so you think you can print...

 

One of my goals this year, in terms of photography and art, was to start learning the world of fine art printing, specifically, my own. Printing has always been frustrating to me, and the few times I tried to get my stuff printed, I found the results disappointing – too dark, too contrasty – colors drifting away from the intended ones. While I think 2013 is too early to consider trying for a gallery showing of my work, I did want to start getting the prints up and running, and see what, if any, audience out there was interested in buying what I do. If a gallery showing does come my way, I want those prints to be good, and know that I can produce them reliably and consistently.

This year, right on January 2nd, I started looking into it intently. Since then, I have had six test prints created for me by four different printers. I am close to getting this up and running, but not quite there yet. There are a lot of hurdles. First, you need to know what kind of medium you want to print on; there are dozens of papers, mounting and framing options. It can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. Without the blow by blow, I will say that at this point, I have my preferred paper in place, and have settled on a printing company, and the last hurdle is pricing. More on that later.

I am not going to name names here, but here is my experience with the printers so far…

The first one gave me some great advice, and a good deal of time on a Saturday, and I walked away with a lot to think about. He also showed me a canvas wrap of one of my images in his studio. It was exciting to see it presented on something other than a monitor, and I was elated, but there was a concern about the hi gloss sheen on it. I asked about it: he told me he had not finished some sort of post treatment on it and it should be fine going forward. The best piece of advice he gave me was to take control of the print sales, and stop using sites like FineArtAmerica.com and RedBubble.com, etc. The biggest problem with these services is you have no idea what people are getting on the other end. You usually have to upload your files as jpegs, a lossy compression, and you never see the prints unless you buy one yourself. Also, these companies produce things like t-shirts and iphone cases with your artwork, so if that works for you, great, but I did not want to be on a mug with my work. The pricing structure is set by the site, and you have no real say in it, and they are priced to move. Again, you have NO IDEA what it looks like on the other end, if the print is of good quality, what medium it’s on, etc. The point is, your name is going out there, and if your print looks terrible because the site is upscaling an image past the quality point to sell them larger, or their calibrations don’t match yours, you run the risk of angering a buyer without even knowing it. You also get a pittance, a small percentage of the sale that is already priced too low for fine art. While this might be good for some photographers, depending on the style they shoot, my fine art conceptual work was not going to work in this bargain-based pricing strategy. So, I pulled all my profiles down off these sites – I had only sold a couple of small prints anyway, so this was not a hardship at the time.

He also gave me some advice and time regarding calibration – this was a huge piece of the puzzle. Often, you get an image to look exactly how you want it on your monitor, and then…too dark, too bright, colors look different, etc. I ended up, on his advice, buying a little piece of hardware that you use to calibrate your monitor, and then it sits on your table and takes periodic readings of ambient light levels so you are always viewing the calibration profile at the same intensity level. It has made the transition from monitor to good printing results almost seamless, but still, there can be variances to your calibration profile and the printer’s profile, so some issues still pop up.

In the end, this printer was a wealth of information, and I thought this would be a good fit, but when I asked for a finished canvas wrap of one of my pieces for myself, to have a sample in my hands to showcase on Facebook and other social media sites, he seemed annoyed that it was not a “real” sale, even though I was paying for it. Perhaps for that reason he took his time, a long time, getting it done, and when two weeks went by, I asked where it was and he had not done it yet, and said it was a freebie, for me. This is a nice gesture, but it seemed at the time it was to save face because of the turnaround time. When I got it, it looked great – all shiny and new and ready to hang. But I repeat, all shiny…I had expressed my concern about the glossy finish before, and this one was like a high gloss lacquer was applied to it. You literally could not view it in a room with a light source in it! I mentioned to him that that colors were spot on, the quality was great, the canvas wrap and hardware was great, but the shine – I really thought that my work, especially on canvas, would look best with a matte finish. He balked at this, again seemed annoyed with me, and said he never heard of someone asking for matte finish before. Huh?? NEVER??? But thanks for making me feel stupid about asking questions. No, this was not going to work. Next…

The next one did a test print for me, and after having a heart to heart discussion with him about my concerns about glossy finishes, I got…a glossy test print. Thanks for listening. Next…

I tried one that a friend uses. She is really happy with the results she gets from them. I chatted on the phone with them. Lovely couple, very much caring about doing good printing of good imagery, and I was really excited to see what the test would produce. It came – wasn’t thrilled with the poster tube method of delivery, and the print, while the detail was great, was way too dark, and he cropped the image. I lost about 20% of my imagery real estate. I sent emails addressing my concerns. All of them went unanswered. Then I started getting emails asking about the results – was I happy with it? It was as if my emails were going unseen into a spam folder and we were both talking into the wind. Sorry, not going to work. Plus, they were in a faraway state, and I have heard and believe that it is best to develop a personal working relationship with your printer so they know you, and know what you need and expect. Communicating via unseen emails and cell phones was not going to work. Next…

Ironically, I ended up going to a printing company nearby that primarily focuses on black and white photography, and given that I rarely use that, it seems a bad fit, but the test prints I got from them were the best yet (still some kinks to work out) but more importantly, their customer service is so great. I got all my questions answered, and they never made me feel stupid for asking them. I met with them, and worked out some concerns. I am, at the time of writing this, waiting for another test print, and once I know that our calibrations are working in harmony, and I can expect a good reproduction from screen to print, I am off and running finally, seven months after starting down this road. I expect, by next week, to have prints ready to sell, with exceptionally good quality, on archival, heavy, lightly textured fine-art paper and inks that will last 100 years or more. I will have size options worked out, and price points per size.

And here is where it gets sticky…

Pricing. It is really hard to learn about this, and few people in the industry offer their lessons-learned for free. I am, while a photographer, really more of an artist. I am doing pieces that take a long time to conceive and complete. I am not snapping scenery and running it through a few presets in Lightroom and producing hundreds of shots per week. I produce about 1 to 2 pieces a week, and that is a lot of work, actually. So, I need to price my prints as fine art prints would be priced, and that gets into an area of the great unknown, in terms of advice. I have one artist/photographer to thank for offering her pricing structure to the public, and that is Brooke Shaden, who, on an online workshop, dispelled the specifics of her sizing and pricing structure. I decided to use this as a guideline, and while I have made some variations of pricing and sizing, the lesson to be learned here was to not undersell your work. You are not just paying for the cost of the print and shipping, you are paying yourself for your effort, your experience and expertise, your gear, your expenses that went into it. All of that, plus, you are selling your work as art, not bargain prints like a poster shop in a mall. These prints are expensive to produce. They are done with high quality media, and that raises the price too. Of course, a little voice in your head balks at the prices you are going to charge, the fear of being perceived as egotistical or pretentious, of self-doubt, but you need to override those things and determine what the value of this work is.

In a week or so, I will start to advertise my prints as available for sale. Like many, I have decided to make most sizes limited editions, and since they are going to be limited, I need to make sure each sale fetches a good and adequate price. Adding to this structure, I decided to make one size available as unlimited (the smallest size), and offer it in a few ways: print only, print framed and matted, print on aluminum dibold with a hanger so it “floats” on the wall, ready to hang out of the box. We will see what this structure does and where it goes. I reserve the right to adjust it, but I do not want to undersell or undervalue what I do, which is expensive, absorbing, and extremely time consuming. It is also art – whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it is my personal art, my expression, and I see no point in devaluing it onto mugs or phone cases! I also plan on looking into self-publishing a photo book, with 50 prints in one book – and see if that becomes something more viable in terms of buying something from my collection, if not a print. We’ll see. The book seems like it is headed towards $100 or more for me to produce one copy, so the price tag could therefore become large on that was well!

Regardless of the outcome, I now have the goal achieved. Come what may, I have printing underway, I have prices in mind, and sizes worked out. So if those galleries start nibbling, I will be ready!

July 18, 2013

Michael Bilotta