I wanted to disclose that this is not a paid blog post… Just some advise from my experiences in the photo industry. It’s not a tutorial on how to build a photo shop or blog, but rather a discussion on the options and barriers we face as photographers wanting to sell our work online.
So you want to sell your photo's online... How do I sell mine?
Recently a friend of mine from Uni has decided she wants to start selling her infrared photographs but how can she do it and what should she be careful of? She asked me how I find the website platform I have been using to host and sell my images and the topic made for a good open blog discussion. The answer ended up being a lengthy one because over the past 8 years I have discovered many road blocks as well as great avenues to selling your own photographs online.
Currently I sell my prints with Zenfolio Premium Business plan, (AU$240/yr) known as PRO plan now, which offers you a complete online platform to host a beautiful portfolio to sell your prints from direclty. With Zenfolio you can even set individual prices of your prints and choose from a variety of photo labs from around the world to sell your prints locally to your customers. Each lab will offer different products and sizes for you to select and offer to your customers. Another great feature is that you can even select items like canvases and making framing an optional choice for prints.
What kind of print shop can you design with Zenfolio?
Well they have plenty of different templates to suit all styles of photographers from baby, wedding to landscape. Since I have a lot of artistic styled photos I like my customers to scroll down through the page in a dynamic theme where the photo’s adjust in size to their neighbours. One option is a static theme where your visitors can be faced with a fullscreen view that they flick through the images from side to side. Zenfolio can even be used as just portfolio site without any sales features, this is a lot cheaper! (just a couple of dollars a month)
Below is the dynamic look of the homepage portfolio of my personal Zenfolio found at lukezeme.zenfolio.com
How do you make money with Zenfolio?
Well you can get rich selling your photos online! haha well you can certainly make some money on the side using a site like this. As you grow you can hopefully make enough to get new camera gear and fund some photographer adventures!
But no matter what type of photographer you are, being able to set the individual prices as well as selecting the products you sell at the click of a button is a huge advantage to the old way of doing things. Below is a table showing how Zenfolio allows you to adjust every price and even allows you to set a formula that you can use on an particular item. Eg. you could set it as cost of print +85% mark up.
So what does this image below show? Well you are looking behind the curtain of my own personal print shop. This is a section of one of my many price list, there are lots of other products in it but I can’t show them all in one image. You can see I have selected the photo labs for the Australian area of the globe and then below are the products for that area. You can see a few print sizes I have selected to be in this price list and then assigned this list to certain images in my portfolio. If I want to add another product like another print size I can do so by just clicking the add another product button highlighted. You can see I have only selected Lustre, I am not a fan of metallic prints but I understand if other people like them 🙂
Now the important part is the PROFIT section. Here you can put in any amount you like, but I like to keep the prices realistic for my customers.
On a seperate front I also host my own photography blog (not to be confused with my photo print shop) here at lukezeme.com, which is the platform you are reading this blog post on, and I did this using a Theme, installed on WordPress. I custom built the website and manage my own private server through a hosting company. This can be a difficult task for people with no experience with this and I get into these topics below.
So how should you sell your photo’s online?
First off, as a photographer myself, I know how special your images are to you. Secondly, I understand that you want to protect your ownership of the images as well as sharing them out to the world to enjoy and hopefully purchase.
Answering the question as to how you should host them online is not going to be the same for every photographer either because some of us have a lot of experience in building a website and others have little to none. After all, we are artists not web developers!
So the way I see it there are 3 options:
- You custom build a website and implement a print shop into that and take orders on the site (I discuss this below as I did do it 7 years ago). A lot of professional photographers will do this but they will pay people in their team to do these tasks for them. Allowing them to be out shooting and creating!
- You use an already built online print shop like Zenfolio or Smugmug and pay them a small fee for every sale as well as a yearly sub fee. All fairly easily to cover these costs with just a few sales a year and the rest is profit.
- You use a site like Wix to host your portfolio/website and you take orders for prints and organise the products to be made and shipped to your customers. Wix have a bunch of great website templates for photographers ready to go and you will be up and running by the end of the day.
Building your own custom print shop, things to consider
Way back at the beginning of my photographic journey I decided that I wanted to build my own print shop online, which you could do in many different ways using various platforms. A good friend of mine taught me how to use WordPress and I am very thankful I had him there to guide me. I learnt all about how to host a website on a private server and then implement a shop into that website. We were sharing a hosting service with other companies and we split the fee, it made it a lot cheaper this way to get a fast paced server. It was all a lengthy process, from learning about how to setup your IP and nameserver’s, to designing the site itself. Everything began with a pencil and paper to jot down ideas of the look and structure I wanted and we went from there to build it from the ground up. Coming from a Visual Arts Degree at Uni, I can tell you I really enjoyed the process. I/We ran into many difficulties along the way, but it’s lucky that we live in a time where everything you want to know about building websites can be found online and for FREE! YouTube, forums, software support… there is a plethora of free educational materials on the web that will have you creating and maintaining your own site within weeks to a month.
To sum up, it was difficult! And took a LONG time to figure out.. and I am fairly tech savy person who was writing code on computers as a 6 year old when we got our first Commodore 64 haha.
If you have zero website training and you want to build a WordPress site from the ground up, be prepared for a lot of trial and error and a lot of research! I found that there is a lot of time figuring out why something is breaking your website! It could be one line of code in a .php file that is missing or has the wrong the value. That one line of code will have you pulling your hair all out and your website might be offline for days whilst you figure it out, something that has happened to me many times. But with patience you can figure out the problem using the glory of the internet (or always revert back to a previous backup that works haha).
If you want to have a photo blog (not print shop), but don’t think you could go through the anguish to create a custom website, then I have heard nothing but good things about Wix. The pricing for it will end up being about the same which ever way you go, but obviously you have a lot more freedoms through a custom built site. On a custom site you can create toolbars and run ads, you can create post shapes and use any WordPress plugins you want. But on the other hand Wix offers it customers a bunch of template sites that are ready to go and you just add all the flavour to them.
I think looking back, personally I’d still learn to build a website as it has been a valuable skill to have and I do enjoy the freedoms it allows me to have with my custom site that I can change and adapt to how I want it.
What is WordPress?
WordPress is a company that offers you free software to build a blog style website. You are reading this post on a WordPRess run website 🙂 What it actually is though is a software platform that you install on to a server that allows you to create a websites function and design. It is the most popular way to custom build a website and you would be surprised at how many websites you read every day actually use WordPress. For someone who knows what they are doing, they could setup a wordpress site in about 30 minutes. But it would be the most basic of blog sites! It’s the design that will take them all week to implement. There are also other options like Drupal and Joomla for example but for the beginner, WordPress is what you want.
If you want to go down this avenue of custom building then I strongly suggest purchasing a theme from Themeforest.net as this will make your design job a million times easier, plus your site will look more professional. Themes are essentially eye candy! But they also provide you with many templates and design layouts to choose from, whilst also coming with some plugins that the designer used and supplies to you the user of the theme. They are relatively cheap too, ranging from $20-50. I actually got my theme from Themeforest.net to create lukezeme.com, so I have a lot of personal experience with their products. The particular theme I use is called Jupiter Theme and I chose it after much research. What I liked about it is the modern look, customisable, social links, modern photo slider and lots of cool templates to start with. There are also over +6000 WordPress plugins onThemeforest.net to add some cool functionality to the theme. WordPress plugins are add-ons that do a specific function for your website like adding a trendy slideshow to your homepage or backing up your website to a cloud service. There are a million different plugins you can find on the net and they range from being free to charging a small fee to get their premium features, e.g. $5-20.
Building a custom photo print shop with WordPress
“Should you do this” is the first question you should ask yourself. Well for me, in retrospect, the answer turned out to be a BIG NO NO! I tried to do this in the first year, and I was successful in its creation but it required a lot more upkeep and monitoring than I realized, a lot more! Not to mention the time it took to learn how to build and customize all its features. There are so many easier options that are available now that weren’t 10 years ago.
WooCommerce, What is it?
The most cost effective way to custom build a print shop is to purchase a WordPress theme that already has the plugin WooCommerce included in it. WooCommerce allows you to build a custom online shop and includes features like products, shipping and payment methods in the plugin. There are other premium features that you can pay extra to use as well. If you are running a standard print sales shop you will probably not need any of the WooCommerce extra features, which are more for big online market places that do a lot of sales. But I still run WooCommerce on my website to sell my Premium Lightroom Presets, and it is all safe as sales go off the page to PayPal and then come back for the confirmation of sale.
A few valuable lessons about WordPress
Having your own WordPress also requires you to keep it up to date with the latest version of WordPress software, your WP theme and individual Plugin software. These should never be updated live online because often these new versions can clash with each other and your site will instantly break, a lesson I have learnt too many times.
Another thing you will need to learn to run is a local server on your computer, you can use the free software WAMP for Windows and MAMP for MAC computers. After installing one of these platforms on your computer (local server) you run an exact replica of your website on it and then trial all the latest software updates on there before updating them on your online site. This way you can see if any of the new ones are not going to like each other! Basically WAMP and MAMP create a server on your computer that you can play around with websites and it won’t affect your online sites, it will only be on your computer. It’s actually a fun thing to do play around with plugins, themes and create websites offline. All site designers build websites offline using the program of their choice and then will migrate them online. Trust me, it’s a lot less stressful when it’s not live.
So, why update your site at all if it’s running fine and updates could break it? Well because old software won’t rank as high in google searches and won’t be as secure are the simple answers to that question.
What I did not consider (or know) before building a WordPress photo shop
There were so many things I didn’t realise would be an issue or would be problems down the track that I’d face when running my own personal print shop and here are a few of them:
- Website upkeep. Every photo you sell online requires you to build a page for that item and then setup all the variations and page options for that image. Like a 16×24” fine art print, a 12×18” canvas… etc. You need images of the products, which means you will need to have stock of the item. But if you have over 100 photos like me then this is going to be very costly, so you are left with just using the digital version and leaving it up to the imagination of the buyer to what the actual product will look like.
- Time is precious to an artist!!! Time is precious to everyone but, consider this though, a customer purchases a print of yours online and you organise to get it printed at your local printer in your town who you use as your main printer. Now, if you pick the print up yourself you are taking valuable time out of your day to drive to the printer and back again whenever a print is ordered. You can let them pile up and go every few days and get them in bulk but all this time starts to add up and you don’t want to leave customers waiting extra days for their prints to arrive! Trust me, there are moments you are stuck in traffic that eat away at your days. Another way to do it is to have the print shipped directly to your home/studio from the printer and then you will personalise it with your receipt and other documents as proof of purchase. But this means that you will actually be paying for a shipping fee from the printer, not the customer, and you have to decide if you will add this charge on to the customer. For example it might cost $20 to have the photo shipped from the printer to your studio then another $20 to have it shipped to the client. Can you really charge the client $40 for shipping? when its just a print??? I personally don’t think its good business to overcharge on shipping and it will turn customers away. Then if you don’t charge the client for the extra shipping fee this will eat into your profits, which is not a good way to do business either. After all, your print shop is a business and you have to treat it as such.
- Having the print shipped directly to your customer is difficult because the printer will want to put in a receipt or something with the price of the item etc. Which you can’t have the customer receiving! If you are charging $40 for a $10 print. To me, that’s a fair price as I have to consider artistic value, time spent creating the artwork, time spent out photographing, travel costs, the cost of my camera equipment, insurance, government taxes, cost of computer to edit photos… and so on. But a customer sees the $30 difference and thinks they are being ripped off.
- Another option is to print the photos at home using your own printer, but these will never turn out as nice as the items from a professional print shop and you will know deep down that you are supplying an inferior product. Unless of course you spend $5,000 on the top of line fine art printer, haha, but not many can do this.
- Packaging! This one is soooo important. You need your photo print to arrive in perfect condition without any marks or folds in the paper. So packaging has to be of a very high quality that won’t bend or break on the way to the customer. Doing this yourself at home/studio requires you to have a lot of packing materials from various boxes, tubes and cartons to masking tape, paper and bubble wraps. I tried all of this early on in my photographic journey and invested in all the materials to package a print. I found it very hard to match a pro print shops quality for a cheaper or even a similar price. You have to factor in all the time researching products and picking them up or having them shipped to you (extra costs). Plus, even more time packing the prints to send out to your client and going to your postage service to have them delivered. And there are so many variations in size in the products we sell that one box will not fit all! When you consider the quality of packaging you get for aprox. $10 from the print shop then you really start to appreciate it for what it is haha!
- Having your website hacked. Now this is something I would have never considered at the time when I started out 7-8 years ago, but WordPress sites, without much security, are very easy to hack. They can sneak their way in through tiny cracks that you didn’t even know about and then when you load your site it has some broken links or advertising for the hacker. It’s not a good feeling and I’ve learnt from experience and admitting this is for your benefit. My advice is that you need good security on your WordPress site that constantly updates with the latest software and scans for viruses. You also need a stored backup of your website in another location, like on a hard drive at your studio. That way if the hack is just too hard to fix you can just install the backup copy of your site. There are lots of cloud backup companies that will backup your site automatically at regular intervals, but I will leave that to you to research the one that suits you. I can say I used backupbuddy (not cheap) for many years and have found it be worth every penny. The reason I have to use backupbuddy and not others is because my website is very large because of all the images. Other backup software will work well on smaller sites but they run into trouble with the big ones like mine. So if you have a small site, look into some of the other cheaper options to back it up. There are many good options for website security out there as well and you should research them to find out what’s best for you and within your price range. If you decide to go for little to no security at all then its only a matter of time before your site will be hacked.
Best and easiest print shop options
In my third year of selling my photographs online I came across Zenfolio which is partnered with print labs in Australia as well as other locations around the world including the US, Canada and Europe. The system works by allowing me to link my photos to specific print products from these photo labs. I then set the prices (profit margins) for the various products and even separate the markup prices for areas of the globe. I can control which products they can buy from their local printers with prices I set and they will be charged a postage fee based on the local costs. As I noted above, it’s around AU$240/yr subscription for the PRO plan to sell on Zenfolio. But it is easily worth it to me because if you have read this blog you have seen what it takes to build and run a a custom built print shop and its not easy. $240 is nothing compared to all of that haha.
Zenfolio is great, but I’d say if I were being honest its biggest weakness is in SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I noticed a dropoff in views when I migrated my images from another portfolio site to it. It’s not a deal breaker for me, because I really needed an option in Australia to sell my art this way with high quality prints. SEO is essentially how your image will rank in a google search on the web. For example, if you had 2 photographers with photos of the Sydney Harbour Bridge hosted on 2 different photo selling platforms and you did a google search for the image then you want yours to be #1 in the list. This is where SEO comes in to play and it’s important because you want your photos to be found through google, as well as your other avenues. The higher ranked items in the list are always clicked on first, hence how important this is. To Zenfolio’s credit there are some SEO settings in the backend you can use to increase your image SEO, but I have found they don’t make a huge difference.
I’ve been with Zenfolio for around 5 years now, and am very happy with the service it provides. Plus am always excited to receive prints from them or here from happy customers around the globe.
In maybe the second year of selling photos online I came across a platform called Smugmug that hosts your photos in a portfolio look and allows you to sell prints straight from the platform. It is essentially Zenfolio’s direct competitor and they offer basically the exact same thing. Smugmug was in the news recently as it acquired Flickr, a huge deal in the photography community. Not much has been said on the merger, but you can expect things ahead in the future between these 2 companies as Flickr has a massive online presence. Smugmug was my savior at the time, but they didn’t have a print lab available in Australia (still don’t) and it was hurting my sales. Since I reside in Sydney, Australia, most of my images were from around Australia and the closest printing lab on Smugmug was in the US. So a $15 print might end up having a $30 international shipping fee for my customers in Australia. It was a big headache! Whilst I had a great looking online print shop with great SEO I found that the interest in sales declined due to the large shipping fees to Australia and someone did actually ask me why the shipping was so high. But if you are based in the US, Canada or Europe then I have nothing but praise for Smugmug as a photo sales platform. It has a beautiful design, ease of use, good support and options for multiple portfolios.
Where am I now with selling prints online?
Well I have stayed with both the platforms, WordPress (my photo blog) and Zenfolio (my photo print sales). On my WordPress I host all my blog posts, photography tutorials and image posts. Then on Zenfolio I host my photo portfolio where I can sell my prints directly to the customer. To make up for the weaker SEO on Zenfolio I use what is called back-linking. It’s an old marketing technique that is not as common these days, but you link your social media posts to the url photos for sale. E.g you post a Facebook photo and tell your followers that they can buy a print at this url and you direct them to the purchase page for that photo on your portfolio on Zenfolio. You can link to Zenfolio from many social platforms like Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Flickr, 500px, Google+, Pinterest, basically from anywhere you have a photographic following and this will help strengthen your views/sales as well as getting your artworks out there.
I still manage and run my own private server where I host my WordPress Blog, which requires a few hours a fortnight to monitor and go through everything required to keep it safe and running. I still enjoy the freedom to share anything I want on my website, like photo companies and products I like and use myself. Whilst also having complete control over the design, from the sidebars to the footer.
These days there’s not much necessity in custom designing a photography blog as there are so many platforms that offer amazing templates for you to throw in your logo, photos and design… and get to sharing your blog posts! I think there are certain circumstances where you might like to do it, like you have experience or studied design. But in most circumstances its better to go with something like Wix where you can spend less time making a site and more time creating. As artists we can get lost in the process of wanting to sell and get too caught up in it all to have enough time to keep making art.
It’s easy to have a photography print shop if you seperate it from your blog. You can still easily link between the 2 of them by having a header link on each page navigating to each one. I recommend that you go with Zenfolio, as it has print labs in all areas of the globe and these will make cheaper postage costs for your customers. At the moment it has to be one of the best available and the most important thing it does, is keep you out making art and not building and maintaining a website.
Hopefully you found this interesting, I tried not to plug any products too much… but I only recommended what I really liked myself.
If you have anything you would like to add to the discussion you can do so below.