The Problem With Pay Photo Sites

I have several photo storage and display sites; I have a Pbase account and a Flickr account. Until recently I had a Photoshelter account, too. I’ve had my PBase account for years now; they charge a very reasonable $25 a year. I have the free Flickr account, mostly because I took a strobe lighting class at UCSD Extension earlier this year and Flickr was how we communicated and turned in our work. In my opinion Pbase is a much nicer looking site and gives the impression of having many more true professionals and highly skilled semi-pros and amateurs on it. Flickr is snapshot heaven and has more of the bullshit “social media” stuff that people seem to think is so very important. I will not be paying for the advanced Flickr features. Pbase has several different templates to give galleries different looks, they have links for buying images, a comment system and forums to discuss photography and the site. They also have a Google Analytics feature, which is very important these days.

And then there’s Photoshelter. Photoshelter was recommended to us in another class I took at UCSD, a business of photography class. The pro-photographer instructor had a pro-photographer pal on the site but he himself did not know all that much about it. I saw that it was $30 a month and asked him “So, will I get $30 a month in sales if I open an account there?” He didn’t know but I pretty much did. Nonetheless I opened an account and promised myself I’d give them one year. If I hadn’t gotten significant traffic and sales after that one year I’d quit. I lasted 6 months and then I dumped my ISP, found new web hosting with unlimited storage and bandwidth for $3.50 a month, set up a WordPress blog and a Coppermine photo gallery and suddenly had everything but a cart (which I can also add to my site free) PLUS all the Search Engine Optimization advantages for my images that Photoshelter offered (IPTC, key words, headlines, etc) at about 1/10th the price. I can afford to have Photoshelter-like sales, interest and web presence for 10 times as long.

I don’t know; a site like Photoshelter on the surface seems to be a good idea; leverage the web (and more specifically Google’s view of the web) to raise photographer profiles in search engines and thereby drive potential customers straight to photographers and create sales this new-fangled way seems on the surface to have potential. But it also seems to me that the art world is very slow to change and also highly protective of their processes and talent. Using Google to search for something is probably only going to happen when there is a highly specific topic they need an image for. For example, I have a lot of images of Rome and Italy. Many of my images I take for myself without a motivation to get a sale. I want MY photo of the Colosseum or the Pantheon. I’m not going to pay for an image of something I can get just as good myself. But, my largest sale ever was from Pbase. I had an image of the interior of an obscure church in Rome that an art book author wanted to use, so, we connected. I assume he Googled the name of the church and found me, or maybe he went straight to Pbase and did a term search there, I don’t really know.

Ultimately I could tell that I was expected to be at Photoshelter for a year or even 2 while my SEO “juice” was built up and all the while I was also supposed to Twitter, Facebook and blog endlessly with no one actually, you know, reading any of it to continue to build in-bound links that Google likes to see. That’s $720 after 2 years with the silent but still real caveat that no sale is guaranteed and I will be almost 100% guaranteed to never make my investment back at all.

But, I have knowledge that Google does not in fact require a lot of new activity to rank someone high in something; my Rome Restaurants page is my most popular page and that hasn’t been updated in many years now.

So, what’s my recommendation? Honestly, the old fashioned way is probably still best; getting your work out in public in those horrible tacky “art fairs” that cities like to put on in the Spring or Summer, trying to get sales through word of mouth, advertising, local photographer groups and yes, the web. For several years I had a local surfing museum as a customer for my picture postcards of the local pier and surfing landmarks. I got that gig by joining the museum and then schmoozing the director. Learn some web administration techniques and you can host your own site for far less than any photo service will charge and maybe – maybe – some day you’ll be discovered in your own version of Schwab’s Drug Store’s soda fountain counter.

Arch of Septimus Severus

Arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman Forum in Rome, Italy

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