Every Image Has a Story

When it comes to selling your photography and art there is one great aid. Make sure that you have a story about or involving each image. People love a story.
One of the things that those of us who are serious about making images forget, whether photography or art, is why other people buy images. We are focused on the beauty of the image, or its symbolic meaning or whatever.

So why do people buy art? Well there are, of course, many reasons. Some will buy purely for their own enjoyment, some from a collector’s mentality and others to enhance their surroundings.

No matter the personal motivation, most people who buy art will, in some way, share it with other people in their lives. It may be a conversation with a friend over coffee, down at the gym or while picking the kids up from school or at a dinner party. Describing images is a challenge for most people. But telling a story comes naturally to many. If the artwork has a story attached to it, it makes life much easier.

At gallery openings I have a tendency to watch the artist. I guess all photographers are voyeurs but I find it very enlightening. Many of the artists and photographers that I see doing very well from exhibition sales know how to spin a yarn. As they chat with potential buyers they have an interesting story about every image in the show, “You know, when I shot this…” or “I have to tell you this about this image, I had a proof hanging in my studio and …”. You can see the way it changes how the potential buyer views the work. Now I am sure few are directly thinking “Wow, if I buy this I will have a great story for my next dinner party”, though some will. For most I think that it draws them into a deeper engagement with the work, adds depth and interest and increases the feeling that they just must have that image, that their life will be the lesser if they have to let it go. This same idea holds in other venues than galleries: it is applicable at art fairs and markets, online and in a portrait or wedding studio (helped here by the buyer’s own stories about the images). Obviously the length of the story and how much time you have to tell it needs to be different in these varying contexts, but the idea is the same.

Selling is still selling and it is easy for artists and photographers to loose sight of this about their work. Sometimes people need just one more reason to buy. Make sure you give it to them.

Work With Many Levels

When we start with photography getting our cameras to do what we want and produce a well-exposed image can be a struggle. Later though, we should be concentrating on the content.
Learning any new skill is a progression. In the beginning it is all tied up with the technique: whether it is driving or photography, we have to concentrate on getting the basic technique right. As we grow in our skills these basic techniques drop to the level of something you do automatically. This is great, because it frees you up to concentrate on new things.

One of the things that is often lacking in photography is depth. I don’t mean depth of field or suggestions of dimensional depth and distance. I means layers and substance. You see many clever images, whether it is in books, advertising, from students, on lists or in exhibitions even. But the problem with many of these images is that once you have ‘got it’, there is little else in the image to engage you. In this sense they can be like a joke, once you get the punch line, you have a good laugh, you may tell a few people the same joke, but that is it.

Now think about what we might want from our photography, or think of what your clients might want if they choose to buy it (and here I am talking about fine art photography, rather than sport, editorial, etc). If I buy a picture to hang on my lounge room or office wall it is so I can look at it. It is so my family and visitors can look at it. It is, perhaps, so it can be a topic of discussion. I may intend to have that image on my wall for years and years. I want to be able to keep appreciating it, keep enjoying it, but also occasionally to find something new in it, discover something I hadn’t seen before or for it to get me thinking in a new direction.

An obvious image tells you what it has got quickly. That’s it. Thanks for coming, there’s the door. It may be stunning or shocking, or amazingly clever, but that it is. It may be kitsch or cliched, overly romantic, overly dramatic or whatever. But it may not be lastingly engaging. Boredom can set in.

An image with depth rewards study, rewards careful contemplation over years. Is like a fine port and keeps getting better over time. Can surprise and shock you years later. Such a work is stunning and a great joy. Having it on your wall becomes an ongoing dialog between you and the work, you and the photographer.

Depth can be in many forms. It can be depth of meaning, with layers of symbolism that you only access as your understanding advances. It can be layers of recognition or identification with some aspect or someone in the image that can change and develop over time. It can be the image acting as a mirror into which you can project and slowly recognize your changing self. Or it can be a crystal ball that allows you to have a number of spiritual experiences with yourself and the world. All this and much more.

This is no easy thing to achieve and there is no simple recipe or magick Photoshop plugin for it. And sometimes it is not obvious that you have done it. This is one reason I recommend printing and living with an image for sometime as you are evaluating it. But it is, I believe, always something to aspire to.

Print In More Sizes

It is easy to become stuck on one or two sizes of print. Break out of the rut and try something different. Photographs and art work can look very different depending on the size.

There is no right size to print every image at. We tend to fall into habits with regard to everything, including our printing. Sure, we can work out what size print a given camera can produce at 300dpi. But this is really on the starting point. A print resolution of 300dpi (or 360dpi for Epsons) works well when you are up close and personal to the print. But with larger prints we don’t hold them in our hands up close, we look at them hanging on the wall, typically, and also from some distance so we can take in the whole image in one go. So you can lower the resolution you print at and thus print the image larger. Think of this as the packing density, how close the camera pixels are packed together on the page.

The other thing that affects what resolution you need to print at is the type of paper. High gloss, photo papers demand the highest resolution to produce a print that will look great up close. Matt papers can sometimes take a lower resolution and still look great. Non-digital art papers, especially the heavily textured watercolor papers can look great at even lower resolutions. For example, I have printed an image at as low as 25dpi (image resolution, not printer dot resolution) on a non-digital watercolor paper and the result has looked great. I have even used very low actual printer resolutions, such as 300dpi. This has partly been a result of the texture of the paper making the lower resolution image look more detailed and also because when you print on non-digital papers, the ink bleeds into the paper, spreading the dots out till they blend together, creating the illusion of a higher resolution than actually used. Particularly suitable to this approach are the non-digital watercolor textured papers and the Japanese, Korean and Nepalese handmade papers, often called Washi,  and especially those with inclusions, such as bark or flowers.

Some images work well when small and intimate. Many don’t. My observation is that probably a majority of people print their images smaller than is ideal for the image. This is perfectly natural because of issues of having suitable equipment and the cost of the gear and the consumables as you go up in size, but is still something to be worked on. You could argue that images have a natural size at which they work best that is determined by a combination of factors. The amount of detail in the piece and how important it is plays a part. As does the style of the work: is it intimate or bold and brassy? The desired impact on the viewer and what it is you are trying to say play a major part. When discussions of what size should I print my work comes up I am always reminded of a time soon after I had returned from a trip to Poland where I had done a lot of shooting at Auschwitz. I had been printing my images fairly large, approximately 24″ x 36″. There was an exhibition at a local photography gallery by a photographer who had also shot Auschwitz. His work was printed very small, in fact no larger than 8″ x 10″ and mostly noticeably smaller. With such small work the automatic response was to move in close. You were then confronted with the subject matter that had not been obvious from a distance. This drawing you in worked well with these very detailed, medium and large format images. My approach had been to play with the graphic elements, the shapes and textures, and I found this worked better for me large. Who was right? Frankly I don’t know and I suspect we both were because although our subject was the same, our photography was very different. I preferred my approach though I could see what the other photographer had done.

So how to you change your printing size or even judge what size works best? There are several approaches. The easiest is to make sure you can move well back from your computer screen so you can vary the viewing distance. Fill the screen with the image and then vary your viewing distance from close to far away and see how the image responds. Zoom right into the image and judge how dependent it is for success on the detail it contains. For those who can, a data project is a wonderful tool. It lets you explore the really large sizes before you have to print. Just remember the projected image will be much lower resolution than your print will be. Think about the psychology of your image and how you want to use it. Should the viewer have an intimate and thus close engagement with the image or will a huge, in your face sort of impact work better? You will generally find the same size will work well for most, if not all, images within a body of work. This certainly makes for a more cohesive look in an exhibition, though some variety can also work in your favor. It depends on what suits the work.

Overcoming equipment and cost issues can be a creative exercise in itself. What about tiling your prints together to make a larger one, taping them together even or mounting them as separate pieces that hung together form a whole? Do a trade with a friend with a larger printer so you do something for them that they need in exchange for some larger prints. If you want to, there are ways around most limitations.

Shoot Always

Finding ways to shoot whenever and wherever you are can greatly expand your shooting experience and also open up new opportunities for your photography.
Linking this with the first suggestion means that you don’t always have to use the same camera. In fact there are many times when carrying your normal camera gear would be a major problem. I would not always be willing to carry my normal dSLR camera with me on many occasions. Which is why I also have a number of other digital cameras in various sizes and capabilities, from my mobile or cell phone to a small 7 Megapixel compact digital that makes only a little bulge in my pocket. We sometimes get so over concerned with quality that we become blinded to other options.

There are many times when lugging our heavy dSLR gear and lens collections around are not practical. Yet we can always carry some sort of camera. Indeed there are major advantages to using other types of camera. A compact camera can fit into small spaces, allowing you to shoot subjects your big dSLR might not reach. Many compacts have much better macro capability than most common SLR lenses. Indeed some will focus to the surface of the front of the lens. Some offer built-in intervalvometer functions to allow you to take timed exposures in sequences over an extended time. With dSLRs this usually is only available with an optional extra. And how willing would you be to endanger your expensive dSLR in bad weather, at the beach or even underwater? A relatively inexpensive camera is more expendable and thus we can be more willing to experiment and also keep shooting in all the circumstances our life takes us into.

Having a camera with you all the time means that you always have something to do when you have to wait. You can not only scout out locations but document them too. There is no need to miss those great images you see when you do not have a camera with you.

Of course there is no reason to always leave your dSLR at home either. I commonly pick one lens and go out with my dSLR. Depending on the lens I put on, sometimes I will have to work really hard to find a way to shoot what I find. But isn’t that having to stretch a bonus?