Life,  Photography

A Fair Exchange

Ocean waves at Garrapata Beach near Carmel, CA

Dear Bubbles:
Do you have an opinion about giving away images? Should art be shared, given, or sold? Does it matter if photography is your primary source of income or not? Does giving away (or selling very cheaply) your images impact the financial gain of other photographers producing similar work?

Dear Mike,
Why yes, Bubbles has an opinion on just about everything! And the answer to almost all photography-related questions is, “It depends.” The answers come down to how you define value for your photographs and how you wish to exchange them with others.

According to the Oxford dictionary, “value” can be defined, as it pertains to this discussion, “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.”

For starters, art should be created. And that can be the end of the story. Art need not be shared, given, or sold to have value.

As the French philosopher Victor Cousin said, “L’art pour l’art.” Translation? Art for art’s sake. In other words, immersing ourselves in the creation of our photography, simply for the joy and satisfaction of creating our photographs—rather than money, fame, or other external motivations—is reason enough to pursue it. Among other benefits, studies have shown those who embrace an autotelic approach report feeling the euphoric state of flow more frequently than those who do not.

Some years ago, while during a campfire banter, my dear friend and fellow photographer Guy Tal and I agreed that a significant percentage of the value of a photograph has already been achieved once you have pressed the shutter. He suggested that he achieved about 90% of the value. For me, I’d estimate it’s around 75%. Although we disagreed on the exact percentage (which is a swag anyhow), we agreed that our experiences while connecting with the natural world enrich our lives significantly. This time, these moments, are more important to us than clicking the shutter, processing an image, and sending it off into the world to do its thing.

That hasn’t always been the case for me. I started making money out of my photography hobby in art shows starting in 2003, editorial markets in 2006, and commercial gigs from 2007-2010. During art shows, I tracked what I sold in my booth, then created shot lists to direct my time in the field. My goal was to make more of that kind of work to increase my sales.

It worked. Sort of. I sold a lot of work—enough such that I could quit my corporate job in 2007. But I really didn’t like any of the images I made. They were soul-less, uninspiring, created merely just to check a box and appease other people. I soon learned that creating art for the sake of others or for business purposes is the fastest way to sell your soul. And I had already done that once by taking a job in corporate America…

In 2013, I hit a wall with my photography. The experience of “taking” photographs felt so unremarkable and boring that I reached a tipping point. I either changed my ways or stopped photographing. (Read the backstory on Keeping it Fresh:

I changed my ways. Now, I “make” (not “take”) a photograph first because a moment meant something to me. Only afterward do I determine what I can do with that frame or series of frames. I create my photographs to honor my own self-expression without any forethought of sales or whatever else it will do “out there” in the world. This approach is immensely more rewarding—mentally and financially. Turns out, you don’t have to sell your soul.

The remaining 25% of the value of my photographs to me comes from sharing my images with the outside world. I do so because I find fulfillment in helping inspire others to get outside, to feel awe and wonder, to continue learning and growing as humans, to have confidence in expressing themselves visually, and to lead meaningful lives in their own way.

Sharing comes in a variety of forms—and at varying prices. I sell prints. I publish my photographs in my own books. I use my own photographs to market my workshops. I also sell the right to print my photographs to outlets like magazines, calendars, postcards, books, and ad campaigns.

Access to these channels used to be limited to “professional” photographers. Over time, these opportunities and payouts have decreased as the number of print media in the industry has shrunk and the accessibility to photography has increased. It’s simple economics. The market wants to stay in equilibrium. An increase in the supply of a product—coupled with decrease in the demand—means the price people are willing to pay for that product drops. (My Econ professor from 30 years ago would be so proud of me.)

On top of that, some attribute the industry’s demise on select individual giving away their images to these outlets for free or at a substantially discounted price. So a large supply of cheaper photographs drives the price down even further (in some cases, down to zero). Some photographers value exposure more than money. Which is fine. Unless selling your photographs is how you make a living.

As someone who has chosen a career path where my photographic pursuits as my primary source of income, I must treat my photography as a business—even if my photographic pursuits are also my biggest source of fulfillment before I sell anything. By definition, that means I’m making photographs and not giving them away for free. I’m sure you’ve heard the quips: no one can pay their mortgage or for groceries with “exposure.”

So the internet screams, “NEVER GIVE YOUR WORK AWAY FOR FREE.”

Yeah, well, if you’ve ever posted on social media websites, you’ve shared your work for free. (I do!) Plus, no one pays me to put out my newsletter with my photographs in it. (In fact, I pay Mailchimp for that privilege.) And technically, I’ve been posting the Dear Bubbles column with my photography for free for over four years now (while soliciting for optional financial support—much gratitude to those who contribute!).

While I have never freely given my work to outlets that traditionally pay photographers for their work, there are other times when I have given my photographs away to others for free. I have donated photographs to charities and non-profit organizations to help them raise money for their causes. It warmed my heart to support these efforts. I have traded prints with commercial clients in exchange for their valuable products or services. I’ve also traded prints with other photographers to celebrate our mutual admiration for our work.

In every case, enough value was exchanged among the parties even if that value was not represented in tangible, monetary form. Things like time, mental and physical health, personal satisfaction, fulfilling your purpose, access to services, new experiences, knowledge, community, freedom, and yes, even exposure sometimes bring more value than money can buy. Exchanging value need not necessarily be equal or similar, only enough for you to feel comfortable with proceeding.

As National Geographic Photographer Bob Krist said, “…the issue isn’t providing photos for free. It’s when someone else is profiting off your work and you’re not.”

Maybe the internet should be screaming instead, “Never give your work away for free TO THOSE WHO THINK IT SHOULD BE FREE WHEN IT IS MORE VALUABLE THAN FREE TO YOU.” But that’s too long for them to put on their bumper stickers.

Sharing, giving, and selling involve an exchange between at least two parties. Exchanging anything—whether it be photographs or pies or bubbles—becomes a game of matching a satisfactory value level between a giver and receiver such that no one feels like they are being taken advantage of. How we navigate through this fair exchange can be best described using the AICA sales formula.

The AICA sales formula was established in early 1900s by advertising legend Elias St. Elmo Lewis. It stands for Awareness, Interest, Conviction, and Action. Some refer to this approach as AIDA where the D stands for “Desire” and is used in place of the C for “Conviction.” Regardless, the approach outlines the stages a seller and customer go through in order for the buyer to acknowledge, value, and buy a product or service. Every step must happen, and preferably in this order, to make a sale.

Each stage serves as a funnel. Not all the people who start on the buying journey end up buying. And it’s not necessarily the fault of the seller.

The first step is awareness. It’s pretty darn hard for people to buy from you if they do not know you exist! This is NOT the “Field of Dreams.” Just because you built a website with a gallery of your photographs does not mean “they will come.” You can’t jump to action right out of the gate. You must gain attention among a community of potential buyers somehow first. In other words, you must gain exposure. Yeah, I said it. Exposure has immense value–it literally kicks off the buying process and without it, you won’t ever progress to a sale. While things like word-of-mouth advertising, publication credits, and speaking gigs can get you far, the most accessible way to do this today is to promote your story and your work through outlets like social media, newsletters, blogs, etc. (which is one of many reasons why I support these efforts without getting paid for them directly).

From awareness comes interest. In the interest stage, we start connecting with specific individuals who are interested in buying the type of work we produce. People who buy prints are sometimes different than the ones who like to attend workshops to make their own photographs, for example. The most critical thing at this point (and arguably in the entire sales process) is solving a customer problem. It’s not about convincing people that your picture is pretty (even if you’re right). It’s about asking them, “What can I do for you?” (This is so important to me and my business that this question is on the front page of my website.)

Once people believe you have something to offer them of value (by their measure), then it’s on to conviction. Why would a person care about specifically YOUR photographic work over all the over competition among other photographers out there? If you are producing similar work to other photographers (i.e., copying existing compositions), this question becomes hard to answer which makes moving on from this stage difficult. Which is yet another reason why creating unique and personally meaningful images matters. But value often comes down to more than you or your customer believing you have pretty pictures (of which there are an abundance). What other unique benefits do you offer such that the customer desires to buy from YOU over all the other alternatives?

In the action stage, you offer your price, usage, and terms. In other words, you express your value of your product or service. Your customer offers theirs. Are you on the same page? Is it a mutually beneficial arrangement for you both—monetarily or otherwise? If so, you have a good fit for an exchange. If not, you don’t.

Now, the psychology and nuances of how and why people value things and take action isn’t exactly as simple as marching through each step of a formula. Each person makes decisions in their own ways, and it’s impossible to read people’s minds. But in the end, exchange comes down to matching your value with someone else’s whether you are sharing, giving, or selling.

To give you an idea of how the AICA works in a photography sense, let’s say, for whatever reason, you have a handful of photographic prints on hand. Maybe you just printed a bunch of proofs. Maybe they aren’t high enough quality to sell but are decent enough to keep. What is their value to you? What are you going to do with them if you don’t sell them? Store them in a box in a closet? Throw them out? Let’s say you wish to bring them to your workplace and give them to your coworkers. Are you shooting yourself in the foot for future sales if you do so? Are you shooting other photographers in the foot if you do so?

Are your coworkers interested in photographic prints? Maybe. Maybe not. How do they value photography in general? Do they have a “problem” filling their walls at home with their own pictures, artwork, and other things?

If they do not have a problem, they will never buy from you or any other photographer no matter how good your (or any other photographer’s) photographic prints are. So these potential customers filter out at the interest stage. Gifting them a free print (one of lower value to you) is not likely to affect your or anyone else’s sales. Yet it may very well increase the mutual joy between you and your coworker. That’s way better than the print wasting away in a trash can or closet.

However, if they happen to be in the market for a photographic print, then they don’t filter out at the interest stage. They continue to the conviction stage. Perhaps giving them a free (and likely smaller) print increases their awareness of your products and quality. It could be enough to increase their interest in buying from you later (like a bigger print for their wall or office)—so long as they value your work specifically.

You would have the leg up in this situation. Your coworkers already know and like you. They don’t even know I or possibly other photographers exist. If they don’t know my work, they can’t possibly buy it. Even if they did, they may value me and other photographers differently than they value you. So giving away a print to this customer still doesn’t likely harm my (or other photographer’s) sales.

Let’s change the scenario. Let’s say you made a beautiful, sellable framed print and wanted to sell it to one of your coworkers. They say they love it and want it but don’t have the budget to pay for it. They may love it but not enough to hand you their money.

If you think your photo is worth nothing, you have a deal.

If you think your photo is worth something and the customer offers you some form of non-monetary value, you might also have a deal.

If you wished to gift it to them out of the goodness of your heart (for whatever reason you deem valuable), awesome. Go for it.

However, if you think the value of your photo is greater than zero, and your coworker is not willing to offer more than zero, then you don’t have the makings for a deal.

If you still proceed with the giving them the print, you’re training them to believe that your photography (and possibly photography in general) has low value. For the love of photography and all those within the photographic community, please don’t ever devalue yourself or your work—regardless of whether you plan to sell it, trade it, or gift it. It harms you. It harms everyone.

So how do you decide whether to share, give, or sell your photographs? Consider: what are your photographs worth to you? Who will be on the receiving end of your photographic products or services (if anyone)? How do they value photography in general? How do they value YOUR photography specifically? Is the value they assess in line with the value you assess? If so, you have a good match. If not, you don’t.

In a world where there are lots of right answers, chose deliberately based on your own path, principles, goals, and actions (assuming you stay within legal and your own moral boundaries). Look, this is YOUR life, YOUR time, YOUR photography. You get to decide what you do with your work. So long as you don’t share, give, or sell your soul, go for it. So long as you are not negatively impacting others, knock yourself out. Wait, scratch that, don’t hurt yourself either.

In the end, whether your art is shared, given, or sold is your choice. But first and most importantly, enjoy and value creating it first.

Be well, be brave, be wild,

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Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Looking for inspiration? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at [email protected] to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.


  • Toni Francis

    Love the article!
    For me, I love the moment when I’ve clicked the picture. Making small cards and puzzles for Craft Fairs brings me great joy when I keep my prices low so kids and fixed incomes can enjoy the beauty. Conversation usually follows about the adventure in which the photograph was gifted.

    Keep on loving all your adventures!

  • Jean Drummond

    Great article Colleen. The joy for me too is the “making” part- the beautiful zone I get into when I’m “seeing.” You like bubbles– I like rocks. I’ve got tons of cool shots that I love.

    However, reading this article and listening to other photographers always brings up the question: How to you actually make a living with photography? Would anyone actually buy my pictures of rocks? My abstracts of nature? It seems like print sales as a living may be a thing of the past…

    I would love to hear the real, honest stories from full time photographers and how they survive financially. All the podcasts I listen to highlight the adventures and their passions but few address the financial realities of being a full time photographer. What does it really take? A huge savings account? A trust fund? Having a partner to help financially? Do lots of workshops? Have a side job? How much can you expect to bring in?

    It would be a great service to all photographers to have more articles and podcasts discussing the actual dollars and cents of “making a living” doing photography.

    Thank you for all you do Colleen. You’re my inspiration!