What is Fine-Art Photography?

With fine-art photography, you are not buying a photo - you are investing in a work of art.  Like any work of art its value will increase in time.

We have all heard the expression that “art is in the eye of the beholder.”  As a form of art, fine-art photography is likewise in the eye of the beholder.  Not everyone will appreciate or even like the images created by fine-art photographers but that is true of any art.  The main characteristic defining visual art is that it evokes some emotion in the viewer.

The photograph “War Dance” on the “People” page of this website hangs above our fireplace.  Although it has been there for a long time I still often sit and gaze at it because it stimulates so many thoughts and feelings for me.  Certainly this will not be true for everyone and the reasons will never be exactly the same for those who do appreciate the image.  The value in the image comes from the way that it affects me and other observers - not just from the craftsmanship of capturing the image.  On the other hand, poor craftsmanship can negate the possibility of a positive reaction so it is critical to the process that a high degree of craftsmanship be present.

Most people take photographs to document their lives in some way or another - some family gathering or vacation.  When they take photos it is usually in the middle of the day and in good weather.  Neither of these conditions are conducive to great photographic images.  A fine-art photographer on the other hand is interested in the image and the feelings that it evokes rather than the circumstances of the occasion.

To better understand fine-art photography it might be worthwhile to discuss some of its attributes.

What to Expect from a Fine-Art Photographer

The following list partially defines the norm for capturing and producing fine-art images.  Like all worthwhile endeavors there are always exceptions.  The skill of the artist determines when the exception is appropriate and beneficial.  Other relevant details about fine-art photography are more technical in nature than what most people would care to know and will have little or no effect on a purchasing decision.

A  high-resolution DSLR camera is the MINIMUM requirement for equipment.  This means a digital camera that has changeable lenses.  The number of megapixels will change as the technology develops but currently the minimum is about 12 megapixels with 16 to 21 being the norm.

The camera will be mounted on a tripod unless the circumstances prevent the use of a tripod.  This is very rare.

The automatic modes will NEVER be used.  All settings will be done by the artist in order to insure that the optimum result is obtained.  In most cases, even auto-focus will be the exception - used mostly to get the lens in the general range.

The photographer will switch between normal, wide-angle, and telephoto lenses to create the desired impression.  A normal lens simulates human vision, a wide angle lens adds what would normally be in our peripheral vision or allows for a closeup view that is often distorted, a telephoto lens compresses distance - items that are far from each other often appear to be very close to each other.   This will be discussed in more detail later with some examples.

All images are captured in the RAW mode.  This is a digital format that captures the maximum amount of visual data possible.  It requires special software to process.  The most common format used by the general public is JPEG.  This format discards most of the data in order to create smaller files that are easy to share over the internet.  In many cases, people will not notice the difference on a computer screen.  In fine-art photography the JPEG format prevents most of the magic that can be done with Photoshop and similar programs.  The raw data is not there to manipulate.

When appropriate, the photographer will use lens filters such as a polarizer, graduated Neutral Gray, fixed NG or an enhancing filter that intensifies blues and greens in a landscape photo.

All images will be post-processed using a software program like Photoshop.  Photoshop is the de facto standard and used by virtually all professional photographers.  In addition, there are a number of other programs that are used to expedite portions of the post-processing tasks.

The image will be manipulated in some way in order to best express the artist’s vision.  An image that is presented as shot is not fine-art photography.

The image is printed using archival quality materials.  This means ink as well as printing surface.  A print from an ordinary photo lab may only last a year or two before it begins to deteriorate.  Archival quality images have an expected life of 200 years.

The artist will maintain an image library that includes the original RAW images, so that changes and variations  in the image can be easily created.  This will also be discussed later with examples.

The artist will have a knowledge of matting and framing although these are not always a part of the product presented.  Packing and shipping a framed image is relatively expensive since it is the most fragile form of the image.  It is also the most expensive, heaviest, and largest form.  Most people prefer to take the image to a local frame shop and have some control over the framing themselves.  In this case, the artist can offer some advice.

The artist will have a level of mastery with his equipment.  This does not mean that he or she will be familiar with every make and model of digital camera.  It does mean that the artist will fully utilize the capabilities of his or her own camera and lenses.

PRINTING OPTIONS

The following is an overview of printing options as they exist today.  The technology is moving so fast that I fully expect this information to be outdated in a year but it is the reality of today (July 2012).

The three most common options are:

        Prints on Archival Paper

        Prints on Stretched Canvas

        Prints on Aluminum Plate

There are other options available but I personally feel that these are the best investment options at this time.

Prints on Archival Paper are the least expensive images to produce but often result in the most expensive product - if custom framed - because they require mounting, matting and framing as well as glass.  All of these items are expensive.  Matting can be a single mat or a double mat in which case only a small portion of the first mat is visible.  Also matting can have a fabric texture which adds to the cost.  Black, white, and off-white are the most common colors for matting but a frame shop will be able to supply matting in a wide variety of colors and textures.  The more exotic, the costlier.  The cost of glass will also surprise many people.  Regular glass is not very expensive but the cost of non-glare and museum quality glass is sometimes a shock to many people.   The frame itself is usually the most expensive item. 

To help control costs, I provide matted images in standard sizes whenever possible.  This allows the investor to purchase a standard frame from numerous retail outlets for a fraction of the cost of a custom frame.  For square, panoramic (width more than 1.5 times the height), and other non-standard images there is no such thing as a standard frame.

Stretched canvas has become very popular lately and images are usually displayed without a frame.  This greatly reduces the final cost as well as the size of the product for a given image size.   A stretched canvas image will generally cost less than a custom FRAME (nothing else - no image or matting) with the same overall dimensions.  This is a good option for non-standard images - square and panoramic - since no frame is required.  One type of frame that is sometimes used with stretched canvas is called a “floating frame” because the image appears to float inside the frame.  The frame is attached to the back of the wooden frame that supports the canvas thus the connection is not visible.  Any stretched canvas image can be framed if desired.  The image must also be UV and Water protected.  This is done by applying a special coating.

Although most people have never seen one, prints on aluminum plating are gaining popularity.  The image is printed on a thin (about 1/16th inch) plate of aluminum and is very durable.  It is usually displayed without a frame but a frame can always be added.  Some people print on aluminum foil and then mount it on foam board.  Although I have seen this in galleries, it looks as cheap as it is.  I don’t recommend the foil, only the plate.  Aluminum plate can be less expensive than stretched canvas below a certain size.

All printing costs are proportional to image size.

Archival paper is the least expensive printing choice by price per square inch but exceeds the cost of stretched canvas when dry mounted to a backing material.  The dry mount is desirable to prevent distortions in the image over time - wrinkles in the print.

Stretched canvas will cost about the same per square inch as a dry mounted print but does not require matting, glass, or a frame.  The calculated size of a stretched canvas image will be much larger than a print on archival paper because it requires a three inch border on all sides for wrapping the print around the wooden frame that supports the canvas.  For example a 16 X 20 image is 320 square inches but the the stretched canvas version is 572 square inches because of the 3 inch border.  The price is based on 572 square inches not the actual image size of 320 square inches.

Aluminum plate is the most expensive process per square inch but often the least expensive finished product.  Whether this option is more or less expensive than stretched canvas depends on the size of the image.  The smaller the image the greater the advantage of Aluminum plate since 6 inches needs to be added to each dimension of the stretched canvas no matter what the size of the image.  The only additional cost with aluminum plate is some type of mounting device attached to the back.  This usually costs about $10.  Also the corners can be rounded for an additional $6.

Bottom Line: Expect to pay considerably more for a CUSTOM framed image than stretched canvas or aluminum plate.  The least costly approach will be to purchase a matted image on archival paper of a standard size and then mount it in an inexpensive frame purchased at retail or through the internet.

The three most common finishes are:

Glossy

Satin

Matte

Ansel Adams and friends established glossy as the preferred finish for landscape photographs many years ago.  To the best of my knowledge, no one is challenging this standard.  It was not casually chosen but the result of extensive debate by the masters.

A matte finish makes photos look more like paintings especially when printed on stretched canvas.

Many photographers think that everything looks better with a glossy finish.  I don’t agree.

Beyond these few guidelines, the choice seems to be individual taste.

Satin is a compromise between glossy and matte for those who are truly torn.

Any of the previously mentioned printing techniques are available in all finishes.

The glossy finish on aluminum plate is totally amazing for landscape and flower photos.  It looks like the image is trapped inside a thin layer of glass.  A matte finish on stretched canvas will make any photo look more like a painting.

When I intentionally process an image to look like a painting and print it on stretched canvas, I have even fooled professional photographers into assuming that they are looking at a painting.  At the SAGA Open Exhibition, several people thought that my image had been mislabeled.  Even after being told that it was a photograph they found it hard to believe.

APPRECIATING FINE-ART PHOTOGRAPHY

As I mentioned previously, a fine-art photographer will use different lenses to create the feeling and effect desired. 

In the next photo, note how the trees and cactus in the lower right corner jump out at you when you view this image.  This is the result of using a wide-angle lens which exaggerates the size of things that are close to the camera.

Devil's Kitchen

The position of the camera in the next photo is almost the same as in the previous photo but the effect is much different.  In this case a normal lens was used to take a series of images that were later stitched together in photoshop.  The trees in the foreground are now barely visible and the shape of the rock is emphasized.

The Sphinx

This third image illustrates the compression effect of a telephoto lens.  The Red Rock Formation is actually about a mile from the viewers yet it seems very close in the photo.  The intention here was to convey the massiveness of the rocks as experienced by visitors to this overlook site on Airport Mesa.

Airport Mesa 

As previously mentioned, Photoshop is an essential tool for a fine-art photographer.  Like the dark room, it allows the photographer to convert photography to art.  The source photo on the left below shows a street performer recreating a war dance for an audience.  By isolating the dancer from the background and replacing the distracting background with a radial gradient that draws the viewer into the scene the effect is much different.  Also, by taking the image from the back, the dancer’s identity is irrelevant and the culture being preserved becomes the main focus.  Another aspect of fine-art photography is illustrated in this image.  If you have the capability of enlarging this image on your computer you can see the reflection of the audience in the bells on the dancer’s feet.  This is an example of the attention to detail that is part of fine-art photography.

Senagua Plaza War Dance       War Dance

                           

Another example of image conversion might be helpful.  The image below is of rocks in a ravine.  Although I personally love the image, it is the shape of the rocks that really draws my attention. 

Rocks in Gorge 

   

With this in mind, I decided to flatten the image and create a different feeling as illustrated below.

Fluidity 

   

While I was capturing the image below, a man walked up to me and began explaining that I would never get a decent shot because the sun was in the wrong place.  As I turned to see who this person was, I noticed that he was carrying a very expensive camera - much more expensive than mine.  I thought what a shame that a person would invest so much money in equipment that he can’t use.  The fact was that the lighting was perfect for the situation but this man was a victim of the common-wisdom belief that the sun needs to be directly behind you.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the best lighting comes from the sides.  Also, shade is your best friend if you are seeking vibrant colors.

Mobilgas 

Perhaps this would be a good time to discuss the RAW format used by fine-art photographers and the issue of exposure.   Exposure is the key to technically superior images but few people understand how to optimize exposure for digital cameras.

As Shot 

This image appears to be dramatically overexposed.  If this were a finished product, I would agree, but as the raw material of a fine-art image it is perfect.  Totally black areas of an image contain no image data that can be recovered by Photoshop.  On the other hand an extremely bright portion of the image contains a lot of image data that can be manipulated by Photoshop as long as it is not “blown out” - the industry term for white light with no detail.

Opened 

This is the same image opened in Photoshop.  Only the most basic lighting adjustments have been made at this point.


With a little effort, the flowers are isolated and placed on a background that intensifies their color.

Enhanced 

Because of the amount of detail contained in the original image, Photoshop can be used to create some surprising effects.

Surreal 

The JPEG format was created to reduce the size of digital images so that they can be more easily used on the Internet.

When an image is created or stored as a JPEG, a large amount of image data is eliminated.  The way in which the camera or software decides what to throw away is called an algorithm - a set of rules.  The guidelines were designed to eliminate details that most people can’t even see.  This works just fine until you try to manipulate or enhance the image.

The photo below looks about the same in JPEG as it does in RAW but JPEG will significantly limit what can be done with it.

Original Jpeg 

Below are the JPEG (left) and RAW (right) images after applying an artistic filter in photoshop that simulates a painting done in the Fresco Style.  Though both images are appealing, note the greater clarity of detail in the RAW image.

Fresco Jpeg      Fresco Raw

A high quality image and Photoshop open up a world of possibilities.  The image in the center is the original for the three images below.  The other two were created by manipulating the color in Photoshop.

Blue Cactus 

Red Cactus Flowers

   Purple Cactus Flowers


DISPLAYING FINE-ART PHOTOGRAPHY

Framed War Dance Stretched Cropped War Dance

When deciding what process to use for the final image, there are definitely trade-offs between a framed print and a print on stretched canvas.  As demonstrated by the two photos above, a frame definitely enhances the presentation.  This is particularly true when the photo is placed in a niche as shown here.  Also note that the images have about the same overall dimensions but that the image on stretched canvas is noticeably larger because of the lack of matting and framing.

Another option here would be to reduce the size of the image of the dancer and add a decorative border to the image.  When printed on stretched canvas, this would produce an impression similar to the framed image but at a much lower cost than a custom framed image like the one on the left above.

SUMMARY

Purchasing art from a fine-art photographer has the same risks and rewards as investing in any art.  Imagine if you had been able to purchase one of Ansel Adams prints in 1940.  A landscape image by one of Adams associates recently sold for $1.6 million at auction.  Obviously, this is an extreme example of the value of fine-art photography but demonstrates that photographs can be every bit as desirable as paintings.

If there are art shows where you live, it might be informative to go and talk to some of the photographers.  Most people are surprised by how willing they are to discuss their work and educate potential clients about photography and art.  Pay attention to how the images are processed and displayed.  If you are fortunate enough to find a show with several good photographers, notice the difference in subject matter and presentation.  You can learn a lot from talking to several different photographers and observing where they agree and disagree on specific topics of discussion.

Ultimately you will want to purchase fine-art images from someone that you trust and whose work inspires you and brings joy to your living space.  Your level of comfort and confidence in your purchase will increase in time as you become more familiar with art and artists.  So don’t hesitate to look and compare.  Like any artist, I want you to be happy with your purchase.