Street Vending Photographs In NYC: Experiences and Suggestions

Posted on 4/20/2010 by Dexter Lane | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The Business
Last year I spent about a month total on the streets of New York City vending my panoramic photography. I was on the street for only a few days of the tourist season, and made an average of $270/day. When the tourist season was over, I averaged about $40/day. At least in NYC, foreign tourists are the majority of buyers. When they leave, the business dies. I plan to be on the streets this summer, when time permits.

By far the most dominant photography vended in NYC is stylized touristy over-saturated, monument and iconic location-driven work, largely produced by two extremely prolific Russian photographers. A handful of original photographers are mixed in. Our work ranges from much better NYC iconic location photos, to personalized architectural or street work, to abstract and whatever. My work is all of one subject, the Manhattan skyline; from one location, the NJ side of the Hudson River; in one format, panoramic.  

Both during the brief window of the tourist season, and in my fall outings, I consistently outsold the "tourist photo" vendors by 2-3:1. A vendor of original NY photographs, in one of the best Central Park locations, did about as well as I did. He has an extensive stand, sells matted prints, and takes credit card payments.

I sold no more than 4 different prints on any one day, with a representative matted and framed in metal. They were lashed to a carbon fiber tripod, giving a very "upscale" look to my work.  I wanted people to see my prints as they would look in their homes. Many of my clients stopped to talk about photography.

Following is what I think I learned about vending that made my business so successful, even if briefly.     

1. Sell good photos!  If you feel demeaned by selling a good photo for $30, or $20- vending is not for you. My photos were in a class by themselves in comparison to all but one of the other panoramas I saw.  I use the Epson 4880, and Inkpress Lustre paper. No corners cut. I've sold one print for $250 off the street, and as low as $15 on.

2.  Display differently.  Another photographer I saw make decent money was a woman in Union Square Park who sold little photos of buildings and city shots, framed in plastic, hung from the bicycle she rode in on. Her panniers were stuffed with photos. For me, it was the tripod.  My sales increased one day when I asked customers to write "Rainbow" in their language on the glass of a pano, using a dry-erase marker. Take the outside-the-box thinking you use your shooting, and apply it to your display. Difference sells.

3. Don't sit behind your stand unless tired.  Stand by your stand. Engage people. Even one of the better photographer/vendors I know is like the touristy vendors in sitting behind his stand, and only occasionally emerging to talk with people. Talk. Engage. Smile. Wear a camera. When I did this, people loved it. And so did I. Humor worked very well for me. When people told me that they loved my work, but didn't have enough wall space, I responded, "Move to a bigger place!" Even you don't feel comfortable with a comic approach, think of good responses to the customer comments you'll get. You're a sales-person. Go for the sale. You know that your work will be, for most, a special memory of their vacation. Let them remember you, too.

4. Have two or three different price signs. Use them strategically. I usually carry one each for $30, $25 and $20. When the market tanked I kept the $20 up and, if a looker looked like they were about to move on, "for you- $15" sometimes made the sale. When I had the sign at $30, and was selling for that, I refused $20 and would consider $25. Near the end of the day I'd use a dry-erase marker to write directly on the glass of the top pano- "End of day sale- $25!!!"

5. If you feel that "negotiating" the price of your photos is demeaning- fuggeddaboudit. Some of the buyers come from societies where the back-and-forth is the norm. Some just expect this method of purchasing street art. Less than 10% of my clients tried to bargain. Sometimes I did bargain, sometimes not. But the process has to be rooted in a business sense, not in pride.

6. Respect the location of vendors with a history at that spot. I met many other vendors, and became well-known due to my material. There was a real sense of brotherhood on the streets.  People would take care of a stand whose owner took a break. To take someone's traditional spot breaks that code.

7. Request your "street vendor discount" at the local street food vendor (if that's your food thing).  Hot dogs along Central Park West @ 63rd: $2.00- $2.50. Soda: $1.75. For art vendors: $1.50 and $1. We're in this together.

8. If you are selling your own work, people will want to talk cameras and photography.  Engage them.  Everyone has a camera, and many think they can shoot "well-enough." A little patter- about how you've spent years shooting your work; how you've studied the scene to get the effect you want (if true); how you process your work in Photoshop, Aperture etc. (for me, AutoPano Pro) goes a long way. It sets you apart, giving them a reason to buy.

9. You're outdoors: prepare for it.  Sunscreen. A hat with wide brim. Duct tape, clamps, velcro. Wind happens. I had a metal framed panorama blow off my stand (near the bottom- thankfully the glass didn't crack). A sudden wind is not your friend. Study how other's manage their stand. Rain happens. Figure out how to keep your work dry- before you need to.

10.  Figure out transportation/storage early in the game.  Be innovative. First prize goes to the woman who rides her bike, panniers studded with small framed work, to Union Square. Second to the woman with small prints hanging from a mobile. Both had work that customers could fit in a large handbag. The touristy sellers have elaborate setups with metal poles, metal clamps, milk crates, bins etc. Everything fits together with the precision tolerances of a Mercedes, and is wheeled to a parking space in a local garage, which is shared with others. My 50" metal frames, along with tripod, signage, collapsible laundry hamper, rain protection, sales tax permit, and 20 gold-tubed panos, fit in a large keyboard gig-bag. I throw it into the luggage compartment of the NJ Transit bus, wheel it through the subways, and drag all 60 pounds along the street. Figure out the efficiencies early. Study others.

11.  Have a permit.  I was stopped the first day I went out by someone who saved me from having my stuff impounded by telling me that I needed one.

12. If you are a Veteran, find out if you have preference.  Veterans in NYC can sell from prime locations that others can't.

13.  The police are your friends.  If they tell you that you're in the wrong place, they're right.  I've battled police while shooting, but never while vending. 'Nuff said.

14. Make friends with nearby vendors.  Everybody needs a bathroom break. You want peace-of-mind while taking yours.

15. Know where you can and can't vend, and all the regulations you'll be expected to follow.  NYC has resources and information through The Street Vendor Project. Here's their FAQ: Google for any resources that may be available in your city.

If you can live with the varying amounts of money you'll make; truly enjoy talking with strangers about photography, your work, their work and Photoshop; can be flexible with pricing without feeling cheated or compromised; have really good work displayed with flair; know where the FOREIGN tourists are; and are respectful of other vendors whose work you may dislike- you can make some money street vending your photos in NYC, and probably elsewhere.

The Politics
As of April 2010, NYC is trying to drastically limit the number of vendors in some of the major parks. The reduction will be about 75%. If this comes about, the traditional goodwill between vendors now competing for the remaining, tightly controlled spots, will be history.

The Experience
Although I was only out there for about 30 days total, I have so many memories that I forget half of them. The Bhutani vendor who was a dedicated archer; the Russian photo mogul who, after admiring my work, pulled me over to his van where he dragged out panos 25" high by many feet long; my friend Raphael, Indian, 3 languages (none of them intelligible), vending for 15 years, waiting for his daughter to get her doctorate in Chemical Engineering next year so he can retire. The Police. If readers ask, I'll deliver. 

Copyright © 2010 Dexter Lane. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Dexter Lane has served as Secretary of the Picture Archive Council of America (PACA), founded its original Digital Image Standards Commitee (DISCo), and worked in management positions at Peter Arnold, Inc. from 1998-2008.  He is now marketing the ImagePASSPORT line of JavaScript programs that automate quality control adjustment and standardization of image files and metadata.

Among his photographic portfolios of his favorite subject, New York City, are his Panoramics.  These he occasionally vends from NYC's streets- hauling many gold-tubed panos, four metal and glass framed examples, and a carbon-fibre tripod as his stand in a keyboard gig-bag. He finds street vending a great balance to computer-time.


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