Tips for Naming Fine Art Photos

by Joseph T. Sinclair

Vrille Naturel
Vrille Naturel ©Joseph T. Sinclair

Names Matter

In the best of all possible worlds, a fine art photo shouldn’t have a name. The art should speak for itself. When you add a name, however, the words become part of the work of art, like it or not. And words are powerful. Unfortunately, in Western civilization there is unwritten pressure to name works of art. Rembrandt Kunstwerk 112 is not very satisfying. Consequently, you do need to create a name and understand that the name itself becomes part of your photographic art.

Yet most career photographers need to sell their fine art. And marketing is a different matter than art. Most photographers need a marketing element in the names for their photos. Thus, a thoughtful combination of poetry and ad copy is a good way to think of naming photos. If you’re serious about your art and about selling it, naming it is not a trivial task.

Don’t Fall in Love with It

Don’t fall in love with a name. Pick a name that fits the theme of the show you want to enter. As a consequence, a photo may end up with more than one name (i.e., entered in more than one show). This is extra work, but it’s more work to find a good photo that matches a show theme.

Translate It

If you can’t think of a good name, pick a pedestrian name. Then translate it into French on Google. No one will understand it, yet it will add a touch of elegance to your photo. Or use Spanish, Italian, Romanian, or Portuguese. But no other languages, please. I named one of my photos Vrille Naturel (French) and was happy to do so. Sounds kind of cool, but I can’t remember what it means. It would be přírodní kontury in Czech, not quite so engaging.

Make It Long

Make it a long name. If properly imagined, it can add a lot to your photo. But capitalize the first letter of each word. Otherwise it might be read as a caption, not as a name. Example: Candle-Lit Impressionist Color Portraiture Study of a Mother on a Theme by Sandro Botticelli. Otherwise you might have to name it Madonna confusing it with the Rabelaisian pop star.

Steal It

If you run across good names in photo shows or in publications, write them down for future use. No one can copyright art titles. But don’t steal from photographers in your own geographic area or in your own photo organizations. Bad manners. And don’t steal famous names (e.g., Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico). Fatuous. You can steal book titles and song titles too (neither are copyrightable).

Photographers steal images; how many times is the image of the sun’s rays streaming down through the haze into Antelope Canyon taken each day by different professional photographers? Answer: about eight dozen. That’s about 35,000 professional photographers a year who shoot in Antelope Canyon.  So, why not steal names too?

BTW, if you’re looking for a name for your Antelope Canyon photo, try this one: About Noonish in Mr. Slot Canyon. That’s a good one, and you can steal it from me.

A Gift from the Literary World

Advertisers use sex to sell. Why not photographers? Check out Writers in the Storm, a blog for novelists. It provides a huge list of common words in its Sensual Word Menu that may suggest sex:

You can use most of them in your photo names with complete innocence and without seeming indecent. Example: Sultry Sunset Afterglow on the Bosom of the  Mountain. Buyers will line up at the door.

Less Can Be More

There is one naming strategy for fine art portraits. Use only a first name such as Isabelle or Jacob. Such names convey an ambiance of mystery. Who the hell is Isabelle? Who the hell is Jacob? It’s not quite the same ambiance for Isabelle Smith or Jacob Jones. Let the viewer’s imagination run loose. Let the image itself do the speaking. Use only a first name alone. Keep in mind also that for fine art, the name of the portrait doesn’t have to be same as the name of the subject (model). In other words, use an evocative first name that fits the portrait.

Number It

This highly advanced promotional technique is appropriate only for the most aggressive photo marketers. A photo named Study of the Desert Sublime Number 17, if a compelling image, will leave the viewers thirsty for photos 1-16 (or more). It’s irrelevant whether numbers 1-16 exist or not. If such photos exist, they will have the attention of your viewers and may lead to interest in your other photos too. If photos 1-16 don’t exist, you simply represent 1-16 as being unpublished, and refer viewers to your other photos.


Developers and municipalities name streets after states (Idaho Avenue), places (Park Place), English counties (Devonshire Drive), famous people (Ted Kaczynski Boulevard), and animals (Raccoon Court). This is not a good precedent for naming photos. Leave it alone.

Author: Joseph T. Sinclair

Photographer since 1950.

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