Displaying your photography in an exhibition is a dream to many — learn how to set up your first exhibition for success
Why have an exhibition?
For many photographers, putting work on display is a significant achievement and something they strive for in their careers. But, long before photography, artists used exhibitions as a platform for introducing (and selling) their work to patrons.
In some cases, exhibitions were only open to those of a particular social status. Contrast that to modern times — most exhibits are free to enter, and only a small fraction of photographers make sales from their exhibition prints. These days, putting your work on display in public is less about making money and more about sharing your vision and skill with the audience.
Sometimes, an exhibition on your photography resume may land you more opportunities, but it's a personal achievement for most photographers.
Different types of exhibitions
Who says your photography exhibition has to follow a traditional format? You can display your work in high-quality frames with non-reflective glass. But you can also show your work virtually or have interactive elements as part of the exhibition.
"For many photographers, putting work on display is a significant achievement and something they strive for in their careers."
Virtual exhibits can be simple presentations, with each page dedicated to a single piece of work and its description, like the regularly-updated art collections by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Other institutions, like the National Gallery and Mall Galleries, offer an immersive virtual experience viewing each gallery room and the artwork. With the development of virtual reality space, photographers can design their exhibitions online without printing a single photograph.
When doing your first exhibition, no rules are set in stone, but following our guide will help you get your ideas from an idea to the final collection displayed for everyone to enjoy. You can even show your work both physically and virtually. As a result, you may introduce your photography to a broader audience.
1 Determine the concept
For any idea to become a reality, you first need to know the concept of your photography exhibition. With a clear vision, it's easier to convince a venue to display it or the audience to view it.
To help you pinpoint the concept of your work, ask yourself:
- What is the purpose of the work I want to exhibit?
- Why do I want to display it in public?
- How and where do I want to show my work?
- How will I know my exhibition is successful?
- What do I want to achieve?
UK-based fine art and street photographer Geoff Powell has decades of experience shooting, printing, and displaying his work. Understanding the reason for showing work is an essential consideration for him.
Powell held his first exhibition at a Lake District, England venue. He wanted to showcase the work of his landscape photography workshop clients alongside his prints. The goal was to raise his profile and attract new clients for future workshops — and the exhibit was a success. With 25 print sales, he passed the money on to his clients whose prints sold and gained new contacts for future workshops.
"It was an in-depth learning experience, going from gaining confidence in liaising with the venue, creating a coherent theme, working to deadlines, and sticking to my plan of just monochrome work when at the time, the Lake District was a hub for traditional color landscapes," he tells Picfair.
Another time, when Powell lived in a small village in France, he put up an exhibition to get to know the locals and to introduce himself and his work. He photographed a boules competition between two villages and exhibited the work n the local village hall. Using a string line and pegs, he displayed his A4 prints by hanging them.
"The images, all in black and white, showed people having fun, laughing, gesturing, and so on. It worked — French villages are very community-minded. My French was quite basic, but the imagery was a universal language."
2 Set a budget and find a venue
With a concept in place, you should consider how much you are willing to spend on your exhibition. Photography displays can cost anywhere from a simple $100 exhibit at a local cafe with unframed prints to tens of thousands spent on printing, framing, installation, venue, and opening night expenses.
If you are willing to invest more time in the planning phase, consider local, national, and international art funds. Plenty of organizations, educational institutions, and local councils have a budget set aside for funding art projects. Some do annual community programs focused on specific topics that may fit your project theme. You will find that some photo competitions also exhibit the work of finalists, which can incentivize some to submit their photos.
Be aware that researching your options and applying for grants may take a while, and each funding program may have its own display rules. It can be disheartening to have your proposal declined. But with each application, you will gain confidence in positioning the importance of your photography project.
"Be aware that researching your options and applying for grants may take a while, and each funding program may have its own display rules."
On the other hand, funding your exhibition yourself gives you complete control over your display. You can also crowdfund your exhibit — this usually works well for photographers with a more established presence and marketing knowledge.
The main expenses to consider are:
- Prints and framing
- Extra prints if the audience buys any on the spot and you have to replace them
- Installation materials for mounting or displaying prints
- Venue costs, like insurance or opening day refreshments
- Advertising materials (invitations, flyers, brochures, online ads, QR codes)
- Production of other artwork sold or given at the exhibition (other prints, postcards, photobooks, zines)
If you're on a tight budget — it's time to get creative. "What about scattering small prints on a nice table, along with a framed explanation of what the work is about?" Powell says. "Make it interactive and let people pick up the prints — most people will, by nature, treat them with respect. Think out of the box. Don't think too big. Just think 'different’."
You can take a similar approach to finding a venue. Take a walk through your town and city and look for independent, upmarket coffee shops with wall space. Libraries, churches, community halls, markets, art stores, and educational institutions may offer space to show family-friendly photography exhibits.
"Don't worry if you can only get space for, let's say, three prints," Powell notes. "Have a month-long exhibition and change the prints every few days. People will look forward to seeing the new work."
"Also, be prepared for rejection — eventually, you will get a yes. Remember, it's not you or your work getting rejected. It just probably doesn't fit in with the venue's plans."
Once you find your venue, discuss print sales. Some venues will take a percentage of each print sold, while others might ask for a flat event fee. Look at smaller, local spaces that may give you a free spot to exhibit. Hiring an exclusive site doesn't guarantee print sales or exhibition success, but the venue will still ask for payment in full.
3 Shoot, edit, and print
Generally, you have two ways to get your work exhibition-ready. You either already have a project, and the single missing link is a venue to display it. Or, you already secured a venue – and perhaps, funding – before shooting, editing, and printing your photos.
Consider your display space if your project is still in its early days. For example, if you have a smaller wall space available, pick a number of final photos that realistically will fit. The same goes for large displays – if visitors don't have the room to step back and view the work from a distance, consider a project that works with smaller, more intimate prints.
The same goes for the choice of print material. Your prints should be durable if you display artwork in a busy public space with natural footfall, for example. Contact local print stores who can advise if you need assistance with printing.
For already finished projects, you can go straight to the next step. Powell recommends printing small test photos to decide on your print order. Lay them down side by side and see how they fit together to help you create a plan.
It may be helpful to visit your venue and bring real-size test prints with you. They can be printed using professional paper later. If you want to mount and frame them, make sure to add the extra dimensions to your exhibition plan — the aim is to see which prints go on which wall and how much distance to set between them.
4 Display your artwork
Hanging your first print on the wall is an exciting moment for any photographer. To avoid unnecessary stress before your exhibition launch day, check with your venue if they give you access the day before or earlier.
Ask if the venue can assist if you need extra help or tools, like a stepping ladder. Some places may ask for a charge to set it up for you, while others may ask you to do it yourself. It's always worth bringing an extra pair of hands to help — hanging prints can take hours, and you will want someone to pass you those nails or hold the prints while you check the spirit level.
When packing your tools and wall mount accessories, always bring more than you think you need. Add supplies like a tape measure, cleaning spray or wipes for glass and frames, and gloves for handling prints that easily stain.
5 Advertise and market yourself
Once you have your exhibition date confirmed, you can start advertising it. Some venues will include it on their website as part of the events section, while others may promote it with local print and online news sites. If your exhibition is part of a funded program, it may have a newsletter or online directory for upcoming events.
You can also proactively approach local papers or relevant magazines and blogs. Remember to be vocal about your exhibition on your website and social media.
If you have a large social media following from users worldwide, it's unlikely they'll be able to attend in many cases. Instead, direct your time and efforts to those likely to visit. For smaller, local exhibitions focusing on community-centered social media pages and groups will work best to attract the audience.
6 Sell additional artwork or services
With most things checked off your exhibition list, consider anything else you want to show alongside your photographs. A simple setup can include A5 or A6 leaflets of your bio, website, exhibition description, or a few zines of your project.
If the space permits, you can sell other prints and products, like photo books, gift cards, and postcards. For photographers offering workshops or tuition, it's an excellent opportunity to meet prospective clients or leave promotional materials for the audience to pick up as they browse the exhibition.
All that remains is to wait until your exhibition opens and enjoy the experience!