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?
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:
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.
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.