Fine Art Photography – What You Should Know

by Dave

Do you find everything Insta worthy? Explore the changing landscape of fine art photography from the gallery and auction perspective. Also, learn three tips to improve your photography. Finally, consider digital venues for fine art photography.

In commercial art, you decide what you need to get paid to do a job. A pitch is made to the client, and hopefully get hired.  In fine art, the picture is flipped. The artist makes the work first, and then decides what to do with it. Fine art photography is no exception to the latter, making it a tough industry.

The fine art world is very difficult, much like it’s commercial counterpart.  It is the most bizarre industry on the planet because your success can be determined by who you know. Plus a little luck never hurts either. Pieces that are questionable in taste are often the strange obsession of wealthy fine art connoisseurs.  Concepts are also crucial.  A poorly shot photograph with a solid theme or message may do well. Especially in comparison to an awe inspiring photograph with nothing behind it.

A Changing Landscape

A lot has been said on social media and news about the doom and gloom of fine art photography. It’s important to not put a lot of stock into predictions of the visual arts industry. Getting upset over the market, essentially something you can’t control, is useless.  This applies to Marissa Meyer’s quip about there being “no such thing as a professional photographer anymore.” Similarly, the same goes for Yahoo’s photography site, Flickr, or the Chicago Sun Times laying off their entire photography department. There will always be a need for photography.

There’s nothing that can be done about the hiring practices of the industry as a whole. That being said, there is something to be explored regarding the positive aspects of fine art photography.  It is much better to look at this discipline from an objective lens (no pun intended).  

Take, for instance, a seemingly unrelated example of the capture of Osama bin Laden.  At the time, the Obama administration was mulling the release of photographs confirming the capture to the entire world.  In the end, the administration decided against the publication, leaving media organizations clambering for a leaked image.  Some outlets offered millions of dollars for any form of visual confirmation.

What this  example shows you is that even on a non-artistic level, images still have a timeless value in our society.  It can hit on you emotionally or politically and change the way you think.  No matter your views, there’s always value in an image. The world will always need someone willing to record record history through a lens, for the benefit of future generations and to help the world understand their perspective.

A Brief History of Fine Art Photography

From the earliest Western use of the camera obscura in the 17th century to the digital landscape of fine art photography, the lens has evolved from an instrument to record visual memories to a medium of creative expression.

While photojournalism may be a distant cousin of fine art photography, it’s easy to see the overlap. The former became a tool of expression when it was first used to record the carnage of 19th century battlefields. Even if a picture isn’t intended to send a message, it inevitably will.

Earlier in the 20th century, photography was employed as a marketing tool, with advertisers seeking to capitalize on still life photographs of popular products. No sooner had still life photography become a marketing tool than it permeated into human modeling.

20th Century Transitions and the Digital Age

In the mid-20th century, attractive models were added to product photographs to enhance their appeal. Eventually, modeling and still life photography began seeping into the art world, where models posed in various ways and environments to fulfill the artistic drive of the creator.

Towards the end of the 20th century, technological advancements made photography an endless sandbox of potential. As the years slowly slipped into the digital age, cameras became more sophisticated, able to capture images with the precision and resolution of a computer. This, in turn, ushered in an era of software capable of altering, editing and perfecting photographs beyond anything film was capable of producing.

Today, fine art photography has no limits. From black and white landscapes to still art to abstract images, fine art photography is truly in the eye of the beholder. Social media and other internet platforms have made the photography more widespread, albeit a bit more superfluous. Most importantly, now everyone has the opportunity to participate in the fine arts as advancements have made obtaining cameras cheaper and easier. And while some may not be able to afford the gallery space for their own photo studio or the subscription cost for expensive photoshop software, they have access to webpages that host free services to hone in on your skills as an amateur photographer.

Many big names in the fine art photography business rely on two mediums to reach their audience: the internet and a physical space.  Both serve as gallery space for their work. Attendees of a gallery often already enjoy fine art. Likewise, these attendees believe in what a gallery stands for.  For this reason, gallery space is an essential tool in the photographer’s playbook if they want to remain competitive in the field.

Galleries are defined by themes or exhibitions, in which a particular style of photography is on display.  Again, this is an important way to gauge your target audience.  By touring the gallery, you can get an idea of what style sells and, by proxy, what sort of clientele you will be catering to.  Galleries also differ in their willingness to take on new artists and the items they are selling. 

With this in mind, it’s best to start off with galleries that are willing to talk to you, those that can give you 30 minutes of their time to look at your portfolio.  Fine art photography is in the eyes of the lens holder. Gallery directors also interpret photography differently.

The State of the Fine Arts: Auctions

This is another great way to see who is up and coming in photography.  Auctions are usually fund raisers of some kind.  There are art auctions that include photography and auctions that are photography-specific.  Ethically, there is some back and forth with respect to the role of auctions in photography.  On one end, clients that frequent auctions tend to underbid galleries, meaning artists have less control over the value of their work.  On the other end, auctions are a great way for artists to gain exposure and appraise their craft.

Who and What You Know

The overlap between finance and art is an unfortunate one.  Many photographers that are successful don’t always pursue topics of self-interest because they need to support themselves.  Those that are more fortunate, can pursue their hobby and career simultaneously.  With that being said, having the resources to follow your dreams is always helpful.  That’s why it’s important to have a sponsor or point of reference for your career.

The Center for Creative Photography (CCP) is a part of the University of Arizona.  It serves as an depository and dispensary for everything related to fine art photography.  The center contains a coveted collection, a study & research department that develops curricular programs, and provides advice for fledging photographers interested in joining the field.  Something that is set up like the CCP is an authoritative resource for the industry.  It’s important to engage with these organizations, to understand how a curator thinks or what is it about fine art photography that’s attractive.

Three Tips to Improve Your Fine Art Photography

Narrow Your Focus

Many people say that they want to be better photographers, but few realize how broad a statement that may be.  A lot of things that are obvious about photography tend to be the most difficult to apprehend.

Determine what skill you want to hone in on.  Your photography, unlike physical skills, doesn’t necessarily get better with repetition.  Rather than getting out and shooting at random, it’s best to sit down and focus on your goal.  Who are your role models and what sort of styles are enticing to you?

Ones you’ve narrowed down a style, consider a topic.  For instance, if you want to do still life photography, think about focusing on items like flowers or food.  If you’re a fan of black and white photography, pick a topic that is better enhanced by that particular format.

Shoot Less, Think More

In fine art photography, this comes down to a case of quality over quantity.  Some wedding photographers tend to fire off during the ceremony, producing thousands of captures and leaving the newlyweds to sift through the collection.  This is as insufferable as it is impractical. 

The process of taking photographs can be distracting. In fact, photographers can miss things during shoots. This occurs while they keep an eye on the shot. You want to look for opportunities where you can get good shots. Plus, you need to predict where the dynamic environment you are observing will move next. Photography includes this with moving and still objects. Certain landscapes or environmental photos require the right “moment” to be a masterpiece.

The technical work can often get in the way of the final product. Because of this, it’s crucial that photographers take time to think things through. Rather than taking 100 photos, take 10. When meaningful and purposeful, the 10 photos produce higher final products. The important thing to remember with photography is the process. It’s not just about what you get in the end. When focused solely on the final product, you find yourself distracted from what matters most. Things like an angle or lighting are important, make no mistake. The process of shooting more photos from various angles or lightings lacks utility. Instead, find the perfect sight you want, and shoot from there.


If you look at some of the great Jazz musicians throughout American history, their abilities to improvise over the cord changes of the song is part of what granted them critical acclaim.  Sometimes, improvisation can be little things. Artists take a melody and put a small spin on it without straying too far from the original work.  And then there’s the solo that might come in the middle of the song, which completely alters the nature of the melody itself.

Improvisation really is developing a new relationship to the content matter. while also understanding what notes, in the case of Jazz music, are appropriate to play.  It is acting in the moment based on your experience that has led up to the point where you take your photograph.  This example is relatable to photography because in photography, like music, there are a lot of stylistic changes that can lead to innumerable artistic directions.  

Surprisingly, improvisation is something that requires experience with the subject matter.  Once you become comfortable with your subject, you will be able to know the appropriate moments, angles and styles with which to maneuver. The most meaningful photos are the ones that seem sporadic. In fact, most high priced photography looks less like a still image and more like living art. It’s important to find the key to a great moment in terms of placement and lighting. From there, it can be incredibly beneficial to just improvise the shots.

Understanding Fine Art Photography

Pushing the button is not enough to ensure that you’ve got a good photograph.  Understanding exposure, situation, light, subjects, landscapes, etc are also important parts of the equation.  Focus on one of these topics and learn them.  When you feel comfortable enough to move on to the next topic, do so.  Keep notes and write down what you’re doing so you don’t forget.  These are the things that are going to make you a better photographer, not what sort of camera you own or your aperture setting.  

It’s important in fine art photography to keep in mind what matters most. As mentioned above, gallery directors have their opinions. You too have your eyes, full of perspective and creativity. Considering the industry, no photographer worth their weight in influence thinks about being a fine art photographer. Instead, the work speaks for itself. How does one’s work become considered fine art? It’s all about the artist staying true to their style.

It’s important to embody what you think matters most in a photo. Rather than aiming for top galleries, great photographers aim to find themselves.

Dealing with the Apathy: Nobody Cares

It’s true what some people say.  The world doesn’t need more photographers: they have plenty.  This is especially true with the advent of photo sharing sites like Instagram and Flickr — the industry just seems oversaturated.

This isn’t necessarily a bitter truth but rather a bitter default.  Though the world does need work that matters.  It’s not a popularity, it’s creating something that has meaning.  You need to be of your time and you need to make work that matters.  This is to say, understanding what came before you in history and where you fit within a generation of contemporary photographers is as important as being an individual.  This is a fancier way of saying that following trends can help you be more relevant.

Photography in the next five or ten years is going to look very different because society possess possibilities it has never had before in terms of technology.  Social media for photography, for instance, is just starting to mature and will undoubtedly look crude when we look back on it in over the next decade.

Steve Jobs famously said “some people say, “give the customer what they want.”  But that’s not my approach.  Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.  As a photographer, it’s not that much different: you have to figure out what work is going to matter, what you’re trying to say as an artist and how you’ll go about doing that.

Digital Transition in Fine Art Photography

As we look ahead, keep in mind the influence digital spaces have on the arts. If you can see a photograph on your phone, are you less likely to go to a gallery? Maybe, if you are not a gallery attendee already. That being said, consider photographs you would view from a computer that you never would see otherwise. The exposure to fine art photography might be the thing that drives the industry further.

Is it wrong to send fine arts of all kinds to digital spaces? Seeing a piece of work in person is unlike any other form of viewing. If everyone attends photo gallery openings, then digital spaces have little utility. However, galleries are not as popular as they once were. There are a lot of people who live their life never stopping in a photo gallery. Because of this, it’s important to embrace digital spaces as a means to reach more people.

Like seeing opera live and in person, a lot of people don’t know they like something until they try it. Digital spaces let audiences of all sorts experience fine art photography. They might find they really enjoy it. In the future, this will play a large role in the shaping of the industry.