Update: 7/12/2014: As mentioned below, this article led to co-authoring a larger article with Joe Nalven and published in the Picked Raw Peeled section of SDVisualArts.net. You can read the full story here.
I'm way past due for a blog article and I have a number of travels and images that really need to be shared. I promise I'll get some up soon...
In the meantime, I was talking with a photographer friend, Joe Nalven, who writes for SDVisualArts.net. We were discussing things like what kind of photography sells best. As it so happened I had just written a response to another photographer acquaintance, Steve, who had the same question. Joe encouraged me to put my response in my blog. So here it is...
Steve had asked "I was just curious of what your thoughts are on what people like, in general, of photos that they buy. You’ve been selling your photos and you’ve known others that have sold theirs. What seems to be the continual money makers even though they may be cliché or just regular shots to shoot?"
Here was my answer:
You'd probably get a lot of different answers from different photographers on this one. There are lots of schools of thought backed up with real world results. For example, many would say "shoot local." People buy locally familiar images as well as visitors desiring something to remember their trip by. Good advise I think; but for me, I'm not really motivated or impressed by what is in my local area (aside from a few things). My inspiration comes from traveling to other places and seeing new things.
That brings me to my world view on selling my photography (ie, my art); which is to shoot what you love. Regardless of how sellable it might be. There are buyers for every genre of art. If you like to take candid shots of locals in Costa Rica, then by all means do so. And, if you do it well, there'll be someone to buy it. Anyway, that's my philosophy.
As for my practical experience... I mostly like to shoot Landscapes and Nature. Next to that, I like to shoot Travel and Architecture. So, this is what I sell. If it's good, and it resonates with a buyer, it will sell. Actually, from monitoring other photographer's sales (at the same shows I'm selling at) I'd say that "resonates" is even more important than how good it is. That's to say, is there a connection with the potential buyer? A lot of my sales happened because my buyer visited that place and connected with my image (which was better than images they took, if they took any at all). Of course they also had to love that place in the first place.
So what makes it good and resonate? I find the image needs to be both familiar and Iconic. I know that sounds cliche and common, but that's what sells. There's a reason that postcards seem to have the same kinds of images. They're iconic. I like iconic! That doesn't mean you can't try and also make it yours by changing up a few things--which is a whole other topic of how to do that. All of this applies equally with nature (plants and animals) and other kinds of images. Does it resonate with the buyer?
I've also discovered that although iconic sells well, it often doesn't win photo contests. Judges don't seem to care much about iconic or familiar. In fact, they're bored with the same old stuff, so they look for a completely different set of metrics, like breaking ubiquitous art rules ("rule of thirds" for example). Something that makes it "novel." Novel sometimes sells, but it doesn't outsell familiar and iconic--at least not from what I've observed. Then there is stock and photo journalistic images, which is a whole other thing (best for another discussion).
When I take my shots of something that really interests me I like to mix things up a little. I'll first shoot for Art, then Contest potential, then Stock potential, and lastly Blog or Journalistic potential. I say 'potential' because I seldom get around to doing all of it, but I can go back later to an archive to pull from. This forces me to view the subject in different ways. What's good for one isn't necessarily good for the other. This also forces you to have a variety of images and avoid "similars" which can become a licensing or stock problem.
So, for the short answer :-) Since I print images that represent familiar, iconic, landscape/nature, and representative of my best work, then a subset of that is what sells best for me. Which as it so happens, the more familiar and iconic it is, the better it sells. Kind of circular isn't it? Specifically, I seem to sell landscape and nature images of the southwest and Hawaii; but that is also what I like to shoot.
People like pretty images. I like pretty images too. They want to hang it on the walls of their home. If you were to buy art, what would you like to hang in your home? I ask it this way because a few other things will determine what sells. Will the colors go with their decor? Will the frame tie it all together? For example, I have a twilight shot of the Napali coast which is very blue overall. It generates a lot of interest, but in the end it isn't purchased often because it's too blue to go in the room they're thinking of.
I have an image of a Hawaiian Sunrise (iconic) with beautiful colors in the sky. It is framed by a palm tree and a silhouette of a bench in the foreground. This sells well for me because buyers have often told me that they see themselves sitting on the bench enjoying the sunrise (could also be considered a sunset). In other words, the image resonates with the buyer. Similar statements have been made about my other best sellers which include images of Zion, Canyonlands, as well as Waterfalls and Seascapes in general.
Sorry I couldn't give a short, straightforward answer. I'm not sure there really is one.