Selling your photography in a gallery….. What’s the whole deal?

Richard Charpentier Notes from Rich, Photography, Prints, RLC Design 5 Comments

I’m starting to address topics on the blog that I get asked about regularly. What’s behind the whole giclee’ reproduction process, what does it take to get large prints done, and today I decided to talk about selling your own images in a gallery setting.

Even if you’re not a photographer or artist looking to sell your works, I think the average reader might find this interesting too. I mean, you’ve been in galleries, you’ve seen art that you might consider expensive. So what gives?

Showing your work isn’t going to be a cheap prospect

This wall of photos, and the loose prints in the basket, represent several thousand dollars I've invested into my prints.

So, some gallery owner somewhere likes your stuff?  Or friends and family have suggested you should show your images and maybe even resell them?  Great compliments!  It’s always nice to have your efforts recognized, and even better when it’s on a professional level.  Now with ego boost in hand, get out there and sell!

Oh wait, it’s not that simple.

See, first off, if you’re going to start showing your photography in a gallery, any gallery, you’re going to need something.  Inventory.  You know, prints.  Canvases, photo glossy prints framed up nice and pretty, photo floats, unframed loose prints, the works!  So, right off the bat you’re going to be investing some cash into the generation of works for you to resell.  And that’s not a cheap prospect.

For example, a new friend of mine will be doing a show soon.  Their work is great, and has gotten recognized.  So they came to me to do 20 pieces for an upcoming show.  And these aren’t 20 small pieces, they’re fairly big.  16×24’s, 20×30’s, 24×36’s, and several 32×48’s.  Canvas and photo rag.  Initially this client thought he’d do all canvas, but when I totaled up the approximate bill we rethought an “all canvas show.”  It gets expensive gang.  Several thousand dollars up front to get him ready for his show!

As you can imagine, creating your inventory requires some level of confidence in your works.  Imagine sinking a few thousand into the process and selling nothing…….whew, that would be discouraging!  And you know what?  It happens.

The Costs aren’t over yet

Once you’ve got your works ready to display you’re still not done with costs.  There’s more to it then having the prints and hanging them.

Most galleries charge a commission on each sale of your work.  We do it here.  We have to.  See, the gallery owners are giving you wall space to display your wares.  And they’re not doing it to be charitable folks looking to make you happy.  They hang your work at the expense of the wall space they pay for, and in return they take a percentage of the sale to cover things like rent!

Rent can be expensive, believe me.  I’m speaking as a gallery owner.  🙂

Normally, galleries will do something on the order of a 40-60 split, or a 50 – 50 split.  What’s that mean?  Well, in the case of 40-60 (I think you can figure out 50 – 50) the gallery retains 40% of your sale price.  That means if you’re selling a piece for $1000.00, you will in fact get paid $600.00 and the gallery will keep $400.00.  Hey, that’s your rent for taking up valuable wall space that some other artist could be displaying on.

I’ve heard from several artists about galleries that actually charge 60% commission.  Woah!  So the artist keeps only 40%.  In the case of our gallery, we only charge 25%.  I believe we’ve got the lowest rates in town!  🙂

Alright, you’re ready to go… what

Well, you’ve decided to push forward and display your works at a high end gallery that you know will move your images.  They’re that good and you have no doubts that when the viewing public sees the images they’re going to be pushing each other down to reach the register with your prints.  Wow, you’re good!  But there’s a question you haven’t addressed yet.

What are you going to charge for your pieces?  You’ve got to price this stuff in order to sell it, right.

Several things will need to be taken into consideration.  The print cost, the gallery commission, your time, return on your capital (all the camera equipment you own), etc.  And you need to arrive at a number that won’t cause sticker shock to your potential customers.

Let’s make an example, shall we?  Let’s say you come to me for your printing (which would be a wise idea, great prints come out of my shop).  You’ve decided to do a 24×36″ canvas gallery wrap of one of your images.  That’s going to cost you $192.68 plus tax if you live in the great state of Arizona.  If you’re out of state, no sales tax.

So, how much do you mark the piece up?  You paid basically $200 for it.

Well, now you need to consider the commission the gallery is charging you.  In this case, let’s go with the standard rate of 40%.

A 24×36″ is a sizable canvas wrap to be sure.  Maybe charging $500 for it sounds good to you.  After the gallery’s cut, you’ll be seeing $300 back to you.  Subtract your print cost of $200 and you find yourself making $100 on your fine art print.

Were you hoping for more?  On a $500 sale your printer pulls in $200, the gallery pulls in $200, and you pull in $100.  Maybe you should price higher?

For the photographer looking to resell fine art prints there are other factors that haven’t been added to your pricing yet.  What are they?

  • Equipment expense:  If you’re actually looking to do this professionally you’ve probably sunk a ton of cash into your gear.  Lenses, camera bodies, flash units, light stands, light modifiers, computer equipment, software, etc, etc, etc.  You’re going to need to pay yourself back for that equipment, right?
  • Time on location:  How much time did you spend getting “the shot?”  I know photographers who spend days to weeks getting a single shot.  An elusive animal for instance, or the perfect desert bloom, or the once in a lifetime capture that’s taken years to get.  You’re going to need to compensate yourself for all that time.
  • Travel Expenses:  That photo from White Sands, NM cost you some travel expenses too.  I mean, you live in MT, and you drove all the way to NM to get that shot.  Gotta cover that bill too, right?
  • Training and skills compensation:  How much time have you invested in learning your art form?  Years?  Decades?  That’s called human capital, and you’ve invested in yourself.  You’re going to need to reimburse yourself over time for your skill set.

There’s more to it, but the short list above covers some of the major points.  A lot goes into creating your images beyond just snapping the shot.  Over time you need to be reimbursed for all those extras that you might not have considered.

Finally, a last consideration:  Selling “fine art photography” isn’t always easy

You know the number one thing I hear out of folks walking through the gallery here in Prescott regrading my photography?  It’s almost a daily occurrence.  It normally is heard in a discussion between two or more people looking at the images I sell…..

“Yes, it’s really pretty but I’m sure I could take that photo.  I’ve done some really good shots of fill in the blank here with Grand Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, etc, etc.  Next time we go out I’ll get a shot like that or better.”

Everybody’s got a camera today.  Cool little digitals that fit in your pocket, mid-range cameras that can shoot RAW, DSLRs hanging from their necks.  Yup, everybody has a camera.  So, often times, everybody things that could reproduce what you did, or create something even better.

Because photography is so common to all of us, there are times that we all fancy ourselves a budding professional photographer.  Look at me for example.  I’m so deluded that I went and opened a print shop / gallery with a painter, I take people out on workshops, and I blog about this business.  All because I’ve got a camera too.  🙂

Don’t be discouraged, just know what you’re getting into

I write all of this today not to discourage.  Instead, I’m hoping to educate you about the whole process behind reselling fine art photography.  It’s not a simple, “Take the shot and make a million.”  If it was that simple I’d have a million and wouldn’t be here blogging at the gallery, I’d be up in the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Staircase taking more photos today.  And I’d have a totally decked out Jeep with an off road camping trailer behind me!  Oh wait, I’m going off track.

It might be the case that you are an amazing photographer who should be showing their work, selling it to magazines, and making a million.  And I wish you luck with your ventures.  But just be forewarned before jumping totally in.  Fine Art resale is expensive to start into, you’re up against a viewing public who take their own pictures, and lots of costs you might not have considered initially.

If you still think you can do it, I say go for it!  And if you’re looking for a great reproduction printer, look no further!

Comments 5

  1. This post, Rich, just reinforced the expression “starving artist” ! You can only charge what the market will bear for your product, and usually it doesn’t even come close to what you have invested in it. Thanks for putting these costs out into the blinding light of reality.

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    Glad you found it informative David.

    Often I get people through who really pump me for information about costs associated with running the print business and gallery. I’ve had several that clearly were thinking about competing with me locally. So, I go “ultra honest,” and tell them exactly what it cost me to start up.

    When it costs over $1000 to fully refill the printer, and the printer’s actual cost, several thousand bucks per paper / canvas order, computer equipment, etc, I see the wheels stop turning in their minds. It’s expensive all the way around and not for the faint of heart! 🙂

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