Monetizing Mobile Photography: Some Assembly Required

How do you monetize mobile photography?
L to R: Tim Young, Adrian Salamunovic, Brian Difeo, Kirsten Alana by Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson
“Getting Paid” panelists L to R: Tim Young, Adrian Salamunovic, Larry Closs, Brian Difeo, Kirsten Alana by Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson
The difficulty in monetizing mobile photography is causing anxiety and frustration for many photographers. During Social Media Week in New York City, the 1197 Conference at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art tackled the subject head on in a panel called “Getting Paid”. Each panelist had built a unique path to a working business model:
  • Kirsten Alana is a travel diariest/blogger and teaches
  • Larry Closs is the founder and editor of TrekWorld, a travel and trekking magazine, a Director of Communications for a non-profit, Next Generation Nepal and author of the book Beatitude
  • Brian Difeo is the co-founder of The Mobile Media Lab, “a marketing agency for Instagram” and founder of Instagram NYC
  • Adrian Salamunovic is the co-founder of CanvasPop the leader for mobile photography printing on canvas
  • Tim Young is an illustrator and digital art director with 20+ years of experience
The stories of how a paid gig actually happens are almost brownian motion except with direction so it’s no longer brownian but perhaps vector motion. The place each person holds (in a social network, in an organization) serves as matrix of relationships that form a platform for broader reach.
Larry Closs’s photographs of Nepal (presumably taken while on trips with or for Next Generation Nepal) have been used by CNN, The Huffington Post etc. Brian travelled on a paid trip to the Middle East to photograph for a brand because his talents were known through connections at The Mobile Media Lab and Instagram NYC. Other stories were similar.
This motion variant closely parallels the top 3 actions that Saul Kaplan recommends for innovators in The Business Model Innovation Factory: How to Stay Relevant When the World is Changing (A shout out to Kathryn Welds for this concise summary):
  1. Do more stuff
  2. Use a different lens 
  3. Enable random collisions of unusual suspects
Panelists throughout the day agreed that there was no one path. Advice to those looking to find their way included:
  1. Be social. Spend time commenting and liking.  If you’re not social, nothing else you do will matter. Kirsten Alana
  2. Find out what’s unique about you. Brian Difeo
  3. The key to monetization is to solve someone’s problem. It’s all about them and it’s up to you to get that across. Jen Pollock Bianco, multimedia travel diarist, My Life’s a Trip
  4. It’s the web you spin that really counts, not the authoritative channels.
  5. Contact galleries, don’t be afraid to teach, make your own opportunities. Marty Yawnick, creator of LifeinLoFi and creative director of Type A Design.

While the tremendous difficulty in monetizing mobile photography is frustrating for many photographers, the good news is that change is more likely in times of high volatility. And the clarion call for change in photography business models is here. Indicator comments from the conference include:

  1. “The way photographers are paid is changing. Maybe we need to rethink what compensation means for photography.” Jamie Goldenberg, photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek magazine AND freelance editorial photographer
  2. “Stock is dead.” Noah Rabinowitz, Art Editor with Guernica, portraiture and reportage commissions
  3. Someone in the audience gave a stunning example of having his stock revenue plummet from $5k per month to $50 for the same volume of production.

In the midst of all this disruption, if you photograph, you have to make your peace, one way or another with the current circumstances and your ability to change them or cope with them. The most resonant meta conversation I had about this topic was with Tim Young.  At some point during a substantive commercial career Tim came to the personal decision that it’s about the relationships and nurturing those relationships.

This point of view is akin to what Lewis Hyde describes in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Nurturing relationships through the powerful gifts of support, connection, commenting, liking etc creates social bonds.  The dominant form of exchange is one of affection creating a matrix of relationships. This is in stark contrast to a commercial exchange or money-based transactions which discharge all obligations leaving both parties free of the need to interact further.

How to monetize mobile photography is a conversation that won’t stop until some new equilibrium is found. The prospects for change are the greatest now because of the size of disruption. In the meantime, practice your gift not only of photography but also of support and connection with those “unusual suspects” in your network


    • Hi! You’re right, it was a broadening experience. And despite the perceived and real limitations of mobile photography, there are folks who want to sell it, folks who want to buy it and folks who want access to the photographer’s following and more I’m sure. I think the impact of social media may be greater on mobile photographers primarily because they are more likely to be posting immediately on social networks than a DSLR shooter (until posting features become available on DSLRs). Thanks for stopping by and leaving an encouraging word!

      • Yes, the distinctions will soon be almost transparent to the final viewer. DSLRs are getting more common with wifi and mobile hotspots on phones make that shareable to the web.
        Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras I’m sure will soon make phone calls and cell phones company spend more money improving the camera on the next model of smart phone as they do the phone.

      • Adrian Salamunovic of CanvasPop basically said the same thing. He said that in the future there will be no distinction between mobile photography and “regular” photography. It will all just be “photography”. Hopefully companies will be equally good at designing the phone, the camera etc. But often they are better at one or the other. A Canon phone would certainly be a new thing!

      • Hah, I don’t think we’ll be called photographers too much longer.
        It’ll be old fashion to call yourself a photographer in 5 years, like film is now. Not that film is bad or anything, it’s just retro. That’s what photographers that only due stills will be soon.
        We need a new name that incorporates video.
        Visual artist or something.

  1. Thank you, Jennifer, for pointing to the similar challenges across industries facing business model disruption.
    It seems that the frequent advice to focus on building and sustaining interpersonal relationships is pertinent here.
    Another way of summarizing might be: “Interpersonal Relationships: Antidote to Disrupted Business Models”.
    Thank you for the opportunity to share your thoughts via Google+:

    • Hi Kathryn, thanks for exposing me to Saul Kaplan’s work! Your concise summary of his book really helped bring the point home in my mind and your proposed title is a perfect expression. Sounds like a perfect excuse / reason to have coffee with “unusual suspects”. Thanks for your comment and for giving this a + on G+!

    • Hi Oliver, thanks for taking the time to read the piece. There was a lot of rich content at the conference. I visited your website at and found your award winning MPA images. Your winning image for Street Photography is quite breathtaking! And your runner up in People/Portraits shares such an intimate and relaxed atmosphere. Thanks for stopping by. It’s great to get to know you better.

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