Mother’s Day Gift Idea: Fine Art Photography (and Why It’s Worth the Extra Cost)


It was about this time a year ago that we moved my Grandmother into a nursing home.  It was a pretty tough decision for my mom.  Now, a year later, Grandma-bear is doing really well, and has many good days where she is "with it".  Unfortunately, on days that I visit or call, Grandma-bear is definitely not herself.  She's either this sweet and passive old lady (unlike the fiesty Grandma-bear that I know) or she's confused by the people and things around her. 

One of the things Mom found in Gram's apartment before she moved into the nursing home is an old portrait of Grandma-bear and I, taken when I'm about 5.  Grandma-bear looks pretty young, with cool dark rimmed cat-eye glasses and she is staring sternly into the camera (she hated her smile).  I'm snuggled up next to her, not sure if I should be smiling or not. I love this picture.  Grandama-bear had it up in her house my entire life.  Mom had it taken at Sears.  I remember the picture so vividly, but was surprised to see how much it had faded.  My Grandma-bear's expression, one that I have always considered to be so uniquely her, is barely recognizable.  Each time I visit, I keep hoping for my old Grandma-bear to be there, to walk in and see the recognition, the fiestiness in her eyes.  So far, it hasn't happened.  That picture is my best reminder.

_MG_3835_4x6 I want to make sure Raines has pictures of this time with his grandparents.  Too often, by the time we're old enough to really remember our Grandparents, they are hopelessly old.  And I think the same is true of parents.  I wonder if Raines will ever remember Mike and I as young.  Perhaps not.  In any case, the kid will have 1000+ digital prints to help remind him!  But still, I wanted our family to sit for a photography session.  I was hoping that a photographer could catch some of the intangible things that make us a family.  And I wanted to be sure the photographs would endure without fading.  But the cost difference between a Sears or Picture People type photo shoot and a high-end photographer (aka Fine Art Photography) is enormous.  In the end, Mike and I went with fine art photography and were thrilled – beyond thrilled – with the results.  Melanie (at Modern Photography in Denver) did manage to capture that intangible essence I was hoping for (my favorite family picture is above left).  And she somehow made us look better in the process. 

Below are a couple of examples of mom and baby shots Melanie has done — ones that I think capture that intangible, amazing mom and baby bond. Pictures like these would be the ultimate Mother's Day gift for a mother or a grandmother.

_MG_3779b,8x10 _MG_6972,5x7

But in order to recommend fine art photography to Ain't No Mom Jean readers, I wanted to be able to describe – in detail – why fine art photography is worth the additional cost.  So I went back to the source and asked our photographer, Melanie.  Here's what she has to say:

I frequently get asked, "So, what is the difference between fine art portrait photography and Picture People?"  Honestly, it's a fair question. I've been a portrait photographer for over 20 years, and I've had plenty of opportunity to think through the differences. Here are a few reasons why fine art portrait photography is well worth the investment  . . .

First, the more obvious differences . . .

  1. Expert, professional, experienced, full-time photographers can capture substantially more interesting, natural, and artistic shots; much better than a student or part-time trainee.
  2. You'll get more natural expressions, authentic props, and a whole lot less "Cheeeezzz!" We find beauty in all of your child's expressions, and we don't try to just photograph the big smiles. We love the more serious, contemplative expressions, too. (We even catch a few crocodile tears!)
  3. Every session is unique to you and your family situation, no "one size fits all" approach to your session.
  4. Private studios provide a more comfortable, intimate environment for posing, playing, and cuddling.

Next, are less obvious, but very important differences . . .

1.  Photo Editing

Every single image receives individual love and care at a fine art studio. Under a "digital microscope," a fine art studio can clean up drool and runny noses, scratches and owies, stray hairs and dirt, dark circles and blemishes that might have otherwise ruined a beautiful image. Mall shops can only make minor tweaks before they print them out. We can accommodate all kinds of unique concerns. (Like, "My bangs look weird — help!" Or, "My husband is worried about his bald spot — help!")  See below for a before and after example — we were able to remove the drool (in addition to other adjustments), just leaving her beautiful smile.

5Before_Drool 6After_Drool

Fine art studios will spend a great deal of time refining all of the color and overall "tonality" (the range of color from darks to lights) until they have depth and vibrance that are impossible to get at the mall. We also selectively soften and sharpen specific parts of an image to enhance the artistic effect.  Below is a shot from a cloudy day, and therefore cool toned and flat. It took some time, and an artistic eye, to make the image so vibrantly colored and beautiful.

3Before_ColorBoy 4After_ColorBoy

We print multiple test copies of one single image until we are satisfied that the artistic enhancements are the best we can possibly create.

2.  Quality of Materials

The word "archival" gets thrown around a lot, and most people don't really know what it means. Virtually every inexpensive portrait studio is making prints with dye-based ink on inferior papers. They might claim that the paper is archival, but dye is not truly archival. A fine art studio will use pigment-based inks and cotton rag papers for their prints. Pigmented inks, when used in combination with fine art papers, are typically rated to last 200 or more years. Dye based prints on cheap paper can begin to fade and color shift in as little as six months!

Fine art portrait prints are also known as "gicleé" prints. These prints have far greater refinement and resolution than is possible at the mall photo shop's printer. The finer quality simply takes longer to print. Particularly when we are printing multiple tests of one image!

Simply put, a fine art studio just can't give you "quick prints" because (near) perfection takes time!

3.  The Process of Print Selection

At many fine art studios, including mine, you will see your proofs via large screen projection. Image selection is much more fun and easy this way than trying to look at small proofs or at a computer screen. We can even project photographs of your own home's wall space while we are choosing your images! With projection, we can also work together on custom cropping and image groupings.

If you want a grouping of images, fine art photography studios will spend a great deal of time making sure that the images in the group are sized and cropped so that they work beautifully together. This sounds easier than it is!

And perhaps most important difference of all . . .

Professional photographers are artists, not technicians, and we bring an expert eye to all phases of the creation of your image, both in the photography, and in the artistic interpretation of the print. We really care; we want you to be not just happy, but delighted. We make sure everyone looks their best.   Fine art photography is an irreplaceable and lasting investment in your family: in your memories, your stories, your family history. 

And finally, when you receive your finished portrait art, you will "just know." Time and again my clients comment that they did not really understand the difference when they arrived at the studio, but when they look at their exquisite and utterly unique finished fine art portraits, it really makes sense.

If you want a few quick prints for a laugh, then the quickie portrait shops are a fine choice. If you are looking for expert photography and artistic image creation, and if you want an enduring, tasteful piece of fine art to hang on your wall and pass along for generations, then a fine art portrait studio is the only way to go.

One final before and after.  In the shot below, we removed lint and stray hairs, added a few select highlights to her hair, and really made the entire family glow.  The original shot was great, but the finished product is something truly special.

1Before_Family 2After_Family

Thanks, Melanie!!

If you live in the Denver area, Melanie can be found at Modern Photography in the Berkeley neighborhood.  To find fine art portrait photography in your area,visit one of the two national professional photography association websites. PPA is at or try



  1. I LOVE this post!! I just found it through a link from your Mother’s Day gift guide 2010. I love the before and afters to illustrate the points. I have asked for a good portrait of me with my little boy for my first Mother’s Day this year…fingers crossed I’ll get something this nice. I wish I lived in Denver!

  2. Susana — Isn’t the difference amazing? We were skeptical when starting this process, but learned SO much along the way. And we were just thrilled with the results. I don’t think many people really “get” the difference – I know we certainly didn’t at first. I love that Melanie was able to so articulately describe (and show!) the differences.

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