Selling Travel Photography Today

By Lee Foster

Each year the world of selling travel photography evolves in incremental ways. Most of the current evolution requires that the sellers become more resilient and more inventive to survive. The traditional market for travel photography continues to deteriorate. Prices are down. Only the more vigorous providers continue to survive as for-profit entities. On the bright side, new modes of selling, such as apps and multimedia products, have emerged.

Here are the most relevant things a travel photographer can do to survive and participate in the curent market:

-Continue to work directly with the travel photo editors in the top magazines. There are fewer of them now and their prices are falling a little, but major magazines are still a large market. My own recent sales to Smithsonian and Budget Travel, as examples, are an illustration of this effort. When one of these blue chip magazines folds, the effects are unfortunate. When National Geographic Adventure folded in December 2009, I lost an incremental market. I had five sales to them in 2008-2009 for about $1,500. Determine the top 100 magazines that use travel by Googling “top 250 magazines by circulation.” Separate out those that are likely to use travel. Then begin building your personal relationships with photo editors, which will take time. By top magazine, I mean those that pay $250 for a quarter-page photo.

-Develop your own robust personal photo-selling web site to interact directly with photo editors. The most sophisticated publishing platform that I am aware of is the one offered by PhotoShelter, and I have my site with them at Renting from them the space and the software costs me about $600/year, but the starter fee with them for a small site might be $200/year. If you look at my site, you can see some of the functionality that will be required to complete in the modern photo-selling world. Some details:

-The site can be Searched for photos. This is an elementary requirement.
-Clients can make galleries, or I can make galleries for clients. Galleries work a little better than lightboxes in the PhotoShelter system. A photo editor can batch download from a gallery.
-Clients can instantly download a hi-res of any image at any time. If I put a client in my “Trusted Client” category, they can do this. I consider this functionality a requirement. Photo editors are busy people. When I have their attention, I want to make their life easy. I see the download. I can keep in touch with them and bill them with a QuickBooks invoice when the photo use is confirmed. These photo editors will not rip me off. My photos are registered, so there would be major liability issues for un-authorized use.
-My site is Search Engine Optimized or SEO. PhotoShelter has its own elaborate software for this. It’s tricky. It would be extremely difficult to do on your own. PhotoShelter gives away its full SEO kit for anyone interested. Their idea: The more you know about this, the more likely you are to want to work with them. Even with their SEO, I find it difficult to attract the unknown client via Google Search. This will always be an ongoing quest.
-Consumers can buy prints with a turnkey system. I become aware of their purchase when PayPal sends me an email that I’ve Got Money. A consumer drags a photo to the shopping cart and checks out, seeing the options of Prints, Products, and Personal licenses. The consumer pays up front through PayPal. I set the price for my prints, knowing up front my manufacturing cost. I don’t have to do any new work to get the sale. I set my price at roughly double the manufacturing charge. I am not involved in the fulfillment.
-Consumers can buy products, such as a photo on cards or on a coffee mug. This works just like the prints. The consumer chooses what is wanted and pays in advance through PayPal. A facility in Atlanta handles the manufacture and fulfillment. The process is fully automated. As with prints, I set the price. As mentioned, I am not invovled in the fulfillment.
-Consumers can buy “personal licenses” for the use of my photos on their blogs and school projects. I set my price here at $2.99. Two students at the Savannah School of Design, for example, used some of my photos for their school projects. Many photographers overlook the potential of these small sales, which I feel could be frequent.

-Integrate your photo-selling site into your writing-selling site, if you happen to have both. I do. See Here I present my travel writing/photography on 200 worldwide subjects. I also present my 10 books (and 4 apps) with a full ecommerce opportunity to get an autographed book from the author. Note the ways in which my two sites are integrated.

-My PhotoShelter site provides slideshow illustrations for my articles.
-My writing site showcases photos for consumer sales.
-My writing site includes a Search capacity for the photos of my PhotoSelter site.
-The combination of writing/photography together makes it easier for me to license packages to editors.

-Invest in agency relationships because agencies are where photo buyers are going for most of their images.

You will want to place some photos in the agencies because agencies are getting a large percentage of the sales in travel photos. Many photo editors prefer to deal with agencies only, and for reasons. Agencies can provide a wide range of photos. Agencies may be able to offer one-stop shopping. Agencies also have simplified payment systems for a large number of photos. The paperwork an editor has for dealing with many providers is a hassle. Agencies also can sell to ranges of clients that I can’t possibly sell to myself. For example, Alamy gets a number of sales for me to magazines in the Russian Federation. I don’t know those magazines and would have a difficult time selling to them direct. Lonely Planet Images has sold a lot of my photos to Yahoo Japan. Similarly, I don’t have a contact with Yahoo, much less Yahoo Japan. The agency to start with is Alamy. They will accept everyone. The important caveat with Alamy is that your photos must adhere to fairly exacting technical standards. Learn how to process a photo for Alamy, and you will have mastered the technical details to work with any agency.

-Be aware that photo buyer behavior is changing rapidly. To sell photos, the photo seller must have photos that are relevant and that are visible where photo buyers are looking for them. Photo buyer behavior is changing rapidly. One index of this is a system of photo buying information set up by Ann Guilfoyle, called AGPIX. For about 15 years I subscribed to this daily service, a distribution point for photo buyers to get their requests out. The subscription costs me about $500/year. Up until a few years ago, this was a primary gateway for the posting of photo buyer requests. A magazine such as National Geographic Traveler would post its requests, which would then go to perhaps 500 top agencies and individual photographers who subscribed. On a good day there might be 10 viable requests from major magazines. But all this has changed, gradually. As of 2010, it seemed that AGPIX had more days with No Requests than with requests. Requests presented became ever more obscure, such as “yellow-bellied gerbils mating” rather than “iconic photos of San Antonio.” So I dropped my subscription. Both the magazine and the textbook markets are in incremental decline. Photo buyers are now going to agencies and to their select list of individual photographers with known resources. They are not freely giving out their requests to a mass audience, as in the past. Cultivating personal relationships with photo buyers and having truly useful images, rather than second-rate images that waste their precious time, is more important than ever.

-Attention to correct metadata in the photo will be critical for your success in selling photos. One of the major ironies of modern photo selling is that most travel images are now sold because of words. Before the editor looks at a photo, he or she has keyed in a word to find that photo. Some keywords involving place would be obvious, such as “San Francisco” for San Francisco photos. But “family traveling” would be trickier. Concepts, such as “vastness,” could be extremely difficult to find. If one wanted to see travel photos suggesting “vastness,” only those photos that have “vastness” as a word in the metadata keyword field would come up. The art of putting in the most advantageous “File Info” in Photoshop and Lightroom requires an ongoing and developing skill set of keywording nuances. One frustration is that different agencies require varying metadata. You must also think of the optimal metadata to sell photos yourself, with your own Search capacity in your own web site. So you will want to put in the most advantageous set of metadata information applicable to as many of your distribution points as possible. Later you may need to go in and tweak photo metadata for particular agencies.

-Travel photography in books remains a viable market. I’ve had two new travel photo books out recently, both with Countryman Press. They are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington, D.C. The latter is co-authored with Ann Purcell. Books have a special place in the spectrum of travel content products. They are substantial and tactile. You can hold them in your hand. You can sell them autographed to people for reasonable amounts of money, perhaps $14.95. They have their own aesthetic value. I have had photos in more than 225 Lonely Planet guidebooks, and they are the largest publisher of travel books in the world. I receive a small payment from them every time a photo appears in a new edition of any book. Travel photos in books also serve as an advertisement that you have major coverage on a subject and that you can execute a book-size project successfully. Facsimile e-books of your photo books may allow for the distribution of book content to a far larger audience than is possible with printed books. But the decision to make an ebook will depend on your contract with a traditional publisher. The impulse to do travel photo books independently becomes stronger as authors wish to control and manage their ebook opportunities.

-Apps and multimedia may become prime markets in the future. Just as books are a nod to the past, apps are the product of the future. The iPhone is as revolutionary a device as the personal computer was in 1980. The iPhone brings to fruition the promise of the personal computer in a highly portable format. I believe these sophisticated mobile phone computers will change our lives in many, profound ways. So I want to be there with my app products in our travel journalism field. My first app release, in December 2009, was San Francisco Travel Photo Guide ($2.99). I described 100 iconic views in San Francisco, indicating how to photograph them or simply enjoy them. That app became a best seller in the Apple iTunes App Store, selling a thousand copies in the month of May. I subsequently released two more photo-internsive apps, all in partnership with Sutro Media, titled Washington DC Travel Photo Guide and Berkeley Essential Guide. Because all the photography in the apps is my own (as opposed to photos that might be culled from Creative Commons on Flickr), the apps become a showcase of my photo capabilities, providing editors with a sample of what I can offer and the knowledge that everything in my products can be licensed securely. With my do-it-all strategy, consumers also get a uniform experience of quality images, something that can’t be guaranteed if the product depends on free photo handouts.

Multimedia products are another new category, combining still photos, voice, and video. I began some work in this area with Soundslides slideshows two years ago. However, I paused in as I redeveloped my html website into a modern WordPress web site. Although the multimedia market in editorial outlets is still developing, it is clear that multimedia sales to consumers (perhaps via YouTube) and to travel providers will be a major market. In my Northern California area there are numerous Convention and Visitors Bureaus, lodgings/B&Bs, restaurants, wineries, and travel attractions that will need a multimedia package for their web sites. I have colleagues moving their photo production in that direction. I will probably remain focused on selling my objective travel journalism to consumers. But others will prosper selling their multimedia products to travel providers.

That completes my observations on selling travel photography today. The discussion will evolve, with each month and year, as we look ahead. The technology changes around us are destined to make the selling of travel photography a highly volatile subject.

(Note: Lee Foster presents several instructional articles on his web site. If you find this instruction useful, you are encouraged to make a contribution/donation of $1 or more to Lee Foster’s PayPal account at [email protected] Funds will be used to develop further such instruction.)