Sunday, September 16, 2007

Print Prices

With the quality of inkjet prints approaching that of silver prints, and frankly already exceeding the quality of most platinum prints (yes, I know, heresy, but I'm convinced it's true none the less), it's time to rethink the whole business of how much a print is worth.

Some things to ponder:

1) Very little work is involved in making one more inkjet print.

2) Inkjet prints are innexpensive, even allowing for amortizing the cost of the printer, considering ink and paper, even factoring in spoiled prints (if my 7600 puts one more drop of black ink on the edge of a 24X26 inch print, I'll scream).

3) Assuming some detailed instructions, anyone can make another print - including your descendents, even your spouse, your assistant, lover, gardener or whoever you wish - since the quality is set in the file, barring any obvious printing flaws, every print is going to be perfect.

4) Inkjet prints don't need infinite protection - they are replaceable - especially if priced reasonably. As Jeff said, forget the glass, I can always make another print.

5) For the largest part of the world, photographs form decoration, not holy relics, not priceless masterpieces - when you are ready for a change - either throw away the print, or even better, pop it out of the frame, store it on a shelf and recycle the frame for the next photograph - thus ensuring an ongoing market for our photographs - if we price things reasonably.

6) Inexpensive prints is a concept incompatible with current gallery practice. It doesn't have to be, but it is, and getting the galleries to change the way they do business is going to be challenging, if not impossible. It may simply be better to do an end run around them - if they can't keep up, well, think Neanderthals. Of course, they could change - instead of catering to 2 - 3 clients a day and selling one print a day and not always making a profit, galleries could offer a choice of hundreds of prints at reasonable prices and have 30 customers a day buying 45 prints a day. That's not impossible, I was well on my way to that kind of sales at the Farmers Market.

So, with the above in mind, just how expensive should prints be? Do better photographers charge more, or simply sell more prints? A good car, TV, sofa, and just about any other product typically cost more than a poor one - but not that much more, not usually more than double the cost of a cheap one, and often because of labour and cost of materials is higher - I would argue that photographers of reputation shouldn't charge any more than the next fellow. Their reputation doesn't make their next image any better, only their skill can do that - let the consumer decide which is the better product. Odds are the better photographers will far outsell the lesser ones and reap a reward unprecedented in photography.

Quality inkjet paper costs up to $5 for 13X19 paper. Pigment ink to make an image on said paper with a generous white border, another $5. Depreciation on the printer, say $2. Allowance for damaged prints, say an overrun of 50%, which is probably quite high. Cost of getting the first perfect print - substantial, say 10X the cost already, but is it reasonable to expect the purchaser of one print to pay that entire cost, and for every subsequent purchaser to pay it all over - assume that this setup cost is spread over the first 10 prints sold, so basically doubling the cost of the print - after that - gravy for the photographer - anyone who can sell more than 10 prints deserves it.

O.K. so we have an individual print cost of $12, setup of another $12 for a total of $24. Don't forget packaging, - say mylar bags and backing of acid free foam core (that's how I sold my prints at the market). That adds another $3. We're now up to $27. Of course, we haven't paid the photographer, nor amortized his camera equipment or computers and so on. The retail trade is generally based on a 50% markup to survive - that is, whatever you buy the product for, you retail it for twice as much, give or take. With Walmart and other giant sores, I dare say that's no longer valid, but it will do for a start.

So, if someone phones and offers to buy a print, they can have a 13X19 bagged print for $54 give or take. I have been charging $69 so that's not too far off. Given that I have probably forgotten some costs - say business cards, shopping bags, advertising, back of print info sheets, and a myriad of other items, the $69 figure for a 13X19 print is probably pretty close to right and less than $50 is probably hobby pricing - ie. not meant for making any income. An 8.5X11 print would cost around $35.

In the current world - there are photographers selling inkjet prints through galleries (and therefore not anywhere else because the gallery wouldn't like it) for $500. I really can't see this lasting much longer. Sooner or later common sense will prevail.

Now, if we add matting, framing or other services, well that's a whole other story, but what if that imaginary gallery that decided to switch rather than fight, stocked some standard sized frames, easily loaded and reuseable, for modest prices - say $40-$100 instead of the usual $150-$300 they normally charge for a custom frame, well, I suspect they could attract a fair number of customers.

Food for thought.


Anonymous said...

Hi George,

Yep, the costs are low. My cost for a 15x10 drymounted and over-matted (window), crystal clear baged, print is approximately just less than $30. I am not taking into account printer depreciation, cuz I would be using that printer anyway whether I sold prints or not. I figure at a sales price of $60 I clear somewhat more than $30.

Ya know, Brooks Jensen of Lenswork sells a non matted bare print with loose backing board and crystal clear bag for $20. He chose that price I believe based on the cost of a movie DVD, a price he felt anyone could afford. He sold something like 2,000 prints in about a year. Admittedly he has a huge audience already built in, but still the lesson is strong. Also, selling a loose print makes it so there is almost NO work involved in making that print (ie: no dry mounting, matting, windowing)

Makes ya think huh?

DAC said...

I was just having this conversation (a version of it) with the woman who does my framing. I have a show coming up this winter and will need to present 20-30 pieces. I loathe the expense of matting, framing, etc. (don't do it myself).

I've been reading about photographers (Brooks being one) who have displayed without glass over the print. Now, I hate glass (I also wear glasses) and between the two, I usually only get to see reflections of light when looking at a print on the wall.

I told her that I was thinking of displaying sans glass. She basically gasped - but eventually accepted my logic of print cost and reproduceability.

The buyer can find their own solution regarding glass and long term display/storage.

Hey, I'd love to sell prints at $200 a whack, but that's not realistically going to happen. I'm pricing 11 x 14 at $45 and planning to sell 'em all!

Anonymous said...

I would say it depends on how many prints you sell, I have tried both approaches, selling the prints for near nothing, to selling 13 x 19 prints for $200. My experience is that I didn't sell but a couple more prints per year at the lower price than I do at the higher price. If you are expecting to make up the difference by volume at lower prices, it might not happen. If you want to basically give away your work, and are not looking to recapture your investment, both equipment and time , then by all mean give them away. But I personally think this low ball pricing is a lot of work for very little return. Sure I enjoy my photography as an end in itself, but if I'm going to go through the additional work of sales, marketing, website design, shipping hassles, packaging, then I want something to show for it besides an inflated ego.

Mark said...

What does the price of art have to do with what the materials cost? Surely a painting is only worth the cost of the canvas and the paints.

Anonymous said...


I'm an amateur photographer but I do have considerable business experience and a business degree. Here are two quick concepts that might help you out. First, in all the calculations of the costs of printing and matting etc. presented so far in this thread, there are some omissions. First I see no mention whatsoever of your healthcare costs, mortgage payment or rent for your studio or home studio, costs of saving for retirement, electricity bills, phone bills, camera equipment, etc. etc. ALL of these costs play a crucial role in making pricing and marketing decisions. Disregarding everything beyond the mere cost of printing is shortsighted. And finally, the biggest cost of all missing from these calculations is your own salaries. You must all decide on an minimal annual salary that is acceptable for you (can pay bills, go on vacation, eat well, etc.) below which you would quit selling your photographs for another source of income. Based on that salary, you can calculate the number of hours per month/week/year you can realistically work (minus sick days, vacation, picking kids up from school, weekends, public holidays, weddings, etc. = suprisingly few when you're done) to come up with an hourly rate that will represent your opportunity cost. This cost represents the hourly wage below which you have decided (based on a proper calculation, NOT on gut instinct!!!) that you are no longer willing to sell your prints etc. So after all costs (variable printing costs, fixed costs, healthcare and retirement) have been calculated, determine the hours you spend on producing a product (including the photo session!!!) and multiply that times your opportunity cost hourly wage. Why is this called an opportunity cost? Your expense here is your life. By spending your life making cheap prints, you are missing out on whatever else life might have to offer income-wise or otherwise. So don't go calling everything beyond your printing costs profit - it isn't. Everything beyond your opportunity costs might be, if you don't reinvest it in your business.

Now, on to the consumer: not everyone has the same amount of disposable income or is equally willing to part with what they do have for a photograph. If a miserly person falls in love with your photography but is unwilling or unable to spend more than 50 bucks and your print costs 45 bucks, you generate some small amount of income here, lets say 20 dollars above your printing costs. If your print is priced at 500 dollars, you get zero. Next Mr. Big Spender sees your work and must have it. He owns three yachts. The difference between 50 dollars and 500 means nothing to him. He will have your art at (almost) any cost, but he only has wallspace in one yacht for one print. Let's say there would be 300 dollars of income for you in a 500-dollar print. If all you have to offer Mr. Big Spender is a little 50-dollar 8x10, you will earn exactly 20 bucks off him, leaving 280 on the table.

What's the solution? Always have something available for people of different price sensitivities. Often, people judge value by price. If your photograph is priced at 500 dollars, a lot of people will think it must be worth about that. The same applies if it costs 10. If you have a reason (metallic print, archival framing, etc.) to distinguish between these two price classes and offer both via different products, you can justify disproportionate price increases with relatively insignificant costs. There's no reason to leave that 20 bucks on the table, and even less to leave the 300. Price insensitivity should be leveraged for profit.

Cheers and great luck to you,

-Matt Bulow