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Framing Suggestions

by Philip Greenspun, June 1997 (updated February 2007)


Digital photo titled man-fighting-serpent-on-illa-de-la-discordia

First, all pictures should be matted. This is to separate the photograph from the glass. If this is not done, the emulsion of the photograph will stick to the glass. This looks unpleasant and ruins the photograph. Thus, the standard consumer technique of sticking a photo up against a glass desk frame or whatever should never be used for art photos. If you don't like the look of a mat for some reason, dry mount and use frame spacers.

Second, use a professional framer if you can afford it. You are probably earning more per hour than the people who work in frame shops. It looks easy to frame photos, but it will take you at least one hour to do a decent job, the worst part of which is cleaning the glass (if you must do it yourself, try Ajax cleanser in the bathtub; nothing else really gets the glass factory grime off). If you purchase the same kind of acid-free materials and pro-grade materials the frame shops use, you'll find that it costs you almost as much as the total framing price. There are easier and more fun ways to save $15-50 than by trying to frame something yourself.

A maximum of 10% of the frame shops in any town will be competent. The others will ruin photos either by incompetently dry mounting, using other bad mounting techniques, using non-archival materials, etc. Ask at an expensive lithograph gallery to find out who does their framing. Be very careful when any mounting technique other than linen tape is proposed; it probably won't be reversible should something go wrong. There is no law that says a photograph has to be perfectly flat for display. Nonetheless, if you want it flat, dry mounting onto Fome-Core isn't so bad when done by a super-professional (less skilled shops do work that begins to separate after a year or so, leaving unsightly bubbles).

Third, if you can't think of a really great color, go with a pure (bright) white mat and a black metal frame. This is what I use. Not only is it inexpensive, but multiple photos on the same wall share the same presentation.

(In Boston, I recommend contacting Richard Siegel at Stanhope Framers, stanhopeframers.com, in Union Square, Somerville, at 617 666-2000. Artists and photographers get a 20 percent discount when framing their own work.)

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Text and pictures copyright 1995-2007 Philip Greenspun. Photos are from the photo.net guide to Barcelona.

Article revised February 2007.

Readers' Comments


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John McKibben , December 13, 1996; 04:43 P.M.

My framing show refuses to dry mount an Ilfachrome (Cibachrome) onto foamcore. They would only consider mounting it to glass, as they say the texture of the foamcore bleeds through the print of the Ilfachrome. Naturally, after that comment, we just used one piece of acid free tape to hang the print from the matte with some cardboard behind it. They also had to order a special type of matte because it was ilfachrome.

Peter Henry , October 11, 1997; 10:34 P.M.

I worked my way through Berkeley doing professional framing. If the $5-10 is still real, then wages haven't gone up since I left! I would never consider mounting a good art photograph permanently. Period. I have many Cibas that I did with light tape at the top, none of which warp excessively. I had many people who wanted to reframe some valued items, only to find that some jerk had permamently mounted a real treasure, usually on smooth cardboard. Yuck. Foam-core is a good, reasonably cheap, more-or-less durable medium for general wall-covering. Dry mount tissue is worth interrogating over, if for some reason you decide to go ahead and dry mount. Most is not archival, and the archival stuff is a bear to work with. Make sure you get the right materials. The majority of framing shops won't have them, and most framing shop employees won't even know what they are.

When looking at mats, remember that most color mats are also non-archival. If you want one of the colors that you can't get acid-free, ensure that a thin barrier-mat, cut about 1/16" smaller than the color mat, is placed between your print and the color mat. Check the quality of the mat cuts - most places overrun their cuts unmercifully. A truly professional job shows perfect or nearly perfect corners. See if the cutter has ever done any decent decorative mats. That shows their skill quickly.

A good frame job will make even a cheap, mediocre print look awesome. (I did several of these when I could get cheap frames but not cheap art.) A bad frame job will detract from your print, and worse, will damage it so that in just a few years, it'll get brittle or yellow or fade, and worst, when you decide to do something about it, you find the dork at the shop did something irreversible, like dry mount it to high-acid paperboard.

Michael Edelman , November 13, 1997; 03:16 P.M.

I think the biggest two mistakes people make in mounting prints are not cropping, and using too small a matt. Crop your photos ruthlessly; not everything looks best in 8x10 format. And make those matts *big*. In 8x10, leave at least 3-3.5" all around. A big border helps to set your photo apart from its surroundings.

Enrique Santos , December 19, 1997; 06:10 P.M.

I agree with Peter Henry's observations. I mat my own photos for home, office or as gifts, and I have discovered, with great effect, that ruthless cropping enhances a picture's story. Yes, story (as in "every picture tells a story" or "a picture is worth a thousand words"). A mat's window needn't be a standard format (4x6, 5x7, etc.). It can be whatever size is necessary to block out distraction in the photo that don't advance the action, people, landscape, etc. that is the subject of the photo. For example, you can have a 4x6 photo set in an 8X10 frame with a 3.5 inch mat window, because that's the area around a subject that tells your story most effectively. And, incidentally, it also results in the wide matting that Peter suggests, which is also critical.

Greg Fremstad , February 27, 1998; 11:36 A.M.

I suggest "Static Mounting" of Cibas to acrylic plastic sheet and over matting with a non-buffered rag mat. And pleeeeeeas folks, 8x10s look terrible in 11x14 frames, and 11x14s look terrible in 16 x 20 frames. Be creative and use wide mats to isolate the print from the frame and surrounding.

Y. Dobon , December 15, 1998; 02:46 A.M.

I pretty much concur with what Philip wrote here except that I suggest black frames in wood rather than metal. Reason? Wood possesses a slight warmth and texture that stock black aluminum molding just doesn't have.

I like wood frames stained in other colors, too; of course, a good frame shop should be able to do custom stain jobs to match a particular color in your image.

I've taken a liking to some newish welded steel frames at a local shop. They are not cheap (and carry a 6-ft. minimum to boot) and take a while to finish. You can pretty much bank on not finding highly unusual framing materials except at the finest shops in your community.

Rob Gold , May 20, 1999; 12:43 P.M.

I believe the availability of archival materials and simplified framing techniques have improved since this page was written. I just finished my first two framing jobs (two 20x30 pictures, finished 24x34) and they came out great. The use of acid free materials didn't limit by choice of mat colors and the dry mount systems are really easy to use. I've used both wood and metal frames and both take about the same amount of work if you have the right tools. I'd rethink the choice to limit yourself to professional framers, my total cost for the above pictures was $120 (USD) for a job that would have been $600 professionally.

Norm Havens , June 05, 1999; 09:59 P.M.

I don't know current thinking on the matter, but when studying photography 20 years ago I was told never to use wood frames since a variety of chemicals, from varnish/paints to innate chemicals in the wood itself, can leach out of the wood as gases under the glass and harm photos.

Vadim Makarov , June 26, 2000; 08:02 A.M.

After reading this page, I couldn't figure what mat is and how it looks like for quite a while. The confusion was so frustrating that now I have my own page on framing explaining this for laymen.

Jack Eckler , September 15, 2000; 12:44 P.M.

Having owned and operated a frame shop for 18 years, I found most of the advice on framing to be fairly accurate. Some thoughts on the matter. Never use linen tape as a hinge....there are acid-free hinging materials available. Never, ever mount anything of value....it should be conservation framed....acid-free materials throughout....this also enables you to reverse the framing process if you decide to unframe. There is a rainbow of acid-free matboard colors available. I could go on but by now I think you hope that I won,t.

Philip..the framer in New York is the sort of person who give framers a migraine headache. Most framers get involved with framing because they love the business....not wih any thoughts of getting rich. It is a wonderful, creative outlet for artistically challenged people. I never knew anyone in the business who made more than just a living at it....most aspiring frame shops are gone after a couple of years. I could have framed those pieces you described for a third of the cost and done the same job....the clean-room is outrageous....the concept is making me ill. You have a great site.

Jack

David Miller , August 01, 2001; 05:59 A.M.

Having worked in a frame shop, I can say I will never cut my own mats again. At this particular shop, they have a machine called a Wizard, a robotic mat cutter that operates out of the dimensions you program into a computer. No overcuts, no wasted mats, no mistakes in size, no human debris. I would encourage people to get their mats done by a computer.

Tony Cooper , August 11, 2002; 10:39 A.M.

I want to add that I both agree and disagree with the opening lines of the article. First, you should not ALWAYS mount photos to "separate them from the glass." Most photos should not be mounted behind glass... period. If you are just interested in protecting them from the environmentals (dust, etc.) then have your lab use a UV laminant instead.

The best framed photos, especially of people, are not matted. But they ARE mounted... I prefer 90 weight Crescent art board, and there are some photos that need mounting like gatorfoam, etc.

But in defense, some works are best behind glass. And if you are going to put ANY photo behind glass, you MUST mat it. Don't ever let the surface of a print touch the glass (or acrylic, or whatever you're using). You'll regret it.

Robert Hohlfelder , August 30, 2002; 01:32 P.M.

I find I can save a lot of money doing my own framing. I get most of the quality at a quarter of the price of a good framing shop.

Phil's advice to use white mat and black frame is good. While a colored frame & mat can complement a photo nicely, the wrong colors will look really bad. The white/black combo never looks bad. I also agree with the comments to use wide mats. About 3" of mat around an 8x10 or 8x12 looks good to me. This means you probably won't use mats in standard precut sizes (11x14 with an 8x10 hole, etc.).

I order my supplies from americanframe.com, and highly recommend them. The cost is similar to purchasing precut frames and mats from a local hobby store, but American Frame has wide selection of frames and mats and will cut them to the dimensions you want. The supplies to frame an 8x12 cost me about $25-$30.

I'm no expert, but I'll describe the workflow that gives me nice results.

Unless I'm sure that something else will look better, I order a white mat and a black metal frame. Sometimes I will double mat- a colored inner mat in addition to a white outer mat. The outer mat has a larger opening than the inner mat, so that when you stack the two, you get a border of color around the image. A 1/4" to 1/2" wide border seems right. Obviously the trick is to pick a color that will go with the image. I use double-sided sticky tape to attach the two.

If you're ordering from American Frame, don't trust the mat colors printed in their catalog; they are not accurate. They will send you a few samples for free. I eventually broke down and spent something like $40 on a full set of mat samples, but at around 200 samples, it's a bit overwhelming.

I've never had consistent success using 3M spray adhesive to mount photos. Either I get bubbles, or a bit of adhesive will find its way to the front of the photo. For now, I use linen tape to attach the photo to the back of the mat, hanging it from the top. This is really easy, and while it doesn't look quite as nice as a perfectly flat, well-mounted photo, it looks far better than a poorly mounted photo. I place the stack on top of an acid-free white mat board, check for dust, add the cover glass, double check for dust, then slip the stack into the frame.

American Frame sells plexiglass, not real glass. (I'm guessing that shipping glass by UPS would probably be a money-losing business model.) The plexiglass looks fine but scratches easily, so you have to be careful with it. They sell antistatic plexiglass cleaner, which I recommend. The plexiglass arrives covered with adhesive paper, which peels off easily. I lay the plexiglass on a cotton towel, spray it with the plexiglass cleaner, and wipe with a microfiber cloth. Flip it over, and repeat. This leaves the plexiglass clean and dust-free. To remove dust from the photo & mat, I spray with canned air and/or use a clean microfiber cloth (not the same cloth I use to clean the plexiglass). Make sure to get all the dust out; this is the trickiest part about framing.

What do my framing jobs lack? Well, the local framers offer glass with an antireflective coating, which is nice. If I could find a better option than spray mount adhesive to mount photos, that'd be an improvement- I plan to try the "Rollataq" adhesive from Light Impressions at some point. For most images, I'm pleased with the quality/cost tradeoff I get by framing my own.

dns ynko , January 30, 2003; 01:02 P.M.

I have been in photography for about 8 years and framing for about seven years. I started working in the wholesale framing business and now work in a gallery/frame shop in DC. I am also interning at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. I have found several things in these comments to be quite incorrect. First, there are thousands of acid free mats in a variety of colors. You should not use cardboard in any framing job. The comment about "wood leaking acid into the photo"-this is about 20 years out dated. It takes a bit, but it is relatively easy to cut a mat. A computerized cutter is not needed. I think it is great for people to look at framing as a way to enhance their artwork. I believe you can educate yourself very easily about what is proper and what is not. There are many different acid free ways to frame that an individual would have great difficulty doing on their own.

William McKay , September 16, 2003; 01:45 P.M.

I'm a professional picture framer w/30+ years in the business. The best advice I can give is http://www.ppfa.com "Professional Picture Framers Association" , http://www.framerselect.com/ "FramerSelect a nationwide network of the best frame shops, and the best site to learn about picture framing http://www.thegrumble.com "The Picture Framers Grumble"

Yes, framing done right or wrong is expensive, but done wrong can be most expensive. I'm seeing a lot of misinformation here, more than I can comment on. The sites I mentioned, have lots of the right information.

Joel J , January 05, 2006; 11:23 P.M.

I can't agree with you that framing and matting needs to be done professionally. One of the wisest things I've done as a photographer was to buy *my wife* a Logan 750 mat cutter. She is someone who likes perfecting craftish types skills (she also does bookbinding and will knock out the occasional laptop carrying case on her sewing machine) and it has paid large dividends.

The reason for using her services rather than a professional is not cost, but that I have been disgusted by the lack of consistent quality that so called professionals deliver. That combined with internet mail order pricing on mat material and waiting for sales (up to 70% off if you are patient) on frames means that I can get the best quality, a design consultant who doesn't mind my changing my mind five times before the weekend that we knock something out, and the lowest cost as well.

By the way, including the cost of the cutter, I was ahead cost-wise after about 5 framed prints.

Jeff Olson , December 02, 2008; 05:13 P.M.

Great overview! David M, what should I ask for besides the machine called the Wizard when I look for a good frame shop? I’ll have to look for a better framing shop for my studio. Thanks, Jeff.


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