Photography as a Business

HUGE Photo-Poster and Flywheel Sports

Brooklyn Bridge, Nightscape #1. New York City, 2015
Brooklyn Bridge, Nightscape #1. New York City, 2015


I am very excited that I just licensed one of my images (above) to Flywheel Sports of New York City and, rather than on a typical website page, they used it in a most unusual way.

First, who is Flywheel Sports, you ask? Lets get that out of the way first.

Well, they are an up-and-coming sports-exercise company with a unique take on the more traditional stationary cycling classes you have probably already sweated, groaned, and screamed your way through. Flywheel has group cycling classes on high performance bikes that track exactly how hard you are working on a big “TorqBoard” for all to see (or not–your, and the instructor’s, prerogative). Looking at the numbers thus displayed, you can compete just with yourself, adjust your workout to your personal specific fitness goals, or you can compete against others. Groups can even compete against other groups…one Flywheel class versus another class…friends v. friends…enemies v. enemies. Upper body exercises can also be woven into the session. The competitive and motivational possibilities are limitless. And all of this accompanied by a super high-energy, pulsing, pounding musical sound track and top-notch super-fit instructors to keep you focused and majorly motivated.

For more on this…Slate Magazine did a nice report a few years ago on what this latest craze is all about and you can read it here: Flywheel: SoulCycling for the Truly Sadistic, April 10, 2013.

And here is a very recent (yesterday!) article/press release about their expansion plans: Flywheel Sports Announces Plan to Extend Studio Cycling Experience Into the Home, May 17, 2017.

It all sounds like a seriously fun and strenuous challenge (“Sounds dangerous. Count me in.” –Alan Shepard, in Top Gun). And since it may be coming to Denver soon, I just might get a chance to give it a whirl, so to speak.

Now, to the commercial use of the above abstract image of the Brooklyn Bridge…

They took my full file from the D800, which measures 7360 x 4912 pixels at 300 ppi (that’s a 24″ x 16″ print at 300dpi), and they blew it up…and  up…and up… and UP! They eventually stretched it into what looks like a 10-foot by 30-foot giant wall poster. Pretty impressive! Kudos to their art folks for recognizing the possibilities here–it’s all about depicting motion, movement, energy, and so on.

Of course, the fact that it was an abstract image gives the printer a lot of leeway when it comes to going BIG. A tack-sharp landscape might not look quite as good at this size (although up on a highway billboard, with a viewing distance measured in the hundreds of feet, it just might).

Here are a couple of snaps of the finished product, as it now appears in the new Flywheel building in Brooklyn:

Flywheel, #1. NY, NY, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Flywheel Sports)
Flywheel, #1. Brooklyn, NY, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Flywheel Sports)


Flywheel, #2. NY, NY, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Flywheel Sports)
Flywheel, #2. Brooklyn, NY, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Flywheel Sports)

Setting Goals: 2016

Pozos y Casas. Dacono, Colorado, 2016
Pozos y Casas (Holes and Houses). Dacono, Colorado, 2016


Before this year began, I set for myself three major goals with my photography. The idea was try to move my work to a higher level in terms of both quality and depth, and in terms of recognition. I figured if I could achieve at least one of these goals, I would be more than mighty pleased.

Well, I’ll be smackered if I didn’t achieve all three!

For the record, here were my objectives…

1. Get a piece or a portfolio accepted for an exhibition at the Colorado Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins. 

The “C4FAP”, as it is informally called, has gained an international reputation for finding and displaying work from up and coming photographers around the world. I had tried several times before to have a piece juried in to an exhibition here but had never been successful–until this year. My photograph “Approaching Inferno” is currently on display, along with 49 other images, as part of the Transitional Landscapes exhibition currently at the gallery (until June 10th).

2. Get accepted into the Boulder County Artist-in-Residence Program

This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to spend a week at the historic Caribou Ranch in the mountains above Nederland, Colorado and concentrate on nothing but creating. Lo and behold, I got it! I will be at the Ranch, out photographing at every sunrise and sunset surely, from August 28 through September 3, 2016.

3. Get a portfolio accepted by Black & White magazine for publication. 

This goal seemed to be a bit out-sized for me at my stage. But, I thought, why not try? I had always admired the amazing cutting-edge B&W work in this magazine, which is nationally distributed but has an international audience. I think it is safe to say that it is pretty much the magazine for anyone interested in emerging photographers world-wide who work in black and white as well as news about upcoming photography exhibitions, current events in the field, stories about the more established and iconic photographers, and so on.

I submitted three separate portfolios to Black & White–and they accepted one for their “2016 Portfolio Spotlight”! [Announced in Black & White Issue #116 August 2016, p.10.] Only 24 photographers a year are highlighted in their magazine in this way–usually with a short one-page article about their work and three additional pages showing their photography. Needless to say, I am absolutely thrilled! I am still not sure which portfolio was selected or the publication date for my “Spotlight”, but I’ll do a more in-depth blog post when I get the details.

What a year!

Moral of the story? Set goals and don’t, don’t, don’t, give up until you start achieving them!

Possible goal for next year: Have my photography actually start to pay a significant portion of my photography expenses. Now, that will be a long shot! You know, the starving artist meme and all that…But we’ll see. Stranger things have happened, eh, ranger?

Stair Steps to a Photography Business

Sidewinder Storage. Denver, Colorado, 2015 (Example of a small business!)
Sidewinder Storage. Denver, Colorado, 2015 (Example of a small business!)


Beware! This checklist is not all-inclusive, and it may not be aimed at your particular needs. So, do your own research!!! (My loud warning.)

What follows are some Colorado-specific guidelines that I recently followed that fit my particular goals. I offer them up in case they might provide a starting point for you if you are contemplating turning your photography into a professional endeavor. (Whether you’ll actually make any money or not is another thing altogether, despite the use of the word “professional”.)

Off we go…!

1. Business Plan. This could be anything from an in-depth study you do yourself, or something you contract a specialist to do. Or, it could simply be “Let’s go for it and see what happens!” Or anything in-between. Again, this is photography we are talking about, so don’t plan on bringing home piles of Franklins (unless you sell all your photo gear).

2. Name your Business. Maybe “Fine Art Photography by Camp Counselor Carl”, or “, LLC”, or whatever. The LLC part is important to include if that’s the route you want to take.

3. File “Articles of Organization” to establish an LLC. You do this with the Colorado Secretary of State. It will cost $5.00 and take you about 20 minutes online. You’ll probably name yourself as the registered agent.

4. Prepare an LLC Operating Agreement. Your lawyer probably has a 99.9%-solution template that you can tweak. This is apparently not required in Colorado, but it is a good idea in order to show your intention to be an LLC and not simply a sole proprietorship.

5. Colorado Sales Tax/Withholding Form. You do this with the Colorado Department of Revenue. It can be done online, although I chose to actually go to their office in Denver near the capitol building at 1375 Sherman Street (8 to 5, Mon-Fri). It cost me something like $58.00. The tax number you receive is what you’ll need to get wholesale prices for your supplies–frames, paper, ink,. etc. (Note: I chose annual sales tax reporting rather than quarterly due to my low sales volume.)

6. City sales tax and business license. Since I live in Boulder, I went down to the City offices at Broadway and Canyon, paid $25.00, and turned in my two forms (which you can download online). It will take 4-6 weeks to receive the license. If you aren’t in the Boulder Bubble, check with the municipality where you live.

7. Employee Identification Number. You get this from the Feds, it is free, and can easily be done online. You’ll need the exact name of your business.

8. Set up a business checking account. Along with this, you might consider adding Quick Books to your “To Learn” list.

9. Regular reporting. Annual tax returns (see your accountant), and annual (or quarterly) sales tax payments/reports.

Some other ideas

–Adding employees complicates things. Consider trying to be a one-person show.

–The Colorado Department of Revenue has classes to help you learn the intricacies of the state sales tax and filing requirements.

–The Colorado Small Business Development Center (SBDC) also has classes and advice for new businesses. In Boulder, they are located in the North Wing of the Boulder Public Library.

–Finally…Some artists elect to avoid all this business stuff altogether. They simply put their work in galleries or stores–the business will take a percentage (perhaps 30% to 50%), but they handle all the sales tax issues and you just keep up the inventory. You will simply get a check periodically for your percentage of the sales.

How to value art. (My personal marketing plan.)

Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much logic to it–how art is valued on the commercial market, I mean. You hear of paintings, sculptures, and photographs being sold for small and even large fortunes, but how did the buyer and seller arrive at such prices? (As an example, see my February 22, 2015 blog Peter Lik…Artist? Or, slick businessman? Or both? Or…something else?)

I guess, like someone told me about the real estate market, the value of whatever is being sold is determined by whatever someone is willing to pay. Period.

In art, it seems like marketing, gossip, connections, peer opinion, gallery opinions and prejudices, social appearances, bragging rights, and sometimes even the quality of the actual work, all have something to do with the monetary value of a piece.

Here’s my plan (at least, until I can get to be really, really good): I am going to ask a rich friend to buy one of my photographs for, say, $500,000. I’ll give him the money back the next day, of course. But what we’ll do in the meantime is hold some sort of press conference for the art crowd and throw around phrases like “emerging artist”, “incredible potential”, “recently discovered”, “passionate”, “inspired”, “endowed with rich layers of meaning and Freudian symbolism”, “nihilistic pseudo-psychological analysis of contemporary capitalist-consumer society”, and so on.

We’ll let the art market take it from there.

In that vein, I offer up today’s hilarious video (3 minutes). It’s in Dutch, but if you can read English subtitles, you’ll be just fine as a frog’s hair. The idea here is to place an IKEA painting worth about $20.00 in a museum, act like it is some sort of masterpiece, then ask the opinions of passersby. I love the references to “IKE Andrews” (the artist), and some of his other works: Ektorp, Norden, and Dalskär. A real gut buster.

Is this the state of today’s art market?

Peter Lik…Artist? Or, slick businessman? Or both? Or…something else?

Maybe you haven’t heard of Peter Lik, but you have surely heard of the sale of one of his photographs, “Phantom”, for $6.5 million. That makes it the most expensive photograph ever sold to date.

To jog your memory, here is what a Google search came up with, although the colors seems to be a bit weird…or maybe not:

And, another version of the image in question (in monochrome), as ridiculed anonymously on the internet:

Very nice that the dust someone threw in the air for the shot managed to form the shape of a “phantom”–or was there some Photoshop help there? No matter…

Peter Lik’s work is typically of that very saturated, landscape school I discussed in my February 5, 2015 blog post, On Super-Saturated Landscape Images. The difference is his marketing genius. He has managed to parlay his work, and his system of progressive pricing of limited editions, into a multi-million dollar business centered in Las Vegas. Imagine selling well over a million dollars worth of your prints each week!

Holy Suffering Sotheby’s, Batman!

There seems to be some question, though, if there might not be sort of a subtle psychological manipulation of client expectations in the Lik Gallery business model. Hmmm…the plot thickens…

To read a bit more about Peter Lik, his ingenious business model, and the famous “Phantom” photograph, check out this February 21, 2015, New York Times article, Peter Lik’s Recipe for Success: Sell Prints. Print Money. This is definitely a must read for a little insight into how the sale of art works in this modern world of massive PR and marketing strategies, instant gratification, and buyer v. buyer bragging rights.

More links in case you want to delve a bit more into Peter Lik and the “Phantom”…well…uh…the “Phantom” controversy, I guess might be the word…

Try these forums (links to various news articles can be found within these discussions): Peter Lik Photo Sells for 6.5Million. How? and New York Times Exposes Peter Lik Photography Scheme

And yet another article with a fount of links to related articles at the end: Peter Lik–Like Him or Not

The Price of a Framed Print

Dawn On the Plains. Boulder, Colorado, 2014
Dawn On the Plains. Boulder, Colorado, 2014

I can remember, some decades ago, being in a gallery in Somewhere, USA, when I first noticed the prices of the artworks. “Dang,” I thought, “How can they charge $200.00? It’s just a framed photograph, after all. That’s crazy!” (You wouldn’t want to hear what I said about the really expensive stuff.)

Here’s the real deal–a breakdown of today’s cost of producing a framed 12×18 photograph (18×24 finished, framed, size):

–Anti-UV/glare resistant acrylic – $30.00

–A good-quality Nielsen aluminum frame – $18.00

–Acid-free 8-ply mat, and foam core, all custom cut to size – $25.00

–A high-quality photographic paper – $5.00 a sheet. But, you may have to make 2, 3,4, or more prints to get it right…so, let’s say $15.00.

–Archival hinging tape, mounting tape or corners for one print – $2.00

–Archival inkjet inks, one print – $1.00. Again, let’s call it $3.00 to include having to reprint to get it right.

–Photographer’s time to assemble the print, mat and frame–call it 30 minutes to do it right with no dust of fuzz caught under the glass – $10.00 (If working for $20.00/hr.)

So far, that comes up to $103.00 for a framed, archival, photographic print. Indeed, there are cheaper framing methods, but they may not be archival in quality. There are also many, many WAY more expensive presentation methods. So, for my purposes, lets just agree to go with what I have outlined above.

Now, if you charge, say, $185.00 for the finished product, you are making $82.00 per framed print. Not bad, eh? Well, the story isn’t over…

Now lets add in the “other stuff”:

–Cost of gas and mileage to get you to and from the spot you made the original capture. ($50.00)

–Cost of the gas and mileage to get to and from that same spot the ten times before when the light wasn’t right to get the image you wanted. ($500.00)

–Cost of the lenses, tripod, camera body, filters, batteries, memory cards, camera bags, and so on. ($5,000.00)

–Cost of the software you use to post-process the image, say, the Nik/Google Suite and Photoshop CS6. (Say, $725.00, although now one has to subscribe to the latter.)

–Cost of the computer, monitor and printer for processing and printing. ($3,000.00)

–Cost of setting up and maintaining your website to present and advertise the image. (Do-it-yourself, $100.00…Hire out, $2,000.00)

–Cost of that last workshop you took which taught you how to post-process the image as well as you did. ($500.00…and we’ll just include one of many workshops here.)

–Cost of your constant labor and practice to get you skilled enough to where you could successfully make the image, say, 5,000 hours at $20.00/hr. ($100,000.00)

So, that’s an additional $111,775.00. Total REAL cost of that framed photograph? $111,878.00

OK, OK, I know. I exaggerate just a teeny weeny bit. It’s not like you would collect all this gear and invest all this time to simply make one image. You’ll likely make many, of course.

But the point is this: the finished, framed photographic print is but the tip of a HUGE iceberg of costs as well as hours and hours of passionately invested time. You don’t make photographic images to get rich. You make them because that’s what you love to do.

So, how sensitive is my Gallery Price Meter today? Not very. The meter rarely moves off of zero no matter what price I see posted.

Advice from Greg Heisler

Today's image...Retired Roping Steer. Boulder County, Colorado, 2013
Today’s image…Retired Roping Steer. Boulder County, Colorado, 2013

For those of you who may not recognize his name, he is a 58-year old New York-based photographer famous mainly for his superb portrait work. He has photographed countless celebrities, politicians, and other big names, and his work has appeared in many a magazine including over 70 covers for Time. (You might recall the controversy over a Time cover photo of a “two-faced” George H.W. Bush–that was Greg.) In most people’s ledgers, what he has accomplished as a photographer would count as quite a success story.

Anyway, a few days ago, I ran across a short video interview with Greg in which a few things he said banged the bell with me. If you are looking at going into photography as a business, you might want to watch the 8-minute video in its entirety (link here), but these are the three key points that touched my little artistic gray cells: Click here for the gray cell highlights.

Thinking of a career in the arts, photography?

The Old Cottonwood, Denver, Colorado, 2012
The Old Cottonwood, Denver, Colorado, 2012

I recently came across this article on the Kiplinger web site that listed the current “Ten Worst College Majors” for your career. They were: 10. English, 9. Sociology, 8. Drama and Theater Arts, 7. Liberal Arts, 6. Studio Arts, 5. Graphic Design, 4. Philosophy and Religious Studies, 3. Film and Photography, 2. Fine Arts, 1. Anthropology. We made #3!

I remember when I went to university that I had it my mind that it was important to get a broad, liberal education, so I essentially majored in what was then called “Social Science-Extended”, essentially a minor in in each of the areas of Sociology, History and Political Science. (I understood, even then, about making money so I did get my secondary education certification to make sure I could put bread on the table.) My idea was that an undergrad degree should be general and that there would be time later to specialize. Many of my friends, in contrast, went directly into Business or Marketing regardless of their passion for anything else.

I totally agree with the Kiplinger Top Ten–if all you consider is putting bread on the table and to hell with personal fulfillment….but I certainly see the bias built into the list. In our western capitalist marketplace, there is indeed no real place for careers that might explore the arts, philosophy, language, culture, etc…that is, exploring who we are as humans. There IS, however, a great place for jobs that generate products, buying and selling, and consuming. This forces many of us to look for work in something we don’t necessarily like (or we convince ourselves we like it) in order to make it financially and we never really get to follow our true passion until we get rich enough to do so or we retire (or we try to do it in our limited spare time).

In my humble opinion, it is too bad we don’t have a society with cultural values such that we COULD pay people for what I see are really the most important aspects of human existence–who we are, philosophy, language and the arts. Currently, the marketplace constantly generates new technical inventions, new medical breakthroughs, and new products, but we often don’t have the philosophical or moral background to know how to deal with them in a rational way. Sure, we do need a marketplace so folks can get fed, but I think our values are currently skewed way too much away from what is important about living a fulfilled life.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to live in a society based more on maximizing human creativity and introspection rather than the current one based heavily on consumption and production?