A Photography Collector’s Reference Guide

By Sotheby's
Familiarity with different photographic processes is essential to understanding the physical characteristics of any given print. This user-friendly reference guide outlines the types of photographs that collectors may encounter.


The most common photographic processes include albumen, gelatin silver, and chromogenic prints. In the mid-19th century, photographs began to be largely produced on paper surfaces. Gelatin silver and chromogenic prints are still widely made today.


Before it became common to print on paper, photographers created durable images on the surface of metal and glass in the form of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. Photographs supported by wood, ivory, or leather also exist, but they are extremely rare.


In addition to the above methods of photography, other processes have also been adopted by photographers throughout the medium’s history in order to produce dramatically different effects. Some were only used at a specific historical moment, whereas other printing processes (platinum and cyanotypes, for instance) are still being utilized by contemporary photographers.


Vintage. The value of a photograph is often affected by both its print date as well the printer. In the context of photography, ‘vintage’ means that a photograph was printed soon after the negative was made. When a photograph is designated as ‘printed later,’ it indicates that a longer span of time elapsed between the image date and the print date.

Limited Edition. A ‘limited edition’ photograph indicates that an artist only made a specific number of prints in a particular size and format. An ‘open edition’ allows for an unlimited number of prints of a specific image to be made.

Stamps, Signatures, and other Markings. Photographs may be signed, numbered, or titled by the artist on the front or back. Photographers may use pen, pencil, or stamps to make these notations. The reverse of a print may reveal estate stamps, copyright notices, printing notations, inventory numbers, or additional clues about dating. For certain photographers, the markings are as important as print cues for verifying the authenticity of a work.

Provenance. Provenance is the ownership history of an object. Works that come from an artist’s descendent or associate, or that were owned by a well-known individual, may have interesting stories attached to them.

Condition. As with paintings, prints, and sculptures, understanding the condition of a photograph is important. In general, heat, humidity, and light exposure adversely affect the condition of a print. Signs of age and wear can be quite normal, but collectors should be attuned to cracking or yellowing, scratches or creases, as well as fading or silvering.

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