When I was in the process of completely revamping my online print galleries to sell my artwork, I faced a multi-faceted dilemma that most artists face once they are ready to begin selling their work: what to price art at and whether to sell limited edition prints. I began to wonder: how does one determine the value of artwork, and does signing and numbering prints increase their value? Like any other photographer would, I looked to see what my peers were doing in the space and saw that the vast majority of them were committed to selling limited edition prints. This seemed to make sense to me at the time - by limiting your editions, you create a sense of scarcity and urgency in the buyer, both of which are things most marketing experts say you should do to improve your chances of selling something. Indeed, every website search I could find on the limited edition art print market suggests that it is an excellent way to increase the value of art while attracting collectors to make more money as an artist. There were just a few things about the concept of limited edition photography prints that didn't quite sit right with me, which ultimately led me to decide that I would not offer them. Let's dive in and see why.
Limited vs Open Edition Prints
First we need to quickly get on the same page as to what limited editions are and how they differ from open edition prints.
Editions and Value
Limited edition prints are typically signed and numbered and are limited to a chosen number of prints, say, 25, 50, 100, or 1,000. Conventional marketing wisdom dictates that what size the edition helps dictate current and future value (more on that later), with smaller editions fetching higher prices per print, increasing as the edition sells out.
Open edition prints on the other hand have no limit to how many a photographer can make and sell and have a lesser perceived value, while allowing the photographer to continue to make as many prints of the image as they want during the life of the print.
Certainly both options have appeal, so why have so many artists chosen to take the path of limited edition prints?
What is the Point of Limited Edition Prints?
Simply put, limited edition prints, as they relate to photography, are an artificial and arbitrary mechanism through which an artist attempts to increase the value of their artworks by artificially decreasing supply. This all makes sense from a supply and demand perspective and for more traditional forms of art such as painting, sculpture, and drawings. These forms of art cannot be easily replicated and so provenance, condition, and the number of reproductions are something people tend to care about because it can realistically impact the value of any given piece of art for sale. From a historical context in photography, limited edition prints also made some sense because prints used to be made using a mechanical method that slowly degraded the quality of the prints over time. This limitation of course has been completely eliminated with the advent of new technologies and so there's no realistic or practical reason why a photographic print should be limited. I contend; however, that limited edition prints as they relate to photography still exist for three reasons:
Gallery operators and high-end fine art auctioneers want to find as many ways as possible to artificially inflate the value of art so that they earn more money.
Photography artists use it as a marketing scheme to convince their buyer that the work is scarce and therefore more valuable.
Art collectors and print buyers, who have psychologically bought-in to the idea that their art will increase in value over time, demand that the work they purchase be limited in edition.
The unfortunate truth is that the art market is a scam, created to maximize the earning potential for a few highly powerful people in the auction space. If that is the case, why do photographers continue to limit print editions? While photographers are certainly more than free to use limited editions in their own marketing campaigns, here are my arguments against making limited edition prints.
What is the Argument Against Limited Edition Prints?
For starters, photography in the modern era is completely reproducible without any noticeable impacts on image quality throughout the time of reproduction. Since the inception of digital photography, there's simply not any practical limit on the size of a print edition. That is to say that it is completely made up by the artist.
There is a long history of successful photographers who did not limit their print editions, including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The reason that their photographs sell well is not due to some arbitrary and artificial limit on print editions. On the contrary, their prints sell because they are no longer alive and because there's no one else quite like them. That is to say that their prints are perceived as valuable because they can't make new work and because they have a unique style - not because they chose to limit the edition. So why create scarcity then? Scarcity reduces consumers' concerns about prices, triggered by deeply-rooted psychological mechanisms that served us well when we were evolving as humans. In a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, co-author Ashok Lalwani, an associate professor of marketing at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business stated that the reason scarcity helps to alleviate price concerns is because it "is aversive and triggers the desire to compensate for the shortage, and to seek abundance. This is why so many people bought far more toilet paper than they could ever possibly use during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is why photographers limit their print editions - they want to tap into that part of your brain that signals that this thing might be gone soon. Even Peter Lik admits that his limited edition prints are all marketing hype.
Ethical Considerations for Artists Choosing to Limit Print Sizes
There are some real ethical considerations photographers must account for if they are to limit their editions. I personally walked away from limited editions because of these concerns, ultimately convinced not to sell limited edition prints by this incredible primer on why limited edition prints are simply a marketing scheme. Perhaps the most logical analogy here can be found in the pharmaceutical industry where manufacturers choose to limit their supply or increase the cost of a drug in order to boost profits. We also see the same behavior from the world's oil cartel, OPEC. When drug companies and OPEC do this, we all seem to all agree it seems unethical, yet we turn a blind eye when it comes to art. My goal is to make it so that my artwork is affordable for all walks of life, not just those with deep pockets. As someone who grew up in poverty, I place a high value on egalitarianism and how I price my photography is no exception. Sure, I might be leaving money on the table, but I feel better knowing I'm not employing some psychological voodoo to convince people to buy my work. Simply put, if you like it, buy it for the right reasons. Now, I can hear you now, "Matt - you sell large prints that cost a lot of money too!" Yes, but I also offer a wide array of options to accommodate budgets of all sizes. I should also note those large acrylics are expensive to produce!
Unintended Consequences of Limited Edition Prints on the Art of Photography
When prints are limited and priced much higher as a result, it makes it impossible for those without extraordinary means to obtain it. Landscape and nature photographers typically desire for their work to showcase the beauty of Mother Nature to the world, but by limiting your editions, you make it so that only the wealthiest of wealthy can see that beauty, which may be counter to your own goals as an artist! Making matters worse, this creates and perpetuates a form of elitism and a system of gatekeepers which limits the market for new photographers. No longer are photographs evaluated based on the quality, impact, or execution of the image and are instead valued based on the name of the signature on the print. As a consequence, galleries are then forced to choose between offering an exhibition space to a new artist with, say, a $500 price and a more established photographer who limits their prints with a $10,000 price. Most galleries will choose the photographer with limited editions for the obvious reasons. As this cycle continues, the more the established photographers dominate galleries, which become stale and exclusionary and the art form ceases to move forward.
Now, I'm not advocating that you give away your work for free; however, I simply think it is worth looking inward while you think about how you price your work, and before you go down the path of committing to limited editions to try to increase prints value.
Limiting Your Potential Sales While Alive
There's another problem relating to limited editions that artists should consider: who actually benefits from artificially inflating the future value of your artwork? It's certainly not you, the artist. Once an edition is sold-out, only the gallery, reseller or collector are able to make money on the sale of your artwork, and the photographer is left unable to make more prints.* For me it does not make sense to limit our income this way while enabling others to profit off of our hard work. Let's also keep in mind that if your artwork isn't sellable, then the number of editions you limit it at makes no difference to begin with; if it is sellable, I hope you have a crystal ball to determine the market potential of your work, because if you limit it incorrectly you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Besides, other than a very small number of very famous photographers, the likelihood that you will sell more than 20 - 100 prints of any given image is pretty small, so who are you trying to fool anyway?
*As an aside and much to my chagrin, NFTs sold using smart contracts solve some of this problem by ensuring that artists receive some residual royalty payments upon the resale of their original work.
Limited Edition Prints: Are They Worth Anything?
What's the Value of a Signature?
Every single day I see new photographers popping up to sell their photographs while advertising that what makes their prints valuable is that they are limited. There are countless examples of this in photography. One classic example of course would be Peter Lik's limited edition pricing scheme, which preys on unsuspecting tourists with loads of cash by trying to convince them the artwork will be worth more as the editions sell. Unfortunately, simply signing and limiting the number of prints made available does not do anything to convey actual value, and buyers are simply falling victim to a marketing technique. In fact, I know of many photographers who simply print the photograph as a different size or on a new medium and restart the counting of the edition - where's the integrity in that? Since there is no such thing as the "limited edition police," buyers are left to hope that the photographer has a strong sense of ethics to guide their limited edition numbering systems (although some States do have laws that govern this behavior). My colleague Guy Tal wrote about these ethical considerations in his excellent article The Ethics of Limited Editions, stating, "I wonder why so many artists who hold themselves ethical in every other respect never question the morality of what is essentially a marketing ploy having little to do with quality, creativity, beauty, or so many other reasons many of us do what we do." He goes on to ask a very relevant question, "If two prints are identical in every respect other than edition limits, what accounts for the difference in value?" Indeed. Let's examine this further.
Understanding Print Value in Photography | The Value in Art
So what then makes prints valuable in photography? How can one evaluate the price and value of photography prints if not the size of the edition, future value, its value at auction, its provenance, or some made-up form of scarcity? What should we use to determine the value of a print?
What are the Value of Prints, and What Makes Prints Valuable?
First and foremost, it should be said that only you as the individual can determine what something is worth to you. This is especially true in something as subjective as art, where there is no face value in art. That being said, I can think of six elements of art value that can help you determine the value of a photography print which should guide your decision on whether to buy it.
Qualities of the Artist
The first and most important variable you should use to determine how you value prints lies in your personal evaluation of the artist. Is the artist unique and interesting to you? Is the work they produce unique? Does their artwork convey an idea or represent something that you value? How much dedication, skill, and craftsmanship is involved in their artistic techniques? Did they simply drive up to a popular overlook and snap the shutter or did they respond artistically to a scene deep in the wilderness which required great effort to reach? While not all of these are things you may personally care about, you should first think about what qualities the artist has that you value. Lastly, I suggest that you might consider evaluating their character. Are they a decent human being that treats others with dignity and respect or do they constantly engage in questionable ethical activities, such as wildlife baiting, lying about their photographs, or selling other people's photos as their own? I think we should hold artists to a high standard in these regards.
Intrinsic Value of Art | Personal Connection with the Artwork
The second most important variable in evaluating the value of a print is to consider its intrinsic value and your personal connection with said artwork. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect to evaluate, but the good news is that only you can do it for yourself. The intrinsic (or inherent) value of artwork is therefore highly subjective. When you view the work, does it evoke an emotional response? Are you connected with how it makes you feel, what it evokes within you, and what questions it asks (or answers) that excite you? These are all the intrinsic values of the print and should be quite important in your evaluation of the work, not the numbered print value.
Quality of Materials
The third most important variable one should use to evaluate the value of a photography print is based on the quality of the materials the artist used in making the final product. This includes the type of papers and mediums they have selected to showcase their photograph. While the materials themselves don't hold extreme value on their own, they can cost a lot of money for the photographer to use because they have qualities that serve several practical functions. These include increasing the longevity of the artwork, such as UV-resistance, scratch-resistance, improving how the print responds to glare or ambient light; and they improve the aesthetics of the print itself. High quality fine art papers have many qualities that improve sharpness, texture, shadow detail, and color fidelity that cheaper papers simply don't have. It's also important to note that most of the artwork you can buy through mass-produced print-on-demand stores like Fine Art America, or from photographers using sites like Zenfolio or SmugMug all use lower quality materials that you may find degrade how you value the print. This is why I personally only print on specific papers and mediums for my own work and self-fulfill 100% of my print orders. I think it is a good idea to want your photographic art to last a long time and to meet your exacting standards.
Technical Execution and Presentation of a Print
In all art forms there is a certain amount of skill that is required to masterfully execute the final product. In painting, it might be the careful use of a specific technique; in music, it may be a singer that is able to masterfully hit both low and high notes. Photography is certainly no exception. Indeed, the dictionary says that art is, "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination." The skill required to ensure masterful technical execution in photography is high, but often overlooked by some art buyers who are unaware of the technical flaws that exist in the artwork they are evaluating. In photography, some flaws you may or may not notice but should take into consideration include the presence of dust spots on the print, uncontrolled chromatic aberration, over-sharpened images, and garish or overly processed images using Photoshop. Additionally, there is a growing trend that discounts the value of field work and being present in the moment, while favoring entering strings of text into AI systems to create "photos" or to add fake skies to improve a less exciting photograph. If photography prints that represent actual moments are important to you, then you should seek out artists that do not use these techniques. Again, it is up to you to determine what you value in art.
Social Value of Art
Simply put, social value as it relates to art is how well it conveys or communicates ideas, values, emotions, or other concepts. Put another way, how does the art print say something about the human condition or the state of the world we live in? This is exceptionally challenging for nature and landscape photography to achieve, and therefore I believe it should significantly increase the value of said artwork because it is not easy to accomplish. I also freely admit this is also subjective since this is a value I hold in how I evaluate the value of art.
Health and Mental Health Benefits of Art | Commercial Value of Art
Many articles (typically written by galleries and auction companies) tout the commercial value of art based on factors such as authenticity, scarcity, condition, and provenance, but as we have covered these are marketing tactics and have no logical impact on the value of photography prints. Galleries and auction houses hype up these variables for the purpose of getting buyers excited to justify their high pricing structures so that they can profit off of the backs of artists, who typically don't see the fruits of their own labor at this stage of art collection. Alternatively, what prints can do to provide value, especially nature and landscape photography prints, is to offer scientifically proven ways to improve mental health and physical health. These are tangible and measurable things that may influence how you value the print.
Future Value & Valuable Prints
While the value of art certainly has the capability to increase over time, it is mostly a very speculative market that has been heavily controlled by a tiny number of very wealthy and entrenched individuals that legally price fix the value of their art collections through a complex system involving auction companies. To say that an artist creates valuable prints is difficult to defend from any objective perspective. Relating to the future value of photography prints, unfortunately, it has already been proven that the secondary market is a myth in for all but those that find themselves deceased.
Should You Buy Limited Edition Photography Prints?
These are questions I hear quite often from people that are in the market to buy photography prints. Is it worth it to buy limited edition prints? Are limited edition prints worth buying? Are numbered prints worth more? How do I find the value of a print? How do you know if a print is valuable? Are signed and numbered prints worth anything? While only you, the buyer, can decide the answer to these questions, I hope that this article has given you some food for thought. Limited edition prints that have been signed and numbered by the artist are a time-honored tradition in photography circles, but at the end of the day it really is just a marketing scheme designed to convince buyers that the work holds more value.