Framing Your Prints

By Gary Gray

The Time Proven Classic Frame – Black Frame With White Mat

One subject that seems to be ignored in the photography press is best practices for how to frame photographic prints. As a photographer with a profit motive, I consider the print to be the ultimate goal of any great photograph. Too many photographers stop their process at the computer screen, happy enough to let the display medium be a computer monitor. Your print is artwork, so take a complete and conscientious approach to framing your art. As an artist, I believe that one should learn the basic concepts of framing and inform their potential clients of how to properly protect and frame the photographic print.

In this article I’ll explore a few fundamental concepts of framing your photographs for either yourself or for customers.

Framing a photograph starts with the photograph itself.  Some photographs look much more attractive with large prints, others work fine as small prints. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to selecting the proper frame for your photographic print, but an improperly selected frame and mat will ruin the display and visual esthetics of a photographic print. An astute photographer will realize that photographic frames come in many sizes and dimensions and will examine their potential photos for their suitability for different frame sizes. For this reason, I normally compose a photograph to account for cropping the image to meet common dimensions of off-the-shelf frames and mats. The dimensions are referred to as aspect ratios. The aspect ratio is the ratio of the print height vs the width of the image. Most common off the shelf frames have common sizes and aspect ratios. These aspect ratios and sizes have for a long time been based on the common photographic print sizes of old school film and paper sizes. The market has been adjusting to the newer and common aspect ratios of digital photography, but you need to know about these sizes and ratios before you offer to sell a framed photograph.

Have you ever heard of a print being called a Giclée?

A Giclée is nothing more than an ink-jet print with a fancy name. You may call it what you like, but I tend to shy away from pretentiousness in my terminology and simply refer to my prints as prints.

A primary consideration is the type of photographic paper to use for making prints. I highly recommend you use quality papers and inks from known reputable manufacturers. There are many suitable papers for ink jet printers available on the market, so choose a good, fine-art quality paper with the characteristics needed for quality, resolution and longevity. My personal preference is to use Epson Premium Luster, which isn’t really paper. It’s a Polyethylene-Coated RC Base Material which is designed for ink-jet printing, with nice texture, brightness and contrast and will last a very long time if not abused.

I won’t delve too deeply into special methods of print frames, such as gallery wraps, laminates, etchings and lithographic types of prints, these all fall into the category I call “custom framing” though some of these concepts may still apply. My focus here will be on the typical photographic print in a typical wood or metal frame. These seem to be the most common types I’ve run into throughout my time in photography. In my experience, the less complicated you get, the better your results will be.

Print framing is a craft and an art. My first advice would be to make friends with framing shops in your area. You’ll find that often times, the professionals will have the knowledge and equipment to meet all of your needs and you may be able to work out a deal with them for discounts in return for repeat business. It also helps with customer referrals. Framers are more likely to work with you if you can steer business in their direction. One caveat here is to not rely solely on one frame shop for your work. Reason being,  framers are typically a small business and there’s a high failure rate in the industry. If you are relying on one framer and he/she goes out of business, you’ll lose a valuable resource and it can cost you time and money to recover from the loss of their services. Think “single point of failure” here. Having a backup plan is essential for not losing a critical resource for your own business. A good framer is a must, always have one available.

Another thing to remember with framers is to identify your work by writing contact and print information on the back of your print before you have it framed. All of my printable images are cataloged with specific identification nomenclature. Serial number, catalog number and print numbers are essential for keeping track of the photograph the print was made from. Your phone number, email and other contact info written or stamped on the back side of the print is essential. Many times over the years, I’ve had my framer contact me and ask me for another print of a photograph I’ve dropped off. A customer came in and saw the work and wanted their own copy. If the framer can’t identify you from the actual print, you may not get that value added business. You’ll also not want a framer to sell a damaged print.

I usually hand write this info on the back of the prints I sell. A medium or fine point sharpie or other non fade or non-smear ink pen will work on most photographic paper. Don’t use a ball point or hard tip pen though, as you can actually etch the info through the paper and have it be visible on the face of the print. Be careful to write your contact info on the back side of the print in an area that won’t show through the print. I usually find a darker spot on the print near one of the corners and write behind that part of the print. I also put my signature on the back of the print as evidence of authenticity. Once you have a usable approach to this, stick to it. If by some chance your work becomes famous one day, this will be one of the methods of verification that appraisers use for those who claim to have one of your prints. You must think about the future, even beyond your life. The goal is to create a photographic print that will verify the artist, the work being printed and the authenticity of that work for many years.

You’ll also find that many clients would like to have your signature on the face of the print as well. I normally sign my personal prints in the lower right corner. Use an authentic normal signature and not some made up monstrosity that looks pretentious. You aren’t selling your signature and your signature shouldn’t distract from the actual artwork.

A good mindset as a starting point is to never damage the print to frame it and to never allow the print to touch the glass in the frame.  Also avoid touching the image area of the print. A primary function of the frame is to protect the print.

Another good practice is to not frame a freshly made print. Printed photographs should be allowed to dry and flatten before you frame them. Don’t flatten the print by placing it between two objects, lay it on a table and let the curl flatten itself naturally. Give your print a few days to dry too. Most ink will emit vapor as it dries and a freshly mounted print can fog the glass. If you are shipping your prints to customers in a tube, they will emerge from the tube curled. Inform the purchaser to allow the print to flatten and to acclimate to their environment before framing.

The most common pre-made or “off the shelf” frame sizes and aspect ratios you’ll find in stores and online are as follows (in US measurements.)

4″ x 6″ (2/3 aspect ratio)
5″ x 7″ (5/7 aspect ratio)
8″ x 10″ (4/5 aspect ratio)
11″ x 14″ (4/5 aspect ratio roughly)
16″ x 20″ (4/5 aspect ratio)
20″ x 24″ (5/6 aspect ratio)
20″ x 30″ (2/3 aspect ratio)
24″ x 36″ (2/3 aspect ratio)

You’ll also want to understand the common mat sizes to use for a photographic print in a frame.

Generally, you should make the print one size smaller than the frame size to accommodate a matted print. Thus, a 16″ x 20″ frame opening size would display a print that is roughly 11″ x 14″ in size and so on.

Avoid trying to sell an unmatted print in a frame.  Small, unmatted prints are okay in small frames for friends and family for sitting on the shelf, but as a serious seller, it’s unprofessional and will ultimately result in damage to the print. Your product represents you.  Do you want reputation for quality or a reputation as a cheap, lazy hack?

As a rule of thumb, I try to stick with a mat that provides for an even opening in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of a frame (mat opening.) Minor variations in the aspect ratio of the mat opening can be expected with pre-made mats and are tolerable up to a point.  What you don’t want is for the mat to appear obnoxious with one dimension noticeably different from the other. Mats will make the framed photo more presentable and improve the overall presentation, providing a greater sense of elegance to the artwork. I personally prefer to have a mat at least 2-3 inches between the edge of the photograph and frame, particularly when framing a large print, say 11″ x 14″ or larger. Your and/or the customer’s artistic vision comes into play here. Don’t be afraid to use a larger mat depth, but I strongly suggest you don’t undercut the mat size. The negative space and a pleasing presentation is essential to a good looking framed photograph. Matting the print can dramatically improve the artistic display of the image if done correctly.

If you want to construct your own frames and mats, materials are readily available online. A Google search for frames and mats will give you plenty of options to choose from, including custom sizes.

I regularly purchase pre-cut mats and framing supplies. A favorite company is Redimat but there are many others.

Understanding the standard off-the-shelf frame sizes and mat opening is essential if you want to sell prints. Many customers won’t know about standard frame sizes until they go to Hobby Lobby to buy a frame and they find out the hard way that they have to slice up their newly purchased fine art print for it to fit into they frame they bought. I don’t want my customers to have to destroy their art just to frame it. I explain the concept to any purchaser of a print so there won’t be any surprises when they buy a pre-made frame with mat.

There will be times when you create a print that is not a standard frame size and it’s a good idea to let your customer know that it will require a custom frame. This adds significantly to the final cost for the customer, as custom made frames are generally far more expensive for the customer. By making your prints available in standard sizes, you reduce your costs and you reduce your customer’s costs. You’ll also increase your sales.

A good tip for making prints is to make the print about 1/4 of an inch oversized from the mat opening dimensions. This will give you plenty of room to align the print behind the mat without losing much of the image or creating a white edge between the image and mat, visible in the final product.  I recommend you also put a white border around your print, about an inch or so in all directions.  This gives you an area to handle the print without touching the actual image area and allows for a solid tape application and future remounting as well.

There are a few pit-falls to consider when selecting your frame and mat. I’ve found that in general practice a classic look with a black frame and white mat works best. It’s elegant and versatile. One can always go to custom colors and decorative framing/matting combinations but I never try to make a frame and mat to coordinate with the colors of the couch, curtains and carpet for generic sales. The couch, curtains and carpet will change over time. The framed photograph will hang on the wall for a much longer time. You want it to stand out, you want it to look elegant, you want it to be a noticeable object in the room without being obnoxious or distracting. Nothing makes me wince more than a potential customer looking for a photo that blends in with their curtains. If you are convinced to use a color scheme in your framed art, you should try to select colors that are present in the photograph itself, though not the most dominant colors. The purpose of the frame is to draw a viewers eye into the scene. The frame and mat color should not clash and the image should not blend into the background of the mat.

You have several options when deciding on how to frame your print.

You can do it yourself.
You can pay a framer to do the work for you.
You can sell through online print sales and framing services.

I personally prefer to have my frames made by a local framer. They’ll know the trade and you can generally specify the type of framing technique you’d like them to use. Online frames can be ordered and assembled by you or assembled at some remote location and shipped directly to the customer. You’ll lose quality control if you aren’t doing the framing yourself or supervising the process locally.

On the raw materials side of the equation, you’ll most certainly want to use a good quality photographic paper and mat material. You want the framed artwork to stand the test of time, so always use acid free papers and mats. Otherwise, the acid in the papers will affect anything that comes into contact with it. This will reduce the value of your artwork over time and in severe cases can actually ruin the value of the work.

I would also avoid mounting your print permanently to the back board or mat in the frame. Don’t use glue or staples or masking tape to adhere your print to the backing or mat. It will eventually dry up and loose adhesion. I recommend using “archival hinging” or a “conservation mount” as a good technique. Use a good quality linen art tape. Leave space on your prints to adhere your prints with linen tape without getting too close to the actual image area. The print is the art, so make your print so it can be removed from a frame without damage to the artwork. The linen tape will allow you to remove the tape from the print without damaging the print. You’ll also not want the print to shrink or grow in the frame over time. The mat will expand or contract at a different rate and degree than the print, as will the backing. Nothing looks worse than a print that has expanded in the frame and shows wrinkles as time goes by. By mounting the print properly to the backing and/or mat using the proper techniques, you’ll be able to make adjustments to the art to keep it looking presentable as time goes by.

Another very important choice to make is the type of glass you use in your framed artwork.

The definitions may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer but these are the basic types of glass you’ll have to choose from. I’ll start with the cheapest to the most expensive, in order.

Standard glass, typical of off the shelf frames found in stores. This will protect your photograph from dust and scratches and that’s about it.

Non-reflective glass, which typically has a matte or frost-like appearance to it. This type of glass will also reduce reflections and glare but it provides no protection against Ultra-violet light and the effects it has on a photographic print.

Conservation/Clear glass, provides UV protection to the photograph as well as a good reflective property and general protection for the photograph. For most folks, this is the glass I’d normally recommend.

Museum glass, provides a very good UV protective quality and is highly resistant to scratches and damage from cleaning and the odd bump in the night.

Acrylic glass, which isn’t really glass at all. It’s a chemical alternative to glass and is good for protecting the artwork but not much more. It scratches easily and doesn’t really provide for a good quality display of the artwork.

Your artwork is only as good as the medium used to present the art. Cheap frames are fine for anything of little commercial value but if you are serious about selling your prints to customers, aim high, not low.

Sell your artwork to people who buy artwork.

Construct your product with quality materials and with care.

A discerning art buyer will not buy junk.