If you are considering using your photography equipment and skills to get into the business of fine-art reproduction, keep in mind that the viability and profitability of your new venture will depend partly on how skillful you are at building personal relationships and a sense of trust. In fact, your interpersonal skills may matter even more than your technical prowess.
To show you what I mean, let’s review each stage of the process of helping an artist create a sellable edition of his or her works.
Image quality, of course, is critical. The initial photographic capture of the original and the subsequent prints must meet the standards and expectations of the artists’ targeted customers. The standards may vary depending on whether the artist is seeking to appeal to:
-Individual consumers who buy prints at art fairs or gift shops;
-Interior designers of residential or commercial office space;
-Gallery owners, exhibition judges, and art dealers; or
-Museum curators, and private art collectors.
Some artists seeking reproductions will have definite ideas of exactly what they want. Some may be wary if they have been disappointed by the work of previous printmakers. However, for many artists this may be the first time they have ever hired someone to digitally reproduce their work. They will look to you for guidance.
That’s why establishing effective communications and a personal rapport between you and artist should be at the heart of your business model. To efficiently achieve the results that the artist wants, you need to gain their trust and come to a mutual understanding with regards to their artistic goals.
Most of my new business comes from word-of-mouth referrals from past and current customers. This gives me a head start in earning the trust of each new client, because artists tend to trust the recommendations of their peers. From my experience, word-of-mouth marketing is far more effective in bringing in new business than advertising or postcard mailings.
The next most important step in the process is the initial meeting. How well you handle this step sets the stage for later success.
The Initial Consultation
Most artists are interested in reproducing their originals because it gives them much greater freedom in showing and selling their work. They don’t have to permanently give up or take risks with the original, and they can price the reproductions at a level that makes them more accessible to their potential audience or customers.
When they come to you, many artists will have already begun to visualize what they want. In their minds, they know what success will look like. The more clearly you can coax them to express that vision, the more easily you will meet their expectations. Some good questions to ask:
-Do you expect the reproduction to look exactly like the original?
-What media type do you want to print on?
- Are there adjustments or improvements that you would like to see?
- Are you planning to hold an exhibition? If so, what are the viewing conditions?
-Have you selected pieces you want to reproduce and/or show?
-Are you planning an open or closed edition? What size?
-Will the work be framed, or unframed?
Initially, many artists believe that the reproduction can, and should, be indistinguishable from the original. Although this is possible, it is often difficult to accomplish at reasonable expense. Paper type, base paper tone, texture, color, and density all have to be duplicated.
For the initial consultation, I keep a portfolio of other artists’ completed work on hand. These examples often prove to be useful tools in initial discussions with new clients. Typically a new artist enjoys exploring creative options such as choosing a new media type or considering a different treatment of the original. In all but a very small minority of cases, the artist will elect to make a few changes when their original is reproduced as a print.
It is also important that the artist have realistic expectations about selling their work. Making prints doesn’t guarantee anything. They’ll have to show and market their work, which takes time and effort.
Photographing the Artwork
In many cases, we’ll start with one or two pieces. This keeps communication simpler. And because the scope of the project is smaller, it is more manageable. Starting small can help build comfort levels and trust.
The artist will usually leave the artwork with me. Along with their initial order, I ask them to sign a liability release. Although any photographer would be diligent about protecting original artwork, no one can guarantee perfect safety. A moderate deposit helps keep things professional, and ensures commitment.
At this stage, we will have reached an initial agreement on artistic goals. Then, I’ll photograph the work and create a test print for the artist’s review.
The Test Print
I’ll make the test prints using the initial guidelines and goals we’ve agreed on. Usually we require only one test print, but sometimes an artist will want to see test prints on different media types. If they have had their work reproduced in the past, we may view one of these copies together, evaluating strengths and weaknesses, and fit with current goals and expectations.
When the artist views the test print, we’ll look at a number of attributes, such as color, density, detail and feel.
If the test prints are OK, the artist will sign off on a final order, which I’ll then complete for them. I usually retain the original until final delivery, mostly to give me an additional reference point.
Today’s color-management and digital printing technology allows us to make small batches of prints that will look consistent no matter when they were printed. So to begin with, we typically make anywhere from two to five prints of each original. This keeps initial costs down and leaves the door open to make additional prints as an edition sells. We know that we can return in weeks or months and make a few more prints that will be accurate reproductions.
When the artist arrives to pick up a final print, I try to present the print to them in a realistic viewing environment. The print is on an easel under lighting similar to the planned display environment. I don’t normally show the original side-by-side with the reproduction at the outset. Instead, I prefer that the printed piece be given a chance to stand, or fall, on its own.
Later, we’ll look at the original and the print together. Because the artist has already seen a test print, it is rare for either of us to see any surprises at this stage.
Sometimes we will discuss framing and presentation. Some print service providers offer framing services, but I do not. I usually refer the artist to a dedicated frame shop that I know will do a good job at reasonable cost.
Frequently, discussions will include transportation, storage, pricing, edition size, signing work, and the like. The discussion with each artist is different.
Most important, I think, is that each artist enjoys the experience of feeling unique—that their work matters, and that they have my undivided attention while we are working together. The personal touch makes a big difference.
Down the road, I hope they’ll do two things: return to have additional prints made, and talk to their friends and colleagues about working with me.
Educate Your Customers
A parting thought? It makes sense for photographers in this business to invest some time in educating potential customers. One good way to do this is to make succinct presentations to local artists’ associations, classes, and clubs.
If one of your satisfied customers is already in the group, so much the better. But when you make your presentation, avoid the “infomercial” approach. Instead, talk about the process in a way that demonstrates your understating of the technical challenges of accuracy and color fidelity, your ability to offer creative options, and your respect for their artistic goals. Help educate artists about the process and what is realistic to expect, and over time your business will grow and flourish
There are any number of hosting services available, with prices ranging from free to hundreds of dollars a month. Of course the prices are all based on the features you receive and the amount of support you get. As is often the way with the world, you tend to get what you pay for. Basing any business on a “free” service is usually a very expensive proposition in the long run, whether it’s an issue with reliability, bandwidth, having to deal with banner ads, or a number of possible issues. Nothing turns away customers faster than a bad first impression, so I strongly recommend shopping around and choosing a service that will guarantee you the type of support your business needs.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune though. For example, I’ve used (and have heard from others who use), bluehost.com. Depending on your needs, you can get started for as little as $7.00 a month, and a number of different features will let you grow your online presence as you need to, with features such as shopping carts, discussion forums, etc.
One area photographers must pay special attention to is the limit on data transfer and storage. This can often involve a hidden expense and it’s easy to hit the lower limits when photo collections are involved. You’ll also want to be sure that photo galleries are possible, whether you create your own in Aperture or Lightroom, or you prefer to use something like Gallery or Coppermine.The other alternative, and a very good one if you don’t want to do the design work or you need an immediate web presence, is one of the photography-oriented hosting services such as Live Books. These services will give you a professional site with a minimum amount of decision making on your part, but you’ll pay for the privilege ($800 and up for setup, $90 per year for hosting). But with our schedules that’s often much less expensive than the time it would take away from our photography to set up a website from scratch.
It’s almost impossible for a business to survive in today’s world without a website. By doing just a bit of research ahead of time, you can make sure that whatever path you take can grow with you and give you the professional look you need
Now that we’ve discussed why fine-art reproduction is a good business for photographers (Part 1) and what types of equipment you need (Part 2), let’s talk about how to market your business. I’ve found that most artists producing flat art still believe that they must invest large sums of money to create reproductions of their art, and that individual prints are very expensive. Very few are aware of new technology available and of the improved costs involved.
So, one way to attract customers is to help artists become more aware of what you can do for them. You can educate potential customers through a combination of web-marketing and snail mail. During the first 6 to 12 months that you’re in the art-reproduction business, you’ll also need to build relationships through some face-to-face time. You can either join a local arts group, or offer to make a presentation at one of their meetings. Many of the artists you’ll meet at these groups will have created a body of work and have thought about creating an edition of one or more pieces. But they’ve just never believed it would be economically feasible.
If you can dazzle a few of these artists with your printmaking (and print on-demand) capabilities, they will recommend you to their colleagues, and other artists will start making inquiries.
At some point, you may get customers who have hired a digital printmaker in the past but have been disappointed with the results. That’s because some companies that are equipped with wide-format inkjet printers aren’t always attuned to all of the nuances of color and detail that artists care so passionately about. A shared appreciation of color and detail can give a professional photographer a competitive edge in the art-reproduction business.
When you meet artists who are skeptical, show them a sample of your work, refer them to a satisfied customer, or make a few promotional prints for them. If you are accustomed to using studio lighting and a light meter, and you have a good camera with good glass, it probably won’t be difficult to differentiate yourself from other digital-printing companies.
Emphasize your professional photography experience in all of your marketing messages to the local art community and your new art-reproduction services are likely to get off to a fast and prosperous start.
Welcome to the 21st-Century world of amateur and professional photography. Many things have changed, but some have not. Getting published in a national magazine seems to be as much of a goal for photographers as ever. The founders of JPG magazine understand that ambition.
There is something grand about seeing your image and byline published in a quality magazine. Also, how many of us photographers use equipment that we love, and feel the need to share our enthusiasm with the rest of the world?
JPG magazine is published by 8020 publishing and it brings the best photos from an online community to print. About 35,000 copies are printed and are sold through subscriptions ($25/yr) or on newsstands ($6/copy) such as those at Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores.
The premise is simple. JPG members sign up for an account and shoot, upload, and submit images. Then, a peer community comments and votes on each image and story. Editors create the issue with the final selection of the best of the best. Contributors get $100 and a free subscription.
Issues have themes ranging from Democracy to The Fanatic, Fashion to The Self. The early issues were actually printed by LuLu.com and are still available on demand.
The story behind JPG Magazine is very interesting, particularly because the innovative concept of printing the best content from the web arose at a time when many traditional magazines were under pressure to build strong online counterparts to complement their printed editions. As more and more people started turning to the web for their news and information, some analysts are questioning how long print publications will be able to survive.
JPG Magazine has proven that solid opportunities exist for publishers who think differently. JPG Magazine started in 2005 when Derek Powazek and Heather Powazek Champ saw how many high-quality images were appearing on photo-sharing sites such as Flickr. From those roots, the idea to use reader-generated online content to create a printed magazine was born.
The concept has proven wildly successful. For each issue, thousands of people submit tens of thousands of images. To choose which images get published, hundreds of thousands of votes are cast by thousands of people all over the world. I am a big fan of JPG magazine's submission guidelines. The images need to be authentic, brave, and real. Images with digitally altered text are rejected. No multiple photos on a single upload, no misrotated photos, no digitally added borders, no enlargements, no duplicate photos.
My taste in photography tends to lead toward authenticity, meaning little if any digital manipulation or staging. This is evident in my image Mother and Child which won first prize in HP's 2005 On Assignment Photo Contest.
I am a member of JPG and to date none of the images I've submitted have been published. But that doesn't stop me from shooting images related to each issue's theme and entering and voting. Viewing the winning images in each issue of JPG magazine is just as interesting as it is to belong to the community that votes on the winners.
If you're not yet a member of JPG, check it out. If you haven't yet seen your images published in a national magazine, JPG provides a great opportunity to give it your best shot!
Professional photographers are uniquely qualified to get into the fine-art-reproduction business because the element most critical to success is a quality image capture. Photographers not only have a discerning eye for color and detail, but also tend to have the best capture equipment. For fine-art reproduction, the lens, digital sensor, and software used to process the RAW digital image files have to be pro level, with no compromises.
Before you invest in any additional equipment, it might be wise to invest first in some training—so you can see for yourself how the fine-art reproduction workflow differs from printing your own photographs. During a good training session, you’ll see why it’s not smart to try to cut corners when it comes to buying quality equipment.
For example, the training should cover specific capture, color control, and printing techniques that have proven to be successful in faithfully reproducing the colors used in the original artwork. This usually requires one to two full days of work, with lessons focused on image capture setup, color management, media selection, image editing and print prep. You also need to understand how the build good relationships with artists and some of the printmaking traditions specific to the art market. Once you’ve been trained, you’ll better understand the rationale behind all the other elements listed below.
The Right Lighting Setup
Digital image capture for fine-art reproduction is based on good old-fashioned copy work. It requires two to four color-corrected lights (strobes or continuous), diffusers or softboxes, a sturdy tripod or studio stand, and a stable copy stand that can support artwork in a range of sizes. You could use continuous lighting using tungsten bulbs, but I don’t recommend it. Even though we can correct color pretty well, a light source that isn’t color-balanced can lead to a number of problems, including excessive time in post-production trying to correct color distortion. It’s better to use color-corrected halogen or fluorescent lights.
A Good Camera and Lens
I use a Hasselblad H-series camera and a Phase One digital back. I really don’t see any reason to use film for fine-art reproduction unless your client wants to archive an image on film for some reason. With my equipment, I have gotten excellent results with images up to 40 x 60 in. in one frame, and panoramas up to 10 ft. long. It is quite feasible to shoot even larger pieces in one frame. Or, you could shoot the image in quarters and stitch them together in Photoshop. The recently released Phase One/Mamiya medium format combination is interesting, and costs less than competing products. A new Mamiya kit with an 80 mm lens has been reported selling for $10,000. You could use a high-end DSLR, like the Canon Mark II and III-series, or the Nikon D3 series on many pieces of artwork, but successfully reproducing a large painting usually requires the resolution that only a medium-format digital camera can provide. In any case, the cost of acquiring technology is lower and dropping every month. Used equipment is frequently an option as photographers trade in and trade up.
Procedures and Tools for Controlling Color
Reproducing artwork requires processes for controlling color at every step in the process, from capture to output. The more careful you are in controlling color, the less time and materials you’ll waste trying to get your print to match the original. If you’re serious about your digital photography, you probably have already invested in a high-quality monitor and tools for keeping it calibrated so you can accurately preview and edit your images on screen.
The most straightforward way to control color while shooting is to:
Ensure that the target artwork is evenly illuminated from corner to corner and from side to side, within 1/10 of an f-stop;
Shoot at lowest ISO available;
Use RAW capture; and
Include a grey card or white/grey/black target in your shot. (This will be an enormous help when processing the image on your computer.)
You can use a handheld spectrophotometer (such as the ones made by X-Rite), or an online service (which can be pricey). Or, you can buy a wide-format inkjet printer that has the custom-profiling functionality built-in (such as the HP Designjet Z3100). Being able to obtain accurate color profiles is essential, but that’s only part of the game. In order to efficiently be able to produce a print that looks just like the print you output six months ago, your profiles must be re-created or updated periodically.
A Pro-Model, Pigment-Ink Printer
You’ll need access to a wide-format, wide-gamut printer that can handle a variety of media types, media thicknesses, and roll widths. Most people in the fine-art reproduction business have a printer that can print up to 44 in. wide. Many printmakers use devices that can print up to 60 and 64-in. wide. These wider printers can be used not only to make larger prints, but also to efficiently print higher volumes of smaller prints.
If you don’t yet own a wide-format printer, some studios will rent you access to their printers for a day or half-day. In other areas of the country, you may want to purchase one for yourself. To produce the wide color gamut needed to accurately reproduce fine art, your printer should have at least eight ink channels. In my opinion, having 12 ink channels is better because the color palette and the control provided over color and density is noticeably superior.
It’s also important to be sure that the printer uses pigment inks, instead of dye inks. When used with reputable brands of art papers and canvases, pigment inks can create prints that will last well over 100 years without noticeable fading if they are properly protected and displayed. After you’ve equipped yourself to go into the fine-art reproduction business, the next task is to attract customers. I’ll share a few tips on marketing in my next post.