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A definition of fine art photography Print E-mail

A definition of fine art photography can start with listing what is not fine art photography: I do not consider most portrait photography as fine art. Commercial photography and product photography may be fine, and may be artistic, but is seldom fine art photography. Thus probably the majority of the fine art photography results on Google are not really fine art from an art point of view (these fine art sites are simply commercial and want you to buy their products).

Most travel photography is either simply that, travel photography, or is photo journalism. Although I do both (since I travel a lot while lecturing or as a consultant: China, Korea, Taiwan, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, Guatemala, Honduras, etc), I tend to take snapshots for the travel aspects and use my Phase One P25+ for fine art photography.

Bangkok Temple_
Bangcock Temple door
Nicholas, snapshots for his last travel to Bangkok.

Since I rarely sell my photographs, I am not as interested in posting stock images to sell them. I photograph to express myself (I cannot paint or draw well, and since everyone else in the Hellmuth family is an architect, to express myself artistically I turned to the camera at an early age).

To me a fine art photograph is one that has no commercial value to sell the object or scene within the image (the overall fine art photograph has a commercial value, but not the subject of the photograph).
If I exhibit my photographs and the viewers get stuck in front of an image and can’t move or take their eyes off it, then to me this is a successful fine art photograph.

If a photograph evokes praise from the viewer, and bluntly, if a photograph evokes a bit of envy, it is also a fine art photograph.

So fine art photography is in the eye of the beholder as well as in the mind, vision, and soul of the photographer. The meaning of fine art photography will differ, but since many fine art photographers are also commercial or portrait photographers, only a small percentage of their images are actually fine art.

I specialize in archaeological, architectural photography, and in ethno-botany and ethno-zoology photography, primarily of Maya topics in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico. But I also do fine art photography including black and white fine art photography.

What cameras should you consider for fine art photography?

You can accomplish fine art photography with a traditional film camera: generally a 4x5, 8x10, or at least a medium format Hasselblad, Contex, or Rollei is preferred. But you can produce handsome fine art photographs with most 35mm cameras as well.

But once you understand digital photography, and especially if you have capable assistants who can handle the time-consuming software aspects, I do not see much purpose in using film (other than nostalgia). You can do so much better B&W photographs with digital hardware and software that there is almost no comparison, especially with HDR techniques (High Dynamic Range).

To discuss which digital cameras are best FLAAR has an entire web site for fine art photography, namely

Differences between fine art photography, giclee, and decor

Giclee is the limited edition digital printing of paintings, etchings, historical maps, engravings, and art on various media. Yes, you can have a fine art photo as giclee, especially when printed on canvas or watercolor paper. But I distinguish fine art photography from giclee: but both are at the same high level, both quality and status.

Decor is described differently depending on whether you are buying or selling it. FLAAR does not buy or sell either decor or giclee, so we can be blunt: decor is inexpensive mass produced giclee or fine art photography. This is definitely not the only definition of decor, but if you are a giclee atelier, cheap décor prints are your biggest competitor.

Most inkjet prints made in China are décor, not giclee.

Giclee is digitized by a BetterLight or Cruse or Anagramm tri-linear scanner. Décor is digitized by a 35mm digital camera or scanned on a flatbed scanner (the painting simply put on a flatbed and scanned).

Giclee is printed with ICC profiles and color management on an 8-color or 12-color printer with pigmented inks. Décor is printed on a four or six color printer, with dye-based or solvent-based inks.

Giclee is printed on name-brand inkjet art media (hopefully not made in China). Décor is printed on media made in China.

Giclee is exhibited in a museum, in the board room of a major corporation, or otherwise proudly displayed in an appropriate atmosphere. Décor decorates Motel 6, Days Inn or Holiday Inn Express (or your cruse ship cabin).
Giclee is sold at an art gallery. Décor is sold at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, or other chain stores.

Black and white fine art photography

Black and white fine art photography is alive and well in the digital era. With nik multimedia Silver Efex Pro software and/or Adobe Photoshop you can create black-and-white images that were unattainable twenty or a hundred years ago.

Today still the largest applications of fine art black and white photography are landscapes, architecture, and fine art figure photography. Fine art figure photography is a euphamism for naked females, usually young, but in theory is not pornographic. Fine art figure photography is not glamour or boudoir photography (boudoir photography is either to titillate your partner or to have a keepsake to remember yourself when you could titalate your partner). Fine art figure photography is light and shadow, curves and forms. So yes, naturally the breast and hips are featured, but the face of the subject tends to be deemphasized.

Shapes and shadows, light and form are all part of successful black and white fine art photography. Although concrete culverts are plain and ugly, you can do viable fine art black and white photography in a concrete culvert factory.

Leaf Valeo of concrete culverts.
Leaf Valeo of concrete culverts.

Infrared fine art photography is still possible even with digital cameras, but takes time, patience, and practice.

Abandoned Buildings can generate awe-inspiring fine art photography. I probably get more uuhhs and aahhs from my photography of abandoned rusting factories than almost any other subject.: forms, textures (especially peeling paint & rot), colors (especially rust).

Fine Art Landcape photography: including panoramas. 

Atitlan Lake panorama
Guatemala, Atitlan Lake panoramic view.

Fine art photography of indigenous people (Maya of Guatemala). The distinction between travel photography and photo-journalism is tough to define. I prefer to do fine art photography of people, but every viewer can define the results as they wish.

Fine art architectural photography can be accomplished with striking modern architecture and/or architectural history. I prefer ultra-modern buildings and 16th-17th century Spanish colonial architecture as well as pre-Columbian Maya temples and palaces. Again, I seek the artistic angles and viewpoints: more than just a travel snapshot or mere archaeological record.

Girders of VISCOM Milano
Modern architecture, girders of VISCOM Milano.

Fine art nature photography: flowers

Fine art nature photography: animals

Fine art nature photography: unique tropical trees: Hawaii and Guatemala are great places do to fine art photography of tropical trees.

Tree trunk filled with vertical lianas
Tree trunk filled with vertical lianas.

ceiba trunk with spines
Ceiba trunk with spines.

Each individual photographer, artist or onlooker will define fine art photography based on their own experience. There are several dozen other potential categories of fine art photography that are valid. I will cover these other topics as time and funding allow the opportunity.

First posted January 2, 2009.

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