Navigating the Fine Art and Photo Waters

With digital fine art experiencing continued growth, it remains one of the greatest market opportunities for wide-format print providers looking to expand their business. Despite its promise, navigating the fine art and photography waters can become an overwhelming proposition. With a wide range of digital art media available today, choosing among them can be a confusing task.

As an increasing number of print providers turn to producing art reproductions digitally in an effort to increase their revenue and overall profitability, it is critical that they understand the fine art and photography market, as well as the various media options available today to serve this market niche.

Today’s fine art market consists of three key market segments—true giclée fine art, art reproduction for décor, and fine art photography—which produce applications for a wide variety of end-users. Ranging from professional photographers and frame shops, to museums and hospitality venues, these discriminating customers demand several common attributes, including image stability and reliability, the supplier’s ability to meet rush orders, the supplier’s ability to respond to color critical and technical support questions, as well as print quality and repeatability.

The following chart diagrams the price points for printed media that wide-format print providers can utilize to maximize profitability. Although prices for giclée printing on fine art papers can exceed $30 per square foot, the level of color management and printing expertise required, along with demanding expectations from clients, can easily break the bank without an efficient workflow and clear expectations.

The most profitable types of media—canvas, wall coverings, and backlit applications—are described in more detail below, as well as the other most popular options for meeting the demands of the fine art and photography market.


Traditional Media Options

The adoption of inkjet technology for fine art and photo reproduction has resulted from the flexibility afforded by digital printing. There is a wide range of digital art media available today in assorted weights, textures, and finishes that can affect how the final image looks and feels. The most popular media choices available to print providers looking to perfect their position in the fine art market include:


Matte Papers

At an approximate cost to printers of $.10 to $.24 per square foot, matte papers provide great imaging because they feature highly absorbent coatings, which draw ink into the base. Available in matte or gloss/semi-gloss finishes, matte papers are cost-effective and ideal for presentations, posters, proofing, and map making.


Photobase Papers

At an approximate cost of $.35 to $.42 per square foot, these two-sided polyethylene sealed sheets provide excellent image quality and higher photorealistic looking images. Additionally, photobase papers are commonly constructed to meet archival standards and enable instant dry time. In contrast to photorealistic and matte presentation papers, photobase papers support greater ink load and no paper cockle, making them ideal for photo reproduction and point-of-sale graphics.


Fine Art / Rag Papers

Ideal for fine art photography and art reproductions, fine art papers are most typically characterized by their 100 percent cotton construction. At an approximate cost of $1.50 to $2.25 per square foot, these papers should also be manufactured to archival standards by being acid-free/lignin-free and with no optical brightening agents (OBAs).

Archival papers typically contain buffering materials like calcium carbonate, which neutralize environmental acids (from pollutants or adjacent materials). OBAs are chemical additives that absorb ultraviolet light and reflect blue visible light. The eye will perceive a bluer sheet as being whiter. While these materials are effective in brightening dull fibers, they are not permanent and will fade; ultimately causing the print to appear much more yellow.

Additionally, digital fine art papers should be specially coated to ensure controlled dot gain with superior colors and high DMAX.



There are many different surface finishes, from matte to high-gloss, and smooth to highly-textured, making the selection of a canvas seem like a challenge. Canvas bases are usually made from cotton or polyester or a blend of the two. Their inkjet coatings allow a rather large reservoir for ink and yield very high gamut imagery.

Ranging in price from $2.00 to $2.59 per square foot, 100 percent cotton canvases are best suited for small run fine art reproductions where acute differences between prints are desired. Featuring natural imperfections and irregularities, these highly textured canvases allow for original unique character from print to print to result in an authentic and natural look and feel. One hundred percent cotton canvases are available in either a gloss or matte finish.

With a similar price point ($2.00 to $2.50 per square foot cost to printers), poly/cotton canvases are more commonly used for large or small production runs where consistency from image to image is desired. Also available in gloss or matte finishes, poly/cotton canvases deliver a smoother more consistent texture than 100 percent cotton. In addition to offering the look and feel of canvas with less natural artifacts, poly/cotton canvases feature a higher level of stretch ability than 100 percent cotton canvases.

True for both 100 percent cotton and poly/cotton canvases, glossy finishes for canvases can provide water resistance, higher density, and an increased level of stretchability. In contrast, matte canvases are naturally water resistant and their weave patterns are more evident to offer a more traditional canvas look and feel. Since it is always easier to add gloss than take it away, matte canvases enable a custom level of gloss as determined by the selection of a top coat.


Non-Traditional Media Options

As the fine art and photography market continues to grow by leaps and bounds, print providers are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. One of the easiest and more noticeable ways to do this is through media selection. Print providers are looking for unique specialty media for some of the standard and emerging applications in this market. Below is an overview of some non-traditional media options that can be utilized for success.



At an approximate cost of $.90 to $1.50 per square foot, various fabric solutions in the marketplace can be utilized in fine art applications. By taking advantage of the advancements in the digital imaging marketplace, print providers can employ fabrics with or without adhesive for photography, art displays, and sublimation.


Backlit Films

Today’s range of backlit films offers a unique way to display artwork or photography. Ranging in price from $1.10 to $1.50 per square foot, backlit films enhance color pop and call attention to the piece. This is an especially critical factor in the fine art and photography industry, where artists are striving to make their mark.


Wall Coverings

Custom murals and borders for homes and entertainment venues are hot right now. Compatible with standard wallcovering pastes, there are a wide variety of media options available that meet ASTM requirements for commercial wallcovering at an average of cost of $.63 to $.79 per square foot.


Adhesive Products

In an effort to save time and money, adhesive-backed media are becoming increasingly viable options for applications in the fine art and photography market. Mounting jobs using traditional media involve costly raw materials such as media, ink, and adhesive backed board or adhesive spray. In contrast, using pressure-sensitive adhesive media can result in a 30 to 40 percent cost savings and 20 to 30 percent reduction in production time.


Choosing the Right Media

Depending on preferences and priorities, wide-format print providers rely on substrates to achieve the desired overall impact of their work. While each media option has varying qualities, there are a few common characteristics print providers should always consider when creating applications for the fine art and photography market:

Image permanence and true color fidelity: A number of factors, including the type of coating and whiteness of the coating will affect how vibrant images will appear when printed with inkjet technology. The substrate and coating components can also affect the longevity of the image, as can the type of ink used (pigmented inks should be used for real image permanence).

Optical brightening agents: As discussed previously, papers without OBAs are preferred for the most color stable prints. OBAs can result in more pop of an image because they make a medium appear brighter; however, they are not permanent. Since the observed color of a print is a result of a combination of the substrate color as well as the inks used, the substrate color will change (yellow) when the OBAs fade. This means that the use of OBAs will affect the color of the print as it ages.

High archival quality: To ensure the archivability of images, print providers should use acid- and lignin- free media since both acid and lignin can contribute to premature discoloration of paper. A naturally occurring component found in trees, lignin is the material that causes newspapers to yellow quickly when left out in the sun. As mentioned earlier, archival papers typically have buffering agents to prevent acidification from environmental factors.

Optimized coatings for high-quality color reproduction: Media for fine art and photography applications should be coated to accept heavy ink loads without substrate cockling or ink mottling. Exceeding the ink saturation limit can result in paper cockle, which affects printer conveyance and finishing. It’s important to use products are that are designed with optimized coatings that result in good dot gain and excellent color output.

Water resistance: Another characteristic to look for is a water-resistant coating that is free of optical brighteners, which can alter color fidelity and cause yellowing over time.

Easy to protect and mount: Fine art and photography applications need to incorporate both high quality archival imaging media and finishing and mounting products that have archival qualities.

The attractive fine art and photography market presents many opportunities for today’s wide-format print providers. In order to successfully navigate the fine art and photography waters, it is critical for print providers to understand the landscape and the wealth of media options available. Not only will utilizing media options that are optimized for the fine art and photography industry bring success, but differentiation in materials will push educated print providers ahead of the competition.


Jennifer Chagnon serves as marketing manager for InteliCoat Technologies and David Williams serves as sales and marketing manager for Museo Fine Art from InteliCoat Technologies. For more information, please visit