The Changing World of Prints & Digital Photography

By April 22, 2014 Art News & Current Events

Technology rules.  Our world is changing so quickly that computers, cell phones and other digital equipment become obsolete almost before we’ve paid for them.  We are caught in this love/hate quandary:  Shiny new iPads with Retina displays call out with their siren song, but wait… I just spent $600 three years ago on my beloved and apparently now outdated original.  Even the delightful Apps that make this iPad valuable are prying my fingers away from the recent past by apologizing for being incompatible with my antique model, politely urging: “Won’t you please upgrade so you can continue to play in our sandbox?”  Well since you put it that way…  why, of course.  Obviously, the words “new” and “old” are being redefined.

The good news?  Everyone now has access to a digital camera on their phone or tablet, that quite frankly produces high quality images, even for avid users.

The art world is not immune to the effects of these light-speed changes.  Before digitalization, there was one way to produce a series of prints (generally):  you brought the painting to a professional who created a “plate” and all prints in the limited edition were produced from that plate onto paper.  Photographs were produced in the darkroom.

The term “print” now has multiple meanings due to the introduction of digital printing, not to mention a laser or inkjet printer in almost every home.  According to, the term giclee entered the scene, and before it was out of its infancy, it was being used to refer to any inkjet print, losing the connotation of quality.*  As for a photograph:  both the way the image is captured and how the photo is produced have changed and multiplied, and it is no longer restricted to being printed on paper.

Today we have to ask:  What constitutes a “print”?  What about limited editions; are they a thing of the past?  What about all the different types of photographs, all the top stock photos and are they prints too?  It’s hard enough for the artist to keep up with it; let alone the art collector, and woe unto the occasional buyer.  Even the art galleries don’t always agree.

The greatest challenge in this arena is finding common ground with terminology and standards for photography.  To help our photographic artists and their buyers cut through the confusion,  MFA has consulted with various professionals and academic experts in this field and we agree on the following basic concepts:  (There are more specifics to consider, but these are starting points to get us all on the same page.)

  • A photograph is considered a print. 
  • A print is either a one-and-only original, never to be replicated, or it is part of an edition.  
  • Editions are still defined as “a set” or a version that has a finite number. There should never be a 26th print of an image that had an edition of 25.  Today, however, it seems perfectly acceptable to have 2nd and 3rd editions if they are different in size, paper, and/or other such notable measure.
  • The number in the edition produced digitally is usually determined by the order in which they are signed, since there is no diminishing of ink quality from the 1st print to the last, as was the case for editions printed from a plate.
  • To classify as a print, it is expected to be a print of the original, not a copy of a print.  Digital photograph #3 in an edition should be produced from the original source used to create digital photograph #1.  (Think print vs. poster – posters are copies of prints.)

Describe your work well:  For photographers, it is more important than ever to be specific in the written description of the piece, including the capture method, the production process, the paper/surface used, and the edition number.   This ensures that buyers know exactly what they are getting.

Increase the intrigue:  Experts may disagree with how much detail the art consumer wants, but from our experience, we think explaining the details makes the artwork more enticing. Remember, you are educating the user who has just taken 150 photographs on his iPhone during vacation in Montana and is using one as a screen-saver on his large monitor.  If you label your artwork “Big Sky, Photograph,” he might think  “..well, I could have done that..” No, he probably couldn’t have, but why leave an opening for that thought?

He won’t think “I can do that” when he reads “Big Sky Northern Lights, chromogenic photograph on aluminum, 2/25.”  Now he’s thinking this:

  • “This process obviously requires more effort than just point, shoot and download.”
  • “I want to know how she produced the image on aluminum.”
  • “This is the second print in a limited edition; when I take it home, I know there will only be 25 like this in the world – ever.  Not only do I love it, but this just might be an investment.”

Read more about art terms in today’s art market.  In the Wall Street Journal online, art writer Daniel Grant explains the ambiguities of art terms related to prints and art in general  in this article,** and the confusion is not just limited to digital art or reproductions.

For specific details on MFA guidelines for submitting prints and digital photographs, check out the Print/Photo guidelines on our website.

What do you think?  Do you still have questions about digital photography terms and standards?  Leave a comment… we’ll reply.

As for this rapidly changing world, well, I don’t see any signs of it slowing down, and I’m capturing as much of it as I can with my iPhone 5, driving around in my 17-year old jeep.  

I like to balance the old with the new.


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