Selling Travel Photography In A Gallery

In Photography, Travel

The Virgin River, Zion

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From 2008 through 2012 I was a partner in a gallery in Prescott Arizona.  That business got started in October of 2008 after a local gallery owner showed my works, and wanted to partner up and create a larger gallery.  Beyond the gallery sales of my images and other artists we represented, I also did fine art print reproduction for clients all over the Southwest.

Over the course of my time in the gallery and art sales world I learned a lot about the business of selling “Fine Art” pieces, be it paintings, sculpture, or photography.  And in this article we’re going to cover everything you want to know about selling your travel images in a gallery setting.  Hopefully this information might help you in deciding whether or not you’d like to try it out for yourself.

Getting Into A Gallery

Christmas Tree
The Prescott Courthouse Square Tree Lighting was a popular image in my gallery, but wouldn’t be popular in any gallery outside Prescott.

In many small tourist towns travelers often come upon a gallery or two.  Visiting Prescott Arizona, you’ll find many galleries in town, as the area is not only an “Arts Community,” but it is also a very popular tourist location about 3/4 of the year.  In such a town, there are many opportunities to show with a gallery as there are so many.

Everybody's Hometown
Another popular Prescott image that would only work in Prescott

In other smaller tourist locations you may not find as many galleries.  And in your own home community you may find there are no local galleries.  Don’t be surprised by this.  Bottom line, you’re going to find the bulk of galleries in a major metro area, or in “tourist” towns that are destination locations.

If you’re looking to resell your travel photography, you’ll need to contact the gallery owner.  Normally wall space is already allocated to other artists.  So how do you get in?  Well, you’re going to need images that reflect the area the gallery itself is in.  That means if the gallery is located in Arizona, the portfolio you show them should be in Arizona.  Sometimes you need to be even more specific in the tourist locations, and your portfolio will need to contain a lot of images from the region.

During my time showing in Prescott, AZ., the most popular images that were sold were from the town of Prescott.  Also, travel images from Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon were also good sellers.  Images taken outside of AZ failed to sell well, because they weren’t from the area.  Bottom line, tourists want images of the place they visited.  Showing in Maine?  Shoot lighthouses.  Showing in Florida?  Shoot beaches and sunsets.  Showing in Arizona?  Shoot cactus and canyons.

Your Portfolio

When you’ve decided where you’d like to show your images, make sure to have a portfolio tailor made to the gallery you have in mind.  With the latest image gallery services on the net, creating a portfolio that represents your work is pretty easy.  Create your own website with WordPress, or go extreme and find an online service for photographers like Zenfolio.  You can spend nothing, or spend a lot for fancy templates and sales features, it’s up to you.  But bottom line, get an online presence and build your portfolios there.

Zenfolio is a great service for not only showing your images, but reselling them as well

I say portfolios because you should fine tune each one to represent your work for each gallery you’re interested in.  One portfolio will not fit all galleries. 

Once you’ve got your online presence setup, and you’ve thoroughly checked out the galleries you’d like to show in, make your portfolio match the theme of the gallery you’re inquiring at.  For instance, a gallery in Sedona, AZ. is going to contain a lot of what?  Yes, images and paintings of redrocks, like those found in Sedona.  Lighthouses from the coast of Maine will not sell there, so don’t show them to the gallery owner.

Call ahead and schedule a time to visit with the gallery owner.  Popping in and offering up your portfolio during normal business hours isn’t going to help your efforts.  As a matter of fact, interrupting a regular work day trying to show your work is probably going to get your business card thrown in the trash the moment you walk out the door.  Galleries are a business, so treat the owners an employees with a little respect if you want any hope of getting in.

Don’t Get Discouraged, But Photos Don’t Sell

Be prepared to hear the following from any gallery you approach……

“Photos Don’t Sell.”

These days it’s a very tough sell when it comes to photography in galleries.  And many gallery owners already know that 9 times out of 10, photography doesn’t sell like other artwork they represent.  This is not said to discourage you, but to prepare you and arm you against hearing that.

I cannot count the number of times I heard customers say, "I could take that picture," when they looked at this 40x60 canvas print.
I cannot count the number of times I heard customers say, “I could take that picture,” when they looked at this 40×60 canvas print.

Why do many gallery owners shy away from photography?  I can tell you first hand.  Everyone today has got a camera of some kind.  EVERYONE.  And most of those folks running around with their cameras think they can create the same breathtaking image that you did with their iPhone.  What did I hear almost every day outside my studio door into the gallery?

Spouse 1:  Oh honey, look at that amazing image from the Grand Canyon!  That image is almost as big as our bay window.

Spouse 2:  Eh, I could get a photo like that.  It’s all Photoshop any how.  Let’s go get something to eat.

Due to the prevalence of digital cameras, camera phones, Instagram, Flickr, etc, EVERYONE is a photographer.  With that in mind, gallery owners are a little leery of photography and with good reason.  They are operating a business, and bottom line, your work needs to sell in order to make it worth their time giving you wall space.

So, give up your dreams of selling your travel photography in a gallery?  No, that’s not what I’m saying.  But keep in mind, your work really needs to have a “Wow” factor that overcomes people feeling like they could do it too.  If you’ve got that wow factor, you may have a chance of selling.

Inside White Pocket
This image was taken on the 5th visit to White Pocket. 2 years of visiting the area went into getting this.

How a Gallery Works

Okay, let’s say you’ve gotten a gallery owner’s attention and they want to give you a show of your own.  Or maybe they’ve offered to permanently hang your work in the gallery.  Great.  Now it’s time to understand how a gallery works on the business end.

Galleries are not whimsical places where starving artists get discovered.  For the most part good galleries are looking to make a profit for their owners.  The bottom line for a gallery?  Show things that sell.  Hanging art pieces that don’t sell do not help a gallery stay in business.

It Costs Money to run a gallery

Gallery owners have expenses.  Often artists forget this fact.  I’ll give you a run down of our original gallery that I was full partners in from 2008 through 2011.

  • Rent each month was a little over $3,000 in an out of the way location that didn’t have much foot traffic.
  • Utilities ran about $500 a month.
  • We had an employee who helped part time and cost anywhere from $500 – $1000 a month.
  • Total simple expenses, $4,500 a month.
  • We took a 25% commission from other artists showing with us.
  • In order to make enough on commissions of other people’s work to pay our expenses, the gallery would need to see $18,000 a month in sales of our other artists.
  • Clearly, we needed to sell our own work, and other services as we never had a sales month that covered expenses with commissions alone.
The Palatki Ruins was another popular image. Shot in Sedona, it was still “local” enough.

The above simple breakdown of our expenses should illustrate why galleries want to host items that sell well.  Art that doesn’t sell is taking up floor or wall space that could be dedicated to something that does sell.  To cover our expenses alone if all we did was represent other artists we’d need to see sales of $18,000 per month.  And that only covers expenses, it doesn’t pay the owners at all!

When our gallery moved to Whiskey Row (a more popular location in Prescott), expenses went up on the building, and we needed regular staff to help run the place.  Expenses went up.  So did the commission rate.  It went up to 40% for our artists, which is not uncommon.  Honestly, many high end galleries will take up to 60% commission.  Don’t be surprised by that.  In our old location if we had done 40% commission we still would have had to see over $9,000 in sales a month just to cover expenses.

Pricing Your Work For Resale

With the gallery owner’s expenses and need to make a profit and feed themselves in mind, what about you and your fine art prints from your travels?  How should you price your work in order to also make some money for the awesome images you’ve produced.

Well, first off let’s assume you’re going with a well established gallery that does have traffic in and out of it.  Most likely the commision rate you’re looking at will be anywhere from 40-60%.  For simplicity, let’s just assume 50%

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that you’ve decided you only want to do your fine art images on canvas, and that you’re using to do your print work.  I use MPix for this example as they do great reproduction work with consistent high color quality, and now that I no longer print my own work I use them for all of my print needs.  Let’s price your work now!

  • 16×24 Canvas from MPix Costs $100.
  • You need to price with the gallery’s commission rate in mind, don’t forget that.
  • If you price your 16×24 canvas at $200 you make no money at all.  If you price it at $400 the gallery gets $200, the print costs you $100, and you make $100.  Is it now too expensive for someone to buy?  Price it at $300, the gallery takes $150, the print costs $100, you make $50.

As you can see, pricing fine art prints and canvases has to factor in your expenses as well as the gallery.  If you’ve ever gone into a gallery and been shocked by a $1,000 canvas photo print, you may now understand where the pricing came from.  $500 of it goes to the gallery, the rest to the photographer and the print company.  Heck, Peter Lick can sell his print for millions, right?

Valuing your images

Travel photography, and really great travel photography, doesn’t just take place in a vacuum.  For many photographers who travel to remote locations there are a lot of expenses behind the scenes.  I’ll give you an example of a personal favorite image.

White Pocket, in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, is a favorite location of mine.  Over the years I’ve come away with some amazing images, but they took time and money to create.  One of my all time favorites, “Snail Rock,” took 4 different trips to White Pocket to finally capture.  The drive up from Prescott required about 44 gallons of gas each trip.  So, 176 gallons of gas to get the image.

Each trip consisted of 3-4 days of time.  During those days I wasn’t making money at my business, so I lost income there.  Let’s say somewhere around 14 days of time in total.  There’s an opportunity cost to producing the image.  Gas money, lost revenue, and time spent.

The image is not one that I think anyone will reproduce ever.  Not the color quality, not the cloud cover, not the right time of day.  So the image is an extremely unique one.  With all of that in mind, what is the value of that image?

Let’s think here.  At $3 a gallon we spent $528 in gas.  Let’s value the 14 days at $100 a day in lost income (valuing my time at the gallery at $12.5 an hour) so we’re talking a minimum of $1,400 in time.  And don’t forget about the expense of the photo gear and training….  We’re talking a value of several thousand dollars easily.

How long will it take you to recover your sunk expenses, opportunity cost, and all the learning under your belt that went into creating the image.  Let’s just say the creation value of that one image is about $3,000, we haven’t even thought profit.

Going back to the 16×24 canvas example priced at $300 for resale, you will need to sell 60 canvases this size just to cover what went into creating the image.  If you’d like to profit from the image, you’ll need to sell even more.

Snail Rock, White Pocket
A lot went into producing this image. Weeks of my time, expensive photo gear, capital wear and tear. What’s it worth?

Wrapping up

As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into pricing your printed travel photography beyond taking the snapshot.  For some, this might be too daunting when you break it all down.  For others, you are now well armed when thinking about selling your images in a brick and mortar location.  If you have some amazing work from your travels, it might be well worth your time.

One thing is for certain.  The next time you walk into a gallery you will now understand a little better what goes into the prices of pieces you see there.  When you see an image for sale that retails for $1,000 you won’t think to yourself, “Boy that photographer is making bank.”  You will realize that about $500 comes back to the photographer, minus print expenses, and time and materials that went into getting the image in the first place.  It might take them some time before they ever even see a profit from the image.

In my case, this is why I got out of the gallery business.  High expenses, low return on the images produced.  But the fault doesn’t lie with the gallery, cost of equipment, time invested, etc.  It is a difficult market these days for fine art travel images.  And in order to really profit from it, you’re going to need to set your prices higher than you ever thought.  That’s the tough hurdle to get over, really valuing your own work and setting the value high enough to compensate yourself.




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