Selling prints is a growth area in photography. But there are some rules to play by; it's a good idea to find these out before you are asked to sell your work, and prepare by asking yourself a few questions. Redeye's Paul Herrmann investigates further.
The range of prices can seem quite arbitrary. Producing a print might only cost a relatively small amount, but its selling price comes from a number of factors:
- how much work went into making it;
- the demand for the photographer's work;
- the photographer's attitude to how they want their work distributed;
- the print's rarity;
- its quality.
It's a complex formula, and so prices are often set primarily based on the photographer's – or more often their agent's or gallery's – experience and judgement. If you're in the happy position of having a gallery representing you, they'll probably tell you the price at which they would like to sell your prints. But it's worth informing yourself by looking at each of the factors above in a little more detail, and not rely on market prices.
“Cost-plus” - pricing based on the costs involved
Often a photographer, like many other businesses, will begin pricing their work based on the break-even point for their business, and consider how long and how much skill it took them to produce the work, overheads, and any other variable costs involved, against the number of works (whether commissions, image library or print sales) they expect to sell. If your entire income depended on print sales, how much would you need to charge for each one to stay in business? Many photographers limit their print sales to a small selection of their work. Trying to sell prints of every single image you produce is hard work, can confuse buyers and reduce the work's value.
Considering the time, skill and effort that's gone into making the picture is still a good starting point for print pricing, but it's difficult to draw conclusions until you know more about the market for buying your work.
The demand for your work
Photographic print buyers tend to fall into three broad categories:
- Casual buyers, or consumers, who might not really expect to spend more than double figures [£100, €100, $150] on a work. Mostly they buy online, from chain stores like Ikea, from friends, from the cheaper art and craft fairs, or might stray into local galleries from time to time.
- Art lovers, or aficionados, who could spend well into the hundreds for work they like. They buy from art fairs, galleries, direct from artists or photographers, occasionally auctions.
- Serious collectors, for whom the price is arguably less important than the work's enduring or increasing value, along with other factors like the work's provenance, its critical approval, and how it fits into their collection.
Which of these markets most interests you as a photographer? Any of them takes hard work to break into. Some photographers produce different types of prints from the same work to try and appeal at more than one level, while others stick firmly to a single level. Building demand through clever marketing, and coming across as a serious and committed photographer with a long-term career, will help your selling prospects.
Your attitude to distribution, and rarity
Should you limit the number of each print you produce, through editions? Editioning is a relatively new phenomenon in photography, but has been adopted enthusiastically by photographers and buyers. In theory a photograph can be printed an infinite number of times, but this does not appeal to a collector or investor for whom scarcity is important. So through an edition, photographers promise only to produce a limited number of each print, then never print any more. That way an investor knows that the print has a greater chance of increasing its value, and the sale price can be higher.
Edition quantities typically range from three to fifty. Each print will be numbered; for example 4/10 on a print means it's the fourth print in a edition of ten. It is acceptable also to produce a small number of artists' proof prints of an edition, labelled A/P, which sometimes sell for a lower price. Some photographers produce different edition numbers in two or more sizes, but some also report that the larger, more expensive, shorter-run prints sell better. So this is an area where the more homework you can do, the better.
How do you feel about limiting the number of your prints? Many photographers are naturally democratic, and wary of reducing the number of prints available by editioning. Some get round this by producing both unlimited runs and a limited edition of their work. Others realise that they are unlikely to sell huge numbers of prints, and produce editions of higher numbers.
There's a few other guidelines about editions – ask around and seek plenty of advice on these matters if you're not sure:
- It's very important that you don't break an edition – don't ever print more at the same size after the last one has sold. Word will get out, buyers of the original edition will feel cheated, and it will be damaging to your career. Use common sense and put yourself in the position of the buyer. A new edition at a slightly different size is usually not acceptable; whereas a significantly different print produced for a specific purpose might be more acceptable.
- Restrict the number of artist's proofs; it should only be a small fraction of the total number in the edition.
- Most photographers number and sign each print, more often verso (on the back), sometimes recto (on the front), if the latter perhaps in such a way that the signature can be hidden behind a mount.
- Supply each print with a letter or certificate authenticating it, mentioning the edition and date it was produced.
- Unlike other forms of printmaking the higher numbers in a photographic print edition can be more valuable than the lower ones, since a gallery might put the price up as fewer are left to sell. If one print sells particularly well, some photographers consider holding back the last one or two of an edition, as their value is more likely to increase with time.
Other factors can affect a print's rarity and value. So-called "vintage" prints – those made within a year or two of the photograph being taken – usually sell for more than later ones, though this can be more relevant to collectors than to photographers. Still, it's worth producing the best possible prints you can at the time you make the work. The provenance of vintage work is very important to buyers, so it's worth keeping good records of what work you produce when, and whom you sell it to.
The production and quality of the print
It almost goes without saying that you must produce the best possible quality of work you can. People are paying for a valuable object and it needs to be flawless, and packaged appropriately. If it suits your practice, work that has some hand-added or hand-finished element can add extra appeal. While many collectors will be happy to buy a digital print, for a few, an analogue hand print has extra appeal.
If something unexpected goes wrong with a print, for instance if it fades or discolours within a relatively short time, you might normally expect to replace it at your own cost; if you do, you need to ensure that the print that is being replaced is returned to you.
Certain processes and mounting techniques can affect a print's longevity. There's a mixture of folklore and developing research on this subject that can make it difficult to know the best thing to do. Seek advice from a reputable photo lab, or a museum specialist if possible. Properly processed black and white prints on fibre-based paper, colour prints on Ilfochrome, or the best inkjet prints using a tested combination of ink and paper, should all have a good lifespan. A modern Type C paper such as Fuji Crystal Archive also has a good reputation, though historically not all such papers and processes have lasted as long. Be careful of any process that bonds a print to a substrate; it might be suitable for making an impact at a short-term exhibition, but check its longevity. The Photographic Collections Network might be a good place to look for more informantion on print longevity.
Artist Resale Right
One final factor that might affect pricing is that of Artist Resale Right, also known as droite de suite. In Europe and certain other countries, an artist, including a photographer, is now entitled to receive a percentage of the sale price any time his or her work is re-sold after the first sale. It only applies to work that sells for over €1000, and only applies where a professional intermediary such as a gallery or dealer is involved (it doesn't apply if bought direct from the artist and resold within three years at less than €10,000 - this is to allow galleries to buy works for stock). The artist receives a royalty of 4% of the sale price for works sold between €1000 and €50,000, then a sliding scale applies. More recent legislation means this now applies to artists' heirs, within a certain time limit. This royalty may be claimed via a collecting society such as DACS or ACS in the UK.
Which images sell as prints?
I don’t think there is a magic formula for which prints are likely to sell, but I’ve seen works on sale, often selected by the photographer, that seem to me unsuitable. Having said that, it’s not a question of trying to second-guess the market by making work that is inauthentic or derivative but that is trying to appeal to particular buyers. However, it is a question of having a clear and deep understanding of what is your best work, and how you might improve. It’s a subtle but critical difference. You have to believe in your work and be honest, but be open to experiment and improve.
How good are you at editing your own work? The computer screen is misleading - everything looks good on screen. I heard a story about Josef Koudelka: that he would print everything he liked at postcard size, and stick them all on the wall. As he got fed up with a print over days or weeks, he would take it down. The final few that were left were his best edit. It must have been a slow process but it gives us a clue as to the kind of images that might do well as a print. A great photographic print needs to be multi-layered, perhaps contain a touch of mystery, and be “open” - to interpretation and repeated viewing. Would you want to look at an image every day for a year - or ten? Then it might be the right one to sell as a print.
Of course, get the opinions of others too. Redeye's Critique Surgeries are a great pleace to get a professional opinion. Spend time visiting fairs such as Paris Photo, Photo London or Unseen. Try and find out which works are actually selling. Consider the following, gathered from chatting to gallerists and collectors:
- Buyers need to form an emotional attachment to a photograph, or establish some sort of connection.
- The story behind a photograph needs to be communicated if it’s not actually inherent in the work. If as the photographer you get asked, you need to be able to tell that story compellingly and succinctly.
- Work that turns the mundane into something beautiful or appealing is popular. Nihilistic subjects, and certain portraits, don’t seem to sell as well. But tastes change and in today’s multi-faceted market, you ought to be able to find someone interested in buying your prints.
- Research – print editions and prices
- Research – which work sells
- Edit – refine your techniques and maybe get help
- Try and make some prints at the time you shoot the work
- Make the best possible quality of prints
- Sign, number and authenticate
- Keep good records
- Limit your artists’ proofs
- Consider varying the price though an edition
- If an edition sells quickly, consider holding back the last one or two
- Never break an edition
- Mount or frame works in a way that can be reversed
Photo: a booth at Paris Photo.