Signing photographs

By Wednesday, October 17, 2007grafphoto
Print on display at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Michigan

Print on display at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Michigan

I find the array of answers interesting whenever I see the question “what is the proper way to sign a fine art print?” I am reminded of an older podcast by Brooks Jensen on signing prints where he asks some probing questions himself, and acknowledges there are no resolving answers. Even the ‘traditional’ art community has different methods across a variety of mediums.
Of course many photographers have different ways they think is the right way. Some sign the mat, some sign the print off the image, some on the back (??), or like me, sign directly on the image itself.  Some of the strong stances about how it must be done amaze me at times.  It is your photograph, don’t let anyone dictate to you how it MUST be done.    I offer to you here some things to think about when making this decision.   From a consumer’s standpoint, it is almost always a desired to have it signed in some way. And therein lies two distinct viewpoints – of the artists’ intent vs. the value to the owner of the work.

Does having the artist’s signature separate it from something from a mass production factory? (Though certainly there are mass produced signatures!) Does it make it appear more authentic? I think everyone has their own reasons. I have seen reference to how Pablo Picasso referred to the signing of artwork as indication it is ready for abandonment.

Although commonly done by some photography masters of old, I don’t see much value in the signing of a mat board – it can be replaced, and your signature is discarded with the trash.   If you are working with another party, like an art consultant, they typically will have their own framers lined up.  Then it is a complete logistical mess if you think you MUST sign the mat board.

Of course, if someone doesn’t order a matted print, it isn’t even an option. So some people end up signing both to have a visible signature, yet not feel they are ‘interfering’ with the image. Signing the back can be an issue if an image ends up being mounted. So it really comes down to signing on or off the actual image and paper it is reproduced on. Does it matter if it is visible or not?

As Brooks mentions in his podcast, signatures can be talking points of the art collector – perhaps even a bragging point of authenticity. For the photographer, perhaps an indication of an image finally being at its final stage. The work has a final blessing.   I have seen many photographs on display in public places that had no visible signature, and I wish they did as I wanted to know who made the photo to learn more about them.   It can be like leaving your calling card.

18x52 Canvas Panels

18×52 Canvas Panels, photo by Mark Graf

If it is a distraction to have a signature on an image as some claim, then why is it common practice for painters to have obvious signatures on their works? I have never understood why it may be accepted for one and not the other. I think a photographer can take the worries about possible distraction into consideration. It should not be signed in a manner where it becomes a focal point, but merely an accent.

Brooks suggests having a good, consistent reasoning for signing your images. We all put a lot of effort into composing a shot to begin with, and perhaps even more effort in creation of a final print. I have never seen anything wrong with showing a bit of pride and self-confidence in that.






These are some of the pens that I have found work really well on prints and canvas:  Sakura Extra Fine Pentouch

I use either gold or silver depending on what I think matches the tonality of the image best.   The ink dries fast, and I have not found it to smear from packaging or handling after dry.  I can write fairly smooth on canvas, and they work very well on gloss/semi-gloss print surfaces.

The only caution is that they will dry out quick if you do not tightly cap them.  The caps don’t stay on very tight at times.  In fact, I keep them sealed in a ziplock bag as a precaution after using them.  Take care of these and they last awhile.   Be particularly careful when it comes to pressing the tip in for more ink.  It doesn’t take many presses to have too much ink run out and you will find yourself with a drip hazard.   You can order them from Amazon below, or look at your local art supply store.   It is certainly a good idea to have a few on hand at any time as you never know when it will finally dry out and stop working.


Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Dave Black says:

    I have framed and signed several of my photographs and can agree with the angle that at this point it is ready to seen by the world. aswell, as someone that signs the mat I believe that the frame and mat is a part of the art peice as this is how the image was intended to be seen. If it has been decided to remove the frame and mat along with your signature perhaps the peice no longer warrents your/my endorsement. Just my thoughts I would be interested in your own.

  • Leverette says:

    When ever I did a pencil portrait, I signed everyone in front on the right. Now since I have started freelance photography (I love it, exspecially when some one says ”I love your pictues and buys one to four at one time” so I agree be proud of your work and results that your eye visualized and produced. Yes i say sign, sign, sign and always sign your work in front. I used a thin paint pen to match the photo colors.

  • I am glad I found this web site. I started to sign some of my photographs last night after purchasing a few liquid gel type pens (silver, white and black, depending on the photo). I signed them on the lower right corner and above the matt. I do sign in pencil the matt, but now I feel that’s not necessary. I also sign the back in regular ink pen with the date, location of photo, etc.

    For some photos I display in my house (5×7) I just used my initials ‘mjp’ as they are too small for my signature.

    A friend of mine, who is a professional photographer, got me into the idea of signing the front. He stated, “It’s your art work and if you are proud of it, it should be signed.”

    I do like the idea of getting a stamp with my name and “copyright” for the back of the photos.


    • Mark says:

      Since I have received many inquiries about what I use to sign my prints (and also canvas) – I updated this post with the pens I have found work really well. They dry quick, and the gold or silver metallic shows well without being too intrusive.

  • Mark says:

    The only thing that might worry me about a signature stamp is that it might be interpreted to be too much like mass production. I know for each of my prints, the signature varies just slightly, and I think that is part of the appeal of ‘personally signed’ artwork.

    I wouldn’t consider signing the work given as a gift to be pretentious either.

  • Debbie Nelson says:

    Olivia… i have given several of my photo collections as gifts… and i have found that the receipients of my work have truly appreciated having it bear my signature… that it is a personal work done by me and given to them to enjoy. i do not think it is showing off to sign photography that i have taken and want to share with someone special… and as the writers above agree… it is a piece of art… why not sign it if you are proud of it and claim it as your own work!!
    p.s. i did purchase a signature stamp with perma ink and it works perfectly.

  • Olivia says:

    I have just started getting into photography and I am wondering if the same rules apply to give a photo series as a gift. I am printing and matting photos as a wedding present and don’t know if signing them seems pretentious or a personal touch for the gift?

  • Debbie Nelson says:

    thank you for your response… the liquid gel pens are very popular… have metal tips and .7mm ball so is very fine… Pentel is one brand that i frequently buy at Staples.

    my question is – – if i purchased a pre-inked stamp of my signature… will this ink dry without smudging… and stay on the glossy photo paper permanently?? is there a recommended brand of stamp that is better than others??

    or is it just better to individually sign each card with pen and ink regardless of how much my hand starts to ache?

  • Mark says:

    Debbie, I think it is up to the individual. I certainly am familiar with ink stamps, but have never seen any like a liquid gel pen.

  • Debbie Nelson says:

    i am an amatuer photographer embarking on selling my photos… i have been signing the photos on the bottom right side of the print… using fine point liquid gel ink… is it possible to have a signature stamp made up that would use indelible ink that would be like the fine point gel pen??

    i sell greeting cards… and i have numerous quanities to sign.

    any suggestions?? i print my pictures at an imaging store so do not have a computer generated program to digitally sign each photo.

  • I always questioned how to sign my photo work. I finally started to stamp the center of the photo on the back and also use a copyright symbol. This protected my work as nobody could crop in my work and eliminate my signiture. I also sign the mat as well on the right corner and the name of the photo on the left. I think I have covered it completely.

  • Stacy N. says:

    Here’s my two-cent’s worth on this subject…

    I used to sign the mat, then realized how silly that was if someone discards the mat. And as you said, signing the back seems a bit odd, as in, what is the point?

    Because my penmanship really isn’t something I’m proud of, I’ve adopted a particular “font” as my signature and use it lightly on the lower right corner, sampling a color found within the photograph so it doesn’t clash.

    Then if someone asks me at the point of sale to sign the image, I sign the back of the matted print where the information about the image is as well.

  • Great shot as well. I can’t wait to see one of your prints!

  • I totally agree that prints should be signed. When I start printing my work I will not sign the original until after it is printed and sign the prints in such a way as people will know they are prints. Some of my paintings have so much texture that it is hard to sign them. I also put a registration tag on the back of everything I sell that helps the purchaser in a myriad of ways.

  • Tom Whelan says:

    I sign prints on the photograph, not the mat, usually bottom right. It’s a claim of authorship – “I made this.” A form of branding. Perhaps with painting it indicates the piece is finished, not so with a photograph. I’m always tinkering with prints. But once signed, one my prints is off on its own in the world, in whatever form or appearance it had when I released it, somewhat different from other versions as it may be.

  • Mark says:

    Bernie, you make so many great images, I am sure your restaurant and office clients would see value in having signed pieces from you. It is not that it is right or wrong, just a lot of intriguing aspects of the hows and whys we sign our work.

  • I always felt self-conscious about signing my work, I have no idea why, so now when I sell to a restaurant or office I don’t even sign them. I do sign them when I sell to family or friends. You think thats wrong , I am glad you brought this up, I have always wondered about this as well.

  • I am a painter and as such I sign my paintings – signature means the painting is finished.
    Why should I do something different on my prints? It’s the same process – a “finished” photo – ready to leave.
    The only difference between painting and print is that I put a label on the back of my paintings with all the necessary details – on the prints I write directly on the back as a proof for authenticity.

    My signatures never interferes with the image and I tend to use a matching colour – nothing extravagant – neither on the painting nor on the print. It never came to my mind why I should NOT sign a piece of my work. Signature simply means identification with the work – nothing more and nothing less.

  • Howard Grill says:

    I have seen, as you suggest, many different ways of signing. I do sign….because I feel it indicates a finished piece and, as you suggest, as a ‘sign’ of pride in the work.

    I sign just below the image on the white paper to one side. I also write the title of the image. Of course, that implies that the image should be matted in a certain way….with a 3/4 inch or so border of paper exposed around the image. Bu similar to signing the back, if someone doesn’t want it that way they can always cover it up with the mat.

    Lots of ways to do it. I never trust anyone that says there is only one correct way!

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