Fine art photography: how to refine your style and build a following

Fine art photographer Menna Hossam and London contemporary art gallerist Giles Huxley-Parlour share invaluable advice on breaking into the art world.
A model in a dusty pink dress stands amid a forest setting. In the background, mist rises.

Canon Ambassador Menna Hossam has been fascinated by fine art since she was a child and now channels that passion into her ethereal, whimsical images. "I picked a location with lots of greenery to give the look and feel of a forest and used pink and blue smoke bombs to emphasise the fairytale essence," she explains. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 41mm, 1/1250 sec, f/2 and ISO800. © Menna Hossam

With so much overlap between photographic genres – from wedding photographers shooting in a documentary style to photojournalism destined for a gallery space – what defines fine art photography today?

"It's an artist's vision translated into images; there's an idea behind it," says Egyptian fine art photographer and Canon Ambassador Menna Hossam.

"A project or a concept-based process where the end result has some kind of artistic meaning rather than someone documenting the world as a record," agrees London gallerist Giles Huxley-Parlour, who represents Alec Soth, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr, among others.

Whether you're starting out as a photographic artist or a professional photographer in another genre keen to cross over into the art world, there are a few things you need to know. Here, Menna and Giles share their advice for building a reputation and a career as a fine art photographer.

1. Don't expect to be 'discovered'

Although not unheard of, in Giles' experience it's unlikely that a high-end commercial gallery will come across a photographer by chance. "A gallery decides when there is enough interest in a particular photographer to warrant approaching them and seeing if they can do an exhibition," he says. "That is never – or very rarely – done on the back of someone sending in a portfolio. I've never taken on a single photographer who has contacted me. I've only ever taken on photographers who I have sought out because they have a reputation."

Menna has been shooting her fairytale-inspired fine art photography for nearly a decade but it was only a few years ago that she gave up her full-time job as an art director and photographer at an advertising agency. "I've always been a photographer, but I went freelance in 2018," she says. "I took a leap of faith. My circle is thankfully quite big, and it was a word of mouth situation where people came to know I'd gone freelance. It all took off from there."

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2. Play the long game

"It's a long old schlep to being desirable in a top-end photography gallery," warns Giles. "Beyond a certain price point, nobody buys a work purely because of the print. What they're really buying is the artist."

In other words, it is a brand that galleries are buying, and that's something that can take many years to build. Years of publishing books, holding exhibitions, and earning the respect of critics and the photography community, so that when a collector sees your prints on a gallery wall they love not just those individual images but everything you stand for. Giles's first piece of advice is "to completely ignore the idea of fine art print sales and to get out there and start trying your best to be taken seriously as a good photographer and a good artist".

A model in a long pink dress holds a book on a rocky beach. Waves lap at the shore behind her.

Menna spent many years refining her fine art style. This image of a model portraying the Greek goddess Eleos is inspired by her interest in Greek mythology. "Eleos personifies pity, mercy, clemency and compassion," she explains. "Here she is pictured as a shy, weak, vulnerable and sad young woman." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/2.2 and ISO125. © Menna Hossam

3. Refine your unique artistic vision

The world is awash with would-be fine art photographers. How can you stand out? "You've got to be good," says Giles, bluntly. That takes more than talent. "It requires an enormous amount of work, self-criticism, advice. Try to find a mentor, get an assistant's job with a photographer that has a profile. Get people looking at your work and get as much criticism as you can."

Menna spent time experimenting before settling into her style, which was noticeably distinct from the work many other photographers in Egypt were producing at the time. "I struggled at first," she admits. "I didn't know which way I wanted to go, and I had to try so many things. It's the colours, the composition and the story that you're telling that defines you as an artist. You have to have a certain identity."

4. Ensure your work is visible

Now you're producing artistic projects that you're proud of, "try to get yourself exhibited as much as possible", says Giles. Look out for open calls for festivals or group exhibitions, or team up with your peers to put on your own shows and enter as many competitions as you can. Often awards are judged by gallerists, curators, critics and other influential people in the fine art photography world, so even if you don't win the top prize, they might notice and remember you.

Having a strong online presence through your website and social media is essential, too. For Menna, Instagram has been a powerful outlet, with her images shared worldwide and liked by hundreds. At this stage in your career, it's about "getting your peers to back you, share you and support you", says Giles. "Being part of an online community is as important as a 'real' community."

Two women wearing flowing white gowns surrounded by white netting and tree branches.

"For this shoot, we decided to create a white-themed setup in order to create a whimsical atmosphere that highlights the designer Iman Saab's dreamy gowns," says Menna. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm, 1/160 sec, f/11 and ISO160. © Menna Hossam

5. Develop a profitable sideline

Since going freelance in 2018, Menna has developed a parallel career shooting for fashion brands, which provides a secure income stream. "I thought, 'What's the closest style to what I do within my fine art expertise?' and it was fashion," she says. "I started blending fashion and fine art. Clients approach me because I have my own style. I'm not 100% commercial. I can develop artistic images that show their products in a different way."

"The first thing you do is get yourself financially secure," says Giles. "Become a wedding photographer, do whatever you can to make an income out of your camera. That will then allow you the freedom and time to work on your private practice without the pressure to make money out of it. Almost every single super high-end photographer has a discrete commercial practice behind the scenes that nobody ever hears about," he continues. "And we're talking people who sell hundreds of thousands of prints."

6. Don't go wild with pricing

When you're pricing prints for those early-career exhibitions or graduate shows, don't be greedy, says Giles. "I'm amazed by the number of young photographers who try to charge the same amount as someone who's been a member of Magnum Photos for 40 years and sold 50 books. You have to prove yourself. Instead of high prices, what you want is momentum. You want people to buy your work, to talk about it, to spread the word – and that's not going to happen if you price each piece at €5,000 and don't sell any." When you get to the stage where you do have gallery representation, they will look at your peers to determine pricing. "The people who they feel you fit alongside, which is such a subtle thing and depends on the type of work," says Giles.

A close-up of a wall of framed photos, with a viewer taking a photograph of a picture in the distance.

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7. Act professional from the get-go

You may not be selling your work for thousands yet, but you should still treat it with the respect it deserves. Menna regrets not using a better quality printer, such as those in Canon's PIXMA and imagePROGRAF pro printing range, earlier in her career. "Print quality is extremely important," she says. "My pictures are vivid and vibrant so if the print looks dull, it's useless."

Giles recommends that you print your work in small editions – maybe fewer than 10. "You might do a couple of sizes and make the larger size the smaller edition, though I think that's rather old fashioned. Instead, keep it simple. Make the print the size you think it should be and set the price. And start a spreadsheet so that you know what you've sold and who you've sold it to."

A woman in a large blue ballgown standing in front of a towering dark hedge.

"I've always dreamed of creating a Disney-inspired Cinderella photoshoot," says Menna. "I picked the Royal Garden of Prague Castle to give a regal aesthetic and searched for a model with innocent features to mirror the character, and a dress that was similar to her iconic blue ballgown." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 40mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © Menna Hossam

A model in a short white dress with a long ruffled train poses in a garden next to a large urn.

Menna's commercial fashion shoots are influenced by her fine art projects. "Mariam Dawoud's collection was inspired by the Renaissance art movement, so I wanted to deliver artistic photos that display the beauty of the pieces." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/2.5 and ISO400. © Menna Hossam

8. Network like crazy

"One of the standard things I've found with all artists and photographers who are successful is that they are operators," says Giles. "They may be the best fine artist you've come across, but they haven't got there by accident. They've networked their way up the ladder. You've got to be in the right communities, talking to people who can help you. Try to find someone who has an 'in' and take them for coffee, ask them for advice, get yourself into the world."

Menna's network is also instrumental in the making of her work. The teams she works with on her self-initiated fine art projects are all contacts from the fashion world – dress designers, stylists, makeup artists, set designers, models – who share her vision. "We collaborate to create art," she says.

9. Cultivate a good relationship with your gallery

When you get to the stage where you are on board with a commercial gallery "be as professional as possible", says Giles. "The best people I work with are businesspeople as much as artists. Be enthusiastic, suggest ideas and be visible to the gallery, whether that's physically visible at private views or staying in touch by phone and email. Obviously, that doesn't mean all the time so that you irritate them, but the artists who tend to do best with galleries are the ones that push themselves – in the nicest possible way – on the gallery more than others."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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