Up Your Price with Limited-Edition Photography

At Black Star, we like to feel that we’re helping photographers realize their ambitions. We provide them with the sort of interesting, challenging and rewarding assignments that any photographer would be happy to fulfill, whether that’s creating portraits of some of the world’s leading executives, joining a shoot for an ad company’s billboard campaign or telling a story in images for one of our media clients.

Sometimes, though, a photographer really wants his or her work to hang on someone’s wall. And with photography, including photojournalism, increasingly being embraced as an art form, there’s an opportunity to market your work as an artist would — by selling limited-edition prints of your best work.

The Ultimate Accolade

Making photographs as art is hugely satisfying for any creative photographer. Being able to sell single prints of an image for thousands of dollars and knowing that your picture is going to decorate someone’s home or office is, for many, the ultimate accolade. You might believe that a photograph you’ve created is good — but when someone is prepared to pay you a large slice of income to see it every day, you’ve got tangible evidence that others agree with you.

Of course, all photographers sell prints. But the difference between a photographer who offers copies of his or her images online and someone whose works are genuinely valued isn’t just the price he or she charges; it’s also the idea that the buyer is picking up something that others don’t have — a work that’s unique, exciting and valuable.

Most of that feeling comes from the quality of the picture. Some of it, though, comes by limiting the number of prints available.

For photographers, this can be a tricky issue. A painter only produces one version of a work of art, but photographers can produce as many prints as they want of a photograph. Today, digital photography seems synonymous with image ubiquity.

Making an image available to everyone who wants it can bring in more sales — just as stock photography can be more profitable for some photographers than assignment photography. But as with stock photography, it also devalues the sale price of a work. Art buyers looking for exclusivity don’t want to see the same image on someone else’s wall.

How Many Prints is Too Many?

There are a number of issues to bear in mind when considering selling limited edition prints. The first is the figures; limiting the number of prints available will mean that you can charge more for each print. But it also caps the amount of income that the image can generate. You want to be certain — or as certain as you can be — that the total income generated by your limited editions will be higher than the amount that the unlimited prints would have earned.

Of course, there’s no way to figure that out for sure. But knowing how quickly and at what prices your unlimited prints sell and comparing those figures to the sales figures for limited prints should provide a useful guide. In practice, you might find that you’re accepting a lump sum in the short term in place of a small, long-term stream that could be worth more overall.

You’ll also have to consider the number of prints you want to create. There’s no industry standard here, but copyright law defines a work of photography visual art as:

a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author…

That figure might be a good place to start, but the fact that photographers also have the option of limiting the number of prints in different sizes makes the situation more complicated. Getting those figures right is always going to be a matter of experience, an understanding of the value of your own work, and a knowledge of your market. (Limited edition prints can actually help with this: keep a record of who owns which number in each series and you’ll be able to build a database of buyers and contact them each time you complete a new work.)

The Suffering Artist

There are other things you can do to increase the perceived value of your photographs. Signing them (ideally somewhere unobtrusive) can help to lift a print into the art world. And providing the buyer with well-written caption information — even a detailed description of the subject — can enhance the feeling that the buyer is picking up a work that’s special, and make them sound knowledgeable when the photograph becomes a topic of conversation.

Keep in mind, of course, that numbering and signing prints can be time-consuming. You won’t simply be able to pass on orders to a printer who can handle the packaging and shipping. You’ll have to receive the prints, add your name and pencil in the numbers before sending them on yourself.

And that’s one of the biggest problems of joining the art world: photographers are expected to enjoy their work; artists are supposed to suffer for theirs.

[tags]photography advice, photography business[/tags]

8 Responses to “Up Your Price with Limited-Edition Photography”

  1. Thank you for your insightful thoughts on creating limited edition works.

  2. Anh:

    I really like your last sentence.

  3. Are you aware of any fine art photographers either currently or historically, that have limited their prints to one print? Making it much more like a painting and much more exclusive in terms of only one person being able to own it?

  4. I am new at this. I photograph wildlife. I have a really neat picture of a Great Horned Owl close up. I have made 100 cards of this image. Can I make 80 limited edition prints of this photograph at 8x10 and another 80 of this of 11x14? If so, must the 80 photographs all be printed at the same time or can i use the same studio producing the same print as needed over time?

    Thanks for your advice.


  5. I have a question regarding vintage prints, signing and numbering. If a photographer has vintage prints and ends up selling them years later, how should they be numbered and should they have a year of printing on them? It needs to be distinguished from a print that is printed today, of the same image. So for example, perhaps it is 1 of 3 vintage prints, printed in 1995, but when sold in 2011 it wasn't signed or numbered yet. So should it be signed with the current date, and a slash and then the edition and year it was printed, too? (i.e. signature 2011. 1/3 (edition) 1995 (vintage print date)

  6. Googled "limited edition photographs" and read this standard rationale for limited editions. Then read that Ansel Adams printed 800 copies of "Moonrise Over Hernandez" which was never a limited edition photograph.

  7. hi ! i photograph the food i cook. i am new to printing and exhibitions. i would like to know how many prints should be there approximately, minimum or maximum.

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