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Tuesday, 15 March 2011


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Two possible stumbling blocks for your premise, and a thought--

First, photographs, being mechanical and more or less instantaneous, have long been considered to work best in multiples or groups--the photo essay, the book--and as illustrations to written ideas or reports rather than on their own. Paintings--I'm reminded that N.C. Wyeth called his ambitious single works "easel pieces" to distinguish them from his otherwise similar paintings for book illustrations--take months or even years to complete, and are generally a) conceived singly and b) used only for display, so it makes more sense they'd be larger.

Another problem with the premise is that ambitious works by painters might have tended to be larger, meaning the pieces selected for a book like Gardner's might tend to be larger than average even for paintings.

And finally, a thought--the type of painting that photographs immediately endangered and replaced was of course the portrait miniature, which were, as the name implies, tiny--about the same size as Daguerreotypes. Don't know what that proves, if anything; as I say, just a thought.

Nice essay, though!


One could do a statistical study based on the idea that the target market are walls, not human buyers. That is, the size of what you sell (and thus make) may be determined by the sizes of the available walls in the areas you're selling your art work.

In the past, masterpieces were bought/commissioned by rich folk who owned castles with expanses of flat spaces. A lot of people now live in one- and two-bedroom condos.

Will future art work be sold based on the sizes of LCD display panels that people hang on their walls. At that point, maybe all art will have to fit that maximum height/width "window", since it will be re-sized to match the max size of peoples' screens.

A better choice of data would have been photographic masterpieces hanging in museums. Painting is a different art form.

Thanks for doing this. I've wondered about it. Accepting your and Mike's caveats, it's still interesting. And I wasn't really expecting "definitive" to happen so easily anyway.

I have certainly suspected that there was a demand for larger photo prints that was being (partially) blocked by technical issues in the past. Also financial issues, or I would have made more 11x14 prints.

The level of detail in a painting is, in general, lower than that in a photographic print. 300 dpi or whatever is simply not going to happen with a paintbrush. In general, therefore, I postulate that a painting must be intended to be viewed from further away than a photograph. Ergo, bigger.

I also postulate that paintings were and are sold to well-to-do people, who have larger rooms.

Second Robert above: commissioned artworks were made for large estates, since that was the kind of people that could afford art from the masters.

We have two spaces for hanging at home (we rotate the pieces from time to time). One works best with up to about 50x60cm (20x24 inches); much larger and it'll look crowded. The other really should be 20x20cm (8x8 inches) or smaller. We're not living in a particularly small place, mind you, but most wall spaces are taken by bookshelves or other things, or don't work well for displaying stuff.

While people with larger spaces can accommodate smaller works, the opposite isn't true. So, print it large if you want, but the larger you print, the smaller your audience.

The "too oblong" part I'd take exception to: most prints I see don't have the 2:3 proportions one expects from 35mm photography. I'd guess that most photographers crop from the long side of their prints on the majority of their images from 35mm and 5x7.

The "too small" part I'd agree with. I have a 32x40" photo hanging right now, and if I had the means to make my own 30x40 prints I would do so. Unfortunately, Santa didn't bring my Rodagon-G and floor-standing Epson, so I'll beg poverty for my stack of 11x14 prints . . .

I'm entertained by this because I recently commissioned a painting from a photographic client who is an artist. I saw a work of hers in a local art museum, and decided to try and commission a piece--not something I have done often, but this seemed the right moment, because I was looking for a very special gift for someone.

The painter's style, and the size of the canvas, delighted me. It looked just right. I requested similar, and proposed a subject, which the artist approved (and I knew it would please the gift-recipient). She added--to my surprise--that she would like to paint something on a larger canvas.

Larger? I enjoyed the smaller sized canvas enough. I find myself slightly anxious about diluting or dispersing (blurring?) the concentrated style I saw in the original canvas. But is that just a photographer's prejudice, enforced by the habits and constraints of digital photography and printing?

As so often happens, I find myself visually adrift. I know what I like to look at . . . until I find out I no longer like it, or I admire something new and unpredictable. The eye, or rather the brain--a tricky beast!

Only one way to find out. I'm going to view work-in-progress later this week. And try to forget I'm a photographer.

I like to be able to see a whole image at once, which mostly means smaller rather than larger.

Cramming large images into too small spaces (that isn't the fault of the artist, but rather the owner) happens with a depressing frequency, and depresses me. The local framing shop which I occasionally use is full of very large pieces which are going to look completely out of scale in any normal house. Last time I was there, there was a huge photograph of a family group being framed, where the people were bigger than in real life. I'd find that creepy in a house.

I also recall in 1998 visiting the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid to look at Picasso's Guernica. That's a huge painting (349cm x 776 cm, per Wikipedia), but it was hung in a singularly odd place with a low ceiling and some pillars nearby, meaning you could only see the whole thing at once from one area. Perhaps it was a temporary placing, but it was disappointing. There was also a security guard stationed close by, who kept walking across the front of it which did not add to the overall scene.

I keep sane by remembering Weston made 8x10 contact prints that are worth a fortune today. When I mess in the darkroom it's either 5x7 or 8x10 max. I don't have the trays, washing facilities or $$ for anything larger. Besides I throw away five pieces of photo paper (at least) for every keeper.

One thing to keep in mind - the end of a brush is considerably bigger than a pixel. The smaller the painting the harder it is to add fine detail -

ALSO the SIZE of a painting is the FIRST consideration not a future option as there is only the original - no copies (at least not in paint).

So the world's poster makers (generally 24x36" up to 27x40") have had it just about right this whole time, eh?

"One thing that might be taken with less salt is the fact that, given substantial freedom to choose—a freedom that photographers didn't have—almost nobody painted as small as photographers print."

I wonder how much of this can be attributed to the detail that can be packed into each medium. Nobody paints at 300 DPI.

This is all very nice, but the thing is that photographs ain't paintings-- one of the technical problems that painters and draftsman have is that if you want a lot of detail and tonal range you need to either get a bigger canvas or get out a magnifying glass and some tiny tiny brushes. If you are working from life, this latter approach is nearly impossible, which is why you will always see art students lugging around awkward 20x24 inch portfolios and drawing boards.

A better historical comparison would be with prints-- after all photography is merely another form of print making along with lithography, etchings, woodcuts and the like.

Graphs! Graphs! This article calls out for graphs! A histogram of size vs frequency would really help to visualize what is happening here.

It might be interesting to see if there is a correlation with being commisioned vs size. Are commissioned works larger than on-spec works?

A short time ago owning a TV 32-inches or larger was like owning a Bentley. Currently, 32-inch and smaller TV's are only available as a specialty. What changed? The manufacturers technical ability to deliver what people want, a nice big screen that can be viewed comfortably and occupy as large a viewing area as practical.

Photography is catching up, but the 'stereotypical artists' odd personalities are trying to suppress change from without. As always.

I've always known that a 16x20 print requires contact distances to view, arms length or less. At 24x30 your at the cusp of being able to view and enjoy a print from anyplace in a typical residential room, but you'll still get more from it if you approach closer. Larger sizes really boom. The impact of the image can then begin as a person enters the room, not as they happen by it at close range some hours later.

Small prints have their places, and some subjects are better represented by larger or smaller prints, but my personal tastes tend toward the large side. And my TV is 50-inches, only because I can't afford larger.

Interesting article...but, as photographers, we are taught from a young age to shoot to the format we are using, fill up the space. Cropping is 'bad'. Which means, over the years, I've also shot mostly with formats that I've favored through usage, eschewing 35mm, whose format I can't stand, and doing mostly 120 square or 6X7 format, which I prefer.

Having said that, it's also interesting to note that I have a few friends that market primarily to art galleries, and they've basically been told the galleries can't sell anything 'small'; it better be 16X20 or larger! A 'fine art' painter friend of mine that does northern Wisconsin landscapes in oil, has been told the same. So, a person may consider themselves to be an 'arteest', but if you're trying to get into a gallery to sell yourself, the gallery owners are trying to make a profit and mover merch, they probably won't take you on unless they can move your stuff; which to them means 'sofa sized'!

So, I guess, if you're a true artist, you paint/photograph from the soul, and do what it tells you, but if you're trying to make a living, you do what the marketplace says!

The golden rectangle occurs very frequently in nature as it falls right out of how cells divide and place themselves and out of some of the ways how plants and animals optimize their efficiencies. For similar reasons it occurs frequently in many areas in math. Beyond that too many people have read too much into finding the golden rectangle in ancient monuments (e.g. Greek temples) etc. as if it were a mystical ratio. Testing people's preferred ratios for the sides of rectangles has repeatedly shown that we generally do NOT have a particular preference for rectangles close to the 1 : 1.6 aspect ratio.

For photographs I think the best ratio is simply the one corresponding to the best crop of a well-composed individual image.

And yes, most people buying photographs or chosing to hang their own on a wall do not live in very big rooms.

Interesting analysis, John, though I'd think that the classical medium most analogous to the photographic print might be the etching rather the painting. Not that I'm going to volunteer to run the numbers on those . . . .

What is the most popular size of flat panel TV sold today?

We hang these TVs on walls. We sit on the sofa to view them. So why shouldn't our photos be of a similar size?

I read this with a great deal of interest since I sell my own work through art shows and galleries.

I have always tried to guess what the public would want with respect to size when buying images and could never quite find a pattern to their buying.

Since we had both traditional matted prints and canvases, I noticed people treated the two different types differently. Generally people interested in traditional prints have stayed below 16x24. However, people purchasing canvas seem to like big prints. We sell many in the 30x40 range.

This seems to make a little more sense to me now after reading this post. I guess customers must be thinking of the canvases as some sort of poor mans painting.

How interesting, thanks for putting this post together. It is wonderful information to ponder.

First, when one hears arguments like "Real photos are small. Those people who make big photographs are a bunch of elitists." it's safe to ignore the speaker as a bit deluded. By declaring their photos as "real" photos, they are in fact simply trying to declare themselves as more elite than those "elitists."

The comparisons with painting fall flat mostly because the context for those works -- mostly commissions or planned exhibitions -- was more likely to define the size and shape of the work. Most forum-posting photographers just print 8.5x11 because that's what's available at Office Max. The contexts and purposes are completely different. One might as well discuss what kinds of motorcycle is best based on variations in 1830's cabriolets.

My suggestion for those who buy the premise "painting is art and I want my my 25-megapixel snaps to be art so they should be more like paintings from the Louvre or Gardner": spend between 9 and 35 months making your next large print. Just the one print.

Mona Lisa 21" X 30", Arches Water Color 30" X 22", 35mm approximately the same format -- all work for me.
Size does matter -- but generally it's, Content Content Content.
Good photography works in many sizes, but most photography has a particular size that will work the best for each image.

What I find with photographs is that compositions tend to fall apart at too large a size with too close a viewing distance. People generally like to get close to photographs because of the detail, but if the overall composition is important, than they need room. On a site like Flickr, composition and "first impression" become the primary concern, and details come second. In some cases on a wall a photographer might benefit from displaying two sizes next to each-other, one large, one small.
I've definitely noticed a recent increase in photo display sizes for local shows. While 24x36 or larger prints can look pretty neat, in some cases they seem kind of obnoxious and take away the overall impact, especially in a crowded public space. We have a National Geographic connected show called "Hidden Alaska" right now hanging in a local cafe, stunning prints, but frankly a little much for the space.

I would think if we are talking about prints to be hung on a wall or similar venue, that there is a normal viewing distance available. From that viewing distance there is an angle of vision that fills the normal human scope of vision. A point where you do not to move closer to see detail in the image and where you don't need to step back to eliminate edges that fall into the periferal range. I believe a 50mm lens (normal) somewhat adheres to this thinking. One of my favorite paintings is "raft of the Medusa", I had no idea it was that enormous. Thanks.

This post is big on statistics, but largely ignores content, except to say it's the artist's aesthetic decision. But surely subject matter and content warrant more scrutiny if one is to really study the issue. Adams' grand landscapes versus Weston's peppers, for instance, separate from other considerations.

I'm particularly fascinated by successful photographers who were also successful painters, e.g., Sheeler, Crawford, Shahn, et. al. Perhaps a study of their respective works (some subjects depicted in both mediums) would add to the discussion. I'm looking forward to next year's exhibit at the Phillips Collection in DC, which links famous painters with their photography...http://www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions/upcoming/index.aspx

Personally, I like to print smaller than larger, despite my transition from film to digital. There are various reasons, including subject matter, but more specifically my preference to see the work as a whole, allowing for one to see the inter-connected geometry between objects in the frame, without the eye having to wander too far. But, different images call for different sizes. Sometimes I don't know exactly why, but as the old saying about pornography...I know it when I see it. I will admit, however, that the digital world affords much more efficient means to experiment with each picture.

I'd propose two additional methodologies to determine the ideal print size. Either method could be used to suggest a proper print size to a client.

First, I recall from years ago that you can use the formula for viewing distance (D) as the Focal Length (F) times the orginal image size (I) divided by the projected size (O), or D = (F X O) / I. Using this formula, the proper viewing distance for a 5 X 7 inch print from a 35mm negative taken with a 50mm lens is about 10 inches.

By applying the same formula but solving for the projected size O, we find that the correct size for a 36" viewing distance is about 12 X 16 inches, or from 48" would be a 24 X 36 inch print.

The second approach? Simply select a print the same size as the closest flat screen TV. Most people will have already considered the combined impact of room size, viewing distance and budget constraints, so why re-invent the wheel?

Don't you think being able to physically see the piece was an important consideration for the artist when discussing its finished size with his patron?

I wonder how many patrons of the Gardner paintings were over the age of 40 and did not wear eye glasses. The artist was not stupid. He knew if the painting was so small, or characters too subtle, that his patron and his patron's friends could not make out the subject, getting paid (or new commission) may become a problem.

For the artist, being able to see the piece was critical, too. If his vision was flawed, proper execution could become compromised, as well.

Just curious...

@ John Camp,
Nice article, and thanks for taking the time!

@ Marc Rochkind,
Yes, it's a different art form. But your suggestion that a "better choice of data would have been photographic masterpieces hanging in museums" is loaded with statistical biases, precisely as John describes in his second paragraph. Thus any conclusion would have simply illustrated those points (enlarger not big enough, paper not available, negative too small, etc.).

As for the majority being horizontal (47 of 72), I have to wonder if the fact that our eyes are displaced horizontally in our heads influences that. After all, my own field of view is much greater in azimuth than in elevation (as evidenced by how often I bump my head on unseen overhangs).

Reassuring to know that large format ticks all the boxes again..

A few thoughts in the spirit of geeky, not-too-serious obsession-compulsion:

As you point out, paintings made for sale or commission were typically sized for budget (or budgeted for size), and probably tend to be larger than noncommissioned work. I suspect that the former may dominate the selection in Gardner's. It would be interesting to sort the data that way.

To really go for apples-to-apples comparison on that score, we'd have to look at commissioned photographs, including those meant for billboards, trade show banners, corporate lobbies, etc., some of which would dwarf the Géricault. (And at the other end of the scale--magazines and web pages.)

If we're looking at it strictly in terms of private home or office decoration, we should probably account for the fact that photographs on walls are often matted, which usually adds significantly to the object's area.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly: one reason why photographs tend to be smaller is that they *can* be. This is due not only to the medium's finer typical resolution, as Andrew points out, but also to its drastically more flexible handling, storage and viewing options. Not to mention economics and the idea of reproducibility and "resizability".

Especially when we print for ourselves, these factors both allow and encourage smaller prints ("I can print it large later [at more trouble and cost], but for now...").

At any rate, thanks for this entertaining, informative and thought-provoking essay.

“A 1,000 square-inch painting can be seen in detail from a comfortable distance. That is, you don’t have to have your nose right up against it. It can be seen easily over a couch or a table or a chiffonier.”

It seems quite easy, the couch notwithstanding, to move closer or further away depending on the work. I would maintain that an artist’s decision about print (or painting) size should depend on the content of the work rather than the environment or the furnishings unless the work is to fulfill a commission.

One of the nicer exhibits I’ve seen in the last couple of years was by Robert Adams of the work from “Summer Nights, Walking”. The gallery space was large and the quite small prints were beautiful and still appropriate in the setting.

During the same gallery walk in Chelsea I saw way too many photographs that in my opinion couldn’t rise to the size. They might have been OK at more modest sizes, but at the LOOK AT ME NYC sizes they fell short. Too many pixels, not enough content.


Thank you, John. Timely article for me as I plan a new print project. Do you or Mike have any opinions on DPI vs. viewing distance? This would certainly have a bearing on the question of ideal size, wouldn't it? Even with a 16MP sensor, the much-recommended 300dpi limits max. print size to about 17"x11".

Thanks John,

Interesting analysis. Despite the caveats I would further conclude from your data and from my experience in and around the NYC gallery scene (indicative of nothing beyond the NYC gallery scene) many gallerists may still be caught up in trying justify photography in art historical terms.

Even though the public is happy with smaller prints everything in the gallery world is big-bigger-biggest.

I rarely see prints smaller than 20x30" and in a show of say 15-20 prints there are usually at least 5 featured prints that are printed much larger, 40x60" or more.

I often wonder who buys these things. Not because of the prices, it doesn't surprise me that there are a lot of people with a lot of money in NYC, but rather for the size. Wall space is still at a premium even for the wealthiest collectors.

ILTim, TVs smaller than 32" are all over the shelves at Costco and Best Buy. They are not any kind of "specialty" item.

(I bought a TV last month, so I was looking around a lot. Mine is 46", and indeed large ones like that are much cheaper than they used to be, and sizes up to at least 55" are quite common. But the 32" and smaller sizes are still present in mainstream channels.)

One way to see print sizes bought for the interior decor market is to look around in offices and hotel rooms.

I don't see anything as small as 11x14 there.

Quote: "The level of detail in a painting is, in general, lower than that in a photographic print. 300 dpi or whatever is simply not going to happen with a paintbrush."

Perhaps for a reason? It also speaks volumes about our (undue) obsession with resolution/sharpness.

I believe the reason they prefered horizontal is that we naturally see in a horizontal aspect. Our eyes are next to each other, not stacked one over the other. But I could be wrong; it may be some other obscure reason.

In the last couple of years T.O.P. has, several times, offered prints for sale by well known photographic artists. I don't remember the size of the prints offered but I do wonder what the sizes were and why those sizes were selected by the photographer. Was it a matter of production cost, shipping constraints, affordability or a feeling by the photographer about how he wanted his work viewed by the end user/consumer?

The cost of canvas ain't cheap.


Paint is even worse.


Interesting views on TV sizes. I think I took a different path than you did at the same critical juncture.

The largest TV in my house is 21 inches on the diagonal, with a 4:3 aspect ratio (it's a CRT set I bought in about 1992). I have a smaller flat panel (15 inches on a 16:9 ratio) I bought a couple of years ago that swings down from under a kitchen unit. The former is on for perhaps a couple of hours a year (normally, the Queen's Speech after Christmas Day lunch), the latter every morning for about 15 minutes, tuned to BBC news as I grab a morning coffee before heading out for the day.

What I do watch is quite a lot of video, DVD films and BBC iPlayer on a 27 inch iMac, from a distance of about 2 feet. It's lean forward, elective choice, as opposed to sit back passive viewing. It's a total change in the way in which I choose to be entertained. Not strangely, the viewing distance is about the same as that which I feel comfortable with for art (photos or paintings). My favourite image size is iMac 27-sized.

Of the very few sales I've had I've always had a few people who want a very large (way past 20x24) version. They generally don't get my explanation that the image will probably fall apart.

Is it time for a survey Mike? Maybe one where we can specify how many sold in the different size categories.


Interesting post.

Here is my take, and this is all just my opinion:

As in photography, a painter arrives at a working method through a variety of routes, but most settle on some method and are creative within the attached limitations.

It's difficult for a painter to work on paintings over a certain size, because they have to step back from the arm's-length painting distance to be able to see the whole picture. I think it's fair to say that large paintings require special skill.

Large paintings are historically more likely to be considered important because of the expense involved, the special skills, and the status of the buyer. (this bias has certainly bled into the world of photography as well).

Finally, the statistics in this post are really based on a count of classes of paintings rather than on a count of paintings, because in an art textbook, each painting is a representative of a movement or a transition point between movements. The two numbers don't match up, since some movements involved many more paintings than other movements.

Personally, I generally feel like large pictures generate more of a visceral response in me as a viewer, and small pictures generate a more intellectual response.

Look at the range of prints being offered today by the very successful elite of landscape photographers. Michael Kenna has made more from his 9" (I believe) prints than most of us will ever make, combined. I can make the same claim for Clyde Butcher's wall-sized prints. As well, in the realm of more standard print sizes, we have Charles Cramer, John Sexton and Bruce Barnbaum. Can we really say any of these photogs are wrong?

Great article, one I've been wanting to see for a long time.

One photo club I belong to has long had a size limitation that simply doesn't fit my thinking about the sizes of prints I'm interested in seeing and making these days--which is to say large-20x30 give or take. These are what I hang in the large spaces in my house and love. Smaller areas get smaller prints.

Having brought and shown larger prints-which didn't qualify for the competition because of their size--six months ago the club determined to hold a large print show. These hang for two months in a State owned aquarium. It turned out to be immensely popular and well received by the facility management. Now everyone wants to do it again, but for the time we have returned to the old size limitations because of available display space.

Sometimes one must break out of the mold. We are now less restricted in processes and equipment that dictate what we can do--so why should we pretend otherwise.

To each their own obviously, I love Weston's contact prints-but I won't be making any. My prints of dragonflies lose their context when printed too large. Much goes into the decision to print at any size--I'm just grateful for the ability to have so many choices.

Nice work. Thanks for bringing some thoughtful research to bear on this question.

It may be of interest that paintings were sometimes 'cropped'. It happened to Rembrandt's "Night Watch" when it was moved to a new location some 75 years after being painted. What was lost can still be seen on a replica made earlier. The crop can be seen on wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nachtwacht-kopie-van-voor-1712.jpg
Because more was cropped from the left, the balance of the composition was changed, the leading figures ending up dead centre. The crop ratio changed from 1.29:1 to 1,2 to 1.
After the operation the painting is still XL,at 143 by 172 inch.

I am amazed this discussion has got so far concentrating on size, instead of scale. From (say) a painter's viewpoint, these are very distinct - size is a technicality / practicality, while scale is a fundamental of your representation. Working on a big painting is in almost all respects very different (expressively, practically, emotionally) than working on a small painting. That may be subject and content related, and/or, it may be to do with the working and the viewing experience. Some representational artists prepare drawings (or sculpture maquettes) at reduced size, but I'd suppose very few will doubt that something basic happens when enlarged to the final scale, and that this needs to be responded to somehow... there may be little equivalence of feeling, intent or even message.

Nonrepresentational artists probably have even more difficulty separating the physical size from the various other physical facts about the work, such as what colours have been used, or how arranged. If anything changes, it all changes.

Variable enlargement is certainly not unique to photography / cinematography, but to then regard two differently scaled instances of the same image, as essentially the same single "work", may well be. A photo enlarged to a certain size "could have been" a different size instead, and at some level we are aware of this. The only exceptions are maybe contact printed photographs, tin-types and the like, where we are in some sense effectively "in the physical presence of" a definitive surface.

If memory serves (hah-hah), the Gardner book ignores American "Luminism". Many of the Luminist artists, at times painted small. J F Kensett, Fitz Henry Lane (Fitz Hugh Lane), M J Heade, J F Cropsey, S R Gifford, even that master of the large scale "crowd pleaser", F E Chuch, did some paintings on a very small scale.

The Gardner book, being Euro-centric, would speak to a larger scale, but from a "colonial view", and not having palaces and castles to fill with art, I think American art has been on a smaller scale than the art like "The Raft of the Medusa"

And, then there is watercolor...

However, John, I appreciate the essay, as my most recent painting is, for me, quite grand, all of 12 x 24, an aspect ratio I like a lot. Soon, a 13 x 26.



Yes, you can move towards or away from an artwork on the walls, to find your comfortable viewing distance.

And I'm sure buyers, to the extent they get a choice about size, take that into account.

However, I'd like to be able to appreciate at least some of my artwork from the places I normally spend time in my home (not just when I walk up close or far away or whatever is needed). So I'll have at least some interest in a size that looks good from places I regularly sit. I might also want it to look good to visitors who don't bother to walk to the "right" spot to view it from.

I was under the impression that artists of the period under discussion were often supported by wealthy patrons or painted commissions for wealthy citizens. Such people had large residences, often palaces, and wanted to show off their wealth in buildings and their decoration.
I submit that the size of paintings in that era was driven by those considerations and there is no relationship between that and the size of photographic prints today as the distribution of wealth and the size of rooms in private dwellings has undergone fundamental change in the intervening centuries.

@ Stan B.

Regarding your comment about pre-'80s print sizes, I recall being quite surprised when I attended the reconstituted New Topographics show at the CCP in Tucson, AZ last summer and discovered that in many instances, the reproductions printed in the show catalog were as much 25% larger than the actual 1975-era photos hung on the wall.

Personally, I have recently come to appreciate the merit of smaller prints. Thus, despite having moved from a 12MP m4/3 format camera to a 31MP medium-format digital outfit for my photography, I have simultaneously reduced my preferred print size from 12x16 to 9x12.

So, now that I don't "need" as many megapixels for my images, I have them in spades! Funny how that worked out, eh?

John wrote:

"What is the most popular size of flat panel TV sold today?

We hang these TVs on walls. We sit on the sofa to view them. So why shouldn't our photos be of a similar size?"

Because the picture on the TV changes every couple of seconds, more or less. It's ok to take up wall space. But if you want to hang many pictures, they can't be too big. Unless you're talking about wall art; the kind of thing you hang over the sofa. But I think paintings are better for that than photos.

@ richardplondon.

Zounds. I'd be grateful if you could render that philipic in english, if only to expand the cultural boundary from "those of us who get it" to "those of you who need it dinning into them". Thank you.

Some notes on the comments:

There is, of course, no "right" size.

I thought about doing only Impressionist paintings, because the Impressionists, unlike almost any group of painters before or since, were painting explicitly for a middle-class audience in ordinary homes, rather that for nobility, or for institutions. A very large majority of Impressionist paintings are less than one meter on the longest side, and some are quite small. I would say (without checking further) that typical Impressionist paintings are less than 1,000 square inches, and most, I'd bet, are around 700 square inches.

Some people suggested that a better comparison would be to various kinds of prints (etchings and so on) than to paintings -- but prints also had artificial size constraints, at least uintil the invention of lithography (1796) and screen printing.

I don't buy the argument that you have to look at photographs more closely anyway, because the level of detail is greater than in painting. I generally look at (good) paintings more closely than I look at photographs, and I suspect the same is true of most people who love painting. What really is there to see by getting one inch from a photo? You want to see if the guy has eyelashes? I think photos are meant to be taken in at once, more like vision...a painting is more meant to be studied -- brush strokes, technique, "How did he do that?" etc.

Jeff's comment on the importance of content as related to size strikes me as something to which I need to give much more thought. I have an oil painting on my kitchen wall of three apples. It's quite small, but the apples are life-size, and I don't think I'd want basketball-sized apples. The picture is *naturally* small -- but I wouldn't hang it in a large display space, either.

Richard's comments about size versus scale are also interesting, and need to be considered, but, I would suggest, more by painters than by photographers, for a lot of reasons. Don't really have space her to get into that, but it is important.

Bron; I just bought a book on Luminism, but didn't look at it for this post. I was interested to see that Wolf Kahn was included as a Luminist.

Ain't technology wonderful? I'm on a Delta flight 37,000 feet over Colorado as I push the button on this post...

I think there's a powerful selection bias at work here favoring larger paintings for reasons quite unrelated to artistic merit.

Paintings, just like photographs, are subject to perceptual artifacts that vary with size. The brushwork and impasto effects in a painting create a very different impression at (say) 12 x 18" than they do at very large sizes. For some intentional effects, a smaller painting will indeed be more effective, more beautiful (if I'm permitted to say that) than a much bigger canvas.

But a really big painting is just so eye-catching, so in-your-face, so "gotta be good because it's big", that I think this subtlety gets lost. I have certainly seen large paintings that took my breath away. Yet the ones that really touch my soul are more often little gems in that 12x18" to 20x30" range, with a harmony of brushwork, color and design that bigger paintings struggle to pull off. The smaller works tend to be buried off in a side gallery somewhere, muscled off of center stage by their giant competitors.

I would argue that it really depends on your audience. Many painters have needed to appeal to the wealthy. They have mansions to fill. Large paintings work well for them, when impressing others. What about everyone else. I'm willing to bet most of us on TOP don't have room for very many 25 x 40 inch prices on our walls nor the floor space to stand back and admire them.

Myself the audience is different and they are looking for something intimate. Not large imposing and impressive to their "guests". I am sure that limits your likelyhood of becoming famous, but famous doesn't guarantee quality, as we all know from the current state of the music industry.

As another example, here's a photo (of someone taking a photo) at the Smithsonian exhibit of Nature's Best Photography award winners. They have an annual display in DC that I usually visit, and they invariably print large. The small ones in the image are about as small as they go. The space they hang in is, of course, pretty large so you can stand back from the images.

Despite this attempt to compare photographs to paintings, it still comes down to personal preference (or intended audience). And we have the best of all (?) worlds these days, with the advent of large inkjet printers.

Just as many well-known masterpieces were commissioned works for well-heeled patrons to cover large spaces in humongous rooms, prints we make now can be sized to a specific purpose. Look at what Gursky, Wall, and Crewsden create to sell in galleries and high-end auctions. They have a very specific clientele in mind, I'm sure. Most of us don't work at the same level.

Not that long ago, I asked my photo mentor about print sizes. He said two things: (1) print at a size that appeals to me; and (2) some images will contain the detail that requires a larger print than "normal".

As for the size of paintings we choose, my wife and I have 3 canvases that are 50"x38" and one that's 60"x48" (WxL) hanging in our living room, with smaller pieces in the hall. But one of our most prized pieces is a 5"x4-1/2" fine-detailed gouache piece!

In January 1982 I visited Tucson for the first time. Walking around the U of A, just by chance I ended up in the Center for Creative Photography's old building, where an exhibition of Dean Brown was taking place. There were about 50 4x6" prints mounted on 16x20" mat boards, most of them dye transfers and a few tricolor carbon prints. They were so beautiful and jewel like, that at that precise moment I decided to pursue photography seriously. Every time I visit Tucson, I make an appointment to go to the Center to see those small prints. I tend to dislike the current fashion of very large prints, the larger the better, somehow like a macho challenge. I find them inelegant and showy.

Dean Brown died of injuries on July 1973. While photographing Table Mountain in New Hampshire, in very bad weather conditions, he lost his footing along a slippery rock and fell sixty feet to a swollen stream. I recommend to anyone visiting Tucson to go to the Center of Creative Photography and ask to see his unusual landscape small prints.


I have to admit that when I go to Photoplus Expo and see lots of big prints - big by my standards (from 13x19 up to 40x60), I really like 'em :) So while I'm tempted to say it depends on the picture, it depends a lot on where it's going. (A 40x60 print can get lost inside the Javitz Center in Manhattan).

http://michaelnaples.blogspot.com/, if you are doing a painting a day then the sizes shown on this site are more sensible that the wall art pieces mentioned above.
Size could be related to output?

I fail to see what the size of paintings has to do with the size of photographs(?). You might just as well compare the size of statues to the size of photographs.

A camera lens resolves much more detail than a painting typically does. Aside from Persian and Indian miniatures, few paintings measuring a mere 8"x10" have enough artistic content to hold one's attention, let alone merit careful consideration.

The same is not true of photographs so using the size of masterpiece paintings is not very helpful to us photographers, IMHO.

I don't know if this is relevant but I print small photo books that can be easily held, I print 10"x8" if it is quiet portraits and the gallery is well lit, large and bold if it is in a busy public space where it can be seen from a distance. I just print what I think suits the particular means of display. There is so much visual competition seen by us everyday that I sometimes think very large prints are large in order to compete for attention.

Let's talk about paper, too. Gloss and semi-gloss/satin work really well with smaller sizes. But use something textured and the needed size of the photo rises. You get the "paintbrush" effect where the tiny little details are obscured, even if they were present in the original photo.

I've got a more unusual constraint -- I can only fit 4 18cm x 24cm processing trays into my shower recess area... doh.

But what I really like about this post is that digital breaks many constraints on the size of a print. From someone who's just really beginning to use wet printing and realising what kind of constraints a printer looks for that kind of thinking really game changing.

I imagine there are a lot of other people out there who limit their printing to just what their equipment or situation constrains them to. I hope your post really opens up their thinking...


"I Think photos are meant to be taken in at once, more like vision...a painting is more meant to be studied -- brush strokes, technique, "How did he do that?" etc."

With photography, I'm not too fussed about how it was done, what lens, what camera etc. The mediums not the message after all. What? and Why? interests me more. The photographs you can take in all at once are photographs that don't tend to draw me in, John. The photographs that I come back to most are the ones that ask the most of me, they're layered, they require study.

There's something transformative about photographs. They offer a different way of seeing to the usual filtering our vision uses every day. Filtering that enables us to take so much in and yet miss so much at the same time. Taking in a photograph all at once could save some time. It might actually be a waste of it

"I fail to see what the size of paintings has to do with the size of photographs"

You might read a little more carefully then...reread the first paragraph under the header "Sampling from Gardner's." You don't have to agree with him, but I think he stated concisely why he thinks this approach to the question is valid to consider.


James: re - philippic: surely.

The subjective impact of being in the same room as something big, is different than the impact of being in the same room as something small.

Also in other fields than photography, making something big requires different techniques and is valued in a different way, than making something small. Physical size sometimes carries added significance along with it, and it is common in many visual arts (at least, in my own experience) to acknowledge size-specific considerations, through the term "scale".

I am both painter and photographer. I would say painting and photography are pretty much incomparable as far as size goes. Making a painter larger opens up space for the painter to add detail, whereas enlarging a print usually does not offer more detail. It just allows one to take in the available detail at a larger distance (all within reason, print too small, and one might need a microscope to determine detail, but on average I would say a 12 x 16 inch print hides little that would get significant at much larger sizes).
Having said this, I print my photographs bigger then I make my paintings (12x16 inch for photo’s, 7x10 inch for my paintings). The ‘automatic’ detail of a photograph is part of the allure of photography. In painting, deciding what to include and what to leave out is part of the allure of a painting. Painting small forces me to make decisions, and makes them ‘more to the point’.
When doing research on paintings and their size (yes, been there, done that too) I must admit one other aspect of size seemed to come into play as well; making a larger picture often is just like shouting louder. Especially if the artist had little to say, this seems to be important…

Greetings, Janneman

I had an idea once to photograph landscapes using a 12mm lens and slide film - try to throw as much detail onto the slide as possible. Then only display the slide on a light box - no projection, no enlargement. Probably been done before.

"Too many pixels, not enough content." - Michael Poster

Nice one!


Not sure if this point has been made earlier but the artists creating these paintings were to some extent or other commercial in their outlook and therefore painting for a market - a market dominated by rich patrons who lived, you guessed it, in big houses...

I certainly enjoyed the article and liked the statistical approach and if I were making prints for people living in very large houses I might go with the conclusions. If my potential customer base were of more modest means I might scale back the size of prints to their likely circumstance.

PS For what's worth yours is the only photo website I visit every day!

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