A Dealer's Perspective

How to Price One's Work

One of the most common questions I hear from photographers concerns how they should price their work. Obviously newcomers must deal with this question, but even seasoned nationally known photographers often fret over pricing. Frequently it falls in the dealer's lap to help provide guidance in this area.

Pricing is usually determined by the law of supply and demand. Joe Unknown can't sell his work for Ansel Adams prices, and it would be rather irresponsible for a dealer to do the opposite! It has always been amazing to me how many photographers think they may be immune to the above law. I sometimes hear, "Well, my prints aren't selling at $400.00, so I'll raise prices to $800.00. That's bound to make them more desirable to collectors." I have never ever seen this goofy strategy work. Besides, if only one print happened to actually sell for $800.00, the hapless photographer would thereafter feel an obligation to maintain the unrealistic price.

An illustration of there being enough demand to influence a price rise comes to mind from an incident in the 1970s. Ansel Adams had stopped taking further print orders, and most of his prints that were available for sale were in the possession of Harry Lunn and other dealers.

In a long established pattern, far more Moonrise prints were selling than any other Adams image. Lunn suggested to other dealers keeping prices of all images at $800.00, except Moonrise. Because of a dwindling supply, Lunn daringly pegged Moonrise at the then unheard of price of $1,200.00! (I remember he and I were polishing off a sumptuous meal at a Dallas Mexican food restaurant when he quietly slipped to me the proposed price list.) Moonrise, incidentally, is rather scarce now and commands prices upwards of $16,000.00. (make that $30,000: note added 10/02)

In pricing a photograph, the actual cost of making a print sometimes figures in, particularly for some expensive color processes. Also prints that are extremely time consuming to produce, like intricately hand colored photographs, can reflect a higher price.

Another factor is the scarcity of materials. For example, some photographers charge more for earlier prints made on paper that is no longer obtainable. This is also true for some discontinued processes, like, for example, dye transfer color printing. However, unless the older paper or process is obviously better--and clearly observable to prospective buyers--charging higher prices may be unrealistic in this case, too.

There are still other circumstances that influence pricing, like the run of a limited edition nearing its end or the death of a photographer. Yet these are clearly related to supply and demand.

Below is a table of suggested prices for gallery photographers who are not widely known and would like to realistically price their work. (This table is merely a rough guide; don't interpret it too rigidly, especially the last two comments!)

8 x 10s$150.00 to $300.00
11 x 14s$250.00 to $500.00
16 x 20s$350.00 to $600.00
20 x 24s$450.00 to $800.00

For outdoor art shows subtract 30 to 50%.
For galleries in the largest cities on either coast add 30 to 80%.

(October 28, 1997)