As fine art printing has become easier, more affordable and of higher quality, professionals and amateurs alike are trying their hand at showing their images on paper. At some point, even an amateur might be asked if he or she would be willing to sell a print. That has happened with a number of my amateur photography clients, whose next question to me is how they can sell even more prints.
As a Moab Master photographer, I was curious about the state of the art of selling fine art prints, so I decided to query some of my fellow Masters about their experiences in today's highly competitive marketplace.
A Problem of Acceptance
Jim Graham is a well-respected generalist photographer from Delaware. Graham has wide ranging experience as a newspaper, editorial, wedding and commercial photographer, although his personal work tends to be more in the fine art realm.
"I find the biggest challenge we face is getting people to understand the value of photography and that it truly is 'Fine Art,'" says Graham.
My own studio also finds that challenge to be a real barrier at times. Unlike with fine art paintings, people often associate photographic prints with cheap chain store prints. They have little awareness of the amount of time, work and extraordinary expense that has gone into capturing, post-processing and printing a fine art photographic print on museum-quality paper, using archival inks in high-end printers. Most of our clients report that seeing (and touching) a fine art print is a paradigm-changing experience.
For anyone selling fine art pints, professional or amateur, a key factor is getting enough exposure. Putting likely buyers in front of fine art prints is the name of the game.
Scott Barrow, another Moab Master, is a location photographer shooting a wide variety of assignments. He owns a gallery in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, an area that draws as many as 500,000 visitors in the summer. Approximately 80% of his gallery sales occur then. "We have a short season for gallery sales," Barrow reports. "From November through May we have very little foot traffic."
The challenge of exposure is compounded for those who do not have the luxury of operating their own gallery. One solution is to have one's work represented by an existing gallery. "Selling prints is a continual struggle," says Graham. "Having your work in galleries is a huge help. It tends to legitimize the work as a piece of fine art."
Not Just the Money
Despite the fact that all professional fine art photographers have to put food on the table, I have never met one whose sole - or even prime - motivation was financial. We all are hard-wired to creatively express ourselves through our chosen medium, no different than a fine art painter or sculptor.
Graham puts it succinctly: "Selling fine art prints gives me the opportunity to show people another side of my passion for photography. Purchasing prints gives them an opportunity to support that work. The proceeds from the sales of that go back into funding trips and the costs involved in the creation of new work."
"I love the process of making prints," Barrow adds. "To be able to print an image and hold it in your hands is very satisfying. It’s real. When that photograph is printed on Moab’s Entrada Rag Bright 300 it’s both a visual and a tactile experience. I also like seeing which images people respond to in the gallery. I enjoy sharing my stories with them."
The Internet Myth
If there is one myth that wrecks more photographic dreams than any other it is that all you need is a website to sell fine art prints. That is patently false. None of my colleagues, some of the best print-makers in the world, sell much of their work online. Graham, for example, sells only a small percentage online, but those prints aren’t signed or numbered.
Scott Barrow sells roughly 10% of his work through his website. However, even in those cases it represents follow-up from people who have first visited his gallery.
This makes perfect sense when a fine art print might cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Most informed consumers want to experience the look and feel of a fine art print before committing to purchase.
Most professional fine art print-makers use the Internet and social media for increasing visibility which, in turn, drives people to see our art in person.
Tips From the Pros
Given the state of the market for selling prints, what do professional photographer print-makers recommend to increase sales of fine art prints?
Do It Yourself. There is no substitute for taking the time and effort to create your own prints. After all, you created the image. Why not advance your vision all the way through to completion?
Use Quality Materials. "Printing on fine paper and offering the best presentation in terms of mat and frame truly helps sales," advises Jim Graham. "I find that using Moab papers by Legion, in combination with Rising mat board, has help my sales and consistency of presentation a great deal." I agree.
Meet and Greet. Surprising to many people, most art sales are the result of face-to-face contacts. "People like to meet the artist," says Scott Barrow. "I spend my summers in the gallery and my experience is that 95% of the prints that sell do so when I am in the space. No one sells me like I do."
Invest. Selling high-end fine art prints requires an investment in time, energy and money. Don't expect to be successful right out of the box, but also know that experience, good equipment and fine art papers (like Moab's) will eventually get you there.
Les Picker is a Moab Master photographer. His studio and gallery is located in historic Havre de Grace, Maryland. Les leads photography workshops throughout the world.