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 4x6" prints from the drugstore, and maybe an occasional 8x10" print to be framed. John's big prints are 24x30", 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 40x50" 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 8x12", but I soon realized this was too small. My current standard is a 12x18" print framed to 18x24". My comfort zone with the Canon 5D ends at about a 20x30" 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 4x5 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 1x1.5" sensor going to cut it for a 30x40" print? The enlargement factor with 35mm is about 30 times, whereas a 6x7 negative is about 12 times, and a 4x5 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.