Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a cave without any access to the internet, you’ve likely heard of NFTs. They’re all over the news and social media, with mind-boggling price tags and sales that’ll leave even the harshest critic befuddled. The acronym though— standing for non-fungible token— is far more than just a buzzword, especially for artists starting to see some cash flow from the quickly expanding digital art marketplace. But why is it exactly that NFTs photography has become such a huge deal?
Well, imagine that you’re an artist who creates digital images or videos. How exactly do you go about monetizing your content? You might sell signed prints, some kind of merchandise or sell photos online. Or you could create a painting, photo, or other work, digitize it and then modify it online. While this is all well and good, a question remains; which one is the original? Is it the painting, photo, or video, or is it the digital copy that you’ve modified online? And if so, given that the digital copy exists, is there the original digital copy?
This is where NFTs and NFT photography come into play. A smart contract asserting that this digital piece is the original and all the others are just copies (or ‘digital prints' if we go with a real-life analogue), NFTs come with creative and monetary potential aplenty.
What is an NFT?
Photo by Bjorn Pierre
First thing’s first (before we jump into how to actually make money with NFTs), let’s get the definitions out of the way. NFTs (also known as non-fungible tokens) are digital assets representing real-world objects like art, music, videos, and in-game items. They are bought and sold online, frequently with cryptocurrency, and they are generally encoded with the same underlying software as many cryptos.
And although NFTs have been around since 2014, they are gaining notoriety right now specifically because they are becoming an increasingly popular way to buy and sell digital artwork. A staggering $174 million has been spent on NFTs since November 2017 alone; that ought to say something.
NFTs are also generally one of a kind , or at least one of a very limited selection, and have unique identifying codes; essentially all of this is done in the name of digital scarcity. This stands in stark contrast to most digital creations, which are almost always infinitive in their supply. Hypothetically, cutting off the supply should raise the value of a given asset, assuming it is in demand.
But many NFTs, at least in these early days, have been digital creations that in one way or another exist in some form elsewhere, like video clips from NBA games or securitized versions of digital art that’s already floating around all over Instagram.
And it’s not like you can’t view this work for free; you can go and find individual NFT images or even an entire collage of images online for free. So why are people willing to spend millions on something they could easily screenshot or download? Well, an NFT allows the buyer to own the original item. Not only that, it contains built-in authentication, which serves as proof of ownership. Collectors generally value digital bragging rights almost more than the item itself.
How is an NFT different from Cryptocurrency?
As stated above, NFTs are built using the same kind of programming as cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum; but that’s about where the similarity ends between the two.
Both physical money and cryptocurrencies are fungible in nature. They are also equal in value—one dollar is always going to be worth one dollar, and one Bitcoin will always be equal to another Bitcoin. Fungibility is sort of a tried-and-trusted way of conducting transactions on the blockchain.
NFTs, however, are an entirely different story. Each NFT has a digital signature that makes it impossible for them to be exchanged for or equal to one another (thus being non-fungible).
Before daydreams of how to make money with an NFT start flooding your brain, a comprehensive understanding of an integral component is needed; so let’s briefly touch upon fungibility. If certain goods or commodities are described as fungible, that means that individual units are interchangeable and indistinguishable. Perhaps the best example of a fungible good is money. If two people have five dollar bills, they should have no problem swapping those, as fundamentally, they are the same; hence, fungible.
NFTs don’t operate like this. If fungible means interchangeable and indistinguishable, non-fungible means rare, unique, and irreplaceable. Before NFTs, most digital artifacts were more or less fungible. Picture seeing a funny GIF, downloading it, and posting it onto your work Slack channel; you and all your colleagues are given access to the same file that the creator of that GIF has. The GIF is therefore fungible. You can swap it, pass it around, and the GIF can proliferate ad infinitum.
Why are NFTs so Popular Now?
Photo by Joshua Woroniecki
With the first non-fungible token minted in 2014, the creation and adoption of NFTs began picking up slow and steady; 2017 was a particularly notable year. Around this time, the first NFT collections were launched on the Ethereum blockchain.
While the very first NFTs (Rare Pepes and such) were launched on Bitcoin, Ethereum soon emerged as the leading choice for its infrastructure and economies—Ethereum’s smart contracts functionality enabled for the creation of tokens, programming, and storage to be built directly into the blockchain itself. One of the very early projects was CryptoPunks, a collection launched by Larva Labs that has become synonymous with the early days of NFTs. And even though NFT tech is now available on quite a few blockchains such as Solana, Tezos and Flow, Ethereum remains top choice.
So where does that leave us in early 2022? True, mainstream awareness towards NFTs was growing prior to 2021, but the previous year sped things up in a manner quite unparalleled. So what were the catalysts? The first was the pandemic, which forced many people to be more digitally-native and connect with each other on platforms like Twitter and Clubhouse; the NFT community has built a strong presence on both. And the second factor was the rise of Beeple, a longtime digital artist turned NFT pioneer— he was the first artist to sell an NFT with a major action house. When the Christie’s auction for his ‘Everydays—The First 5000 Days’ collage came to a close on March 11 at an eye-popping $69 million, it became clear that NFTs were not a thing to be ignored.
NFTs and Photography
Since NFTs can be used for a range of things, it is only understandable how digital art was quick to jump on the bandwagon. People started to understand that a unique digital object can have significant monetary value, just like a work of art, purely because of its uniqueness. They offer a wide range of possibilities in contemporary art for creators, buyers, and collectors alike.
The NFT marketplace facilitates transactions between all those interested in cryptoart but also just art in general. These online communities give artists the chance to create and sell digital artwork that might have otherwise been overlooked.
In the case of NFT photography, for example, a creator has the ability to tokenize a photograph and whoever ends up owning the token will own that specific photograph. People can look at it, take pictures of it, and draw inspiration from it, but there can only ever be one owner. The buyer of an NFT corresponding to particular digital work has in their position only the certificate issued by the creator of the artwork; this is how one certifies that they are indeed the new owner. The artwork in question can always remain freely accessible online, even recorded and shared by millions of Internet users.
To better understand the process of selling and buying NFT photography, let’s look at the case of Vivian Maier. Until her death in 2009, Maier lived in Chicago working as a nanny. There, she spent most of her free time wandering the streets and taking tens of thousands of photographs that she kept largely to herself. In the later years of her life, most of her photographs wound up in storage, completely unbeknownst to anyone but Maier herself. Fast forward to 2007, when Chicago real estate developer John Maloof purchased the contents of Maier’s storage locker at an auction. He then became the sole owner of Maier’s work. And even though anyone can view Maier’s work at exhibitions, books, and the internet, the ownership still remains Maloof’s.
By offering creators to put a virtual signature on their digital works, NFTs work like a certificate of authenticity since a work sold in the form of an NFT cannot be counterfeit. For photographers, each image becomes unique like it would a specific image number on a roll of film. Yet, if this work becomes acquired by someone else, they become the owner; with the artist remaining as the creator, of course. A digital image or even a print from a film can be duplicated but if it is a limited/numbered edition, or, in the case of an NFT, unique, then it can take considerable value.
Another interesting feature this system allows is that photographers can attach royalty agreements to their NFTs. This entitles them to a percentage of the profits made every time ownership of the asset is transferred, in other words, when the NFT becomes sold to someone else.
Why NFTs and Photographs Work Well Together
Photo by Dollar Gill
If you’re at all familiar with recent commercial or print ads for Audi, Apple, or IVM, then you’ve probably come across Reuben Wu’s work. The musician and professional photographer is also an ambassador for PhaseOne cameras. Most of his income roots from the commercial side of photography and client-based work. More recently though, Wu’s been able to build up a large audience for NFTs as well. They have given the artist the luxury of more time and care put into work, and the freedom to commit himself to projects that take months; something he was not able to do before. As an extra channel, NFTs have granted Wu a rebalance of sorts when it comes to his business.
Cath Simard has made a career of hosting photography workshops around the world. With all of her existing success and large following across various platforms, she approached the NFT world from a point of sheer curiosity. Notoriously not the biggest tech person, Simard was completely captivated by the crypto art space. What excited her the most about the space was the strong sense of community and the ability to build one another up. NFT pictures pushed her to take a deeper look inside her work and how she connects with her own work; better understanding why she creates the way she does. The particular freedom Simard would get to create anything she wanted and on her terms was beyond appealing. This is why she’s been able to sell 1/1 edition NFTs at top prices; and they’re very fascinating.
Simard noticed that most NFTs we see right now don’t have an in-real-life aspect to them and she really wanted to offer something that hasn’t been done before. She believed that an in-person trip paired with the chance to learn photography from her while getting a new NFT photograph created for the collector during the trip would help add overall value to a buyer’s purchase. By offering such a unique take on the traditional workshop experience, Simard was able to fetch 30 ETH for an individual NFT.
The Rise of NFT Photography
NFT’s ability to confer uniqueness has led to a boom in digital art’s collectibility. Before, anyone could replicate an image or a photograph an infinite number of times, making it practically impossible to create the perception of scarcity of value. In other words, there was no way to build a market. NFT images therefore offered a solution. There could be infinite JPEG files of an artwork, but only one ‘real’ image specified by the NFT; or two, or a hundred. The point is, whatever edition size the artwork’s creator intended on was what it would be. With an almost literal flip on the switch, a market was born.
There is a tendency to compare the boom in NFTs with the rally in GameStop shares; another recent and jaw-dropping value creation story that also seemed, to onlookers at least, to have popped out of nowhere. The narrative is particularly seductive because the same young, tech-savvy people appear to be behind both phenomena.
Why Should NFTs be Taken Seriously by Photographers?
Photo by Radek Grybowski
The traditional market for photography and other digital art has been limited to stock photography licensing, printmaking, and other avenues of selling tangible copies or intangible rights to a work of art. With immense market saturation in the last decade or so, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for most artists to even generate a steady revenue stream for their work. As mentioned before, NFTs for photographers represent an entirely new market and subsequently a new mindset for artists . Buyers interested in art and tech are now clamoring to not only support their favorite artists, but also to acquire scarce digital assets made unique by blockchain technology. Each transaction is recorded for all to see and cannot be undone, erased, or misplaced. Additionally, artists can benefit from the secondary market by incorporating a commission in their NFTS that will pay them on any subsequent sales. But perhaps most importantly, artists can retain their full copyright unlike many licensing agreements. This is a revolutionary feature for photographers and artists creating today.
Should NFT Photography Be a Section of Your Business?
Given that NFTs are swiftly entering the mainstream, there are many upsides for any company or creator that dabbles in art or photography to test the waters. True, not every company needs a section to create NFTs, but if you are a visual artist, musician, or game designer, it is definitely worth thinking about developing and selling NFTs.
If your business decides to produce NFTs, they first need to be minted. Suppose you want to sell an NFT version of a photograph you own. All you need to do is use a do-it-yourself service such as OpenSea, Rarible or Mintbase to turn the image into an NFT. Once your business has minted an NFT, then comes selling. Many of the services that allow you to mint an NFT also act as marketplaces where NFTs are bought and sold, including OpenSea and SupeRare. You can list your asset for whatever price you think someone will buy it for and, ideally, make desired profit. Additionally, you can code an NFT, so the original artist receives royalty when the work is resold.