How to buy fine art photography, Part 1

How To Buy Fine Art Photography

By Jonathan Bourla (


Part 1

I want to look at fine art photography from the other side, the side of someone looking at purchasing a fine art photograph. I will cover matters of technique, limited edition numbers, pricing (and whether a photograph can be found for a lower price in one retail outlet than another), purchase guarantees, print longevity, and other issues.

Years ago when I attended a workshop in Ann Arbor, America run by the excellent photographer Howard Bond, I and the other participants were treated to viewing of works by a number of diverse Master photographers. They were quite different but they all had some technical characteristics in common. The first is they had excellent shadow detail, and the second they had an attractive tonal scale, otherwise known as Tonality. When these two attributes are lacking, it is often down to poor technique. Lets have a look at them in turn:




Above is a small jpeg of my photograph “Under Cornwallis Wharf”. You can see detail everywhere, including in the dark roof of the structure.

Below this is a cropped view of the underside of the structure. The picture beneath this is a simulation of what this shot with poor shadow detail would look like. In general, unless the photographer is aiming for a complete silhouette of the subject against a completely black background, it is desirable to be able to see detail in the dark areas of the photograph. However, in general we have become accustomed to black and white photographs with poorly rendered shadow areas, as one must be technically proficient to do this well, and sadly this often isn’t the case.

The second issue is of a photograph’s tonality. Or in computer terms, the greyscale. Poor quality black and white photographs are often just that: black, and white. With little in the way of a scale of grey tones. This often goes hand in hand with the shadow detail issue I raised a moment ago, and is also related to technique.

So these are two things to look out for when buying a fine art photograph. Can you see detail in the shadow areas where you think there should be some? And is there a nice range of tones in the photograph, not just a semi-featureless dark area and a washed-out light area?

I hope this has been of some help. Next time I will look at limited editions. Bye for now.

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