Very, very few fine art photographers make their living primarily off of selling prints. One photographer in the NW indicated he only knew of 3-4 in the entire NW region who were able to do that. So in general I would say as a fine art photographer you need to look at generating multiple streams of income – books, teaching (online, DVDs and/or direct), lectures, etc.
It takes a long time to build up a following and income stream. Have you ever noticed how often it takes an artist in most any genera 10+ years to be recognized? The key here is to just keep plugging along and making the most of opportunities as they come along, getting your name out there.
One thing that does mark some of those that succeed is a specialization in a technique, subject or skill that isn’t easily replicated by the mass of other photographers out there. In business terms they have established a significant barrier to entry to their particular markets. The current turmoil in the photographic market place is in my mind due to the lowering of the barrier to entry that existed before the age of digital photography and the digital age. The digital age has allowed a much greater number of people to create good images and distribute them in a prolific manner. One result of this proliferation has been that to stand out as a photographer you must figure out how to rise above the masses. While the Internet has created the opportunity for visibility around the world – standing out in all this “noise” is difficult (think about searching on the web – how many hits do you get if you sea ch on “photographer”).
Stock photography as a major source of income is pretty much dead. While I hear rumors of a photographer now an then who still makes a living off stock, the professional fine art photographers I know would say not to waste your time there now. So far I have not had any success in the more direct sales approach to calendar companies and publishers either. This could be due to the economy, my lack of experience in selling to them or my images may not match their needs (though I try to do my research here). Time will tell.
So am I throwing in the towel. No. I am just sharing my observations along the way. Being persistent definitely seems to be a key to success.
Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in making money in fine art photography.