Fine Art Photography: A Complete Guide
Fine art photography has become all the rage over the past decade, and it is a moniker many photographers use to try and elevate their output to try and sell it via galleries and print sales. But what is fine art photography after all?
Table of Contents
What is Fine Art Photography?
The primary criterion that distinguishes fine art photography from other fields is that fine art is not about recording reality photographically. Fine art moves away from documentary photo-journalism and is based first and foremost on the artist, and what the artist sees in their inner self and being. A fine art photograph must fully express the feelings and vision of the photographer, and reveal that it was created by an artist and not just the camera.
Thus we arrive at the core of fine art photography – the photographer’s vision. It is all about the message or emotion that the photographer wants to evoke when someone is experiencing their image, which after all should be the aim of every photographic image. Many artists at some point in their careers have struggled with finding their vision and inspiration, so you are not alone if you feel that way. Just like there are moments when your mind is in a state of vibrancy and you have so many ideas that you cannot sleep, there are also those moments when it seems like your mind is void.
What is vision in terms of art? Art is expressing yourself. For you to be able to express yourself, you have to understand what you want to express, to be aware of it. For that to happen, you need to start by thinking about it, and hence, develop your vision. So where do you start?
Many prospective fine art photographers feel disillusioned when trying to enter the fine art world of fine art prints and galleries. Although initially daunting, with hard work and dedication, it is not impossible to leave a mark on the fine art scene.
How to Shoot Fine Art Photography
So how do you get started in fine art photography? First, you will need to create a unique body of work with your creative vision and personal style.
A body of work entails a collection of images that evoke a single theme, message, and style. The subject matter should be rounded, as should the shooting style and post-processing for the whole project. Although one can tell a story and a deep message with one image, for an artist to have an impact on the fine art world, they would need to prove themselves over a longer period of time with a consistent output of high-level fine art.
Ideally, your body of work should be so powerful and impactful that anyone viewing it should be able to tell you are the artist producing that fine art, without your work needing to be signed. It just screams your name, has your identity, and defines you as an artist. The world is awash with would-be fine art photographers. How can you stand out? Talent, hard work, self-criticism, mentoring, and advice.
Learn from the Masters… but Innovate, Never Imitate
I know this tip is obvious, and that it is tough to be ground-breaking in today’s photography world. But it is not impossible, and one has to admit this is the reality of working in art today.
Fine art photography is a very difficult niche and no book, article or workshop can teach you better than studying the works of previous masters, learning from their photographic output, and breaking down the images to their essential constituents – but it is extremely important to never copy.
Do not stop at photographers either — one can learn by visualizing compositions used in cinematography, in book design, and by sculptors & architects.
The goal is not to reinterpret what other photography masters have done, even if that could be useful too as an exercise, albeit just initially when one is setting off. The goal is to let your mind be inspired so that you can discover a new idea having been motivated by their work, an idea that will be yours and that will suit best your style and personality as an artist, as well as your life experiences making you the artist you are today.
To start off, have a look at the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michael Kenna, Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Fan Ho. For me, these are masters of fine art photography and have all brought something new and exciting to photography.
Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
No matter your choice of photography genre, you should always be open to trying something new. Switching to a different style of shooting will make you think out of the box and move out of your comfort zone.
One way of challenging yourself is to shoot a different genre than the one you are accustomed to. For instance, if you are an architectural photographer like me, decide to shoot a fast-paced dance show or the other way round; or if your style of shooting is slow-paced using a tripod to shoot long exposures over many minutes or hours, decide to shoot sports, where you need to shoot handheld most of the time and move quickly to focus on your subject of choice.
Changing the way you shoot or the genre can be a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but it will bring to the attention things that you were not aware of when shooting within your regular comfort zone.
Preparing Your Fine Art Photos for the World
Now that you have defined your vision and started producing artistic projects, you need to get your work out there and ensure your work is visible. Competitions do not really lead anywhere in terms of being picked up by galleries. You need to be prepared for the long haul and aim for the process to take as long as it needs to take.
Having a strong online presence through your website and social media is essential. Instagram is a powerful outlet for photographers, as is uncompromising and constant networking.
Improve Your Photographic Post-Processing
Creating innovative photography does not entail using a digital camera nowadays, but also knowing how to take the digital negatives the camera will produce to the state of your own vision, using the digital software darkroom, the corollary of the analog red light darkroom of yesteryear. Understanding and mastering digital post-processing will give you freedom and inspiration, whether using Capture One Pro or Photoshop.
I made the voluntary decision to edit in black and white, as that is the language of my inner vision and fits fine art photography like a glove. It leads the viewer well away from reality and evokes timeless, mysterious images and through it, I can fully express my vision.
Learn the Art of Printing
Pre-2000, the analog film would be processed, and more often than not, it would be printed. Today, printing seems to have been relegated to wedding albums and… fine art photography, with most digital images just simply being displayed via the Internet.
Printing is not as daunting as it initially appears, and it should be the final end-point of every fine art photographer’s image production and diffusion process. Printing method and paper choice are deeply personal choices, with silver gelatin and platinum-palladium printing being particularly appealing to fine art photographers.
Familiarize yourself with the art of printing, or else use the services of a professional printer who has a reputation for printing fine art.
Verbalize Your Artistic Output
It is essential to know how to speak about your work, both in the shape of the artist’s statement and verbally. Writing your artist statement helps you form your ideas and put language to them, but it is also important to put language to your ideas in your conversations.
Many people tell me, “I don’t like to talk about my work” or, “My work explains itself”, but truly, it does not. You need to give your viewers a place to come into it. The best way to sell art is to have a story for it. The story can be technical, emotional, inspirational, historical, anecdotal, or even political, but you need to be able to explain it.
Getting Your Fine Art Into a Gallery
Once your work is finished and ready to be shown to the world, you will likely want to find a gallery to exhibit the art. Find the gallery that fits you, your output, and your aims.
Research galleries well before you approach them, as not every gallery is a good fit for you or your style of fine art photography. Not all galleries are interested in fine art photography either, as each gallery and gallerist have their own aesthetics, interests, and focus.
It is also extremely important to develop a relationship with the gallery that you want to exhibit in. The decision-maker at the gallery gets hammered all the time, so by being part of the gallery’s regular audience, you are getting to know the right people.
Do Not Expect to be Sought
Although not unheard of, in my experience it is highly improbable that a high-end commercial gallery will come across a photographer “by chance”. A gallery usually decides when there is enough interest in a particular fine art photographer to warrant approaching them, but it rarely, if ever, happens after a portfolio submission to the gallery itself.
Play the Long Game
It takes many many years to become a household name in fine art photography circles, and beyond a certain threshold of print price, collectors are buying your brand reputation, beyond the print itself – and that takes years of hard work. Years of publishing books, holding exhibitions, and earning the respect of critics and the photography community so that when a collector sees your prints on a gallery wall they understand all that goes behind the artist’s name.
Bring Your Audience With You
Make sure you have your own audience to bring to a gallery. This is something you can build yourself, especially through online tools or at events. Create mailing lists and a following, and keep track of the people who show interest in your work. An artist should always be building their own audience and be able to keep control of that audience.
Follow Submission Guidelines and Instructions
Once you have established a relationship with a gallery, find out what the gallery’s submission policies are. Do not bend the rules on this one and have your material ready to go, including high-quality images that include the work’s title and dimensions. Have a solid online portfolio as well as a hard copy, as well as your biography, CV, and artist statement ready when you start to hone in on galleries. You have to have your own website; it is expected and is a sign of your professionalism.
Understand How Gallery Commissions Work
Most galleries expect a 40 to 60% commission, so for bringing you clients and pushing your work, pay your commissions on time. Negotiate beforehand what a gallery is going to do for you in terms of public relations and marketing in your contract negotiations. If they are getting a good percentage, you want to make sure they are earning it. You want to know what they are doing to make sure your fine art photographs get in front of the right people. But, at the same time, you need to do your part too.
The Business of Fine Art Photography
The genre of fine art photography is not an easy one, and as you journey through the industry, it is important to always remember that failure is temporary.
Failing to get into a gallery just means it did not work out this time. During my six-month scholarship in New York, I got turned down by 23 galleries… before being sought by two huge ones. Do not take it personally, do not let anyone dissuade you from your goals, and do not quit. Figure out what went wrong, what you could do better, learn from the experience, adapt, improve and repeat.
Develop a Profitable Sideline
Since going freelance in 2016, I developed a parallel career shooting for architectural firms and publishing houses, which provides a secure income stream. Clients approach me with a brief and a theme, and then I have artistic leeway to develop their project from a different perspective, which is why they approached me in the first place. It is important to get yourself financially secure and make an income out of your camera, which will then allow you the freedom and time to work on your personal projects without the pressure to make money out of them.
Do Not Go Wild with Pricing: Know Your Price Point!
When you are pricing prints when setting off, do not be greedy. I continue to be amazed by young photographers who try to charge thousands in their first year, more than Michael Kenna who has been shooting and selling prints for 50 years. You have to prove yourself. Initially, you need momentum and exposure, not money; you want collectors to buy your work, and spread the word – setting the price at $10,000 in your first year will not net you any sales or positive feedback.
Act Professionally From the Get-Go
Treat your fine art prints with respect, print them professionally and decide on print run size and stick to it (e.g. limited edition of 10 or less ± artist proofs – APs). Keep track of what prints you sell and to whom. Always answer correspondence promptly and be polite to your audience.
Remember What Made You Fall in Love with Photography
I left the best advice for last. Each of us has a unique reason why we approached photography and another reason why we stuck by it. Remember what was the event that drew you towards starting photography, so you can reignite that love and go back to the enthusiasm you felt in the beginning.
For me, photography entered my life at a turning point and helped me through a tough period, letting me travel the world photographing all the subjects I could ever wish for and then some. As a teacher, photography also led me to teach others how to enter this beautiful art and I would not change that feeling for anything in the world.
Just Love Your Fine Art Output
After talking about the message, vision, shooting styles, post-processing, and photography equipment, we are coming back full circle to what fine art photography is all about. Photographing out of love, and loving photographing. It is a never-ending loop – we produce fine art because we feel the need deep down to do so, we disseminate it, it inspires us and we are in turn inspired by other fine art we come across.
Fine art photography is a very rewarding genre in photography, and it does not need to appear daunting or unapproachable. It needs hard work, dedication, and passionate intensity, but the end result is within reach and rewarding. Never stop trying.
About the author: Dr Charles Paul Azzopardi is a fine art photographer, curator, photographic cultural heritage consultant and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Charles’ work on his website and Instagram.
Image credits: Stock photo from Depositphotos