How I Sell Photos Online: Starting a Photography Business

Do you want to sell photos online? There are plenty of ways to make money from photography, but I started an ecommerce photography business selling surf prints from my laptop. I wanted to focus on making a business I could run from anywhere.

In this post, I’ll go over in detail the steps I took to start that business. From coming up with the idea, to working out the details, to getting my photos in front of customers.

So.. take the things I did well and avoid the things I didn’t!

Let’s get into it.

A 4000-word case study on how I started an online photography business, selling prints independent of location. Successes and mistakes!

NOTE – This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase through one of the links, I will make a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only ever link to products that I actually use and honestly recommend. If you choose to use one of the links, I really appreciate the support, but if not, that’s cool too. I hope the post helps you!

Can I sell photos online? The idea

I’ve been a keen surfer for many years, and always dabbled in photography. Putting the two together was a lightbulb moment for me and I’ve been swimming around in the sea with a camera ever since. I love every part of the process (well, maybe apart from the constant stress that is owning a water housing and taking expensive camera equipment into the sea..).

Also, I live in Scotland. There are plenty of amazing surf photographers in the warmer parts of the world, but there aren’t many here. Almost none, in fact (would you believe it)!

I’d been posting my photos on Instagram and getting a good reception, and a few people had started asking me about prints. I’m pretty sure this is how many a photographer’s foray into business begins!

Can I sell photos online? Just got to find the customers.

I won’t lie, when I started posting photos on social media, the idea that I could make a side hustle out of it was already in the back of my mind. I was a little disillusioned with my job and needed somewhere to focus my energy.

As it gained some traction on social media and people showed interest, I started to put some serious thought into how I could make a small business selling prints.

Quick tip: Everyone has a high-quality camera in their pocket nowadays. There is still a demand for stunning images but you’ll need to make people say ‘wow’.

If someone is going to buy your photography, they need to think that they couldn’t take it themselves.Click To Tweet

I’m lucky, most people don’t swim around in the North Sea with a camera!

Research – photography business models

By far the most common type of photography business is service-based. Wedding photographers, pet photographers, headshot photographers etc.

But often, service-based photography businesses overlap into providing products as well. Once you’ve paid your wedding photographer, you’ll probably have to pay them again to get prints of your photos!

Camera
You can do a lot of things with a camera. I probably wouldn’t do this. Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I knew I wanted my business to be as location independent as possible. My unique selling point is that I take photos from the sea in Scotland, so I have to be in Scotland to take the photos. But could I sell printed photos online without being in any particular place? Definitely.

I decided to focus my efforts on selling prints as a product, as opposed to selling photography as a service. This model is scalable (buzzword alert!). You only have so much time available to provide a service and that immediately caps on your income and consumes all your time. To create a product you only spend the time once.

Starting a photography business? I’ve made a checklist to help you out.

The surfing and watersports community in Scotland is small (I’ve tried telling people it’s not that cold, but no-one seems to believe me!). I knew I’d have a better chance of being profitable if I could get my photos in front of people who aren’t surfers as well. A service taking photos in the water would only apply to that small community but I was confident I could market prints beyond it.

I was lucky to not have any direct local competitors. Normally, I’d say this is a pretty big red flag as generally if there is a market then someone will have jumped on it.

Surf photography is such a small niche but photos of the sea are universal. I could see there was a market for my indirect competitors in other areas so I took the plunge anyway.

Google results for surf photography prints.
Almost two million results!

If lots of people are already doing the same thing, there must be money there! I just needed to differentiate myself and find the right audience.

NOTE: The way I reasoned this out is not something I’d suggest anyone else do! If I did again, I’d do much more in-depth market research. Here’s a great post on Medium about software startups, that would be helpful for any business. You don’t want to put hours of work in and then find out no-ones buying what you’re selling.

Looking for inspiration, I checked out the websites of all the surf photographers selling prints I could find. I subscribed to all their newsletters, looking for different ideas I could use and build on for my own unique needs. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery..

Online photo print mockup service.

I borrowed the idea for my Mockup Service from Aaron Chang, a talented water photographer from California. His marketing efforts are a cut above a lot of other surf photographers.

At this stage, I also looked into the different tools I would have to use. I roughly worked out how much money I’d have to put into it, and how much I’d need to make to be in the black.

Apart from money (we all need it), it’s worth thinking about the other ways you might gain value from your business. For me, the skills I’ve learned and the opportunities I’ve opened up are at least as valuable as the money, if not more!

Finding a printer

I’d watched a few videos on drop shipping, where the manufacturer ships directly to the customer. Most of them focus on drop shipping T-shirts, or buying mass goods from the far east and sending them to Amazon, who store and ship them when a sale is made.

I wanted to apply the concept to my idea.

I was doing it myself, and I knew I only had so much time to devote to all the business functions. I definitely didn’t want to be responsible for printing and shipping the prints. I didn’t have the time, the equipment, and I didn’t want to tie myself to a specific location (I was living in a flat.. not ideal!).

At first, I experimented with Pixieset, which is a platform well suited to wedding photographers or people who provide a service and a product. You get a basic website for free and can upload photos in albums.

Pixieset - drop shipping prints.

They partner with various printers and you can pick the products you want to offer. When a customer makes an order, Pixieset takes a small cut and sends the order to the printer. The printer then sends the print to the customer. Totally automated, you just upload your files!

Pixieset is not a website platform though. It’s used for selling prints and digital downloads, but you can’t use it for a full website with content.

One of the printers that Pixieset partner with is called Loxley Colour. I was surprised to find out that they are based here in Scotland, so I looked into them and hit gold.

Mel Gibson everyone, Scotland’s national hero..

They have a stellar reputation and work with businesses shipping prints directly to customers, white label. Basically, when I send them an order, they send the order direct to the customer without any of their own branding. Perfect.

Quality testing. Buy some prints!

After ordering some sample prints and working out the types of prints I would offer, I was ready. I just needed a way to take orders. I needed a storefront!

Drop shipping photography T-shirts with Inkthreadable.I considered selling other products and discovered a service called Inkthreadable through Sam Priestley’s excellent blog. They drop ship all sorts of printed products, including tote bags and T-shirts, which I’ve been experimenting with.

Setting up shop online

I did a lot of research before choosing Squarespace as the platform to build my website with (I wouldn’t make that choice again – more below).

There are plenty of services dedicated to providing a storefront for photographers, some of which link in with printing companies like Pixieset does (I wish Squarespace did this).

I looked into some of those platforms like Smugmug and Photoshelter, and even Shopify, before settling on Squarespace.

I wanted to have more control over the website and the way it appeared, and the other platforms available were limited in their scope.

What I mean is, Squarespace offered a way to build a website and a shop for anything, but the other platforms offered a way to build a photography shop specifically. That meant they were limited to the features their creators had decided would fit (no blog / few customisation options).

There is a massive problem with all of these platforms though.

The front of my online photography business website.

I put a huge amount of work into the website; the branding, custom coding, layout, writing copy, taking product photos etc. Honestly, ask my girlfriend. I was losing the plot at the end of it over tiny details. Note to self for the future – just ship it!

After all that time and effort, I realised that I am now completely dependent on Squarespace to not go under, or not change their features in an impactful way, or raise their prices. When I discover a limitation I’m not happy with, I’m stuck with it. That is a scary thought!

Any website building service where you are not in control of where your website is hosted has the same problem. You sacrifice control and ownership for ease of use.

Generally, I have been happy with Squarespace, but for that reason, I wouldn’t use them again.

But don’t just take my word for it! Ramsay at Blog Tyrant makes some great points, coming from a wealth of experience. Which leads on to my next point..

I’ve built a fair few websites in my time, but until building Surfpreneur, I’d never used WordPress. I did a bunch of research and dove in head first when making this blog, and it’s been a real eye-opener.

Research website options!
At some point, you have to stop researching and start doing. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

WordPress is infinitely customisable with themes and plugins. I have a decent coding knowledge and love to mess about with tiny parts of my websites that no-one cares about (I waste a lot of time doing this..) but you don’t need to know code at all to achieve a stunning and practical result.

You can make anything you want using WordPress, including an ecommerce store, but the bonus is that you are in complete control. When compared to Squarespace and similar platforms, you do have to put a little more effort to begin, but once you are all set up with hosting, a domain name, and a theme, it is just as convenient and you own it.

These are the tools I would use now as a basis for any website:

1
WordPress – Like I said, after using it for this blog, I’m sold on WordPress as a platform. It’s free, powers almost 30% of the internet, and has a massive community. You can do anything with it.

2
SiteGround – After a lot of research, I went with SiteGround for web hosting. I’ve not been disappointed. There’s not been a single problem, and I know that great customer support is there if I need it.

3
iwantmyname – I own 8 domain names, and they are all registered through I Want My Name. They offer everything you need, and nothing you don’t. Refreshing.

4
GeneratePress – A non-bloated theme with excellent free and paid options, backed up a public-facing and involved developer, and a great community.

Anyway, my business website is still on Squarespace. I take orders on the site and then manually make them with the printer. I’ve streamlined the process as much as possible but if the amount of orders increased significantly, I’d be getting in touch with Loxley Colour to find a way to automate them.

I’d like to move it over to WordPress in the future, but for now, the work is done and it will have to stay where it is!

A quick mention of Adobe Creative Cloud – it has been crucial for me in all my business adventures but is particularly relevant to a photography business. If you’re starting one, you need to be using it. From editing photos, preparing prints and making video, to creating branding and marketing material, it’s essential.

Marketing photography

Getting my photos in front of the right people. That’s marketing, and it’s a constant task. It’s made easier using a few simple tools and techniques.

Research

Apart from competitor research, here are some other ways I tried to gather and define useful information to make marketing easier.

Customer Personas

I have two general groups of customers; local surfers, and other sea-loving locals. Defining some ideal customer personas has been extremely helpful when making marketing choices. The personas are always evolving but here’s one of them:

A customer persona for buying photos online.
As you can see, Sandra is thrilled to have been featured in my blog post. (Sandra isn’t real).

Sandra, 28, Marketing Executive
• Lives in Cove, Aberdeen.
• Recently purchased her first house with her fiancé.
• Tried surfing abroad and interested in trying again.
• Loves walks on the beach and watching the sea.
• Dabbles in photography and posts on social media.

You can see how this would be helpful, and the more detail the better. How could I get my prints in front of Sandra?

I even have a reader persona for this blog which helps me imagine communicating with a real person when I’m writing.

Keywords / Important words

I knew nothing about keyword research when I started (I’ve since learned a little more). As it happens, I do rank in Google for what my keywords would be, but Google is not the primary way customers discover me. These are the words I noted down though.

  • Surf
  • Photography
  • Aberdeen
  • Scotland
  • Local
  • Ocean
  • Sea
  • Waves

These helped when I was writing website copy, titles, and descriptions.

SWOT Analysis

Here’s a table I made when I was starting.

Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats
• Good local knowledge of coastline
• Professional equipment
• Comfortable in water
• Lack of experience running a business
• Solo run business, working full time, lack of time and resources
• Corner on local market
• Unique selling point
• GoPros
• Growing availability of mobile phone water housings

Based on that, I might have decided that I need to stress the quality of my equipment in my marketing to mitigate the threat of other water housings.. (In Scotland, I don’t think this is too much of threat, but it’s a good example of how SWOT can be useful to identify issues).

How did I want people to perceive the business?

I noted down a list of descriptive words I wanted people to associate with the business and picked some synonyms for each. This is what I wrote, and again, this was very useful for writing copy with a voice for the website and social media.

  • Friendly / Approachable
  • Stoked / Enthusiastic
  • Talented / Skilled / Knowledgeable
  • Well equipped
  • Available / Flexible
Business notes in Evernote
Searching my business name in Evernote, my online brain!

What did I want the audience to do?

Identifying what I wanted from the audience and ordering by importance helped me prioritise and create call-to-actions. Here’s what I wrote.

  1. Buy prints
  2. Subscribe to the mailing list
  3. Contact me for opportunities
  4. Interact with and share photos

Now, I’d also consider what a customer journey might look like, from discovery to conversion. Something like discovering me on Instagram, to getting on the mailing list, to making a purchase after seeing a discount code in an email.

These ideas were useful for starting, from the business name to colours and fonts, but I have used them to guide my branding and marketing throughout the life of the business. I revisit and adjust them for specific tasks, like writing website copy and blog posts, laying out the website or doing a social media giveaway.

Starting a photography business? I’ve made a checklist to help you out.

Reaching the audience

The most effective techniques I’ve used to reach customers and actually drive sales have been using social media (where the majority of my customers discover me), and an email list (where most of the sales come from). I’ve also managed to get some press coverage which I was stoked about.

Flyers printed by Instant Print.I’ve experimented with printed material as well. Here’s a flyer I hand out at the beach after I’ve been in for a session with surfers. I use Instant Print for this stuff. They send out a great sample pack for free and offer quality, good value materials. I’m really happy with them.

Social media

The first thing I had to do was identify what social media channels to use. I considered where my customers were, as well as what I was comfortable with.

I’d love to be using LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, but I’d be spending all my time on social media! I use Instagram and Facebook, and that’s quite enough at the moment.

Ain't nobody got time for that!

Instagram

Genuinely interacting with people on relevant hashtags and posting water images a couple times a week has been effective in growing my Insta channel. That’s it!

Instagram bots, insincere business.Click To Tweet

I’ve never used an Instagram bot and don’t plan to. I think it’s an easy way to come across as insincere, and in the local area my business is based in, I can’t risk that. I’d sooner outsource my social media interaction to a freelancer. At least they would be a real person!

Facebook

If I go out for a session shooting shots of surfers and post a full album of those images, it’s always well received. Pictures of people do well on Facebook.. who knew?!

People also like to support achievements, so posting when I get news coverage or hit a milestone tends to do well.

Facebook organic reach strategy

I manage a Facebook group for surfers in the local area, which is linked to my business page. People like to join communities, and that group is a great way to associate my business with local surfers and reach some of my potential customers.

Sharing images in relevant Facebook groups for the local area and messaging local pages and asking them to share images has also been effective.

I’ve also dabbled in Facebook advertising and had some successes and failures. It can be a very effective tool. This episode of The Photopreneur Podcast is an ideal introduction.. the whole podcast is great actually!

Email marketing

A mailing list is essential, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. They give you direct access to people who have already made some sort of commitment to your business. Those are the people that will buy! (Messenger bots and notification services are also exciting developments that will only grow in the future).

I use MailerLite for my email list. I’ve found them to have all the features I need in an easy to use interface, plus they are cheaper than the main competition once you get a paid number of subscribers. And they don’t stick their branding all over your forms and emails, even on the free plan!

I’ve still not really pushed my email list (I should and I will!), but I’ve used two main techniques to help it grow.

I did a social media giveaway for two free prints, and I created a pack of mobile phone wallpapers to download.

An incentive for the email list. Photo wallpapers.

The social media giveaway in particular was effective and profitable, but I would never have guessed the amount of work that would go into giving away something for free..

This is definitely an area I need to spend more time on, as the majority of customers have been from the list!

A note on pricing

I researched competitors and found there was a pretty wide pricing range. There definitely isn’t an obvious rule for pricing photography prints. I ended up using the steps in this great video by Thomas Heaton, combined with competitor research, to decide on pricing.

Marketing work is never finished. I love the idea of passive income, but I’m not sure that it exists (I’d love for you to prove me wrong, leave a comment).

You have to get your work in front of people in creative ways to stay relevant, and without maintenance, I think any source of income will dwindle and eventually disappear. It’s a fast-paced world!

The future

I’m in Fuerteventura over the winter, but when I get back I plan to approach potential local stockists. I offer smaller matted prints that would do well in a coffee shop or craft store type setting.

I’d also like to expand into offering prints to offices and commercial premises. I’m undecided on how to do this. Cold emails/calls? Just showing up? What do you think?

I want to get more photos and start experimenting with videos on YouTube and Facebook (I also need to make more Instagram stories). Video is huuuuge.. can’t be left behind!

If you start a business, the to-do list will never end. Ever.Click To Tweet

You’ve made it to.. the end! Or just the beginning?

This is the first really big post I’ve written for this blog, and a lot of effort went into it. I hope you’ve found it helpful in starting your online photography business, or any other business! If you did, I’d really appreciate if you shared it so other people can get value from it too.

I’ve done my best to be detailed but unfortunately, I can’t explore everything as much as I would like (even in 4000 words!). I’ll definitely be expanding on some the ideas I’ve written about in full blog posts of their own. Let me know what you’d like to read and I’ll focus on that.

Last thing:

This post probably makes it look like I had everything perfectly planned when I started. I definitely didn’t! It probably would have been a lot easier if I did but who knows if I would have ever actually started if I got hung up on the details.

The most important thing is to just start. You can learn, figure things out, and adapt along the way. Take your first step! I’ve made a checklist to help you out:

P.S. If you were running my business, what is the next thing you would do?

Thanks again for reading, and see you in the comments!

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Hello, I'm Adam, an entrepreneur looking for freedom through my online businesses.

So, what now?

Hi, I’m Adam. I’m the guy behind Surfpreneur, hustling away in the world of online business. I help small businesses grow, take photos in the sea, and blog here.

I hope you found this post useful and I appreciate you reading.. you’re awesome! Keep scrolling for the comments, or to subscribe, use the button below and I’ll let you know when a new post is released. Cheers!

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14 thoughts on “How I Sell Photos Online: Starting a Photography Business

  1. Amazing write-up!
    Selling a product is always better than selling service, since you do not need to be physically present everywhere to sell it. Being a graphic designer and product photographer, I’ll try to move my focus from building a service to building an all in one product.

  2. Adam, great article!
    What’s the good word on progress, curious to see where you’re at now.
    I have an online photography site as well, that currently only sells digital downloads. You mentioned automation of print ordering, have you overcome this and/or have any recommendations? I’m looking for a place I can integrate into my site, that will allow customers to select printing options with orders going to the print company who will drop-ship as well.
    Keep looking through the view finder!
    RS

    • Hi Ray, thanks for reading I appreciate it. Your website looks great, I’d love to get out to your part of the world some day!

      I still haven’t needed to look further into automating print ordering, but there are plenty of services that allow you to do this at the cost of control over your website’s appearance, like Smugmug, Photoshelter etc. At the moment I’m not aware of anything you can integrate into a preexisting site though, but if you find something along those lines I’d also be very interested in it! Cheers.

  3. Awesome article Adam! Social media platforms have become key for successful business. Like your Instagram account, it is very refreshing. I acknowledge that Squarespace and WordPress are the great platforms but one must need little coding knowledge. Recently I have shifted to Pixpa they allow me to integrate my e-commerce store with my portfolio.
    Thank you.

  4. Hello Adam,

    I am in Canada and enjoyed reading your blog. FYI, my wife’s parents owned the pub in Pennan 45 years ago – well before the movie local hero made the the small fishing village a tourist location. I am interested in teaching my son how to operate a business and because we have a printer, we would like to sell prints online. We are not photographers, however hope to build a relationship with photographers who will want to post their pictures on our site.

    My question – You use a feature on your site called “See this print in your home” and within the blog say you found this on a site by “Aaron Chang”. Is this a software app that is available to anyone? Is this done automatically or do you have to create all the mock-ups?

    Finally, do you have any ideas where we could go to build an image library. Seems like other Canvas and Print e-commerce sites have millions of images they must get from online sources?!?!?!? Any info you happen to have on building a library would be very much appreciated.

    Thanks for your input!!!
    Regards,
    Gerry

    • Hi Gerry, my apologies for the extremely late reply! Pennan’s a gorgeous place as well as the whole coastline, hope you’ve managed a visit.

      I believe the feature on Aaron Chang’s website is automatic but it looks like it’s a custom feature that’s been designed and coded just for his website. At the moment, I use a free form app so people can pick the mockup they want and then create a mockup manually.

      Not sure what you mean by an image library? If you are working with some local photographers and can find some common theme would you be looking to make a deal with them to sell their photos printed?

      Hope that’s helpful and thanks for reading!

  5. Pretty cool. I’ve been doing digital designs for t-shirts, and have done pretty well, and have been wanting to expand into other areas. There’s also sites where you can sell only the digital photo, like Shutterstock. I didn’t see any reference to it in this post, so have you considered those as well?

    • Hi Joe, sorry for the late reply! Stock photography sites are definitely another option for a slightly different model, but not something I’ve considered so far for my own stuff. Maybe in the future!

  6. Fantastic piece of writing Adam. Beautifully written, well researched, elegantly presented and very informative. Wish you tonnes of happy hours on this path!

    About your mention of passive income. It actually does definitely exist. Property business can generate passive income. You would need to put in some work initially. But if you can be devoted to it as you have shown in your business. You can get there in a couple of years. By the way, you don’t need any capital to start.

    Have a great time in Fuerteventura! Keep “that” up! But watch that “compass” of yours like a hawk!

  7. I found this in the GeneratePress FB group. Most of your suggestions line up with what I had concluded for my own idea. In my case, I would specialize in prints from the American Southwest and Colorado Rockies. I picked up PrayerPrints.com and expect to use PS to add text to my images.

    I have been leaning towards offering them as digital downloads rather than prints. It would keep the cost down at the price of my technical complexity. I would be interested in your thoughts.

    Excellent article.

    Thanks

    • Hi Paul, sounds like a great idea! I’m glad you liked the article.

      I don’t think people place as much value on a digital download unless it is personal to them, i.e. a photo of them doing something cool (like surfing!).

      If the idea would be to sell digital downloads of landscapes or similar for the customer to then print themselves, I think this would be less successful than selling prints directly. Photos have a subjective value as it is!

      It wouldn’t be any more complex either depending on how you set it up. Services like Pixieset or Smugmug (and plenty more) would let you put the photos up for sale and then they’d ship them directly from the printer when you receive an order. So from your point of view it would have the exact same level of complexity as digital downloads!

      Hope that’s helpful 🙂

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