What is Fine Art Photography?

Fine Art Photography & Museum Quality Photographic Prints Explained

The term fine art photography is used widely these days, but what does it actually mean? Does fine art speak to the quality of the piece, or perhaps the genre of the photograph itself? While there are no absolute definitions, the terms fine art photography and fine art photographic prints are both rooted in history and have been used by photographers for years from the greats such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell to current artists such as Peter Lik and me. Below, we will look at the history of the term fine art, and how it has been applied to the field of photography in the past and present.

Alight, Lutsen, North Shore, Minnesota. Limited Edition.
"Alight", Lutsen, North Shore, Minnesota. Limited Edition.

What is Fine Art?

The term fine art refers to a concept in which art is created for its aesthetic value or beauty rather than to serve any functional purpose. This differs from applied art and decorative art which are both genres that incorporate the talents of artists, but the art is not the primary intent. Additionally, fine art is (by definition) free from the constraints of commercial or commissioned art.

As with most topics in art, people disagree about the definition, origin and its present-day application. Nonetheless, this article will attempt to make a broad classification of what is categorized as fine art. The term was first coined between 1760-1770 and according to Dictionary.com, fine art is “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.” Prior to being named, the practice was likely in existence since time immemorial. Figurative paintings in places such as Chauvet Cave in France were created over 30,000 years ago and are prime examples of early fine art. However, these early artists certainly did not have any concept of fine art as we think of it today.

Fine art as a genre distinction took hold in the early Renaissance period as painters and sculptors created some of the world’s most well-known masterpieces. These skilled artists were typically commissioned by a patron and therefore were not always able to create “art for art’s sake.” One characteristic of fine art is that the piece is created with the artist's full creative vision. There are no constraints on how a painter might approach a painting, for example. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo were creating fine art even before the term was fully developed. Today, the term fine art has expanded to include several new mediums. Including the artforms listed above, photography, calligraphy, pottery, poetry, music, dance and film are all considered fine art genres. The defining characteristic in each of these genres is that the aesthetic goal is conceived and executed at the sole discretion of the artist.

Scorched Earth
"Scorched Earth", Death Valley National Park, California. Limited Edition

What is Fine Art Photography?

Fine art photography is not a term that has a universal definition, but the general principles are like those of other artistic genres. Contrary to photojournalism, commercial photography or the ubiquitous snapshot, fine art photography relies on the photographer to put an intentional artistic touch on the image. Not specific to any photographic genre, fine art photography can be landscape, portrait, abstract or any other type of photo.

The basic idea behind fine art photography is that the artist is concerned with the aesthetic beauty of the result rather than creating a record of a moment in time. Using landscape photography as an example, a photographer interested in waterfalls might desire a silky-smooth water effect, while also keeping surrounding foliage tack sharp. This typically requires multiple exposures; one long exposure to “blur” the moving water and one short exposure to freeze the foliage. The human eye does not see the scene in this way, but the effect is one of serene beauty. Fine art photographers approach their subjects with an end goal in mind. Perhaps they want to exclude subjects from a scene, use a wide-angle lens mere inches from their foreground to create a near-far effect or use depth of field to purposely focus the viewer’s attention on the main subject. Techniques are chosen intentionally to create the desired effect, which may differ from the way the human eye views the scene.

Into the Mist, Panther Creek Falls, Washington State. Limited Edition Print.
"Into the Mist", Panther Creek Falls, Washington. Limited Edition

What are Fine Art Photographic Prints?

What is a fine art photographic print? Many people assume that fine art speaks to the quality of the piece, but this is not accurate. As defined above, fine art is not about quality, but rather artistic intent and aesthetic value. With that in mind, a fine art photographic print could be low quality and very inexpensive, but still be classified as fine art.

However, since most people searching for fine art also want that piece to be of the highest quality, more details are needed. To determine the quality level of fine art photographic prints, additional information must be provided by the artist. This can oftentimes be difficult to ascertain due to misleading terms and misinformation. There is a wide spectrum of quality in the world of photographic prints, from the mass produced, on-demand fulfillment websites such as Fine Art America and Art.com to the high end offerings from photographers such as Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell and Peter Lik.

A 45 inch Museum Standard Lumachrome Acrylic Print
A 45" Lumachrome Acrylic Print of "Salt of the Earth" with Rear Inset Float Frame

Museum Quality Fine Art Photographic Prints

For prints to be museum quality or higher, there are several characteristics to consider. The mediums below represent some of the different quality options available on the market today.

  • Printing Method and Papers
    • Photographic prints are exposed into light sensitive paper as opposed to being printed. This method is the gold standard for producing the most detailed, color-accurate and longest lasting photographic prints. Artists such as Peter Lik use Fujiflex Crystal Archive photographic papers to create stunning, three dimensional prints. Another photographic paper which is arguably even more impressive than Fujiflex is Lumachrome HD. Lumachrome HD is a metallic gloss photographic paper with a transparency color layer to give prints a lifelike feel. These are the crème de la crème in photographic papers today and are only offered as facemounted acrylic prints.
    • Inkjet prints, also known as Giclée, are another widely used medium of museum quality. Archival inks are printed directly onto papers such as Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, Epson Legacy Platine and Moab Juniper Baryta Rag. These types of prints are more commonly used with traditional framing as opposed to facemounted acrylic.
    • Canvas and Metal prints are common these days in wall art applications, due to the lower cost and affordability of the overall finished piece. Unfortunately, these mediums do not offer the same level of fine detail, color accuracy, and vibrancy that can be achieved with photographic or inkjet papers.
  • Finishing Characteristics
    • To properly display a fine art photographic print, it must be framed, mounted to a sturdy backer, or facemounted to acrylic glass.
    • The most traditional finishing option is to frame the photographic or inkjet paper behind glass, with a coordinated mat surrounding the print.
    • A newer and arguably more impressive print medium is the facemounted acrylic print. For these acrylic prints, Fujiflex or Lumachrome high gloss papers are mounted directly to the acrylic glass and backed with a protective surface. Light that comes in contact with the print refracts within the acrylic material and illuminates the artwork as if back-lit. These fine art acrylic prints can be created with either a frameless “float mount” or with a traditional external frame. When paired with dedicated lighting, this option is absolutely breathtaking.
  • Hanging Materials
    • To ensure a high-end gallery quality print look its best, it must be hung with durable, long lasting hardware and hangers that match the size and weight of the finished piece.
    • Frameless ready-to-hang acrylic photographic prints are best paired with a French Cleat hanging system. The back of these acrylic prints have a rectangular float mount to which the French cleat will attached to, thus allowing the print to hang completely flush with the wall.
    • Framed acrylic and traditional prints come with a variety of hanging hardware, from sawtooth hangers and D-rings to wire hangers. The recommended way to hang a large format framed print is by either sawtooth hangers or d-rings as wire hangers are not as stable and secure as the other two methods.
  • Framing Materials
    • For photographic prints that are traditionally framed behind glass and acrylic prints with exterior frames, the frame material itself plays a significant role in the overall aesthetic and quality level. For museum quality, frames should be made from solid wood, use top of the line veneers, and be finished with a mat made from linen or cotton.
    • Solid wood is the premier option for frames or mouldings, and offers the most luxurious look and feel.
    • High end moulding companies such as Roma, Larson Juhl and Omega all offer incredibly beautiful frame and coordinated mat options.
  • Durability and Projected Lifespan
    • The highest quality fine are photographic prints should also last a lifetime. Prints should have UV protection in the acrylic and glass to ensure that no fading, peeling or cracking occurs.
Lumachrome TruLife® Acrylic Print with ROMA Tabacchino Dark Ash Frame
A 45" Lumachrome TruLife® Acrylic Print of "Tunnel Vision" with a 4" ROMA Wood Frame and 3" Linen Liner

Limited Editions, Artist Proofs and Exclusivity

It is common to find limited editions and artist proof prints available in the high end photography print market. This is certainly not required to qualify as a fine art photographic print, but the controlled rarity and signature of the artist offers a measure of exclusivity and value to prints. Limited editions may run into the hundreds, or sometimes be offered as a one-time single print.

Peter Lik made headlines in December 2014 for his sale of “Phantom,” a monochrome image of the famous Antelope Canyon. The Artist proof print was limited to just one in the edition and was reportedly sold to an anonymous buyer for $6.5 million dollars, controversially becoming the most expensive photo ever sold. Artist proofs are usually sold in addition to the number in the limited edition. These Artist proof prints are sometimes printed with different materials and are often accompanied by a hand-written, signed note from the artist.

Spirit Animal
"Spirit Animal", Antelope Canyon, Arizona. Limited Edition.

Conclusion | Max Foster Photography

As we have discussed, fine art photography can mean different things to different people. There will likely never be a consensus on the term, but hopefully the general principles behind it are now clear. Taking all of this into account, my definition of a fine art photographic print is: “The final product of a photographic artist that has expressed their creative vision through idea conception, capture, processing and physical production.”

For those looking to add a museum quality fine art photographic print to their home or personal collection, I am confident that the fine art photographic prints offered at Max Foster Photography will provide a lifetime of value and viewing pleasure. To learn more about the high-end gallery quality photographic finishes I offer, please visit my prints & framing page.

Discover The Max Foster Fine Art Gallery Collection

A 60 inch Lumachrome TruLife Acrylic Print with a Wood Frame and Linen Liner
A 60" Gallery Ultra+ Lumachrome TruLife® Acrylic Framed Print with a 4" Wood Frame and 3" Linen Liner