Digital Printing

What’s it Worth?

One recurring theme I hear from people interested in contemporary photography is that it’s hard to know what a specific print is worth.

This confusion is not new to the digital age or to photography. Photographers (and other artists) have long been able to make multiple reproductions of their work and whether it’s in the darkroom or with a computer printer, this can confuse anyone involved in buying or selling in the visual arts.

Throughout the modern age, the idea has persisted that one-of-a-kind original works command higher prices than reproductions. To me, that makes sense. And in many ways, a true darkroom print is one-of-a-kind. But what about a reproduction (an inkjet or digital lab print made from a photograph) selling for $10,000… or $100,000? Does it make sense?

Often the price of reproductions is increased through the use of Limited Editions… essentially a promise from the artist that only a specific number of prints will be made. The perception of rarity increases the value of each print in the edition.

In reality most artists are no longer printing complete editions all at one time. Long runs of lithography and serigraphy prints are less common in the fine arts now due to the high, up-front production costs. Today’s finest prints are made one at a time using digital printers and there is no inherent guarantee of value in a limited edition digital print. In fact, each digital print made from a particular image will likely be better than the previous one. In this case higher-numbered prints in the edition will be of higher quality and should therefore have higher value than lower-numbered prints. Kind of breaks the limited edition logic, doesn’t it?

For my own part, after much hemming and hawing, I now number and date my prints but don’t limit the edition. That way, people know when it was made and how many prints came before. There’s no reason to limit how many prints are made this way.

So what other factors affect value? The market value of – and price that is paid for – a digital photographic print can be divided easily into these parts:

1. Reputation of the artist and popularity of the work
2. Rarity of the print, and for some people, number in the edition
3. Method used to make the print (inkjet, light-jet, traditional darkroom, etc.)
4. Materials used to make the print (papers, inks, protective coatings, etc.)

Note that the “value” of a print doesn’t at all mean the “price” of a print; artists and dealers can charge whatever they want for a work and it won’t necessarily sell at that price.

Prices for photographic prints vary widely. Photographers and artists trying to sell their work have a hard time coming up with prices they feel comfortable with, always wondering if it’s too high or too low. We know the amount of time we put into creating the work and what the materials cost to produce it…. but what’s it worth, really?

Only as much is someone is willing to spend. In this way, buyer perception determines the value and price of a work. And if a buyer’s perceived value is in line with the price, everybody’s happy. People who want mainly to decorate their walls usually care a lot about affordability. For these collectors, knowing the artist or having a personal connection to the work strongly affects how much they will pay for it. For serious art collectors and dealers looking for investments, the most important consideration is longer-term investment potential. They might not personally like the work but still buy it for its perceived value.

Fortunately, with greater acceptance and much-improved technology, fine digital prints are now garnering higher prices in the market. I know of several photographers who sell giclee prints in editions of 50 to 150 for several thousand dollars and higher. A few of these people sell hundreds of prints per month at these prices. And digital prints of the work of a few photographers actually can sell for the same prices as fine art in any other medium: In early 2007 Andreas Gursky set the record for the highest price paid for a photograph by a living photographer for a print of his heavily computer-manipulated 99 Cent II Diptychon. Measuring 22 feet wide, it sold for USD 3.3 million. (And the print was not even produced with archival materials… the image will likely begin to fade in just 60 years.)

The good news: the value of today’s finest inkjet prints is now in line with the quality of the materials and processes used to produce them. The best prints are made with high quality pigmented ink on high-quality, specialty inkjet papers. Printers such as our Epson 9800 and the new printers from Canon produce prints that exhibit vibrant, accurate color that can last hundreds of years without fading or otherwise deteriorating. This creates potential for long-term value. (Lower grade digital prints, especially inkjet, might not last a decade; the best lab prints on chromogenic paper, such as Gursky’s, might last only 60-80 years if they are not carefully protected.)

So whether you are buying or selling fine digital prints, it pays to do your homework. If you know the type of print (inkjet, dye, lab print, etc.), who made it using what equipment and materials, you have more ability to compare individual prints and their long-term viability. (Wouldn’t it be painful to spend thousands of dollars on a print that didn’t survive a decade?) When buying, find out about the artist and the print. Artists at similar stages in their careers price their work similarly. If you’re buying from a well-known photographer you can expect to pay more. Beyond that, prints of similar sizes made by the same method should cost about the same.

In the end, we know that what really matters is the beautiful image on the paper; good work is good work, after all… but that can be very subjective. For collectors and artists alike, understanding the technical specifications of a print is key to deciding what it’s really worth.

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