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The Essential Guide to Exhibiting Your Photography

A guide to a successful photography exhibit

There is nothing like having your photos displayed on a wall for everyone to see, admire, and appreciate. Even better is seeing those little round red stickers underneath the prints to indicate that the work has been sold.

For most artists, exhibiting work is a driving force – and that’s especially true of photographers who make images intended for walls and gallery displays.

But putting together a photography exhibition can be harder than you think. You have to consider an array of questions, such as:

  • Where should you exhibit your work?
  • How do you submit photos?
  • How do you price your work?
  • Do you purchase insurance?
  • How should you frame your photos (if at all)?

Exhibiting your work can also be very expensive, so it’s important to understand the basic costs before you take the leap.

In this article, I aim to answer all of these questions (and more!). That way, if you do decide to move forward with an exhibition, you know how to make it as successful as possible.

Why do a photography exhibit?

How to exhibit your photos
If I were to do an exhibit today, I would include this image!

Artists have been exhibiting their work for centuries, and today is no different – though some of the reasons for displaying your photos have changed.

Before the internet, exhibitions were one of the best ways to showcase your work, and artists used them to make money. They would invite special clients or benefactors to the openings, hoping they would buy one or a few pieces.

Selling art is harder these days, so if your sole reason for exhibiting is to sell your photos, then you may be very disappointed. However, if your goal is to put your work up on a wall to show people what you are capable of as an artist, then an exhibition can be very rewarding. Take it from me: Having all your best work up for everyone to see can feel like quite an achievement.

Another reason many artists exhibit is to put the exhibitions down on their artist’s CV. The CV (or curriculum vitae) is a list of all your exhibitions, as well as your education and a few other things, similar to a résumé. It’s what galleries look at when considering whether they’ll show your work.

How to exhibit your photos
If I were to have an exhibit of only my macro photography, this image would be an ideal choice.

Costs and budgeting

Exhibitions are not cheap! Therefore, before you decide to go all-in on an exhibit, there are many factors you’ll need to consider, including:

  • What sort of space will you exhibit in and how much will access cost?
  • What other expenses will there be?
  • How many images will you prepare for the exhibit, and what will the reproduction outlays cost?
  • Should you have a solo exhibition or start with group shows?

These are all questions you need to think about, and that I address in greater detail below.

Group vs solo exhibits

Solo shows are fantastic, and they’re ultimately what every artist wants. (Imagine having an entire show dedicated to just your images!) But solo shows are also very expensive, especially because you won’t have anyone with whom you can share the expenses.

Therefore, instead of diving headfirst into solo exhibiting, most artists start with group shows. Then, if they have some success, they move up to solo shows.

Group shows are a good way to get your feet wet and start building your artist’s CV. There are a handful of different ways to get started with group shows, but I’d encourage you to find some friends who are also interested in exhibiting, then apply together to galleries to see if you can get an exhibition.

Many galleries also hold group shows of their own, and they’ll often advertise for artists to participate – so you can often look out for those and apply!

How to exhibit your photos
I exhibited this framed image in a group show for street photography.

Where to exhibit your photos

Honestly, you could probably create an endless list of exhibition possibilities, but the most common places are galleries that specialize in the type of work you create.

However, there are other places, like cafes or restaurants, that like to have exhibitions featuring different artwork on their walls. There are benefits and disadvantages to each of these approaches:

Exhibiting at cafes, restaurants, and foyers

These places often allow you to exhibit for free, and they don’t always have schedules, so you can sometimes have your work up for longer than you could in a gallery.

Cafes and restaurants may not want a commission from the sale of work, but they may want you to handle all the sales, so you would need to leave contact information. And they usually won’t take any responsibility for your art pieces, so be aware of that (in other words, loss and damage won’t be covered).

How to exhibit your photos
This is one of two images that I exhibited in a cafe down near the coast.

When exhibiting at one of these places, you won’t have access to a mailing list, and you’ll have to do all the advertising yourself. People generally don’t just wander in to look at the work; sure, the customers will see your images, but they’re there for specific reasons (e.g., to eat lunch), and buying images isn’t one of them. While you can sell pieces from a cafe exhibit, your audience isn’t there to buy what you are selling, which makes this type of show a bit more passive.

Your work will most likely need to be framed for hanging, and you will probably have to install it yourself at the exhibit space.

How to exhibit your photos
The other image that I exhibited in the cafe by the coast!

Exhibiting at galleries

There are many different types of galleries, and it’s up to you to decide which type will work best for your photography. Here are the basic gallery categories to keep in mind:

Artist-run spaces

The cheapest spaces to use are generally artist-run. You pay less to show your work, but you are expected to “sit the exhibition.” That means you have to be there when the gallery is open to watch your work and manage any sales.

Attending the entire time the gallery is open can be time-consuming. Many artists will get together for a group show, split the costs of renting the space, and draw up a roster to sit the exhibition. For artists starting out, this can be a much better option. If you want to do a group show with a split schedule but don’t know anyone to exhibit with, try contacting the gallery; they may know some artists looking to share a show.

While artist-run spaces don’t come with hefty upfront fees, you’ll need to take on most of the remaining expenses. The cost of the opening is covered and organized by you. You must also pay for most of the advertising, though some galleries will have a mailing list for you to use.

How to exhibit your photos
One of my images, still packaged from when it returned from an exhibition last year.

Staffed galleries

Staffed galleries are the next level. They cost more, but you are relieved of the burden of having to sit the exhibition.

There are two types of staffed galleries – commercial and non-commercial – and they often work in different ways.

Non-commercial galleries

These are often smaller galleries that charge you for renting the space and to sit the photography exhibit for you. They are often the most expensive galleries to use for an exhibition. Non-commercial galleries will help advertise the opening, but they are generally not interested in promoting you and your work beyond the exhibition; in other words, the relationship is short-term.

Non-commercial galleries make their money from your rental fee. They also take a commission from any work you sell (usually around 30%). These galleries are a good way to start getting work on your CV. Some also do a lot of group shows, so I’d recommend seeing if you can get work into them.

Non-commercial galleries aren’t typically picky about what they exhibit, as long as the quality of work is good. They won’t mind if one exhibition is all abstract paintings and the next is all landscape photographs. It can be a lot easier to get a show at one of these galleries than at the commercial galleries.

How to exhibit your photos
Another great photo for a future macro exhibition!
Commercial galleries

Commercial galleries are a lot harder to get exhibitions with. They have many artists to choose from and usually have a particular type of artist in mind. They’re less interested in a short-term relationship, and are more interested in helping you establish yourself as one of their artists – in other words, they want to represent you.

Commercial galleries will keep some of your work in a stockroom and advertise what you do. They try to get collectors to view your work (so the collectors will begin collecting and supporting you, as well).

Commercial galleries usually represent a niche market. If you send your photos to a gallery that only deals with Indigenous art, they are not going to be interested. Therefore, when approaching these galleries, you need to do your research. Make sure your work fits in with the other artists they represent. At the same time, if they have another artist who does work that is almost the same as yours, then they’re not going to be interested, either. The trick is to find galleries where your photos fit but are also somewhat unique.

Commercial galleries often cost a lot less for an exhibition. However, they are harder to get shows in and will take a higher commission. (Here in Australia, that rate is usually around 40%, compared to the 30% taken by non-commercial galleries.)

How to exhibit your photos
Another image that I would include in an upcoming exhibition of my work.

Submitting your work to galleries

Most galleries advertise when it’s a good time to submit proposals. While you can send inquiries at other times, it is best to check their websites for submission dates (i.e., times when they are asking people to send in exhibition proposals).

Commissions and pricing your work

All galleries charge a commission, and some cafes do, too. When pricing your work, you need to consider this amount. Make sure you find out the commission percentage when first inquiring about exhibiting in the space.

Also, when it comes to pricing, you should be realistic. If you are new to the art world, charging thousands of dollars for your work isn’t feasible. Only established artists can command prices like that. To get an idea of what you can realistically charge, look at the space in which you’ll be exhibiting and see how much previous artists have charged for similar work. If you are happy with the prices, you could try charging the same.

As your reputation grows and more people start buying your work, then you can consider charging more.

How to exhibit your photos
This framed piece is from an solo show I had in the foyer of a theater company.

Handling loss due to damage or theft

When you rent a space to show your work, you also take on the responsibilities of it as well. Even galleries are unlikely to cover any theft or damage to your artwork.

This is often in the contract or terms. Make sure you are aware, and if you’re worried, then insurance could be an option.

Insuring your work

As I said, most places will not cover your work if it’s damaged or stolen. Therefore, insurance is  something you need to consider when displaying your art. Do you need to purchase insurance? In truth, most artists don’t worry about it, but that doesn’t mean you should do the same. I’d recommend doing some research; see how much it will cost and if it feels worth it.

Now, if the work has cost you a lot of money to produce, then insurance is more important. You can also talk to the gallery and see if they have had problems in the past, especially with theft.

Also, if the work is going into a high-traffic zone, like a walkway, where it can be damaged or someone could walk off with it, then it’s definitely worth considering.

At the end of the day, whether you get an insurance policy should depend on the work itself, but also on the exhibition space. If your work is displayed in a cafe, then the staff may not have the time to watch the work at all, especially during busy periods. A gallery is going to be in a better position to watch – but only if they have the staff. If you have to sit the space yourself, can you watch everything?

Should you frame your work?

How to exhibit your photos
I was testing out a framer and had this macro image printed on canvas.

Many places will answer the question of framing for you: They will either say the work has to be framed or that it can be pinned to the wall.

If the work has to be framed, then you must decide if that is something you can afford. Getting work custom-framed can be very expensive. For this reason, a lot of artists make all their work the same size (or use the same size frames and just alter the mat sizes according to the images). They then go to a place like Ikea and buy cheaper frames. If you do the framing yourself, then you can reuse the frames every time you want to do a show.

If you don’t have to frame your prints and can pin the images on the wall, that doesn’t mean you can’t get the work framed. Again, you’ll want to take your budget into account. However, if you choose to pin your images on the wall, you need to figure out the best way to do this. If the purpose of the show is to sell your work, then pinholes in your photos might not be desirable to potential buyers. Also, unframed prints don’t look as professional or finished (the buyer can’t just take home an unframed print and hang it on the wall).

How many images should you exhibit, and at what sizes?

How to exhibit your photos
Another photo that I would include in an upcoming exhibit!

Determining how much work to prepare and how big to print comes down to price and space. Your exhibition budget can only be determined by you – and how many pieces you can make, and the size at which you can get your work reproduced, is going to be determined by your budget.

It is also important to know how much space you have available for the exhibit. If the space has only 3 m (10 ft) of wall space, then putting up three images that are one meter (39 in) across will make it crowded and not allow enough space between each photo. However, if you have 10 m (33 ft) of space, and you put up four images that are only 50 cm (20 in) across, that will give you too much space between them.

Consider the space carefully. If you think your work looks great when enlarged, then perhaps having fewer, large pieces is better. But the larger they are, the more they will cost.

The same goes for the number of images. You don’t want to completely fill the space – giving each image room will allow them to be shown better. Just because you paid for the space doesn’t mean you have to fill it up. And if you choose to frame, consider the size of the frames, as well!

Editioning your photography

How to exhibit your photos
I tried out different papers to see which one would work best for this image.

Editioning is also referred to as “limited editions” and is something to consider with photography. Printmakers have been doing this for centuries. It means that you’re promising your potential clients that only a certain number of those images (prints) will be available for sale.

Editions can be a good way to make your work more valuable. If you have an image and do an edition of 20, then you need to make sure that the buyer knows what number in the edition they are receiving (8/20, for example). You need to keep records of this so you know how many prints of the image you’ve sold. Once you’ve sold 20, you can’t sell anymore. You made a promise to those who bought the first 20 that you would only sell 20 of them. Think about how many prints of a photo you might sell from the start, and be realistic.

Another thing you need to be careful about with editioning is making sure the photos are all printed exactly the same. They all have to be consistent. If you put a piece in a show and sell it a few times, people won’t be happy if the image they receive is not the same as the one they saw in the exhibition. You don’t have to get them all printed at the same time, but make sure you use the same printer for all of them and that the printer knows how to replicate them identically.

Selecting a printing medium

The medium you choose for printing should be determined by your budget – but you should also consider how to make your work look its best. Do you want prints in frames? Or is canvas better for the type of image you’ll be printing? Getting work printed on metal is becoming popular now as well, though it is also very expensive and (arguably) only suits some styles of photography.

Whatever you choose, you need to be careful. You want to show off your work in the best way possible. Consider printing some of your images a few different ways, then deciding which you like the best.

How to exhibit your photos
My new printer did lots of tests so I could see which of my images would work the best on what medium.

Choosing which images to exhibit

Choosing the images to include in the exhibit is the hardest part for most people. How do you know what images will be the best to show? There is no real way to tell.

If you are working with a gallery that employs a curator, you can likely get a lot of help from them; they can use their experience with the gallery and what sells to give you advice. If a curator isn’t available, you might have to enlist the help of friends. Ask them to identify their favorite pieces. Perhaps your social media sites will also help you see the images that were most popular online.

When it comes to curating the show, there should be a cohesiveness to the work and to the final exhibition. Make sure all the work fits together and flows well. Be clear on your vision for the exhibition. The better your images look on the walls, the more you could sell.

How to exhibit your photos
Another image that I’d include in an upcoming exhibition.

Start planning your photography exhibition!

Hopefully, this article answered many of your questions about exhibiting photos, and explained some of the ways that galleries work.

There are a lot of decisions that need to be made, and before you start preparing, it is good to have a plan of what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how you will pay for it.

Have you done a photography exhibit before? Please share your experience or post your questions in the comments below!

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Leanne Cole
Leanne Cole

graduated from the VCA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Melbourne, Australia. She has since been working as a practicing artist and teaching people how to be Fine Art Photographers. She also teaches long exposure photography and runs workshops around Melbourne. Click here to download her 10 tips for Long Exposure Photography in the City. You can find her on her website.

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