Numbering Your Fine Art Print Editions

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I’ve never really featured print sales as a part of my business model up to this point in my career. For a long time, the type of photography I was doing editorially and commercially just didn’t lend itself to print sales. The kind of image I might sell to a large company like Nike or Red Bull was great for a eye-catching advert, but rarely was it something most people would hang on their wall for an extended period of time. Though many posters have adorned the walls of teenager’s bedrooms, these are far from “Fine Art” sales. Recently I’ve really broadened my photographic tastes though and I decided it was time to add another arrow to my quiver. It never hurts to add another income stream to your river either as you never know when another one might dry up. I’m not the sort of person that rushes into things though and I wanted to make sure I did it right. I had a couple of burning questions I needed to get a straight answer to but as it turns out, one of these seems to be a bit of a thorny issue that divides many photographers down the middle……

The question seems like a simple one; how should I number my limited edition prints?

The Conundrum

I read some really really long arguments about this topic so I’m going to try and keep it quick and simple.

You have an image that you’d like to sell as a limited edition print and you’re going to offer it in 3 different sizes (A, B & C). If you say that the edition is limited to 50 does this mean:

Option 1

A total of 50 prints will be made of this particular image, across all print sizes. When you are marking your prints, print #1 (1/50) might be of size A, whereas print #2 (2/50) might be of size B. Whatever happens, there will be no more than 50 printed versions of that particular image across all possible sizes.

Option 2

A total of 50 prints will be made available in size A, 50 in size B and 50 in size C. In other words, you are offering 150 prints for sale.

Please note that the arguments on the size of a limited edition are the topic for a whole separate argument that we’ll have to save for another day! My choice of 50 in this example is just a random number. Option 2 could very well be 30 of size A, 10 of Size B and 10 of size C for a total of 50 prints as well. The question remains the same, should an “edition” contain prints of varying sizes, or are those sizes themselves an edition?

The Right Answer – Historically Speaking

Well maybe I should be clear, there probably isn’t a right and wrong answer to all of this because there is no international standards and nobody is out there setting the “rules”. I can’t really go around telling you guys what is the right and wrong thing to do, but I can explain a few things that made it clear to me what I am going to do with my limited editions. The first thing that clarified this for me was referring to the history of the use of the word edition, in terms of printing. When printing was all done with machines and plates, an edition was the collective term for all works produced by one particular plate. As the physical printing process took it’s toll on the plates they degraded over time, mostly due to the pressures that were applied to them. The quality of the print therefore degraded as the print number climbed and at a point where the plate was deemed no longer useful, that was the end of that particular edition. If you consider that the same plate was used for every print in that edition, you can see that for this definition of “edition”, it can’t possibly contain prints of varying sizes. In other words it lends credence to Option 2.

The second thing that clarified this for me was a post I read on the blog of another photographer, Jason Wallace. In his post he uses an example given to him by his brother who is a gun collector. If a gun collector buys a limited edition Smith & Wesson gun 23/500, and that gun is a .357 pistol with a 6.5″ barrel length, wouldn’t it be strange if gun 37/500 was a .22 rifle? This is exactly the same thing as we’re talking about in Option 1, but to me at least, this analogy made it crystal clear how I was going to number my prints. Option 2 is the right answer!

Here’s the thing though, many fine art photographers who I have the utmost respect for, are using option 1!

There is a slight problem with Option 2, and maybe this is why some people go with Option 1. If the number in the edition refers to just that exact image and size combination, what is to stop you from adding a whole ton more size variations just to be able to sell more prints once the original editions are sold out? Technically nothing! You would most certainly lose the trust of your customers and collectors though, and no doubt lower the perceived value of all of your prints. For me it’s still a win for Option 2.

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Professional photographer based in Yukon, Canada, and founder of Shutter Muse. His editorial work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as Nike, Apple, Adobe and Red Bull.

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15 thoughts on “Numbering Your Fine Art Print Editions”

  1. Some great points here. I personally use Option 1, but your views in Option 2 certainly make sense as well. The only argument I have pertains to the gun analogy. In my mind, the .357 pistol and the .22 rifle would be equivalent to two completely different images, not the same image just in different models/sizes. So in this case, grouping two different images into the same edition numbers wouldn’t make sense. It may be a Smith and Wesson, but the model is what makes it specific. I try to think of it as my brand (Clint Losee Photography) being like the brand of Smith and Wesson, and an image of Delicate Arch, or Yosemite, or Grand Teton, etc. would be like the .357 or .22 model. The images are each different just like a .357 is obviously different than a .22. I don’t believe the sizes of the image are what separates them; it would the be image subject/content that makes it stand out on its own into its own editions.

    This view doesn’t match the historical printing process for editions, but it makes sense to me to work it this way.

    Ultimately, I like to think of the image itself as what is limited and not the specific sizes. That way the buyer who chooses to purchase any image is getting a more valuable piece.

    End of rant. Hopefully that makes sense. Thanks for the great content Dan!

    Reply
    • Thanks Clint, great comment. I guess for the gun analogy it depends on how it’s marketed. If it’s a “Special 500th anniversary gun limited to only 500 pieces” then it would be odd to have them as a pistol and a rifle. I almost added my own analogy of a Leica Special Edition camera as well……. If there was one of Leica’s famous Special Editions, and #1 was covered in brown leather and #24 was covered in red leather, it wouldn’t make sense to me. In that case the camera itself being the “image”. Like I said, realistically there’s no right and wrong answer and people will fall on one side or another for eternity!

      Reply
  2. This is most helpful. I’m preparing to do my first limited edition of selected images from Italy. To take this a step further, are limited images prints only or could they be images on metal, canvas, etc.? How does this effect the numbering of the image? If I start image X on canvas ( being 1/200) will image X always be on canvas (200/200)? Thanks, Diana

    Reply
    • It’s a great question, and everyone seems to have a different answer to that… my personal choice would be to pick a medium for an image that works best, and then only offer it in that way I think. For example, not all images look good in metallic prints, but if you find one that looks best that way, maybe a run of that one would only be available as metallic… it’s really up to you at the end of the day.

      Reply
  3. I have a question, if say I paint a 2 part painting with 1 picture over two canvases, How would i number that? Part 1 of 1 and Part 2 of 1?

    Reply
    • There’s not right or wrong… personally I would label them A and B. Then if you made copies you could have, say, 1/20 A and B , 2/20 A and B etc.

      Reply
  4. I am using an alternative process with printing photos at home. Each print is unique depending on factors like the thickness of the emulsion and natural light conditions of that day. Regarless of the sizes of the prints, would I still number the photos, when each is in a way an “original”? I still feel like I would number them 1/50, etc, even if there was variation between the finished products, but I’m not sure. I would greatly appreciate your input.

    Reply
    • I would probably still number them 1/50 etc. but mention as a selling point that “each one is, in their own way, individual.” Just use it as a selling point.

      Reply
  5. Hi Dan,
    I’m inclined to agree with you about option 2 but I’m unsure how to mark the prints. Let’s say I do a LE run of 100 prints across 4 sizes – A,B,C and D with the print quantity decreasing as the size of the print increases. Eg: Size A = 50 prints, B = 25, C = 15 and D = 10
    How would you number these?
    Would you number them 1-100 as they are sold regardless of size? Or number them 1-50, 1-25, 1-15 and 1-10 respectively? If you do the second option, for transparency do you need to also add that the actual image is part of a print run of 100 somehow?
    Eg: 1/50 (of 100) which could be confusing to a buyer?
    I mean, I’m confused just thinking about this! Would appreciate your input on how you deal with this.
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Personally I would do them 1-50, 1-25, 1-15 and 1-10 and just leave it at that. I have seen many people do it this way. Perhaps if it was on your website, or on display somewhere, you might have additional signage that says something like “1/10 in this size”

      Reply
  6. Thanks so much for this information! I’m planning to sell limited edition prints of my mother’s paintings. I thought, as a benefit for the buyer, the buyer could choose the size they want from several standard sizes. So I will make sure it’s the same quality paper and will definitely use option #2.

    Reply
  7. Hi, All of this has certainly sorted out some of my decisions, going with option 2, now just need to decide how many to print,

    Thank you

    Reply
  8. Hi Dan,
    Just now getting into editioned prints for sale and wondering where ‘calendars’ would fit? If I set 25 editioned prints of a 16″ X 24″ image AND I want to include that image in a calendar (obviously smaller and of a lesser quality probably), have I violated the editioned print edict by producing 75 11″x14″ calendars to sell? Should I set the edition print number at 100 to include the 25 large printed images and the 75 calendars? Looking for clarification before I begin printing images and designing calendars.
    Thanks, Laura

    Reply
    • There really are no hard and fast rules. That’s what makes this tricky. I think most people would be ok with it as long as the sizing and print medium is significantly different. However, I would encourage you to find your own conclusion on this…

      Reply

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