There are many ways to answer this question.
The first method of calculating price is to determine the cost of crafting the image, and then factoring in a reasonable amount of profit.
This method is particularly hard for paintings. After all the cost of raw material in a painting isn’t very much, is it? The canvas and frame likely cost less than a hundred dollars.
But then you have to factor in the cost of the painter’s labor. It’s not uncommon for a artist to spend 50 hours crafting a particular painting. The math then is fairly straight-forward. Let’s say $20 an hour times 50 hours plus the cost of the canvas, this would generate a price of $1100 for a single painting. Sounds reasonable, right?
But wait, what’s with this $20 an hour figure? An artist is not a house painter. Value is not the same as price. The final painting should be worth much more than the sum of labor hours. A true artist is making something that can’t be replicated, he or she is producing a singularity in space/time. Because of this, the “cost of goods sold” method is absolutely useless in determining an appropriate price for a painting.
Price vs. Value
The issue isn’t price, it’s value, and real method of determining value is to find out what it’s worth to those who would like to possess it. This is why an auction house like Christie’s is so effective in setting a price that’s roughly equivalent to value.
The same is true of photographic art. Value is generally set at what people are willing to pay.
While neither the painter nor the photographer can afford to lose money on their art, the cost of goods sold is much more of a factor for the photographer than it is for the painter.
While a painter can often paint anywhere, even in her own house, and with only a small investment in equipment, the photographer must travel to a particular location to capture a particular image. That costs money.
Then there is the cost of equipment. It’s not uncommon for a photographer to have $20,000 or more invested in his equipment.
Then there is the cost of labor. It’s common for a photographer, much like a painter, to spend many tens of hours refining her image, although for the photographer that refinement is normally done on a computer.
Then there is the cost of the print itself, which varies as a function of the size of the print. A typical 40 x 60-inch high-end print (we’re talking FujiFlex or Lumachrome here) mounted in acrylic will often cost on the order of $900 to manufacture and ship (no frame), or $1100 with a frame. The smaller the print, the less it costs to produce. So photography prices are often based on size.
Summing it up…
So ignoring the cost of travel, equipment, and labor, the “break even” price for the photographer for a 40 x 60 print is roughly $1100.
But then you have to factor in the gallery’s cut, which is usually about 40% of the total price.
So now, just to break even on the print costs alone, the photographer has to price her 40 x 60 print at $2200. At that price she makes not one penny of profit.
But of course the photographer can’t ignore the cost of labor, equipment, travel, etc. This isn’t charity, it’s supposed to be a business. What that means is if you see a 40 x 60 print for less than $3000, the photographer is likely selling it below cost.
There are a less than a handful of photographers in the world who are making a decent living doing what they do. The rest are just scratching by.
I hope you remember this the next time you head to a gallery.
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