What is fine art photography? Wait— isn’t all photography a fine art? While photography can be considered a fine art, we’re looking at fine art as a niche within photography. In this guide, we’re going to provide enough information for you to come to your own conclusions on that one. The field can be so subjective, and for good reason! Discern between photographic art and other forms of photography as well as navigate through creating, showcasing, and ultimately selling your art on your online portfolio.
Fine art photography is unique in the world of photography because it serves an artistic purpose first and foremost. If you’re thinking about getting started as a fine art photographer, you’ve come to the right place. But first, what do people mean when they talk about fine art photography?
Art photography can be defined as photography that represents an artist’s creative vision and doesn’t serve a commercial or documentary function. Part of the reason why it’s difficult to perfectly define art photography is because it so often overlaps with other types of photography. Some art photographers may photograph landscapes, but not every landscape photographer is also an art photographer, as they may primarily be interested in capturing the natural world for the purpose of documentation.
We’ve looked at some of the important features that help to define fine art photography: the artist’s intention, the fact that it is meant to go beyond being representative of its subject, and the fact that it has an specific aesthetic. Another useful way to go about defining fine art photography is to determine what it isn’t.
One of the most important distinctions between fine art photography and other types of photography is that it doesn’t serve a commercial function. Many types of photography serve business in some way. This is true of commercial photography, as you might expect from the name, but also for fashion photography, headshots, and lifestyle photography. All of these types of photography are commissioned by businesses or individuals for the purpose of generating sales, marketing themselves professionally, or promoting a brand.
While the resulting images might look beautiful or even artistic, the photographer is constrained by the commercial requirements of their client rather than by their artistic vision, so these images can’t properly be called art photography.
Another useful distinction when determining if an image should be considered art photography is whether not it serves a documentary purpose. Although there are exceptions to this, since the aim is to present or document a real event, place, or person, rather than to convery an concept, typically documentary photography is not considered fine art photography. Travel photography, photojournalism, and even wedding photography are types of documentary photography that may look aesthetically pleasing and artistic but that probably shouldn’t be considered fine art photography first and foremost.
In the majority of cases, the types of photographs that are not considered fine art are commercial photography (e.g. a photo commissioned by an agency to sell products) or photojournalism (e.g. representational work commissioned by news media). These types of photography typically have one thing in common, that being the commission, or direction, is not created by the artist, but a commercial commission in which you respond to. You might already be thinking of exceptions to this rule, but let’s keep discussing the field of fine art photography first.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to starting a career as a fine art photographer. Some people find success by going to art school, while others are completely self taught. The one thing that every successful fine art photographer has in common is that they didn’t arrive at their signature style overnight, and putting in time behind the camera is an essential step towards mastering your craft and creating art photography images you can be proud of.
Art school is a popular way to develop your skills and portfolio as a fine art photographer. This option offers exposure to lots of art and creative people, a forum for valuable critique of your work, and the luxury of time to dig into learning about all the different aspects of creating art and working as a professional artist.
You don’t necessarily need to complete a four-year degree either: you can also look for one-off art photography or general photography courses to help you develop your understanding of photography equipment, lighting, editing tools and other technical components of art photography.
One of the major benefits of going to art school or studying photography is having structured time each week when you’ll be working on developing your knowledge and skills, as well as the pressure of deadlines to kick you into gear and ensure you’re actually making fresh work frequently. Since art photography is so much about developing your creative vision, not just mastering photography from a technical point of view, nothing can replace constant practice. Formal schooling can give you the structure for continual practice.
Another perk is the fact that you’ll meet other people in the art world, which is a surprisingly small world. If you’re hoping to ultimately show your work in galleries, having art world connections can be beneficial down the road. There are no guarantees, but getting the chance to develop personal relationships with others in the art world is a great bonus.
Of course, not every art photographer goes to art school. It can be prohibitively expensive, and may even slow you down if you’re ready to get out there and start promoting your art. If you’re more of a self-starter, the DIY route to fine art photography might be best for you.
If you are comfortable learning by doing, you can get started as a fine art photographer by diving right into it and creating a body of work. Much of the technical side of art photography can be learned through practice and from the excellent resources available online. Your artistic eye can be developed by studying other forms of art, as well as checking out the online portfolios of art photographers you admire.
There are always art shows and publications happening all over the world, many of which take international submissions. If your aim is to get started as a fine art photographer while skipping the art school step, regularly submitting your work to outlets for publication is a fantastic way to beef up your credentials and provide some social proof that you’re the real deal and your work is worth it.
Creating a submission schedule for yourself is one way you can emulate the structure of an art school schedule and continually improve your skills. It’s also a way you can get some of that constructive criticism that is such a helpful component of a school environment. Try not to take rejections too personally, and use any criticism you receive as a resource to improve your skills.
Whether you go the school route or the DIY route, you’ll have to put in the leg work to start reaching your career goals. Maybe you want to show in galleries and have your art photography sold to in-the-know art collectors, or maybe your aim is to achieve mass appeal and sell lots of gorgeous art prints. Whatever your goal, there are some useful steps that can help you reach them:
Show your work to an audience. Showing your work at small local galleries, or even submitting it to shows elsewhere in the world, is another way to get your name out there in the art scene. The truth is, even if you do go to art school, the real challenge comes after you graduate when it’s time to show the art world what you’re capable of.
Find your distinct style. While your style may be constantly evolving, all great fine art photographers have a distinct look or theme that ties their work together. If your fine art portfolio is all over the place, even if the individual pieces are strong, your audience will be confused.
Challenge yourself to improve your skills. Whether it’s through pushing yourself to master new technical skills or to create the more complex images you’ve been afraid to try out, making sure that you’re continually refining your skills and staying on top of what’s new in the world of art photography is a good way to increase your chances of success in the industry.
This might again be a frustrating answer, but it’s subjective. Artistic expression, vision, training (e.g. a degree in fine art), thematic bodies of work, and an artist statement, are often be associated with fine art photography, but the artists’ unique perspective about a topic, subject matter, etc. are ultimately the guiding force in what makes artwork out of photography.
Given that the photographer’s artistic intent is such a big component of what makes fine art photography, there is almost no limit to the types of images that can be approached as fine art photography. However, there are some common types of fine art photography that you’ll come across most often. If you’re starting out as a fine art photographer taking inspiration from other photographers working in these styles is a great place to start.
Still life photography is the photography of inanimate objects. When you hear the term “still life” you probably think of the classic still life paintings by great artists of the past, which often featured everyday objects like bouquets of flowers and bowls of fruit, as well as symbolic objects such as skulls serving as a reminder of our mortality. While your subject matter as a still life fine art photographer may be different, those original still life paintings serve as a useful framework for thinking about your own still life work. This type of photography is about using light, perspective, and symbols to explore the posed or found objects by deliberately curating or making and capturing a still life scene that conveys an artistic vision or deeper meaning.
While architectural photography can be commercial and utilitarian in nature, serving to represent a building or structure for the purpose of advertising it or documenting it, it is also a great subject for fine art photographers. Because architecture often features interesting shapes and striking light effects, a fine art photographer can find endless inspiration when photographing architecture. This type of fine art photography is also popular for prints that can be displayed in the home, making it a potentially lucrative type of fine art photography.
We’ve talked a lot about the subject matter of fine art photography, but technical skill and photographic techniques are important components of art photography as well. Long exposure fine art photography offers the artist a huge range of artistic possibilities, since they can take an ordinary subject and create a completely new artistic rendering of it through long exposure. For example, a long exposure of a busy intersection can look more like a light painting than an urban scene.
Another way to transform ordinary subject matter into something more artistic is through creative use of silhouette photography. Silhouettes are achieved by backlighting the subject, and the final effect can vary greatly depending on the lightsource and placement of the subject. The clean, minimal aesthetic achieved by silhouette photography makes for a beautiful, artistic final product.
As any new photographer quickly learns, no matter what kind of photography you do, light is the most important component of creating an image. Changing the lighting can completely change your final result. That’s why night photography is such an interesting type of fine art photography: the possibilities and challenges of shooting in low light, with unusual light sources such as neon signs and street lamps, offers a lot of creative flexibility to transform a scene into something unique.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from night photography is hard light photography, typically shot in strong midday lighting conditions or in a studio where crafting the light can be controlled more easily. Since this type of lighting is not always considered the most attractive or easiest to work with, it presents an opportunity for the fine art photographer to present familiar subjects in ways they aren’t normally seen.
The human form has always been a source of inspiration for artists. Just as fine artists working in other mediums such as painting, illustration, or sculpture frequently choose people as their subjects, portraits are a popular type of fine art photography. Subjects’ faces or bodies are a timeless source of inspiration for artists, and fine art photographers can create a wide range of work within this type of photography.
Since fine art photography doesn’t need to be representative of a specific subject the way other types of photography typically are, artists are free to create conceptual images with the tools of a photographer. This is also frequently referred to as abstract fine art photography. Whether it’s through creative use of light, extreme macro shots, or unusual angles, conceptual photography offers the possibility to push the limits of what photography can do and sometimes even goes beyond the use of a camera and lens.
Landscapes are another popular source of inspiration for artists across time and cultures. Art photographers are no different, and many take to the great outdoors to create their images. So, what makes an art landscape image different from a regular landscape photograph? It’s all about the artist’s vision and intent. An art photographer will first conceptualize what they want their photo to convey in terms of a theme, emotion, or aesthetic effect. Then they’ll use their technical skill to capture that exact image. It may involve waiting for the perfect weather or lighting conditions, or playing with long exposures and objects in the foreground.
Other aspects of nature can also be photographed for artistic purposes, beyond just capturing the beauty of nature. For example, the scales of a lizard or the intricacies of a coral reef can be presented in a way that looks more like abstract art than nature photography.
While street photography is usually considered a type of photojournalism, documentary or travel photography, art photographers can also explore this ever-changing subject. An art photographer will approach street photography with the mindset of an artist rather than a journalist, conceptualizing their final image and its artistic effect before shooting.
Digital fine art photography refers to photos that are digitally manipulated in post production for artistic effect. This can be done with any of the types of photography listed here, or some combination of them.
You don’t necessarily need a degree to become a fine art photographer, but there are some steps to consider when creating fine art photography that those with a Bachelor of Fine Arts might have developed in their degree. These steps will bring you closer to your goals and communicating your point of view, whether that’s getting into fine art photography galleries, or selling your work.
Fine art photography is all about capturing your way of seeing the world, this is above and beyond the most important part of fine art photography. It’s about going beyond simply taking a photo artistically. Instead, you come up with a point of view, an idea, or a message as the starting point. Many basic rules of photography like composition, focusing, etc., can be broken here if it fits your message. Technical skills, artist statements, etc. might help you clarify your message, but these are skills and tools to help support your idea and communicate it to others.
Considerations on the road to expressing your ideas include but are not limited to clearing your head, and looking for inspiration and other ways to get your fine art photography to the next level.
Developing a technique for your fine art photos isn’t meant to box you in, but technique will help you solidify your vision, decision and confidence to create a more cohesion for your body of work and might improve your overall output quality. After you’ve decided on a direction, sought inspiration, even taken a few photos, you might want to consider specific techniques to best communicate your vision.
For example, black and white photography is far from over. This creative choice lends itself to emphasizing things like contrast, light, texture, and composition, and depending on your message, may help convey it better or just differently. Sometimes experimenting in black and white helps you get better at color photography, helping you better attend to bright and dark elements.
Other techniques you may want to explore include: negative space, motion blur, negative space, creative editing, subject matter and so much more. Researching more photographers working in the medium will help you get a better feel for how you might want to attack your work.
Now that you have your message, ideas about your technique, you may want to consider amassing a body of work. A body of work is defined as a series of images unified by a single theme or connected by a message. Going back to our famous photographers previously mentioned, examples include Mapplethorpe’s still lifes, Adams’ mountains, Sherman’s exploration of identity through self-portraits, these artists are famous for their specializations. Having a vision or clear set of topics you want to explore will really help you create a body of work, so don’t worry too much about how many photos you should have to start with, just think about how you can express your ideas in different ways with a series of photos.
Many artists consider this the ultimate chore, but writing your artist statement will help inform and fill things like your ‘about’ page of your website, grant applications, even communicating your own body of work better.
Your artist statement should accomplish two things, describe to the reader how you work and what your work means. It can be as short as 100 words, or as long as one page. It’s important to get your artist statement right so that you can properly convey your brand and personality to potential clients.
By now you’re probably ready and excited to get shooting! As you might have guessed, the camera you use for fine art photography is totally up to you, and buying or finding one for your work can be informed by your technique, artistic vision, and message for your body of work.
Our tip—start with what you have, get to know how to use your camera manually, and go from there.
Tripod: If you don’t already have a tripod, getting one can help with things like shooting with long exposures, still life, general ease of use when setting up your composition, fine art portrait photography, and more
Backdrop: Photography backdrops can add different looks to your scene, in some ways making it look more professional, or adding in a kind of style. Size of backdrop and material are a couple of things to keep in mind when choosing backdrops.
Lighting: Flashes and reflectors are more ways to give you control over your shoot. They can add to your decision making and budget, but might really pay off, depending on your vision. Check out this article on the best accessories for portrait photography.
A film camera: not technically an accessory, but some argue a film camera can spark inspiration, and slow you down in a good way, forcing you to make decisions about framing, composition, etc. you might not have otherwise considered with a digital camera
Making money might not be as straightforward as other photography gigs such as commercial or wedding, but you can still make money as a fine art photographer. You’ll want to create your own fine art photography portfolio to allow for your work to easily be shown to the public.
Building relationships are important in making money on your images. Going to openings, meeting fellow artists, connecting with local art councils, curators, gallery owners, arts workers, etc. will help you expand your networks and introduce people to your work organically. Swapping social accounts or e-mails when it feels right might offer up more opportunities to collaborate, connect, and even cross-promote work.
Granting agencies, galleries, even friends and networks will want to see your website before they make decisions about your work. Having a great online portfolio is a necessary step in your artistic career. Use a website builder that offers a variety of templates that make sense for you and also gives you a free trial, so you can try before you buy. Create and build your social accounts too, so you have more than one place to feature your work, as well as more than one place to sell it. Check out our easy-to-follow checklist for making sure your social media game is strong, as well as this guide to grow your followers.
Grants are financial support awarded to artists so they can create work with some of life’s financial stressors elevated. You might be surprised at the number of organizations out there with grant opportunities to help artists create new work.
Three steps that will help you apply for artist grants include:
1) Create an online art portfolio (grant committees will want to see your work, so make sure you have a website that best fits your work)
2) Have your artist statement ready to go
3) Bone up on writing the best application for your artist grant
Showing at, or being represented by, an art gallery are pretty major feats if you want to make money from your fine art photographs. To accomplish this, it’s important to of course be doing all of the above— making work, meeting people, showcasing your images online, but we have a few more ideas to get in front of gallery owners and art dealers.
1) Do your research: Make an inventory of local (even national) galleries, and start looking into them. Sometimes you’ll be able to tell what kind of work owners and curators choose to exhibit, saving you time when you do your reach outs on what places might be the best fit for your work.
2) Cold calls: After you find potential fits, send an email or give a gallery a call to inquire about exhibiting and representation. Even if you don’t end up getting signed, you might still make an impression that carries over to another opportunity.
3) Call for submissions: Find opportunities to exhibit through open calls for exhibition. Places like your local arts council, Facebook groups, and other online submission boards may present opportunities to have your work shown in galleries.
Consider any expenses you incurred in creating your photograph (e.g. film and developing, printing costs) and how much time you spent producing and editing it. This should give you a good baseline for how much you might consider charging. Some are able to double this cost to price their art, or a 100% mark-up e.g. if it cost you $100 to create your end product, consider trying to charge $200 for it.
In addition, looking around to see what contemporaries are charging can be beneficial to better understand your market and pricing your pieces to sell. This might be your best bet at first, if you’re new to the game and haven’t got a list of clients or gallery representation yet.
The ways you present your work is an important step in your process – from gaining notoriety, to making money from your artwork. Whether selecting bodies of work for your online portfolio, selecting a website builder, creating a photo book, or preparing your work for a gallery exhibition, displaying your photography is a crucial part of your process.
That’s it! We hope you gained some valuable information about the ins and outs of fine art photography. Whether this art form is your main focus, or a fulfilling hobby, we hope with a bit of inspiration, direction, and knowledge about the industry, you’ll be producing some awe-inspiring photographs that we might see in a gallery or on walls some day.
Now that you have a good idea of what art photography is, you can probably imagine that a wide range of different photography styles and subjects can fall under the category of art photography. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in fine art photography, take inspiration for your own art photography portfolio from these awesome portfolios from photographers working in a range of styles.
Argentinian-born, Copenhagen-based photographer Jairo Alvarez aims to explore his unique point of view about society and his surroundings through his work. The bulk of the work spent creating each image happens before the photo is actually taken, in the creation of the worlds he captures with his art photography. The result is a spellbinding portfolio that lets you get lost in the artist’s imagination.
Format theme used: Horizon Left
Mary Chen is an image-based artist trained in design and visual arts at OCAD University in Toronto. Chen’s imagery reflects upon ways in which Asian culture is situated within Western contexts. Her art photography deconstructs Asian identity by creating uncanny, staged compositions with vivid color palettes. Through whimsical images, Chen interrogates narrative paradigms to illuminate social and cultural realities.
The result is a portfolio that demonstrates Mary’s distinct artistic vision, style, and social commentary, while also feeling intimate and personal.
Format theme used: Beacon
Sophie is a Dutch art photographer currently working in Amsterdam. Her work features animation and digital manipulation of photography resulting in an art photography style that is all her own. Through digital manipulation of her photos, Sophie creates a portfolio of images that is haunting, unsettling, and altogether unforgettable. Her work is a great example of how digital technologies open up a wide range of artistic possibilities for art photographers.
Format theme used: Horizon Left
How you price your fine art photography will depend on what exactly you are selling, and what segment of the market you are targeting. Ask yourself these questions as you come up with your pricing strategy:
What kind of fine art are you selling? Are you selling digital files that clients can print on their own, or prints? Will the prints be unframed, or mounted and framed? How large will they be? If you haven’t already gone to get larger prints of your images made you might be surprised to find that large prints can be quite pricey. Mounting and framing can also cost hundreds of dollars. If you’re selling online, prints will also need to be securely shipped in a way that doesn’t risk damaging the artwork. All of these factors will impact your final price, since you’ll still need to make a profit after all of the costs.
What segment of the market are you targeting? If you want to sell your art prints online to a wide audience, you’ll have to find a pricing strategy that is acceptable for the average consumer who wants a beautiful art print in their home or office. On the other hand, if you’re targeting buyers who tend to shop from art galleries, your pricing should take into account the cut that the gallery will take from any sale. The same applies to selling through an agent or representative. In these cases, the ticket price of your work will likely be much higher.
What does similar fine art photography from other artists sell for? While different art photographers may be able to charge higher prices for similar work if they are well-established and have some name recognition, it’s worth doing some research before setting your own prices to get an idea of what the typical rates are for similar artists. Your geographic location can matter if you’re primarily selling locally, but if you’re selling online to an international audience it’s less important.
How skilled and established are you? While you shouldn’t sell yourself short just because you’re at the beginning of your career, it’s not unusual for artists of all kinds, including fine art photographers, to be able to command higher prices as their work becomes more well-known.
Would you consider a tiered pricing strategy? A tiered pricing strategy involves having some offerings available at a lower, more accessible price point, and other, more exclusive offerings available at a higher price point. For example, you might have 10 popular art prints available in the $100-$500 range, depending on size and whether or not they are framed. Then, you might have limited edition larger prints that are signed or numbered to create a sense of exclusivity, and these might be priced at $1000 or more.
Can you find other ways to monetize your fine art photography? While selling prints is an important revenue stream for many art photographers, it doesn’t have to be your only source of income. If you’ve always wanted to have an art book of your work printed, you might consider using a crowdfunding platform to generate the funds to print the book. You can offer perks such as prints for lower contributions, and copies of the book for higher contributions.
However you go about making money as a fine art photographer, it’s important that you get fairly compensated for your work and skill. It’s very common to feel a lack of confidence when first pricing your work, but remember that everything from the skill involved in producing an image, the equipment required to create it, and the cost of getting high quality prints created should all factor into the costs your pricing should cover. Now you just have to get more eyes on your prints!
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