you're not already technically proficient.) So, a shopping cart "system" really isn't needed by most individual photographers.

Vltava Charles Bridge
(Prague, Czech Republic)
bridge, charles, czech republic, europe, horizontal, long exposure, prague, vltava, vltava river, photograph
Besides, there can be other reasons why you wouldn't want to have a site be totally automated. For example, I view each and every order to assure that the order can be delivered in the first place. There may be circumstances of the photo that may prohibit or limit the sale, such as a photo of a person that isn't released, or if an image already has a semi-exclusive license. In such cases, I wouldn't want to run the transaction or deliver an image. Building in such decision-making algorithms into the database that a real shopping cart application would use would be an incredibly onerous task. Making the decisions manually on a case-by-case basis is much easier and more time-efficient.

Remember, you're not a stock agency with millions of images and visitors. My bet is that even the most active stock photographers who represent their own works get no more than a few orders per day. Fulfilling orders manually takes only moments, and all those moments will never exceed the time necessary to learn about shopping cart software to the uninitiated.

So, the best thing to do is have a simple shopping cart "icon" next to each image that simply provides the visitor a form to fill out. It has the price for the image (say, as a grid of radio buttons with different resolutions and prices) and fields for billing and payment info. When submitted, you get an email with the values of the fields the user filled in. This sort of HTML form is the most basic web-building feature that is provided by all applications that build basic websites. You can even write it by hand using sample HTML code found in any introductory HTML book (or online).

Grapes (1)
(Seillans, Provence, France)
branches, colors, europe, france, grapes, green, irises, leaves, nature, plants, provence, purple, seillans, trees, valley, vertical, photograph
It may surprise you that my site gets about 20,000 visitors a day, and I host almost 40,000 images, each of which can be licensed for stock usage or sold as prints. And though it appears I have shopping cart, I don't—it just looks like I do. For the first five years of my business, I used exactly the method I just described above, with revenues up to $5000/month in sales. All this using sample "form" code that I copied from a how-to book on HTML.

What about credit cards, you ask? Yes, you should still get a merchant account for credit card payments, and you can still have people input their credit card numbers when placing an order. Again, that's just what I did, too. But it doesn't mean you have to figure out how to get your site to process payment. You'd just do it manually: just login to your merchant bank's website and run the transaction using their own online processing form using your customer's data.

Incidentally, I never fulfill an order (print or license) unless and until payment is made. Only certain repeat clients get net-30 payment terms. Delivering photos without payment first is a sure way to eat up your time chasing that money later. That's a business decision I came to midway through my online career—it's just a better management of time, and I found I wasn't losing sales. Yes, clients can often ask, or even whine and complain, but if your site doesn't provide the option of getting an image without payment, customers stop whining and just input a credit card. That may not be the case for your business, but that's beyond the scope of this discussion.

(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, couples, horizontal, people, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
As for the expediency that an automated shopping cart system provides, in my empirical experience, the lack of "immediate download" has only caused a handful of lost opportunities over the course of time.

Of course, I'm not saying that shopping cart software is overblown, nor do I mean to imply it's never needed. If you're technical enough to employ one without spending too much time and effort figuring it out and integrating it into your site, that's great. There are also several website building applications specifically designed for photographers that have shopping cart features built in. Mind you, these aren't applications easily managed by technophobes, or even the moderately technical. You have to understand at least enough to manage a web server in the first place.

Whatever you do, remember that the successful photographer is one who genuinely understands where to best invest time and resources, so if you're seriously weighing the benefits of all the costs (tangible and intangible) of e-commerce, don't do just what you see others do. Take a good, hard look at what you need, and don't do more than necessary. That said, don't avoid monetizing your content just because it may seem challenging. If you have a site at all, then you have the wherewithal to build some kind of faux shopping cart—at least, insofar as the visitor knows it. When you've done that, then go write your newsletter and tell everyone to come and buy something.

Door and Ladder
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Having a photography business requires some sort of online presence, but how much you need is not etched in stone. Your business model governs the degree in which you should invest in this format. For those more technically adept, the more investment you make in a website, the more dividend you'll receive in the long-run. For photo businesses that focus on consumer services, like portraits or weddings or other events, the most applicable use of the web will be to allow clients to see your previous works, and possibly to order prints from a session they've had with you. But the common denominator for anyone is to have at least a sufficient portfolio that represents who you are and what your business function is.

For those looking to do online sales, your e-commerce solution does not have to be an all-or-nothing approach. It's far more important to build it incrementally as your business develops, rather than tackling your final objectives all at once. As for payment, asking for checks is fine; you won't lose business because you don't accept credit cards. When time and efficiency reaches a certain point where credit cards make more sense, it should be easy to set up because you've already got a reasonably mature site, where "card technology" can integrate in rather seamlessly.

Regardless of what you do online, it should be balanced and integrated with a more broad business model. All aspects of the business require time to evolve, so don't focus on one over another in such a way that drags down progress.

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