Selling the dream

Chilkoot pass

Gold miners carrying their kits up Chilkoot pass

There’s a story about the Alaskan Gold Rush.  It said that the people who made the most money weren’t the people who panned endlessly for gold, but the people who sold the shovels.  They were selling the dream, not the reality, and that’s where the money is.

I see a lot of marketing ventures online, workshops, eBooks and more all saying how they have the key to help you market your photography.  They toss out all sorts of buzzwords like SEO, podcasts, newsletters, marketing plans, guilds, etc, all promising fantastic results.  Heck, if you have a DSLR and sign up for their service you’ll be the next National Geographic staff photographer.  All it costs is $$ per month, and your new career is worth that “investment”, right?  Makes sense – your friends have told you that your photographs are “amazing” and all you need to do is take it to the next level.  You’ll be working full-time at something you

They’re selling the shovels (and getting a guaranteed revenue stream for them).

Don’t get me wrong, you do need to market your photography, but by far the best marketing is the simplest (and hardest) to do:  Make great photographs.  I mean truly great  – something that sets you apart from everyone else.

The only way to do that is to practice.  Shoot…a LOT.
Then study your shots and ask yourself what you can do better.  Compare your shots (objectively) to the stars in your field.  Really look at them.  What does the background look like, what’s the lighting like, what emotion did you have when you first saw it, how did they convey that emotion through the photograph?

It seems so simple and yet most people still are looking for that magic pill:  That piece of gear, the marketing service, the exotic location that will make it all happen.  It takes discipline to do the hard work of developing your craft.  Years of study and hard work.  There is no magic bullet. It’s just practice and study, simple as that.

The people that made money from the actual gold were the first ones in.  The ones who said “You know what?  What if we tried this stream over here – I wonder what would happen?”

Try, play, study, and most of all keep shooting.  Put together a body of work that will stand on its own.  Then you can start the marketing side of things.  And trust me, it will go a lot more smoothly than if you have a “pretty good” portfolio.

Don’t buy into the dream factories – make your own dreams through hard work.  Make photos that you’re passionate about and the right people will be drawn to it.





  1. I wish more people would read these amazing words! I spend just as much time learning as I do shooting. Most of the time it’s a 90% learn 10% shoot. With camera manufacturers cranking out new, better, more advanced cameras, the gap between real talent and computer chips is closing for most people. Art is usually appreciated because it is difficult to create, hard to duplicate buy others, and a show of skill. Now it seems like the better sensor, big fast glass, and rock star appeal is what the world thinks of as art. I have been photographing for almost 12 years. This is the first time in my life I have a small local gallery working with me to sell my work. I didn’t seek them out, they found me. Since April I’ve had two other larger galleries make me offers of more sales, more money, if only I’ll switch. I’m sticking with the gallery owners that found me. The reason: they have faith in my work. They are using funds from their business to make my work known, not kicking me to the curb when I don’t meet a sales quota. This is so right on so many levels Mark! I appreciate you taking the time to be one of the passionate photographers that still gets excited about the work.


  2. Well written Mark, I agree completely. There is no shortcut, no easy fix no matter what you are promised by companies and self-help blog posts (of which I have tired greatly). There is only hard work, dedication, passion and a stubborn belief that in the end the emperor’s new clothes will be exposed and the good images will prevail.

  3. That’s your magic bullet right there. It’s pretty simple really, persist like hell, for as long as it takes. But given that we in the first world are so used to instant gratification that not only do we want to arrive fast, we want guaranteed results.

    “If i work really hard for 3 years, i MUST become an NG, Time etc staffer, win 20 awards, have 37 exhibitions etc”

    A lot of people can’t seem to deal with that. Which makes me wonder why a lot of people get into photography in the first place – do they REALLY love it, or is it just another avenue to that 15 minutes of fame?

    Dan Milnor posted something similar a number of weeks ago about how a long term project isn’t 1 2 or 3 years. Some people work at them for decades, and that’s where the quality comes through, because you see the evolution, the long thinking, the growing in the one body of work.

    Great post!

  4. well said, mark. working in series and going deeper with one’s work is key. the more i focus on “marketing” the less i enjoy my work. when i step away from the on-line world in terms of my marketing and just live, shoot and produce work i am most fulfilled, alive. today, if artist = marketer i’m in trouble. quite the conundrum!

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