Many young photographers are seeking advice when it comes to selling photographic prints. It’s not just that they’re wondering where to sell them, but also what are the expectations when it comes to the physical object? By what method should a photo be printed? Should it be matted or framed? How much should it cost? To that end, here’s a look at the basics of printing, finishing and selling photographic prints.
Edition Size For Selling Photographic Prints
When it comes to selling photographic prints, it starts with consideration of the edition size. This will help dictate other factors including printing methodology, paper stock and more. An edition is the number of prints that will be produced from a given image file or negative. Editions can be limited to a specific print size or encompass all different sizes of a print. For instance, a photographer may decide to make an edition of 30 prints at 8×10, 20 at 11×14 and just 10 at 20×24, while another may make an edition of 100 prints of varying sizes. Edition size is tied directly to scarcity, which influences value for collectors, and as such, prints are typically signed and numbered showing their place in an edition. (For instance, print number 3/10.) A collector would be more likely to invest in a more expensive print if she knows the edition is limited.
Some photographers actually price their works in tiers based on how many images in the edition have already sold. The first three prints of an edition of 10, for instance, may sell for $700, while the next three sell for $1,200, the next three for $1,800 and the final print for $2,500. This approach encourages buyers to invest early at a lower price and provides built-in appreciation as the most popular (and therefore best-selling works) sell for increasing amounts.
The reverse is true too. Some photographers make “open edition” prints, which are simply not numbered and not limited to a specified quantity. A photographer may make open editions in order to offer more affordable prints to a greater number of buyers. These prints are typically not sought after by collectors because there’s no limit to the number that can be produced—which violates the fundamental economic law of supply and demand. (It’s for this same reason that it’s considered bad form for a photographer to violate edition limits by printing beyond the quantity indicated. It undermines the audience’s trust in the photographer and, ultimately, the value of their work.) For a photographer more interested in getting her work seen by a greater audience, or for those who want to offer decorative print options with a more affordable entree into their work, open editions can be a great way to go. Photographers often sell prints this way online from sites such as Etsy, Fine Art America and Society6, in open editions for as little as a few dollars. No, it’s not a path destined for fortune or fame, but it’s a great way to get work out there at a price that friends and family can most easily afford.
Print Yourself Or Use A Lab?
The next decision to make is how the prints will physically be produced. Will you make them at home on an inkjet printer or will you send them to a lab for darkroom-style chemical processing? Ultimately, the market will dictate what sells and what doesn’t, and there are no real rules when it comes to printing processes. That said, a safe place to start is with a professional, lab-made print to ensure high quality in an effort to keep the audience happy with the quality of their purchase. After all, a buyer is likely to be disappointed if their new print looks like it was poorly produced on an at-home laser printer. If you don’t live in an area with an established pro photo lab, consider ordering from an online vendor such as Bay Photo or WHCC. These labs and many more like them offer a variety of printing processes and materials and work with demanding professionals across the country, so they’re likely to be capable of producing work that meets the most exacting standards.
For those interested in positioning their work in the fine art realm, consider printing on media that has a more refined association with its aesthetic. For instance, back in the darkroom days, glossy RC prints were used for reproductions in newspapers and magazines, while more matte-finished fiber-based prints were the purview of the fine art realm. That aesthetic continues today, and many paper manufacturers offer substrates and surfaces that mimic traditional baryta darkroom papers as well as fine art papers such as watercolor and heavy artists papers. A glossy, plastic-based photo paper may not be as well received by an audience familiar with collecting fine darkroom prints, so bear that in mind when choosing materials. All that said, there are quite literally no rules when it comes to these matters of aesthetics, so if high-gloss prints meet your need, or if RC paper provides just the right look, go for it.
Matting And Framing
Should prints be matted and framed? Sure, that’s definitely a viable option—but it’s not always required. Matting and framing are expensive and can make shipping prints more cumbersome and expensive. If you’re working with a gallery, they’re likely to handle, or at least provide guidance in, the framing and finishing of your work.
If you’re doing it yourself and a framed print is to be shipped, consider glazing with an acrylic sheet rather than glass, the latter of which is much less likely to survive the shipping process intact. If you’re matting work (either as an end in itself or along the way to framing) consider the advice that fine photographs have traditionally been paired with bright white mats, and the thicker the mat (at minimum 4-ply, and for a really bold gallery look, 8-ply) the more premium the result. For prints smaller than 8×10 inches, be sure to allow at least two to three inches of mat at minimum around the print, and consider using a mat and frame combination that orients the frame vertically even if the print is horizontal. I also like to weight the print, or offset it, slightly above center for a more refined (in my opinion) appearance. A more contemporary approach, particularly for larger prints, might see just a couple of inches of white space around the image area, as well as horizontally oriented frames. Often, the white space that might once have been provided by a mat can now be done by printing smaller than the paper and leaving a thick two-inch white border around the image, then skipping the mat and going straight to framing.
For frames, it’s hard to go wrong with a simple wooden frame in a square profile finished in black, white or natural wood as your taste dictates. Working with a local framer is a great way to ensure top-notch materials and build quality, but the price for this is higher than with DIY. An alternate approach is to learn the skills of mat cutting and framing, and online vendors such as American Frame and Framebridge provide the equipment and materials to more affordably cut mats and do framing for yourself.
Regardless of how you choose to finish your work, remember to build that cost into the price. You should never break even on the costs of these additional services, so build in a substantial profit for not only the materials but the time and value involved in providing a refined finished piece. A typical business’s materials markup of 15 to 20 percent is likely quite insufficient when considering a high-margin industry such as artwork, so start by scoping out the competition—particularly those in your area, producing similar work and with a similar level of experience—in an effort to determine the going rate that the market will bear. There’s by no means a requirement that your rates match those of other artists, but it’s an opportunity to educate yourself on what works and what doesn’t.
Speaking of pricing and marketplaces, there’s, unfortunately, no easy answer to questions of where one should sell their work and how much they should charge. For those hoping for art world success, it all starts with galleries. These gallerists and collectors will ultimately help shape the nature of the work as well as the materials and processes used to produce it and, of course, the price. They’ll also provide much more specific and useful information than even the most well-resourced online primer.
Resources For Selling Photographic Prints
For those simply looking to sell their photography as a fun side hustle, the art fair route may offer the ideal path to commercial success. For those serious about turning their fine art photography into a business endeavor, I highly recommend the book “How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist” by Caroll Michels. She offers practical, sage advice for photographers and artists of all types who aim to make a career selling their work.
Also, don’t discount the opportunities availed by social media for selling photographic prints—particularly to the audience that’s most likely interested in purchasing—your family and friends. From Instagram and Facebook to Etsy, eBay and Pinterest, opportunities abound for those who want to make the selling process easy—including everything from marketing to payment processing and shipping. You can even set up a website with help from companies such as Photoshelter and Pixieset that will integrate directly with photo labs providing “print on demand” service so customers can order with a click and their orders are printed and shipped with zero intervention from the photographer.
Ultimately, there’s no simple formula for success when it comes to selling photographic prints, but whether you’re hoping to simply offer to your family or are trying to make it big with an audience of adoring collectors, there have never been more avenues available for producing and selling photographic prints.