What is fine art photography? What is commercial photography?

Beautiful Farmhouse Interior

Basically fine art photography is defined by photography produced for aesthetic reasons rather than for as a commercial project.

concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.
“the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure”
a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.
“the Cubist aesthetic”

concerned with or engaged in commerce.
“a commercial agreement”
synonyms: trade, trading, business, private enterprise, mercantile, sales
“a vessel built for commercial purposes”
making or intended to make a profit.
“commercial products”
synonyms: profit-oriented, money-oriented, materialistic, mercenary
“a commercial society”

Of course there isn’t always a clear line between fine art and commercial art or photography.  Once can appreciate great photography created for commercial purposes or use art created as a fine art project in an ad campaign or on a product.

But the term “fine art” refers the the original intent of the artist.  Fine art photography’s client is the artist themselves and the viewers.  No assignment or constraints are given by a third party.

In commercial projects a client give the photographer directions and guidelines for the project.  These may be extensive or vague but the photographer clearly is bringing about the vision of the employee, not solely their own vision as it would be in fine art photography.

Is that really the only difference between fine art photography and commercial photography?  Yes, basically the intent of the photographer.  Working for themselves vs. others.

Fine art photography can be sold of course but that doesn’t change whose vision is behind the work.  Fine art photography serves to share with the world the unique vision of the artist.  Commercial photography exists to sell products.

Another element often assigned to fine art is the level of craftsmanship although when compared to the quality of commercial photography say in the world of fashion, this really is a rather mute point.  But if you were to compare an Ebay snapshot created to sell some old leather books, then the craftsmanship levels do add into the equation.  But craftsmanship alone does not determine fine art from commercial work, it is the intent and purpose of the work.

Capturing Motion with Still Photography

Jan Groover motion study

A still photograph is just that a non-moving photograph but many artists have explored ways of capturing or implying motion with still images.  Here are some examples:

Fixed Camera – Moving Subject

Mounting the camera on a tripod and using a slow shutter speed, you can blur a moving subject to show motion.

Jan Groover
Fine art photographer Jan Groover explored motion in photographs. “Untitled, 1974”

Jan Groover’s famously known for her still life photographs, used slow shutter speeds in her early work that often used motion blur and sequencing to show motion.

Motion blur
Motion blur at night takes advantage of slow shutters speeds to capture moving lights and objects.

Night time city images are great subjects for motion blur as well as starry night time sky photographs in which star trails can be captured.

Star trails
Star trails from long exposures or slow shutter speeds, often up to 20 minutes or hours.

Panning – Moving camera

Camera moves faster that the shutter speed can freeze the motion.  Panning can be used to track a moving object and cause the background to blur.

Panning shot of a yellow cab.
Panning shot of a yellow cab.

Sequences – multiple images over time

Showing a sequence of photographs is another way to convey motion with still images.  Fine art photographer Duane Michals often used sequence and multiple image in his work.

Duane Michals photo sequence to tell a story.
Duane Michals photo sequence to tell a story.

Sequences can also be captured using high speed cameras to slow down motion that is too fast for the human eye to see other wise.

Eadweard Muybridge figured out a way to capture moving subjects so they could be studied such as how a horse manages to gallop.

Muybridge is known for his pioneering work on animal locomotion in 1877 and 1878, which used multiple cameras to capture motion in stop-motion photographs, and his zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures that pre-dated the flexible perforated film strip used in cinematography.

He produced over 100,000 images of animals and humans in motion, capturing what the human eye could not distinguish as separate movements.

Animal Locomotion
Animal Locomotion
Horse Galloping
Horse Galloping

Time Lapse – animating still images

Time lapse is a series of still images that are played back in sequence like frames of a motion picture.

Extreme Strobe Photography or Stop Motion

Extremely fast strobe lights can be used to capture very fast motion like a bullet.  Faster than any shutter, the image is captured with a burst of light at the right moment.

Rather convey motion, stop motion freezes motion as if time stood still for the photograph to be taken.  Harold E. Edgerton famously pioneered stop motion photography.

Harold E. Edgerton's iconic stop-motion photograph .30 Bullet Piercing an Apple, 1964
Harold E. Edgerton’s iconic stop-motion photograph .30 Bullet Piercing an Apple, 1964, captures the moment a bullet exits the stabilised apple it was shot into. (Surprisingly, the photograph revealed simultaneous explosions at both the entry and exit points before the fruit collapsed completely.) Bold in colour, contrast, and composition, Edgerton made the picture as a scientific exploration; the striking beauty of the image was a side-effect that didn’t really interest the engineer, a professor at MIT.

Multiple Exposure – combining multiple images in a single photograph


Photography 101: Using Artistic Aperture

Old Vintage Press Camera

Aperture – ISO or sensor sensitivity, shutter speed and aperture are the three basic controls the photographer has over photo exposure.  ISO controls how sensitive the sensor is, shutter speed controls the length of time the shutter is open during exposure and aperture is the size of the opening on the lens.

But aperture is much more that that as it effects the depth of field in an image.  Depth of field or DOF is areas that are not in focus in an image.  Every modern lens is capable of sharp focus at a single plane.  Changing the aperture can change how much of the image appears to be in focus.

Visualizing aperture. Smaller f-shop numbers mean larger openings. Each f-stop is double the previous one.

Depending on the focal length of the lens and the aperture, images can look in focus from front to back or you can totally blow out the background into a creamy, smooth backdrop in which you can barely make out the shapes.  That smooth, out of focus area is typically described as “bokeh” and different lens designs create different bokeh effects.  Often professional photographers prefer a certain lens for this effect especially for portaits.  Landscape photographer looking for as much overall sharpness usually are not as interested in bokeh.

In photography, bokeh (originally /ˈbkɛ//ˈbk/ BOH-kay — also sometimes pronounced as /ˈbkə/ BOH-kə,Japanese: [boke]) is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”.

Aperture is measured in “fstops”.   Smaller numbers mean larger openings.  Such as f1.2 lets in more light and creates more out of focus area than say a f16.

RISD Craft Art Sale 2017 Providence Rhode Island
RISD Craft Art Sale 2017 Providence Rhode Island – A Camera Obscura allowed visitors to experience what is going on inside a camera.

Experiencing Aperture

Recently on the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence I was given to opportunity to experience what is happening inside a camera and the effects of aperture.

Camera Obscura
A camera obscura is basically a large pinhole camera that using a hole as a lens to focus light.

A large inflatable camera obscura was set up and groups of ten or so entered the airlock chamber, the outer door was zipped shut and then were lead into the inner dome-like chamber.  After adjusting to the light, a hole in the side of the tent was uncovered and projected on white surfaces of the dome were live, upside down images of the streets around the camera obscura, demonstrating how what we see is reflected light bouncing off objects.

The four inch opening produced a bright image but a fuzzy one.  Various smaller apertures were demonstrated which produced a sharper yet dimmer image.  A lens was used on the larger opening to focus the light, demonstrating need of lens design.  One wants as much light as possible yet needs lenses to focus that light.

Camera Obscura as a traveling attraction.
Camera Obscura as a traveling attraction.

Using Aperture Artistically

Too often beginner photographers seem focused on sharpness. Reading lens reviews endlessly looking for the sharpest of the sharp lens. Meanwhile professional wedding, fashion and portrait photographers invest in certain camera systems just to have certain lenses which produce amazing out of focus areas.

Sharpness in a photograph is often determined by a fast shutter-speed, a steady hand or tripod, more then the actual lens anyway. The sharpest lens ever produced hand held at a slow shutter-speed won’t produce sharp images.

Unless you are shooting sports, race cars or other moving objects, aperture choice is the most often used setting for artistry in photography. Aperture determines how much of the image you want to be in focus and how well you want to define the subject using selective focus.

In this still life photograph of baseballs, fine art photographer Edward M. Fielding uses a large aperture to throw the baseballs in the background into soft focus to pull the views eye to the main subject.

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A traditional landscape photograph typically strives for a deep depth of field from front to back so smaller f-stops (higher numbers like f/11 – f/16 – f/22) are used.  Ansel Adams used a view camera and lenses with very small apertures such as f/45 and up to f/64 and even started a movement called the Group  f/64.  DSLRs lenses typically don’t stop down this far.  Also such small apertures let in such little light, long exposures and a rock solid tripod are must.  Some lenses create diffraction issues at their smallest apertures and you have to watch out for dust spots as the increased depth of field betrays a dirty lens or sensor.

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Landscape images don’t have to always be created with front to back sharpness. Artistic used of shallow depth of field with landscapes should also be considered such as in the following examples.

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Notice how the subject of the images stands out from the background. If a shallow depth of field wasn’t uses, the clothespin or swing might have been lost in the background.

Aperture and lens choice

The effects of aperture will differ from various lens choices.  Wide angle lens  (24 mm and wider such as a 17mm) will have greater depth of field through out the aperture range then telephoto such as a 100 mm, 200 mm or 400 mm.

Some wide angle lenses have such a deep DOF field that you can set it at f8 and not even have to focus because just about everything will be in focus.  On the downside, its nearly impossible to get a bokeh background.

Long lens inherently have a short depth of field so you have to be extra careful to focus on the eye of a bird for example, but you get a beautiful soft background.

Close focusing lenses such as macro lenses working close to subjects will also have a very shallow DOF, sometimes as small as a few millimeters.

Type of camera will also effect the DOF effect as mirror-less cameras such as micro fourth thirds cameras or small point and shoot cameras have the lens closer to the sensor than a full frame DSLR so its harder to get extreme DOF using mirror-less systems.

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Aperture and Lens Cost

Canon sells a 70-200mm f/4 for $1099 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 for $800 more.  Why?  Because there are professional photographer who want and need that extra wide aperture and it cost more to make lenses with larger glass.

If you are a landscape photographer shooting at the smallest aperture possible, you don’t need to spend extra on the f/2.8 version.  But if you are a portrait or wedding photographer wanting maximum boken, then the extra $800 is worth the price.

It’s the same with Canon’s 50mm lens line up.  You can get a really inexpensive basic 50mm f/1.8 or normal lens for $125.

But for professionals wanting more shallow depth of field, Canon makes a $350 f/1.4 version.

And has found enough demand for an even more extreme shallow depth of field so they offer a $1,300 f/1.2 version.

And, you wouldn’t be buying these lenses for landscape photography on a tripod.  You pay for the wide open apertures when you want to blur out the backgrounds.  You aren’t paying for “more sharpness”,  you are actually paying for the unfocused area of the image.


Can you sell something you know nothing about?

Including your own art?

Imagine walking into a hardware store, finding a clerk and asking about hammers.

“For this job do I need a claw foot hammer, a roofing hammer or a electricians hammer?  Is a fiberglass handle better than wood? What the difference between this triangle head and this round one?”

And the clerk just stares at you blankly and says “Idonntknow”, shuggs his shoulder and goes on break.

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To sell art you need to know at least as much as your customers know.  Is you knowledge of photography limited to knowing where to buy a camera?  If a potential customer ask you a question about your photography would you have an interesting response?

“What motivated you to take this image?”

“I don’t know.  I just was thinking it might be a good thing to take a picture of and everyone else was taking a picture of it.”

To be a credible artist, at least do some soul searching and be able to talk about your work enough that the potential buyer get the impression that you are seriously working on your art and craft.  Be prepared to answer questions like:

  • What style is your photography?
  • Who are your influences?
  • Which photographers do you like?
  • Do you know the history of photography as an art form?
  • What are you goals with your photography?
  • What are your passions?
  • What is the last photography monograph you purchase?
  • What is the last photography show you attended?
  • What do you want the view to feel when they look at your photography?

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Selling Art and Photography requires thinking like a buyer

Do you consume art and photography like you expect your buyers to?  Do you purchase original art?  Do you follow great photographers on social media?  Do you read about compelling photographers?  Do you visit galleries and museums to see what is going on in the world of photography and art?
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To ask a buyer or collector to purchase your artwork, you have to provide more of a reason than “here is a image – buy it” – you need to think and act like a buyer.  Think and act like a participant in the world of art and photography, not just like a stock boy putting another can of soup on the shelf.


Composition in Photography: It is not just where but also why

Composition in photography often gets down to where we place the subject of images.  Using the rule of thirds for example we might place the subject off center or in a landscape give the sky two thirds of the frame.

But for storytelling it is important to remember what we are trying to say and why we are placing the subject in a certain spot.

Hero angles are shot from below to give the subject a larger than life image.  We might shoot down or place the subject further away to show their small size in relationship to the overall landscape.

The rule of thirds, triangles,  and golden ratio are all successful formulas.  But what are we trying to say with these compositions? And what can we say when we go against these compositions.

Storytelling in two dimensional visual art forms typically attempts to recreate three dimensional depth through composition. You can use elements such as size, leading lines, foreground, middle ground and background, shading, color tone and other elements to create depth to your images.

The camera itself does not have to be locked into eye height or tripod height. It can be raised into the air on a drone or the photographer on a ladder or be placed at ground level shooting up depending on the needs of the story – move in, take a wide angle shot, shoot at harsh angles, shoot straight on, shoot straight down, look for frames within a frame.

Composition is the artist’s way of saying “Look at this”. But it also can be used powerfully to show which subject has the most power or control in the scene.  Size and scale can be used to

Examples of Frames Within A Frame in Photography

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Examples of Lines of Perspective in Photography

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Examples of Size and Scale in Photography

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Examples of Frame Centrality in Photography

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Examples of Negative Space in Photography

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Better Photography: Composition in Photography – Introduction

Rule of thirds

Learn Composition in Photography – More than any new camera purchase, learning to compose interesting and compelling photographs is a far better way to improve your photography.

Composition isn’t a set of rules, requirements or standards, composition is the arrangement of the elements in the picture to a pleasing result, and although any “rules” are made to be broken, you need to know what makes a picture visually pleasing before you can experiment with new ideas.

The basic composition ideas are based on thousands of years of art history going back to the Greeks.  Simply these composition ideas work with the human brain to convey information.

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  • In the visual arts, composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art, as distinct from the subject.
  • It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art.
  • The composition of a picture is different from its subject, which what is shown, whether a moment from a story, a person or a place.
  • The term composition means ‘putting together’ and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing to photography, that is arranged using conscious thought.

The basic composition ideas of balance, framing and the rule of thirds are the foundations of good composition that have been around since formal art was being created.  I’ve updated this 1950s college film in the public domain with some of my photographs to give you an overview of these basic composition concepts.

Balance – A balanced composition feels right. It feels stable and aesthetically pleasing. While some of its elements might be focal points and attract your eye, no one area of the composition draws your eye so much that you can’t see the other areas.  Balance can be symmetrical or by visual weight.  The train below is symmetrical, even on both sides.  The fishing pier is balanced by the visual weight of the foreground pier and the background building.

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Framing – Horizontal and vertical framing as appropriate as well as framing with elements in the environment.  Do you ever get the idea that some photographers don’t understand that their camera also works sideways?  Using architectural elements such as shown in the photographs below can also be used as framing devices.

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Rule of thirds – The ancient Greeks figured out that a composition can be divided into thirds, vertically or horizontally and the most pleasing places to place the subject is off center and specifically in the golden spots where the lines cross.

Rule of thirds
Example of the rule of thirds in a photo composition.

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In future blog posts, I’ll examine various composition techniques in further detail.

So you want to be a famous photographer…

Becoming Famous – Recently a new seller on Fine Art America asked how they could become a famous photographer. They had to desire to become a famous photographer and simply wanted someone to tell they how.

Is there some formula for becoming famous? Does fame only require a desire? How many photographers are famous to begin with? I wonder if the average person can even name any famous photographers past Ansel Adams?

Famous photographers became famous either by the subjects they photographed such as the amazing celebrity portraits by Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon.  Or creating masterful landscapes of the American West like Ansel Adams or exploring the role of women in society through self portraits like Cindy Sherman or family dynamics and relationships like Sally Mann, who also creates incredibly unique landscapes using cameras and techniques from the Civil War era.

Or one of my favorite photographers of all time Diane Arbus who documented the fringes of society, midgets, circus performers, strippers, nudists and others who tend to stay in the shadows of society.

Fame as a photographer is not about having the best equipment or the latest camera gear. It is certainly not about taking photographs on vacation or of your cat. Famous photographers become famous because they have a unique vision and great ideas.

The ideas behind the images are more important that the equipment or even how many photographs sell.

To garner fame as a photographer, your best bet is to come up with an intriguing subject matter to explore. Create a series and body of work around that subject/topic. Create enough for a book and touring exhibit.

Get noticed for your unique and compelling ideas.  It’s is the subject, topic and concepts that will get noticed, not the sharpness of your lens or the saturation of your colors. Famous photographers become famous by presenting a unique view of the world and creating compelling stories to share.

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Milestone: 1,200+ art and photography sales on Pixels and Fine Art America!

I’ve been selling my fine art photography on Fine Art America and now Pixels since 2011.  I started slowly, building my portfolio from a few images to nearly 5,000 artworks.

Along the way I’ve been developing my stock photography offerings through Arcangel, licensing to publishers for book covers and magazine articles, showing in galleries such as the Whitney in Pittsfield, MA and the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, NH. and traveling – adding images from around the world including Iceland, Hawaii, Italy, Florida, Vermont, Maine, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire etc.

My art sales did not start right away.  I think it took me about three months before I made my first sale.  At the time I was concentrating on my skills and basically learning to create better images and more compelling imagery.  Also telling stories through images inspired by the demands of the commercial photography market.

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I also wasn’t doing much of my own marketing, rather thinking that sales would come to me.  After a few years I realized that this doesn’t happen so much.  If you want to the world to see and care about your photography, you have to market yourself and develop your brand.  You need to push your photography out unto the world if you want anyone to see it and then perhaps purchase it.

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You also have to produce images that buyers are looking for – I’ve found that buyers want image that project a feeling of place or a mood, rather than the image I call “Look I saw a squirrel”.  So many of the flow of photographs people post on Facebook or even offer to sell on Fine Art America, Pixels or other POD sites are simply snapshots.  They point and shoot.  Not much pre-thought or even any sense of passion for the scene.    The result is boring and uninteresting images.

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Good images require good subjects, good composition and compelling lighting. I’ve seen people offering the most boring images – photographs of drainage ditches, animal butts, weeds, clouds etc.  You’re left wondering why someone would think these would sell or even why they even bothered to upload them.  The scenes were boring enough in person and then made even more boring with not post processing work, cropping or even exposure adjustments.

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Great photographs hit you immediately.  Poor, boring photographs should also be apparent.  If not, the viewer/photographer/editor of their own portfolio, should start learning to see.  Hit the museums, hit the books, hit the galleries – learn to see great composition, great lighting and understand what is compelling and what is not.

How can you get thousands of sales on Pixels and Fine Art America?

Getting thousands of art and photography sales on Pixels and Fine Art America is as simple as:

  • creating a large portfolio of compelling artwork or photographs
  • creating images that buyers want to hang in their office or home
  • creating some buzz around your work
  • getting your work out there in the public space through marketing
  • creating unique images
  • creating well crafted images
  • creating professional level images
  • gaining followers and champions of your work who will share it with their friends
  • getting your work off the Internet and out in the public via galleries and shows


So you’ve learned how to use your camera, now what? Storytelling with photos

Photographs that make an impact – what is your story?

You bought a nice, new expensive camera. You read the manual front to back, back to front. You shot a few thousand images. You’ve gotten to know every aspect of your camera and figured out ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Now it’s time to make some meaningful images.

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Images with impact. Compelling images that make people stop and look instead of swiping left or right or scrolling past. Photographs with strong compositions that use visual language to tell a story, create a mood or transports the view to a wonderful new plain of thought.

You are now ready to stop taking photographs and start making images.

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Composition is everything. You can have all the gear – or all the vision – in the world, but it’s composition alone that gets you to the more powerful photographs, the ones that connect and stir something in people.” – David duChemin

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Colby Brown – How to Tell Compelling Stories Through Photography – Photographers are visual storytellers.

The challenge for photographers – Telling an interesting story in a single frame.   Not in hundreds of words in a book or two hours in a feature length movie – a single image.

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That is a high order and a challenging goal.  Static images have the goal of setting the scene, highlight the subject and convey the meaning of the image.  In your images you want to be able to communicate to the view within seconds.  The viewer needs an image with a clear message to understand what they are looking at.  They also need to clearly be able to figure out what is important within the frame.  The viewer shouldn’t be guess at what the photographer wants to show.  The subject should be apparent and visual language and composition should direct the viewer’s eyes to the important part of the image.

The view should not be left thinking “what is this all about?” Become a storyteller rather than a photographer.

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Better photography starts with better storytelling. What are you trying to say to the viewer? Figure out your story before taking a photograph.