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Note: welcome to our ultimate guide to Fine Art Photography. This is one of the most comprehensive tutorials we’ve ever created so in addition to the article which you can read below we’ve downloadable version to print and/or refer to later. Pop your email address in below and we’ll send you a copy.
One of the contentious topics in the world of photography these days seems to be what exactly is fine art photography. Ultimately it is what the photographer deems it to be, but in the world of art, there is a lot more to it. If you want to get recognition as an artist that uses the medium of photography, then there are certain expectations of what your body of work should be like and how you go about executing it.
Galleries and collectors are not going to collect work or invest in art when there isn’t a lot of consistency within that body of work. One fine art image is not enough to make you a fine art photographer. The work needs to be done with intention, with a direction, and have a consistency over all the images. A style is developed that is recognizable in all the images.
It is important to look at other famous artists, not just photographers, but painters and sculptures, to see how their work has evolved. See how you can do something similar with your photography. Photography is no different to those other mediums and the same definitions that apply to them are also applicable to fine art photography.
Anyone can be a fine art photographer; there are no hard and fast rules about it. Though it does demand a fair amount of dedication. There are no rules or special qualifications that a person needs to follow or have before they call themselves a fine art photographer.
Perhaps the best way to describe how you can be a fine art photographer is to look at how they work. There is a lot more to it than simply creating beautiful images. We can all do that, but an artist works towards something. Their work is done with intention, and they have a direction they are following. Finally, there is a consistency to their work. Let’s take a look at each of these points individually.
Often when you go out to take photos, you pick a place because you think you might get nice images at that location. That is most likely never going to be a problem for you. But if you want to be considered more of a fine art photographer then you need to go to places that you know will help you create images that will further your work, and build your portfolio. There has to be some intention behind why you photograph things.
For example, a fine art portrait photographer who does images of people in certain scenes, like dark moody beach scenes, is not going to go and take photos of a baby in a park. Well, they might for a friend, but they wouldn’t include that work in their portfolio.
Artists are always trying to take photos that work with what they already have. They go out with the intention of photographing subjects that follow the direction of their work.
This is a lot like intention, but it means the photographer has direction. If they are taking photos somewhere, they are being directed by their previous work. This helps them to get images that will continue to follow that style.
For the same reasons as intention, that same portrait photographer is not going to photograph a baby because it won’t give their workflow any consistency. For a fine art photographer, you need to have work that is fairly consistent and looks like it all belongs together.
That doesn’t mean it has to be the same subject all the time, it can also be a similar processing style. All the images are processed in a similar way so they look consistent when a gallery or investor is looking at the portfolio.
The more consistent you are the more galleries and investors will be interested in your work.
This is definitely the case. I asked the curator for Stills Gallery in Sydney, Josephine Skinner, about how important it is that there be consistency in a body of work. This is what she had to say:
It’s very important. If an artist were contacting us, I would hope to view a resolved body of work, both conceptually and materially. Of course, we’re used to working with artists as they develop new work for an exhibition, but a cold submission won’t pique my interest unless you establish your capacity to deliver.
A body of work is where you have several pieces that show the consistency and intention that was spoken about earlier. When you have a body of work it should have a similar style and look as though one person created it all.
The subject matter should be all the same or very similar. There needs to be a number of images in the body of work so you can have an exhibition. The actual amount will depend on where you are exhibiting and how many are needed.
This is a selection of my work, notice the similar processing style, subject matter, and mood across all the images.
Whether you want to believe it or not, an artist statement is very important. It doesn’t have to be an essay, but putting what you are trying to achieve with your photography down on paper is a great way to help with those areas that we just discussed; intention, direction, and consistency.
When writing one you want to be clear about why you are doing what you are doing. What is important about it and why you have chosen the medium of photography?
Here is what Josephine had to say about artist statements:
An artist statement is helpful: be brief, clear and use accessible language.
Some statements can waffle on and not make much sense. It is good to sound professional, but it should be concise and leave the audience of your work with a very clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
Have you ever been told that if you want to be a good writer that you should study and read the writing of those in the same field? The same can be said for fine art.
If you want to be an artist then you should study and look at the work of other great artists, in this case, fine art photographers. Though, you should include a wide range of artists as photographers can also learn a lot from painters, drawers, printmakers, and sculptors.
You really need to look at what your work is and find similar photographers. There is such a large number of photographers working at the moment, that it’s hard for me to tell you who to study. But here is a list of a few fine art photographers to give you a starting point.
This is very similar to a work CV (curriculum vitae) or resume. But instead of listing all the jobs you have had, you list everything that galleries and other people in the art world might want to know about you.
They usually start with your education, where you have studied and when. Then you list what solo exhibitions you have had if you have had any. The goal is to end up with a massive list of those. Then you follow those with the group exhibitions in which you have been involved. Then you might add what prizes you have won.
Finally, comes a list of places where your work has been published. For example, if you have had work published in a magazine. You can also include collections and in this section, you will mention if you have sold work to important places like a major public gallery, for instance.
Every time you approach a gallery you will be asked for your Artist’s CV. If you don’t have one, it is time to start working on it. They are usually one page.
Here is a link to my CV as an example.
The simple answer to this is no, you don’t have to study at a tertiary level to be a fine art photographer. But the long answer is that if you do, you will gain a greater understanding of the many aspects of being an artist. The really good places also give you studio space and impose the need to work in that space like a professional artist would.
There are so many other things you learn as well, for example, how to develop your style or your body of work. Or, how to create the consistency we talked about earlier. You begin to understand how the gallery system operates and how to approach them. Often you are given opportunities to exhibit your work so you can get an idea of what it is like. These can help you to get a start on your artist’s CV.
The lecturers are usually artists themselves, so they can guide and mentor you. They understand what you are going through and their advice can be invaluable.
Getting a Bachelor of Fine Art is never a bad thing. Many other artists and galleries will take you more seriously because you have shown a commitment to your practice.
There are places all around the world and where you study will depend on where you live, the cost, and if you are accepted. Look at other artists and see where they studied. Do your research to find out what is available near you. Find out how many graduates of that institution have had successful careers when they finished.
Not all art schools are equal. Some have very good reputations, while others will get you the degree, but not necessarily the prestige. For example, in Melbourne, you can get a Fine Arts Degree from many places, but two are more sought after, University of Melbourne, Faculty VCA, and RMIT University. People take more notice if you have attended and graduated from those schools.
Keep in mind that this type of degree will not lead to a paying job, and you are being trained to be an artist. It is expected that you will work at it full-time when you finish. Of course, most artists end up doing other jobs to supplement their income until they are making enough from their art. Though this appears to only happen for a few. Nearly all teach or have other jobs to pay the bills.
I had a lecturer once that told us if we were still doing art and exhibiting our work 10 years after graduation we would make money from it. Unknown if this is true, but it is a nice sentiment.
To get a great understanding of what fine art photography is one of the best things you can do is visit art galleries, both public and commercial. You can see how the artist works, look at the consistency and also how the work all looks when it’s put together in an exhibition.
Look for commercial galleries that are exhibiting photography works, or better still find ones that specialize in fine art photography. If you can’t visit them in person, then look on the internet. They all have websites and usually show the works of the artists they represent.
Study the work and the artist. If you find some whose work you really like, pay a lot more attention to them. Find out what motivates the artist, look at their artist CV, and see if you can find an artist statement. That will really help you to understand their intention, direction, and the consistency.
Public galleries often have some of their collection online, but you are usually required to go and look. Don’t be disappointed if the photography section if very small, other artworks often get more wall space. You can look for galleries that specialize in photography, for example in Victoria, Australia there is a place called Centre for Contemporary Photography and that is all they show. It’s a great way to see what other photographers are doing.
Here are a few others:
Part of being an artist is keeping yourself informed. As previously stated, you should be going to galleries and seeing other exhibitions. It is so important to read and study other artists. It can help you understand what their lives were like and what drove them to create their art.
It is also good to keep up to date with what is happening in the world of art. Who is winning awards, what work is really popular right now, and how you could fit in. Look at who is being exhibited and which galleries are showing their work.
Don’t limit your photography study to just photographers. You should also look at painters, sculptures, printmakers, and drawers. You can learn a lot from them as well.
Rembrandt lighting is a type of lighting pattern that portrait photographers strive to create. It involves a triangular spot of light on the cheek of the portrait subject. Photographers have been trying to replicate that style for years, but it came from a painter – Rembrandt.
In some ways, painters were our earliest photographers as they tried to paint what they saw. Looking at their work is very important. You can learn a lot about subject-matter and more importantly, about composition. For those artists, the composition was key and they would have spent a great deal of time working on that element of their craft. Study how they put their paintings together and learn.
Sculptors create compositions and often work conceptually. If you are interested in conceptual photography then looking at how these artists work can help you find direction. See what lengths they go to in creating their sculptures.
There is a myth that many creatives were “suffering artists”. That to be an artist you had to be in some kind of struggle. The other myth is about being the “starving artist”, so if you are going to be an artist you have to also be very poor.
The first is a myth, you don’t have to be on some internal struggle to be an artist. It has been said that you have to go through disasters in your own life in order to help you create masterpieces. It isn’t true, of course. Very normal people create the most amazing artworks. There is a lot more to it than some emotional suffering.
In the past, many artists were starving. Even in today’s world, making money as an artist is incredibly hard. There are more people wanting to be artists than there are people wanting to buy the work. The reference to starving was more to do with making no money and not having enough to buy food.
The reality is that most artists live very normal lives. They often work part-time jobs to survive and live in ordinary houses. They are often very normal people. There are some eccentric artists, but they are more the exception to the rule. Many have studios and workspaces, and every free moment they get, they work in their art practice.
There are various different kinds of galleries and if you want to exhibit your work then you need to start studying them. Find out which ones are the best for you to approach first of the several different types (large public and private).
First, you need to find out what the galleries are looking for. Once again, Josephine has some advice for those wanting to approach galleries:
The first piece of advice I would have is to do proper research into which galleries you approach and be selective with those you do. We get submissions from painters, for instance, who haven’t even looked on our website to find out we exhibit photomedia and video. In the process of narrowing it down, bear in mind that if a gallery has an emphasis on photomedia that doesn’t mean that all forms of photography will fit with their broader aesthetic and focus. Also, be conscious that each artist brings something unique to a gallery so diversity is desired – they probably won’t want someone whose practice mirrors an existing represented artist. Lastly, each gallery has a different policy for receiving submissions, so a good idea is to call and ask what they prefer. Don’t just show up and expect to sit down with the Director!
That is great advice and a good idea for all artists. Do your research and study the galleries you are interested in to see if they are a good fit for you. You can also ask questions to see what they have to say. They will often be more than happy to talk to you about what type of work they are looking for, and how to submit your work.
Josephine has provided some information on how they find new artists:
Our focus is contemporary photomedia and video, so we tend to look at art prizes that are often interdisciplinary, such as the Hatched Graduate exhibition at PICA, and keep an eye on what’s happening in ARI (Artist Run Initiatives) spaces. These platforms provide an initial filter because the work has already undergone a process of competitive selection. Galleries with a more traditional or commercial aesthetic would probably look elsewhere.
Most galleries will have information and guidelines about how to send in proposals for exhibitions; you need to follow those closely. They get a lot of submissions and if you don’t do what they ask then you could be eliminated straight away. Do everything you can to get them to look at your artwork.
Having an exhibition of their work is the ultimate goal for most artists. It is where they develop a name and reputation. If you want that too, then you have to make sure your work is good enough to show.
There are so many decisions to be made before you do a show. You have to decide who will print your work and how it will be printed. Part of the reason for exhibiting is to sell your work and if it doesn’t look good then people won’t buy it.
Before the work is sent to be printed you need to make sure that there aren’t any defects in the images. When they are blown up, sensor spots or other unwanted items in your scenes will be enlarged as well. They could end up standing out so much that they take over the image. Magnify the image on your computer (view at 100% or 1:1 size) and look very closely for any mistakes or faults.
Find a professional printer who will work with you. Look for one that you can rely on, and who knows their business. They should be able to help you figure out the best way to present your work. There are so many options for photographs these days. You can do canvas prints, put images on fine art paper, and even have them on metal, which is very popular right now.
Then you are faced with the option of framing or not. Most galleries will answer that question for you.
Read my article: How to Prepare a Photography Exhibit of Your Work for more on this topic.
This is not compulsory, but one thing that many photographers do is edition their work. This means they will only sell a certain number of that image or a limited edition. The artist sets the edition to what they think they might sell.
For many artists starting out, the number of editions is usually small, around 10 or 20. The more successful an artist becomes, the more expensive the images get, and often the edition number increases as. Some will do editions of up to 200 photos.
For most of us though, especially starting out, it isn’t necessary to do editions. You may only sell one or two copies of an image. As sales pick up and you begin to make a name for yourself it is good to consider putting out editions of your work.
This is probably the biggest myth out there about fine art photography and art in general. While it is true that when some artists die their work becomes a lot more valuable, it isn’t the same for everyone. If the artist had a successful career and was being collected by a lot of people then there is some truth in this.
When they die their work gains in value because it becomes rare. As no new work will be produced, all of their previous work becomes more valuable. That’s all there is, a finite amount, so it will increase in value.
For most artists, our death will only matter to those around us and our artwork will only increase in sentimental value. It’s sad, but you dying likely isn’t going to cause an increase in the value of your work.
There are many steps you can take that will make you a fine art photographer. There are many different paths and it is up to you to decide which ones you will take. In the end, being an artist is about doing work with intention, having a direction and working consistently.
Artists usually exhibit their work with the idea of gaining a reputation so collectors will purchase it. This, in turn, leads to their work increasing in value and they can sell more. Being an artist is a noble profession and one that dates back hundreds of years, who doesn’t want to belong to that group?
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