Preparing for your first photo exhibition
After spending some time in the photography journey, many shooters find themselves with a number of good to great quality images in their portfolio. Around this time, the aspiring photographer will seek out opportunities to exhibit and sell their work. How long should one wait before showing their work or approaching galleries for inclusion into group exhibitions? How much should you sell your prints for? Is it time to quit your day job once you secure that first exhibition?
The confidence trap
Friends and family are always supportive of your work as an artist, this can be simultaneously a benefit and a curse. Supporters of your work are always going to tell you that your images are so amazing, and that you could and should be making money from your virtuoso talent as a photographer. How many times have you read on the forums about someone who bought a camera as a hobby and the very next month (or week) has honed their skills as an image creator enough to pronounce themselves as professional and transitions from newbie to shooting portraits or weddings? It happens every day.
How long does it take to be a competent photographer? It depends. Like learning a musical instrument, some people pick it up immediately and have an inherent sense of rhythm while others can struggle for years and barely reach the level of amateur. I don’t really subscribe to the “your first 10,000 images are your worst” mentality because I know many newbie photographers who have taken great shots. Was it luck? Maybe. The real test is to look at the portfolio to see if they have started to form a cohesive style in their body of work. Do you have to have a defined style to go after an exhibition? Of course not, but it helps. The truth is that it takes as long as it takes to get good at any form of art. Can someone pick up a paint brush and canvas with the aim of painting formal family portraits the following month?
The other side of the coin is that with today’s Ai tools, even beginner photographers can get pleasing results with little or no knowledge of the image editing process. Normally in this part of the conversation I would say that Ai tools can’t fix poor composition or missed focus, but that could not be farther from the truth. Topaz Sharpen Ai can recover even the most out of focus images, and Luminar NEO can use Ai to crop your image then convincingly change the time of day, replace a sky, even adding in sun rays, birds and other objects that were not present when the image was captured. All of these tools give the budding photographer a significant leg up on the novice painter who needs to not only learn to see the scene before them, but properly mix and apply the paint to the canvas.
The toughest part of jumping into showing your work too early is that until you learn to see the light in your scene and understand the elements that go into what most viewers consider a good photograph, you don’t have the fundamental knowledge or language of the photographic art. I have met many photographers that believe wholeheartedly that their landscape image with a crooked horizon, taken at midday with no foreground interest is better than an Ansel Adams image. The lack of understanding is often compounded by the fact that the supporters (friends and family) also lack the understanding of what goes into making a good image worthy of exhibition.
Before we go any farther down this road, understand that I am speaking in generalities. Everyone picks up this art stuff at their own pace. When you start exhibiting and selling your images will likely be different than another photographer starting out at the same time you are. It is also important to mention that there is an audience for every level of art. The audience may be your family or friends, but they count and if they buy a print and enjoy it then everyone is happy.
With that out of the way, let’s assume your work is at a level where you are feeling ready to seek out that first exhibition. The first consideration is where to show your work. Where you choose to show your images will depend on what you are looking to get out of the showing. If you are just looking for praise and people to ooh and ahh over your work, you can show it pretty much anywhere. I suggest looking at local restaurants that show local artist’s work. Consider approaching government offices or local community centers if they routinely show artwork, and don’t forget local galleries. Another place to get your work in front of a lot of eyes is at your local county fair. Keep an eye out for calls for work. Your work will need to be printed and likely matted and framed to be considered for showing. We will talk more about printing below.
Content is king
If you are looking to sell prints, then where the exhibition is held is as important as the images you choose to hang for your viewers. Where you show your work will also determine the likely price point your photos can command. Government offices, restaurants and community centers often have a lot of foot traffic meaning lots of people will see your work, but sales can often be low. Art and wine festivals and galleries usually have buyers willing to spend more on a piece, but it often depends on the subject matter of the images. Always make sure to factor in any percentage the establishment will take when considering the price of your prints.
Learning what to offer for sale can have a stiff learning curve. If you are selling at a restaurant, consider landscapes, wildlife, flowers and vintage cars. This again is a generality and depends on the area you live in. I do always suggest selling images of the area if you are focusing on landscapes. It often doesn’t make sense to try and sell images of someplace like rural Oklahoma to people in a California coastal town – unless they are truly spectacular images. People often buy photos of places they know that were captured at an interesting time like sunset and look beautiful. Galleries are a bit different, if you get an exhibition in a gallery, they often will have a theme for the show if it is a group exhibition. Lacking a theme, I will usually lean toward fine art images, and away from landscapes because gallery viewers will have already seen a million and one pretty landscape images. In general, the more niched your images are in a gallery setting, the better they will do. When someone goes to a gallery, they are often looking to be inspired by pretty art, and what that art is can often be determined by where the gallery is located. A gallery located near a famous racetrack will have patrons more interested in classic car photos than say images of flowers in a fine art style – again, in general. Do your research, talk to the curator of the gallery, and see what kinds of work have sold well in the past.
Critiques can sting
Once you have secured that first big show, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to be emotionally prepared to hear the critiques of your work, both good and bad. We all know how toxic the photography forums can be on the internet; it is very much the same when showing work in any venue. There will always be people who don’t like the way you captured your image or post processed it. Their opinions can be scathing at times. Don’t get defensive, thank them for their time and opinion, and move on. How you handle the information you are offered in critiques is up to you. Some ignore the feedback and consider the work their art and disregard the opinions of others, while others have a knee jerk reaction and take everything to heart. I choose to listen to what people have to say and talk to them about photography so that I can get my head around their level of skill. For me, the feedback from a grizzled old photographer with years of work under their belt will hold more weight than a newbie who just got their camera for Christmas and has spent months watching every YouTube video they can put in their que. At the end of the day, some people just feel like they need to put down the work of others to somehow validate the work they are doing.
Preparing your work
Once you have the location for your showing determined, and what images you will include, the next thing to panic about is how to present them. Most places you will exhibit your work will want them printed, matted, and framed ready to hang. A common size is an 11 X 14 inch print in a 16 X 20 inch mat. The mat has a front and a back piece, one with the hole for the print to show through and the other is flat. Sets can be purchased from Amazon or other art centric store. I usually have a pack of ten hanging around in my photo closet in case I need to mat a print for someone. Be sure to use good quality acid free tape made for matting photos so it does not ruin your print. Don’t make the mistake of taping the print all the way around, just tape the top so it can move and not crumple or bunch in the frame when being transported. There are a ton of great tutorials for matting prints on YouTube. Speaking of frames, a 16 X 20 inch matted print will fit into a 16 X 20 inch frame. How much you spend on your frames will depend on where you are showing and or selling your work. Be aware that when someone buys your print, unless otherwise noted, they will also be taking the frame, so price your work to account for the cost of the frame, the mat, the materials and of course the cost of the print, which we will talk about shortly.
Check on the hanging method your venue prefers, many places that show work often have a rail system that requires your frames to have wire hangers rather than the claw style hangers frames often come with. There are a ton of YouTube videos focusing on how to install the wires onto your frames and your local art supply store will have kits readymade which has a length of wire, and installation hardware included.
A dark art
Photo printing has often been referred to as a dark art because there are so many variables that contribute to creating a successful printed image. So much can go wrong during a print, if you choose to print your own work, enter it knowing that it will offer more control over your final product, but the cost, storage, and maintenance of owning a quality photo printer can be daunting. On top of all these caveats, the steep learning curve can lead to frustration, especially with dark and muddy prints.
If you don’t want to go through the cost, headache, and heartache of printing your own images, sending them out to be printed is always a viable option. Problems associated with outside printing starts first and foremost with lead time. You need to ensure there is enough time before your exhibition to have the prints completed and sent out to you. Another concern is the sheer number of options when it comes to places to send your prints. There are small boutique print houses and gigantic labs, and each of them has an attached horror story about late, muddy, dark and otherwise unusable prints. The upside to any reputable print house is that they will often turn around reprints if there are errors – thus the advice about ensuring there is enough lead time to have them reprinted if necessary. Other downsides of having your printing done at one of these print houses is not being able to turn around a print right away if needed (like replacing a purchased print at the beginning of an exhibition). Perhaps the worst of the concerns is print consistency. When you have several prints done at the same time, they will usually be close in color tone, brightness, and contrast, but even the best print houses vary from print to print when they are not printed at the same time. Printers get calibrated, inks get low and all sorts of other variables affect the look of each print.
Regardless of your route, printing at home or sending to a print house, I cannot express the importance of calibration (color, contrast and brightness). Starting with a color calibrated monitor, capture calibration method and calibrated printer if printing at home will ensure at least one variable in the string of things that can make your prints vary from one to the next. I use the Spyder system for calibrating my computer components, and the Color checker passport for capturing calibration images at the beginning of a shoot.
What is my workflow?
Everyone has a different recommendation when it comes to printing, I print at home on a pro level Canon printer (I do like the Epson printers too, but the Canons handle Canvas and other media better than most of the Epson units in my experience.) and ensure that my printer is calibrated. I use Canon and Epson paper for traditional luster, and semi-gloss prints. For canvas and other unique paper offerings, I use Freestyle. I do keep up with many of the larger print houses and do send occasional test prints, my go-to for out of house printing varies depending on the circumstance for the print. A note: I’m not an affiliate and there are no links here, these are the companies I use for my work, and have grown to trust their consistent quality output. I use Mpix for greeting cards and smaller prints. I recently suggested them for some budget wedding invitations, and they came out great. For large format and prints that I will be selling, I use Bay Photo Lab. Their work is great quality and I have been using them for over a decade. For prints on metal, wood, stone, glass, or textured prints I use Duraplaq Their turn around time is slower than the rest, but they have consistently great quality.
When it comes to frames for your work, I generally try to go non-descript. If you put your print in a big fancy frame not only, will it increase the cost and price of your product, but you are making assumptions that the frame you purchased fits into the décor of the home for the person buying the print. I lean toward simple black frames that fit in most environments or can be easily swapped out depending on the person’s needs. Depending on the color of the print, I lean toward white or crème colored mats. I tend to steer away from the pastel and other colored mats because they can clash with the customer’s color scheme. Much of my black and white work has been going into black or dark grey mats, but only if the white point in the image allows for enough contrast in the final product.
Pricing your work
Once you have everything put together, it’s time to think about the price of your work. This will vary widely based on the cost of the route and materials for printing, matting and framing. A general rule of thumb many photographers use is setting the price based on three times your cost of materials. If that works for you, and your prints sell at that price, great, if not then adjust accordingly.
Common mistakes I see all the time when new photographers are exhibiting their work begins with the artist opting to sell prints without a mat and cut them to the size of the frame. If you are selling an 11 X 14 print, mat it into a 16 X 20 mat and get a 16 X 20 frame. It looks much more professional. Additionally, printing on cheap paper or using a drugstore printing service where the prints come out with the colors off and the contrast all muddy can turn a great looking print into a cheap dime store wall hanging. Using aftermarket third party inks in a good printer can also lead to loss of contrast and off-spec color rendering in your prints. Brand name quality ink is expensive and that should be figured into part of your overall pricing structure.
Did this article help you at all? Hopefully it didn’t scare you away from the desire to exhibit and share your work with others. It can be a confusing road to travel and I’m always willing to lend a hand. Feel free to drop me a line on Twitter or Instagram @nedskee or contact me directly on my website www.tahquechi.com Now get out there and get shooting!
“Ted’s journey into the landscape of the human body is a marvelous celebration of all that is physical, sensual and diverse
” – FSTOPPERS
About the author
Ted Tahquechi is a Denver Colorado based professional landscape and travel photographer, photography educator, disability travel influencer and is almost completely blind. You can see more of Ted’s photography at: http://www.tahquechi.com/
Ted operates Blind Travels, a travel blog designed specifically to empower blind and visually impaired travelers. https://www.blindtravels.com/
Ted’s body-positive Landscapes of the Body project has been shown all over the world, learn more about this intriguing collection of photographic work at: https://www.bodyscapes.photography/
Questions or comments? Feel free to email Ted at: email@example.com