Planning a photography exhibit

Table of content

Introduction

After a few years of being active with creating images and participating in the Palo Alto Camera Club, the thought came to me to have my first solo photo show. It only became real when a few close friends pushed me to doing it. I never had a show or exhibited any of my images before and the idea was very daunting.

Having my own show and opening was a great moment.

Several photographer friends asked me later about tips and other recommendations to put together their first photo exhibit. I myself struggled to find detailed information on the web.

I have decided to finally write them down what I learned here and hope that it can help a few of you to get inspired to start planning for your very own special show.

Planning

Planning for even a simple photo exhibit takes time. There is a lot to think about, many choices to make, with many parameters. The description below shows my own choices and gives some alternatives.

Any past experience planning for a project will become very useful when planning for your photo show. It requires organization, planning tools, involving other people, budgeting, etc.

Here is an overview of the main components of the Photo Exhibit project:

  • Assemble a small team of friends and family to whom you can assign tasks for the project.
  • Define a budget. My total cost was less than $1,000 including photos, frames, opening event, and communication material. I’ll give a detailed breakdown of the cost and names of providers.
  • Put together a detailed schedule. It took me about 5 months from the beginning of the planning to the opening. Of course, that’s not full time, photography is a hobby for me.

Choosing a location

I started the project with finding a location. A good friend of mine, Natalia from Hiruko,  offered me the use of her Martial Art center, so, that was easy. One of the training rooms was perfect for a small photo exhibit.

The room itself was about 300 square feet, shaped in a long rectangle with one plain white wall.

Here are some technical considerations when selecting the location (based on my experience):

  • The size was perfect, even for 200 or 300 people coming at the opening over a period of 4 or 5 hours.
  • Need to have decent light, especially at night if you do your opening at night.
  • Need to have a convenient access and adequate parking space or transportation if you invite people for the opening.
  • Check that alcohol and food are permitted on the facility if you have drinks and snack at the opening.
  • Check when the space is open to the public so that people can visit your exhibit after the opening.
  • Check what options are available to hang the frames. Check for example if you can put nails into the wall, or if there are hanging racks already in place. Make sure you check with the facility manager.
  • Of course, make sure there is a good space to display your images, such as a well exposed and lit wall, and that there is not too much visual or audio distractions.

Choosing your theme

One of the most difficult parts for my first exhibit was to settle on a theme. The theme is what distinguishes your exhibit unique from others, and unique to you.

To select a theme, I first chose a group of about 50 images that I simply liked and thought that would look good in a frame on a wall… I then shared those images online using Picasa with a group of friends and family to ask for feedback.

After several iterations, my theme ended up being about “exploration”. From there I picked “Explorama” as the title of the exhibit. The title led me to make a final selection of 14 images.

Some aspects to consider as part of the final selection:

  • Images have a common theme
  • Balance between portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) orientation
  • Balance between monochrome and color
  • Color continuation across images
  • Continuity of scale across images

Printing and Framing

Now that your image selection is final (or almost final), you need to make some printing and framing choices. The options available for printing and framing are virtually infinite.

Dimensions

I opted for the following dimensions:

  • Photo: (average) 9″ x 13″ 1/2
  • Top, right, left white padding: 5/16″
  • Bottom white padding: 5/8″ (for the signature)
  • Mat: 3″
  • Frame (profile dimensions): 7/8″W x 1 3/16″H x 15/16″D
  • Frame (outside dimensions) (average): 16″ x 20″

Click on the image below to see how to plan for your different measurments:

The quality

One choice that needs to be made first is what level of quality you are looking for. The main quality factors I considered were:

  • Archival or non-archival. Archival means that the framed image and the mat will last for many years without deterioration in appearance. With a non-archival quality, the mat (or just the bevel of the mat) can turn yellow, the colors of the photo can change, etc
  • Museum glass or not. This is how much the glass reflects the light and how much it protects the print from the UV
  • Sealed or not sealed. This is how tight is the framing, preventing dust and small insects to get inside. It can be achieved through different methods including the use of craft paper on the back of the frame.

There is a significant price difference between the economic options and the Museum or Gallery grade options. Because my exhibit was temporary and I didn’t plan to sell the exhibited frames, I opted for an economical option. For the frames that I sold, I included museum grade quality options.

The framing

There are many framing options as I’m sure you know. I wanted a simple, modern, black frame. I looked at different places and finally found one that represented what I had in mind in term of simplicity.

I opted for a black, wood frame, satin finish. I also opted to assemble the frame myself, ordering online the parts, cut to order.

Here is the reference for the frame I used: model DM101 from documounts.com.

Documounts sends the kit in a well packed box. It also comes with the assembly thumbnails, which you have to insert to hold each of the pieces together. Add some glue to it, and voila.

Since all my frames had he same exterior dimensions of 16″ x 20″, and the images had different dimensions, the inside window opening of the mats varied from one image to another.

The Matting

There are as many matting options as there are framing options. There too, I was looking for a plain, non-distracting, mat. I opted for a 4-ply, single White Frost mat. Canterbury Papermat CB373 White Frost

Matting need to be custom cut, unless you are already cutting your own mats. Since almost all my images have a different aspect ratio, and because my exterior frame have all the same dimensions, each mat had to be custom cut. I tried to print the photos that would allow me to be as close as possible to a 3″ mat dimension.

There too, Documounts offers a very simple option to order custom mats, just specify the outside dimension and the opening dimensions.

Refer to the dimension diagram above for more details.

The mounting

The mounting of the backing is a simpler option, although if you opt for an archival grade, don’t forget to use an acid-free mounting. I opted for the Standard, Foam Core 3/16″.

Documounts also offers to custom cut the mounting.

To assemble the mounting, I used a Fitting Tool made by Logan. It’s a little device that allows to secure inserts into the inside of the wood frame to press the mounting against the photo and the glazing.

The Glazing

The main options for the glazing are:

  • Plexiglass or Glass
  • UV protection or not
  • Anti-glare or not. Anti-glare is a surface treatment that makes the glazing a bit opaque
  • Anti-reflective or not. This is a high end, expensive but very nice coating (equivalent to the one used on your lense)

There too, I went for a standard Plexiglass. The venue being a martial art center, with some classes for kids, I wanted to avoid to have glass around. And the light reflection was not too distracting. You may want to make a test before ordering the glazing for all your images.

I also ordered the Standard Plexiglass (Acrylic) glazing through Documounts and had it custom cut.

Note that Documount doesn’t carry the anti-reflection glazing, but only the anti-glare, which I don’t personally like. I heard other people liking the milk-ish effect though… The anti-reflective museum glass can be found in the SF Bay Area at Aaron Brothers or at Michael’s for example. They use a technology called TruVu.

The printing

Well, those who know me, I have had a great success using Costco for Fine Art printing. Some of my prints won Fine Art competitions using prints from Costco. If you are interested, I wrote a detailed post on how to get the best prints out of Costco.

As a side note, Costco prints on Crystal Fuji photo paper, which is a well regarded archival-grade paper on large dimensions (up to 12″ x18″ in-store and larger through mail-order).

Being able to define the exact dimensions for your prints might be sometimes a bit challenging. Here are the steps I used:

  1. Print the images at the most precise target dimensions. Images included large white margin
  2. Measure the dimensions for the mat window, leaving the desired white margin around the image (in my case, 5/16″ around, except at the bottom which I used 5/8″ to leave a space for the signature
  3. Then order the mats cut to the dimensions from the previous step
  4. Refer to the dimension diagram above to get more dimension details

Fixing the prints to the mats

There are different methods to fix the print in a frame. I personally opted to fix the print directly to the back of the mat using standard Mounting Artist Tape.

The difficult part when using that method is to precisely position the image, especially if you leave a visible white margin between the outer edge of the image anf the inner edge of the window mat. The positioning has to be near perfect.

I used a simple trick to position it: I first taped the mat to a window and then positioned the photo manually and securing it with tape.

Here is a mat stick to a window glass to help position the print…:

Hanging hardware

 

Don’t forget the hanging part! There are a few techniques and each comes with its own hardware. I opted for the 1″ Sawtooth Hangers, also sold by Documounts (note that some galleries dislike this method). They are easy to place, simply hammer them in the wood frame. Of course, placing them on the upper side is a good idea, and centering them will help when time comes to hang them to the wall.

Note that those hangers assume that you will be able to place nails in the wall. They can also be used to hold a wire.

Make sure the hanging system you use is as reliable as possible, I hear many stories of frames dropping in exhibits!

Here are some hardware options, including the one I used (see photo below).

Labels

It’s a good idea to prepare some good-looking labels or small signs with:

  • The title of the photo
  • The name of the maker (that would be you)
  • The year the image was made
  • Some contact information (optional)
  • Some pricing information (optional)

There are many different ways of making those signs. Here is what I did:

  • Created the design in Photoshop (simple white text, black background)
  • Printed them at Costco on 4″ x 6″ photos
  • Mounted them on white Foam Board. Note, it would be better on black Foam Board
  • Cut the signs (make sure they are all at the same dimension)
  • Blackened the edges of the foam with a heavy duty black marker
  • Used small double-sided adhesives to fix them on the wall (check with the facility manager if appropriate)
  • The signs were then positioned 3.5″ below the frame, aligned to the left edge
  • You can download a PowerPoint template or a Photoshop template. Note: if you use the PowerPoint template, you will need to save it as a PDF or as a high resolution image first.

Marketing

If you want to let people know about your exhibit, and if you are planning to have an opening event, then you need to do some marketing.

What may at the beginning seem to be a simple task, can very quickly become a large project.

Here are aspects to consider:

  • Who you want to invite (Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, other communities you belong to, etc)
  • Which communication methods you are planning to use to reach out (emails, blog posts, postcards by snail mail, flyers, stack of postcards left at some “distribution partners”, word of mouth, etc
  • Put together a schedule which includes who to invite, when, and with which method. It’s wise to send a reminder as the date of the event approaches

Also, this is the time to lock down the date, the location, the theme and name of your exhibit, and maybe some graphics that goes along.

Announcement Postcard

Here is an announcement postcard I designed and printed. I decided to include one of my images from the exhibit as a preview.

I designed it in Photoshop, and printed it at Overnightprints.com (although they don’t print overnight, it takes more like 10 days). Note that the file needs to be submitted as a .tiff in CMYK, something important to know ahead of time of you are used to working in RGB, since some colors will shift during the conversion and will need adjustments.

I ordered 250 5″ x 7″ single sided Postcards, which cost me $57.34 including $18.46 of shipping and Handling and a $16.00 discount (a promotion they were running at that time).

The quality was good for my purpose and for my target audience.

I re-used the design to print some 12″ x 18″ posters and to include in a web page used for the email invitations. I printed those posters at Costco.

Other photos on display

In addition to the framed photos displayed on the wall, I prepared a selection of 40 prints. Those prints included the images from the exhibit, and an additional set of some of my favorite images.

I found that having additional images available allowed people who attended the opening to see more of my work, outside of the prints on exhibit. I also found that having a broader variety of styles and subjects increases the chance of making sales.

Presentation

Those pictures where printed at 8″ x 12″ and mounted in simple 11″ x 14″ mats with 4-ply backing. The mats were then protected in a transparent sleeve.

Again, Documounts.com offers what I was looking for at a very reasonable price:

  • Pre-cut mats 11″ x 14″, opening 11″ x 7 5/16″ (pack of 25)
  • Blank matboards Canterbury Papermat CB373 White Frost (for the back) 11″ x 14″ (pack of 25)
  • Traditional Crystal Clear Bags 11″ x 14″ (pack of 100)
  • Reference number on a sticker, to match reference of the catalog or print list of images on sale

I also bought a few acrylic mini easels to hold a few of those images on the table. I found them at Office Depot, you can also found them here. Tip: search for “plate holders” if you are looking for some on the web.

Souvenir postcard pack

Most people who come at the opening do not purchase a framed image or a matted image. But they may be interested in taking home a souvenir of your exhibit.

I didn’t have the time to put together a catalog, and a friend suggested to put together a pack of 12 souvenir postcards priced at $20.00.

Preparation

To put together a postcard souvenir pack, you need to go through the following steps:

  • Select 12 images (I included some of those exhibited, but also a few different of a different style)
  • Design the back of the card (I included Photo title, my name, and my website URL)
  • Decide how many postcards of each you want to be printed (I printed 50 of each)
  • Select a printer (I used again overnightprints.com)
  • Prepare each image at the correct dimension and file format (CMYK)

Presentation

I wrapped those postcard packs into a clear Crystal envelope (that I found at Michael’s Art and Craft store).

I also added a sticker with the price on it ($20).

Setting up the exhibit

It took four of us about 4 hours to setup the exhibit. I had with me two artist friends (Pierrick and Marcus) who each had experience setting up shows. I couldn’t do it without them. I also had my mother working on various setup tasks.

Assign especially the food and drink project to a friend or family member. It’s a large task on its own and may distract you too much. It requires shopping, preparing, presenting, and… serving.

Setup the frames on the wall

  • Define the sequence (which image goes where). It’s important to sequence the images in order to tell a story to the visitors. Take into account where people are coming from and in which direction they are going to walk to view the sequence of images
  • Measure and mark the exact location of each image
  • Place the hanging hardware (in my case, that was a simple nail in the wall)
  • Cleanup the frames and glass, and hang the frames
  • Measure and position the photo labels (I used a simple double side adhesive foam)
  • Print posters and tape them on the doors of the venue

Other Prints and Postcards setup

 

  • Set up the tables with the 40 11″ x 14″ prints
  • Set up a table with the postcards (including a sign with pricing)
  • Hang the posters on the doors of the venue for people to find the place

Food and Drinks

 

  • Define your food and drink menu and budget. Kids may be coming as well, make sure you include kid friendly snacks and drinks (I had more than 200 people coming)
  • Prepare presentation platters, and all serving utensils
  • Set up the food and drinks on tables
  • Help serve (you may even think about hiring some helpers)

Photo and speech…

  • Ask a few friends/guests to take pictures for you to have a souvenir of the opening
  • Also, prepare a few words, you may want to give a speech. Thank the venue, and those who helped you make the exhibit possible. Thank all guests for coming too!

Selling

If you are planning to sell your artwork during the opening (and after), you need to do some planning.

Catalog and pricing sheet

  • A list of images on sale. I made a simple list of thumbnails. You can see page 1 here and page 2 here. You could also have a catalog if you have time (and money)
  • A pricing sheet with different pricing for different sizes and framing quality. The sheet was designed to be used to place orders (name, address, phone, and what image is ordered at what dimension and which framing quality) so that you can follow-up later. You can see mine here

Payments

You need to assign someone to handle the payments during the opening.

The postcards pack were priced at $20, most people simply dropped a $20 bill.

For prints and frames, the payment was kindly handled by the martial art center who was hosting. They had someone available to take credit card and cash payments. They were also giving receipts to the buyers, and making sure that the order forms were correctly completed.

I had also planned ahead of time to make a financial contribution to a local non-profit organization (Kids Power) supported by my host Hiruko.

Taxes

Make sure you check with your CPA or a tax advisor regarding potential implications of your revenue. Depending on the amount, the IRS may consider that you are not running a hobby any more, but a business. The good news if you are now a “business” is that you can start deducting a lot of your hobby expenses.

Also, check with your local County office if you need to pay sales taxes. Also, check with them if you need a permit to sell your images.

Cost (keep track of all costs!)

Here is a summary of my rounded cost. It gives an idea of what to budget.

Note that the drinks and food accounts for about 1/3 of the cost.

Qty Item Vendor Cost
Framed images
12 Color Prints for Frames (about 11″x14″) Costco $45.00
3 Monochrome prints for Frames (about 11″x14″) The Fotostop $35.00
15 Glazing Documounts.com $100.00
15 Mounting Boards Documounts.com $25.00
1 Logan fitting tool and supply Aaron’s Brother $50.00
Labels (prints at Costco, Foam board….) various $5.00
15 Custom cut wood frames Documounts.com $300.00
Prints on table and postcards
40 Color prints for mats on table about 8″x12″) Costco $80.00
50 Postcard packs of 12 images 4″x6″ OvernightPrints.com $100.00
40 Mats, backboards, Crystal bags for prints on table Documounts.com $100.00
50 Crystal bags for postcards Michael’s $20.00
5 Acrylic mini easel stands Office Depot $30.00
Marketing
250 Invitation cards 5″x7″ OvernightPrints.com $55.00
4 Posters 12″ x 18″ Costco $15.00
Food and drinks
Wine, Cheese, Snacks, ustensils, etc Various $300.00
Rounded total $1,000.00

Check list

My Camera Club colleague Laurie suggested adding a checklist to this article and provided me with some of the items in the list. Thanks Laurie for sharing your own experience setting up your own solo exhibits.

The following table can be used to start your own check list. It’s not meant to be an absolute checklist nor is it in any particular order.

Check list
The theme
Select your theme
Select the images to exhibit
The venue
Find the venue
Set the start date and duration
Measure wall area
Photograph the area
Decide on print dimensions, number, layout
The prints
Choose framing options (frame, mat, mounting, glazing, hanging)
Define exact print size for each image
Define exact mat size for each image
Define exact dimension of the frame, glazing, and mounting
Print images
Sign and assemble
The wall labels
Design labels
Produce labels
Marketing
Write artist statement
Prepare business cards
Prepare an artist resume
Plan the invitations dates and method
List the people to invite, communities to reach out
Design invitation card
Print invitation cards
Send invitations cards, emails, and through online social networks
Design poster
Print posters
Hang posters to the venue
Extra prints for display
Select additional prints
Define dimension and print
Mount in mats and protect in crystal bags
Exhibit postcard pack
Select images to print on postacards
Produce and print
Wrap postcard packs in crystal bags
Finance
Set a budget
Set financial agreement with the venue
Set pricing, prepare a pricing and order sheet
Create a catalog of all prints on sale
Check with tax advisor for tax implications
Check with County for possible sales tax
Assign someone to take orders and handle payments
Follow up with orders
Setting up the exhibit and opening
Plan for the hanging of the frames (hardware, ladder, helpers…)
Hang frames and labels
Set tables with extra prints
Set table for sales and postcards
Plan for the food and drinks
Food and Drink shopping
Food and Drink setup
Buy a Guestbook
Assign someone to take pictures of the event
The opening
Greet guests and visitors
Give a little speech if appropriate
Go from people to people, answer questions, tell stories and annecdotes
Sell if you intend to sell images
Have fun!!

The opening

Well, it’s now the time for you and your guests to enjoy the opening. It’s a social event, an opportunity to re-connect with old friends and make new ones. People love stories and anecdotes, you are there to entertain!

Have fun!

Questions and feedback

Feel free to leave comments and ask questions below.

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