Going big I: Big fine art prints

Last weekend I dropped by the studio of John Vias, a Berkeley based night photographer. We had an interesting conversation about fine art photography, with a focus on presentation and marketing issues. John talked about a marketing seminar he attended awhile back where the presenter discussed barriers that customers use to not buy your work. One of the big hurdles in the artistic medium of photography is the potential customer saying “I could have taken that.”

I spend a lot of time finding unique locations to shoot, and then make long exposures at night, sometimes applying additional lighting with flashlights or strobes. I’d like to think the “I could have taken that” barrier doesn’t apply too much. But during open studios this year, a lot of the questions I received were about night photography technique and locations. While most people were probably just curious about these details, I wonder if some people were trying to create barriers?

John learned at the marketing seminar that print size can be an effective way to reduce the “I could have taken that” syndrome. Most regular folks get 4×6″ prints from the drugstore, and maybe an occasional 8×10″ print to be framed. John’s big prints are 24×30″, and they look fantastic. John’s found that even if people don’t want to buy the biggest size, having a few on display will help sell your medium sized prints.

This echoes a story that photographer Jay Watson told me years ago — one of his photography professors had this advice about selling fine art prints: “make it big, and make it red.” Sounds crazy until you see Edward Burtynsky‘s amazing 40×50″ prints, or Andreas Gursky‘s gigantic prints, many of them in the 8 feet by 10 feet range.

Now these fellows are surely using large format cameras to print this big. Yes, there are some long winded discussions on photography message boards about the guy who made a poster sized print from his 20D and it looks great. If you’re going to print huge and can’t afford a 39 megapixel back that costs more than a new car, the best option seems to be medium format on a high end scanner, or large format.

My standard print size used to be 8×12″, but I soon realized this was too small. My current standard is a 12×18″ print framed to 18×24″. My comfort zone with the Canon 5D ends at about a 20×30″ print. Yes you can print bigger and make it look pretty good. Heck, you could put the damn thing on a billboard, but there is no comparison to the level of detail available in a big print from a 4×5 camera.

The technology cycle of digital SLRs is much like computers. You may be hypnotized into wanting a new one every 2-3 years. At a certain point with your photography, you may want to make some really big prints. Is a 1×1.5″ sensor going to cut it for a 30×40″ print? The enlargement factor with 35mm is about 30 times, whereas a 6×7 negative is about 12 times, and a 4×5 negative is about 8 times. Pardon my inexact math, but you get the idea. Simply put, the bigger the negative or sensor size, the bigger your maximum print size.

I’ll continue to explore some of the equipment choices that will allow big prints over the next few days.

7 thoughts on “Going big I: Big fine art prints”

  1. Greetings, let me introduce myself, my name is Andy Mitchell. I bought the first print from you at the Nocturnes show at Ft. Mason, I also teach photography at Sonoma Valley High School in Sonoma Ca. My wife and I really enjoy the print we bought and put it in the perfect location. I really enjoy reading your blog and agree with you on the size of the print for fine art. I just gave my students a night time assignment and have some thoughts about what you said. I am not sure if people were going, ” I could have taken that” I find that there is a real curiosity about night photography. It really goes against a lot of conventional teachings about metering, light, focus, ect. You make it look so easy, I would not confuse ” I could have taken that” for “I wish I could have taken that”. I think with digital advances more people are going to be curious about long exposures because they can see the results and correct for poor results. To many people, I think night photography has been a mystery. I think that people are curious as to what they can do with their new digitals. Whether they do anything with them is another story.

  2. I print my “display” prints at 12″x18″,too. I have them printed at Pictopia (www.pictopia.com). I send them un-uprezzed JPG, and let them do the up-rezzing. I’m afraid I don’t know which method they use. If anyone knows, please let me know.

  3. Hi Andy M -

    Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you’re enjoying the print, and the blog! Your clarification of “I wish I could have taken that” is such a nice thought — it really made my day.

    I’m glad you’ve given your students a night photography assignment – it’s a mystical, meditative experience to be out there under the moon and stars.



  4. Joe,

    Great post! I’m glad to see practical considerations and information on effective DISPLAY of photos, which is not often covered by photo sites and blogs for some unknown reason. I’m an amateur photographer with more of an interest in the display of the photos I find fascinating. I have created a website that shares DIY options and instructions on this subject.

    For many, the cost of large-format printing can be prohibitive. Another option your readers may consider is to print at 8.5×11 inch, or 13x__ if you have a larger format printer, and display them backlit. This can be particularly effective for night photography, and can provide your clients with a relatively unrecognized option for photographic display that enhances the rich colors and details of 8x__ prints of your work.

    The projects on my site, DoDesignDIY.com, provide detailed DIY instructions for accomplishing this at low cost and, further, provide designs that enable you to change the backlit photos easily. Finished units are also available for purchase. The site will continue to feature similar ideas and projects, their expansions and refinements. A few of the projects may seem a bit inappropriate for the professional photographer, but can furnish new ideas for further refinement.
    Have a look.


  5. Hi Michael -

    Your post is quite timely. I’ve been looking at Tokihiro Sato’s book Photo Respiration. He shoots with an 8×10 camera and displays big prints as 35×44 inch backlit transparencies. I’ll be talking more about Sato on the blog soon.

    Have you submitted any of your projects to Make or Ready Made?



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