In an age where the computer rules the land, and quick, short, and cheap has become the universal mantra, photographic artistry often takes a backseat to the bottom line, which means less time and reduced cost in making prints. But if you're a photographer who refuses to sideline art, how do you stay competitive while maintaining your creative vision? One way is selling fine-art prints. Setting you apart from prosumers and solidifying your professional relevance, fine-art photography can be a lucrative way to stay creative in an increasingly digital age.
Ask David C. Schultz of West Light Images (www.westlight.net) in Park City, UT, why he sells fine-art prints, and he'll tell you that it's not about the glitz and glamour, but another word that starts with "g": "This is the most gratifying way of selling my work." Schultz began as a commercial photographer, but switched to nature and landscape photography 20 years ago. "Selling limited-edition photographs is about 95% of my business; I only sell my images in the gallery."
James Samela of LJ Studios Photography, (www.ljphotostudios.com) says about 15% of his sales are fine-art products. "We've been selling fine-art prints for about three years now," says Samela. "It began as a surprise when we had a portrait client ask us if they could purchase a sample 20x24 framed image of three children taken at a wedding. After that, I started creating a stock file from all the weddings, portrait sessions, vacations, and local images. We began offering the fine-art prints from the stock file; that carried over to selling fine-art prints to our portrait and wedding clients from their individual sessions." With prints ranging in size from 5x7 to 24x36, all of Samela's prints are sold signed and framed, with a fee that includes any retouching/post production work.
Along with his portrait sessions, Samela also photographs local areas that are popular spots around town to tap into the more personal element of photography: "The reason we started to sell so many fine-art prints is because our images are both personal and artistic."
Indeed, part of appealing to that personal aspect is being local. West Light Images' Schultz began selling fine-art prints after moving to Utah. He's not the only photographer in town, especially during tourist season. "There is plenty of competition in this market, and especially here in Utah," he says. "On less than a mile-long stretch, there are four nature photography galleries." Being in the neighborhood all year sets his business apart from the others. "I think I probably have the most diverse portfolio, and being local really helps," he says. "People are usually surprised to find out that the guy cleaning the store's front windows is also the guy who took all the photographs."
Selling signed, limited-edition prints ranging in size from 4x6 upwards of 48x72, Schultz's most popular size is 20x30. "People in the area have big homes with giant walls they want to fill, often with local images," he says. "We do all the framing in-house. I decided to keep the work that I produce on the high-end side, from the type of prints to the mat and framing selection. Everything is archival: museum mat board, conservation glass, and a frame selection of ‘exotic' woods, many hand-made mouldings from Italy."
To appeal to every budget, Schultz also offers smaller prints: "I sell blank note cards but only as boxed sets of 25. I try to avoid having a product that would take away from the sales of my limited-edition collection. I know people will buy a $2 note card to take home and frame instead of spending $30 for a 4x6 matted print. We sell a lot of the small prints, so offering individual note cards would probably greatly cut into the small print sales."
Quick turnaround is becoming more the industry standard. Andrew Darlow, editor of ImagingBuffet.com and author of 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques, sells signed and numbered limited-edition prints and licenses images to publishers for posters, along with publishing his own 5x7 folding cards and posters. To cater to clients that want fast turnaround, Darlow has begun to offer on-demand cards and posters using a print-on-demand company called CafePress. "You upload images without having to do any production or fulfillment," explains Darlow. "In many cases, having your work on the site is also free. Do a search on two of the largest on-demand companies, CafePress.com and Zazzle.com. Seeing the best sellers in the subjects you cover can help you better understand what people are buying. You can then upload a few images and make a few prints to see the quality of the specific items you choose."
The internet is not only a great way to streamline workflow, but it's a central meeting place for photographers to connect with prospective and repeat clients. Schultz describes his website as "a must-have tool," which he updates regularly: "I'll send out emails to clients and previous visitors. I have a guest book where guests can leave email addresses."
Darlow suggests joining online discussion groups through Yahoo.com: "Check each group's extensive archives before posting a question. I also highly recommend Mary Virginia Swanson's website, blog, and book (www.mvswanson.com). I have attended a number of Ms. Swanson's lectures, and she truly understands the art market on a number of levels."