by Gavin Seim: Updated 04/2012:
Have you ever admired classical art hanging in a museum? Maybe Sargent, Bierstadt, Rembrandt? It’s from the painters that we inherited this profession and every photographer should take time to look closer at what they did. You owe it to yourself and your clients to start placing appropriate sized pieces on walls. Photographers have missed much of the furniture quality appeal of their craft. Part of the problem is that they think of themselves as photographers. As camera operators.
We are in a saturated industry that’s in a rut of low grade commodities. But it’s time to change that. Hemingway was not a typist, he was an author. Those that have the skill to make quality wall portraits are not camera operators. They are artisans. Anyone can take pictures, but being a master of photographics is no easier than being a master painter. The mindset we have effects the product we produce. I Am Not a Photographer (see article).
Now it’s not only the fault of digital or too many people with cameras. We’ve trained ourselves and our clients to think small. It’s something that goes back to the early days of the wet plates and small contact prints that we’ve never quite escaped. People walk through our doors thinking in 8×10′s, 5×7′s and wallets. And we encourage them. It’s helping make photography a cheap commodity and it’s time to start changing all that.
Why should an 11×14 hang on the wall? It probably shouldn’t. Chances are the wall is much larger than that. But we’ve fallen into a rut of thinking small is all people want and need. Some tell me that “people won’t want these in my area”. But I’ll be blunt.. If people aren’t buying wall art, it’s because you don’t know how to make and or sell said wall portraits. I live in small town America and have discovered for myself that people love personalized wall art. You simply need to show them the quality and value of a beautiful appropriately sized piece. But first you have to understand the value yourself. Lets look.
When you walk into a furniture store are they afraid to show you the larger dining set that fits your room? Do they act like it’s a stupid to buy the Italian leather instead of the cheap import? No. The only reason clients are asking for 8×10′s is because we’ve trained them to. Try showing them a thirty inch framed canvas of their beautiful family and see how they respond. If we do it well, we’re moving towards fine furnishings.
It’s been about 5 years since I first attended Wall Portrait Conference to really learn about all this. I know it can work, because nearly every client I have purchases at least a 24 inch heirloom quality print for their wall (I charge around $600 for those). That’s my smallest wall portrait size. I’ve sold up to 70 inch pieces using these same principles. Not because I’m a hard sell, but because I’m making and showing quality pieces that myself and my clients can really be proud to show.
But rather than simply making my own case, allow history to help. Below are some classical works, listed with their original sizes. We think of these as classics now, but when made, they were often commissions meant to hang on someones wall just like our photographs. Take a few moments to really look at them, then I’ll be back. And if you want to and get inspired in print form, check out some books like Sargent’s Portraits Of The 1890′s, Frederick Church, or J.W. Waterhouse. Or for the lover of pictorials like myself, here’s a stunning book on the Hudson River School era of painting.
Are you getting the picture? (pun intended). The smallest original size here was Morning Walk and it was twenty six inches. That’s not that large, yet it’s probably larger than many reading this have ever hung. It’s a portrait that’s suited to a fairly small wall. Probably like that open space in your kitchen.
Bear in mind that I did not have to search the globe for these examples. It used to be normal to hang images that fit the wall on which they hung. Now we hang 8×10′s and call them wall art. We send three by fives to Grandma and make two by three’s for our wallets. It’s not that we should “never” use these small images, they have their place. But it’s a balance that’s been thrown off. We have forgotten the beauty of fine well made wall portraiture.
Brushed paintings are still made large. What happened to the photographic field. Perhaps it was that in the early days of photography it was much harder to make a large print and the quality was far less. I don’t know for sure, but I do know there’s no excuse for image makers today. For goodness sake we can make and mount a fifty inch print for less than many spend on coffee in a month. Yes it takes a high quality image, but quality is a must if we want to make it in this business.
As portraitists, pictorialists and artisans we should be hanging wall pieces. It’s not just word verbiage. It’s raising the bar and knowing your craft. We wonder why business is being taken by amateurs and box stores. Have we considered that perhaps it’s because we’re not that much different? One thing is certain. If you start hanging heirloom quality wall sized portraits in your clients homes, nobody will be comparing you to WalMart. Being high quality doesn’t become true because your bio says so. You actually have to produce something of quality.
Making wall portrait sales happen:
So you’re probably thinking “this is all easier said than done”. True, but any professional artisan knows that being a professional is not about simply taking photos, it’s about selling quality. Selling yourself is always the hard part, whether you’re a portraitist or a plumber. It’s a learning experience, but here’s a few key elements I’m finding to selling wall portraits.
- Quality: Good images and service give an experience worth paying for.
- Mindset: If you don’t believe in and have the confidence to sell quality products, you won’t make or sell them.
- Consultations: People are easily shown that wall portraits are of value, but communication is key.
- Presentation: Good samples and a projector are essential. I use a Canon along with my Projectics LR tools so I can scale images to size on the wall.
I can’t give you a hundred word summary that will instantly make you sell fifty inch prints. It’s a mindset. Consultations, showing your client real examples, projecting proofs in studio or clients home so they can see how stunning an appropriately sized piece really is. All these things are critical. But that’s not to say it’s easy. It’s a big change in how we’re used to working.
Also making a big print means very little if you don’t really make Wall Portraits. The two are not really the same. Often the first thing I see people when this comes up whip out a big print. I did the same. But after a few years more of study I realized a big print was just one part of the equation. From concept to presentation, I make custom wall furniture. It’s far more valuable than a picture.
If you expect to only sell eight by ten prints that’s probably all you’ll sell. If you learn to sell furniture for walls, educate your clients on that process from the start, give great service and produce great results. Then you will sell wall portraits. Some people will not hire you because they only want a cheap photographer. That’s OK. It’s pointless to work for nothing just to get a paying job. Do we want to be competing with WalMart or making wall furnishings? We have to get out of the cheap mindset and Raise the Bar, because the market is already saturated with cheap and easy.
The bottom line is that wall quality portraits are not just for wealthy clients. They’re for middle America (or wherever you live). People buy cars, they buy vacations, they buy furniture and they WILL buy wall portraits. Yes you have to understand and show quality before you can sell it and then you have to learn how to sell it. But no matter what market you live in, there are people who want them. Once you begin selling wall portraits to your clients, their friends will begin to understand that it’s being done by others and is OK to do so. That may take time, but once it happens it spreads. And there’s little as gratifying as placing a piece on a wall that’s a real heirloom.
Personally, once I started I didn’t want to sell anything else. And because I have so many other photo related projects (like this site), I’ve started focusing my photographics exclusively on Wall Portraits of people and pictorials. I keep forging forward with them. Sure photography is a tough market these days. And while I am still working to grow my client base, these are selling with nearly every client I get and my average portrait sale has quadrupled. It feels great to be placing heirloom quality art on walls.
So there’s nothing under twenty four inches in my studio and there’s no loose prints hanging on the wall. I don’t want to sell a “picture” I want to sell a piece of furniture. That’s one reason most pieces I sell are classically canvased (a photo print bonded to a piece of real canvas). I know there’s inkjet canvas, but once you use a classically made canvas you’ll probably be hooked. Traditional canvas is much more hearty and substantial and has a timeless heirloom feel.
It’s not that we can’t make appropriate sized wall portraits on loose paper or another medium. I do mounted prints as well. But canvas often seems to shine above the rest. Many also don’t realize that Canvased photo’s were around decades before the modern trend of inkjet gallery wraps. Canvas also hearkens back to classical art that has stood the test of time. There are other choices like mounted prints, real metal prints and more, but in truth my clients choose quality canvas more often than not.
When compared, canvased photos and even well mounted prints, make loose paper prints look like cheap posters. Durability, texture and no need for glass make canvas like candy for the visual senses. People love it. Traditional canvas is a great way to set your quality apart from the ordinary prints people are used to. You can get it made from labs like H&H Color Lab and others. Ask them if they make bonded canvas prints. But do your homework because not all are crafted with equal quality.
If you want top notch you can do like I do. After I make prints on my Canon 8300, I send prints to a photo canvasing shop like Canvas Mount. A company who’s work is in a class of it’s own. If you prefer to stick with Inkjet canvas, try a place like Pixel2Canvas, or check with your favorite pro lab. Most of them offer inkjet canvas. But I would caution on this. Inkjet canvas has become a commodity you can buy at WalMart and Costco. It does not have the heirloom feel of traditional canvas in my opinion and it’s easy availability and low cost seem to have reduced it’s perceived value.
Finally… I did not come up with these ideas on my own and I don’t have nearly all of the answers. Much of the credit for these often overlooked concepts goes to renown portraitist Ken Whitmire and the teachers at the Wall Portrait Conference that happens every Spring. It’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent. If you want to take your work to the next level and sell wall prints, then just go. They didn’t ask me to say that, it’s just that good. I’ve even had the honor of attending in the past few years as a teacher. I hope to see you there.. Gavin
Wall Portrait Closing Resources…
- Wall Portrait Forum Thread.
- As of Today – I Am No Longer a Photographer
- Camera Dojo #62, Wall Portrait Basics
- PPS Podcast #60, Time index 01:34:00
- The Projector I use is this Canon LV7330.
- Wall Portrait Conference Annual Workshop.
- Signing and branding your prints.
- More of Gavin’s work on his website.
Gavin Seim is Portraitist, Pictorialist and Author from Central Washington, where he owns a studio gallery that focuses on signature wall art. When not in the studio, Gavin frequently takes his family on the open road, working, exploring, searching for beauty and teaching photography workshops.