Sometimes I feel like struggling in the mist — Morocco 2014. © Sven Laurent.

Limited edition in contemporary photography

Thoughts on defining a number, Part 2/2

Sven Laurent
5 min readMay 13, 2016


In Part 1,
We started asking the question of « How to define the number of copies for a limited edition photograph ? » We found a rule, realized that it is not respected and ended up with the need to define a decision-making criterion to go further.

If you missed part 1, you can read it here :
Limited edition in contemporary photography. Thoughts on defining a number, Part 1/2.

The decision balance
When you make art, you make hundreds of small decisions from what tool, what subject, what technique, … to what size, what paper, what frame, …
Should I make editions or unique pieces, how many copies should I do, what price do I want to sell, should I pay for an exhibition space, …

The final artwork is the result of this decision process.
In this decision process there are art motivated decisions and market motivated decisions. In my opinion, the « limited/numbered edition » question is a market motivated decision. And as an artist, I’d like to keep the decision balance in favor of the art. The form supporting the content.
Decisions should be taken in order to reinforce the content of the artwork.

Photography is a reproducible media by definition. It always was, even before digital. Of course there are some techniques who are giving non-reproducible results like collodion, polaroid, lifts and transfers, ferrotype, etc… For those techniques, the question is solved by their inherent uniqueness.

The question of numbered/limited edition is a market related decision intended to create value. It is not inherent to the medium.
When you paint you can only do one.
When you take a photograph, you can reproduce it an indefinite amount of times.

Let’s try to be coherent with the tool we use.
Wouldn’t it make sense not to limit the number of prints ?

I know some very famous photographers out there who don’t define sizes and numbers of their images. Sizes can be different according to the exhibition space and images can be sold indefinitely. That doesn’t mean there will be a mass production. It means that the artist, decides when to stop, but doesn’t make the decision upfront.

There is a famous Japanese photographer, if you ring his bell you can buy a picture in a size that suits you and that hasn’t been defined/numbered before. Wouldn’t this make more sense according to the tool we’re using ?

At least the balance would be tilting towards the art motivated decision.

Transferring the responsibility to the buyer
I could have stopped there and do non-limited prints to solve the question. But I’m currently exploring another track.

Imagine …
You show your work in an exhibition. For this exhibition you’ve made all those decisions with the balance tilting towards the art side. You have defined what to show and how to show. You choose the images, their respective print sizes and framing according to the exhibition space.
And, someone wants to buy an image.

What will the buyer get ?
• the image printed, framed and signed as you recommend it
• the digital file that was used to print the image
• a license giving the buyer the « right of use » of the image with the obligation to mention your name and of course no porn etc …

I can already hear you scream :
« Are you crazy Sven, why would I give a buyer the autorisation to do whatever he wants with my picture ? »

But wait … here is the fun part.
You keep of course the right to use the file to promote your work but you’re not allowed to sell the work anymore.
The buyer has the artwork as you wanted it to be with the balance tilting towards « the art motivated decision » .

Of course many artists will be afraid of « what if he’s doing t-shirts, mugs, tote bags or shower curtains ? »

But the interesting question is what will the buyer do ?

The buyer has a few different options :
1/ Hanging the image on his wall and locking the digital (print) file + license in the safe. This is probably the most common scenario. The collector will keep the file and license in a safe in order to be sure that rareness prevails. Remember, the market says : low number of prints = high price.
In this case 1 print = uniqueness = high sensation of value = high price.

2/ The collector could be generous by offering a copy to one of his friends who also likes your work. Not sure this would happen very often, because of the reason explained above. Nevertheless, I think that would be a generous gesture towards his friend and I somehow encourage generosity.

We can of course argue on the fact that the so called friend might have bought an image from you but won’t because he got one for free.
Maybe… but he will get a non-signed copy.
Some people enjoy images without caring about the rareness of signed & blablabla. Others, those who are valuing rareness, probably will be tempted to buy another image with digital file and license.

3/ He could be a total punk and print some T-shirts, mugs, tote bags and sell them to the world. He may make some money out of your picture by selling those products but your name is mentioned and it would be some kind of visibility. Many artists in the last 60 years did some wide spread lithographies which increased their visibility and later their audience. Although it was not considered as a noble product.

Final thoughts … for now :)
By owning the « right of use », the collector has also the responsibility of the picture.

Will he protect his investment by keeping the framed print as only print, will he share with his friends or will he try to make money by creating side products ? …

I don’t know what will happen, but the collectors/buyers will definitely ask themselves some questions and I’m sure we could be surprised by the answers …

Whatever the collector does, couldn’t this be a way to transfer the responsibility of a market motivated decision (the numbered edition) to the market himself ?

It also raises some questions about copyright and un-authorized use. Nowadays, we basically have on one side those asking for « strict copyright follow up » and on the other side the « no more copyright » people. Copyright and un-authorized use have become very difficult to handle since the internet. If the collector owns the « right of use », he may also feel concerned about un-authorized use of the image. Which is, in my opinion, also interesting to mention …

What do you think … is the market ready to take this responsibility ?

Thanks for reading and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments.




Sven Laurent

Brussels based photographer, specialized in contemporary art documentation and reference images.