October 24th, 2020
It is often recommended that photographers print their photographs. There is something to be said for printing a photograph; having a tangible output of something you have created is satisfying. However, equally satisfying is framing a photograph. A framed photograph conveys finality and lets you preserve your efforts for yourself and others to enjoy. Recently, I took on a small project to frame several of my own photographs. I thought I would share some of the information I learned along the way in the event that it may help you get started framing your own photographs as well.
I started first with determining an image size by referencing conventional frames. I started here simply because ready-made frames would make this job far simpler. Frame dimensions will reference a frame size plus a ‘matted to’ size, or the size of the viewable image. The table below includes a few examples.
|Matte Size (image size)
The first problem I encountered was that many of my photographs do not neatly fit into these conventional frame sizes, even with cropping. As I don’t often compose with a certain size in mind many of my photographs end up being non-standard sizes, so ready-made frames were out of the question. This meant that I had to pursue a custom matte and frame route. At this point, rather than try to make an image fit a certain size, I would choose the size that I would prefer the image to be and use that as my baseline. This, then, lead to my second problem; given a certain image size, how do you choose an appropriate matte size? After searching online, I found a resource offered by USAOnCanvas.com that has an extremely helpful set of data that suggests matte border sizes relative to the size of the art work.
|Matte Border Width
|6" or less
|7" - 8"
|9" - 10"
|11" - 24"
|25" - 32"
|33" - 36"
|37" - 40"
|41" - 44"
|45" - 52"
|53" - 58"
|59" - 64"
|65" - 68"
Consider the following example. If you had an image that measured 8 x 10, the united inches would equal 18 inches (united inches is adding the width and height, so 8 + 10 = 18 united inches). A suggested matte border width for a photograph that is 18 united inches is 1 3/4 inches. This border width would then be added to all four sides of the image, as the graphic below illusrates.
What I found to be extremely useful is Photoshop. You can use Photoshop to mock up matte borders around your image to visually confirm that the matte border width is appropriate for the size of the image. Since the border widths in the table are suggestions, you may find that a 2 inch matte border might be more visually appealing. Using Photoshop, you can adjust these borders accordingly. When you are happy with the size of the matte borders, the final canvas dimensions will be the overall size of the matte to be custom ordered. In this example, you would order an 11.5 x 13.5 inches matte with an 8 x 10 image opening.
Next is to consider the size of the image in relationship to the size of the matte frame opening. Mattes are typically cut such that the matte opening overlaps the image by a certain margin. Often matte descriptions will tell you how much overlap there is, but 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch is common. The assumption is that if you printed an image to fit an 8 x 10 matte, the matte would overlap the image by 1/8 inches to prevent the photograph from falling through the matte window opening. Below is a graphic that I put together that highlights in red the 1/8 inch portion of the matte that would overlap the image.
Due to this overlap, matte window openings are smaller than their advertised size. With custom mattes you typically have the option to specificy the amount of overlap. I have found an 1/8 inch overlap to be preferable to a 1/4 inch overlap simply because 1/8 inch obscures less of the photo. The other alternative is to request that the matte window opening be cut to the same size as your photograph, avoiding overlaps all together. Personally, a small amount of overlap is preferable because matte window openings that have been cut to the same size as the image could have small tolerance differences between the cut itself and the image size, which might result in a fine white border.
The last step is to consider the overall size of the image document, not just the image itself. Like I mentioned, the matte window opening is specific to the size of the viewable image, but you also need to think ahead about how you will mount the photograph to the framing material. Ideally, you will want to print your image onto paper that is larger than what is required to print the image. You can then trim the paper to leave a white border around your image to be used for mounting purposes.
When you buy a frame, or you custom order a frame, frame sizes reference the inside dimensions and not the outside dimensions. This inside dimension is often referred to as the rabbet. A rabbet is a recess cut along an edge that serves as a shelf for the artwork and other material to be placed, so this will include your glazing (acrylic or glass), matte board, photograph, and backing board. When choosing a custom frame you will generally have choices for the rabbet depth. Below is a simple graphic that illustrates a rabbet with a few depths for clarification.
What’s important to keep in mind about rabbet depth is that you want to choose a depth that is sufficient for the sum thickness of all of the framing material. If the rabbet depth is too shallow, you won’t have room to secure the contents in the rabbet itself. The graphic below is an exaggerrated example, but it should clarify this concept. The graphic on the left has enough room between the backing board and the top of the rabbet to be able to secure the contents in the rabbet itself. The graphic on the right has a rabbet depth that is too shallow as the contents exceed the depth of the rabbet.
When choosing a frame you will also need to consider the frame profile, or frame face. Choosing a frame profile can be very subjective but a useful starting point is to choose a frame width that is around half the width of your chosen matte border. For example, if your matte border width is 2 inches you would start looking at frame profiles that are 1 inch. However, like I mentioned, this is subjective. I've seen, and own, framed art with both thin and thick frame profiles. I think it's fair to say that choosing a frame profile not only depends on what is being framed but also personal preference.
When selecting a matte, you can either choose to cut the matte yourself or you can buy a precut matte. I choose a precut matte. While cutting matte board blanks is cheaper over time, the convenience factor of a quality precut matte is hard to ignore. Precut mattes can be found in any well-stocked hobby store, or through online frame suppliers. Regardless of where you source your matte board from, you will want to consider the grade of matte board. Matte board is typically offered in three grades: decorative (sometimes referred to as standard), conservation, and museum. What are the differences?
Generally speaking, the purpose of each grade is to reduce, or eliminate, the potential for matte burn. Matte board, unless otherwise specified, is manufactured using wood pulp. Wood pulp contains a plant based structure called lignin which acts as a bonding agent that helps bind the wood pulp together. Over time, lignin starts to deteriorate. This deterioration produces an acid that causes matte burn. To help reduce this problem, manufacturers neutralize wood pulp by adding calcium carbonate and other additives. This calcium carbonate acts as a buffer to reduce short-term problems of matte burn due to acid. These types of matte boards are described as ‘acid-free’. You might assume, reasonably, that an acid-free matte board would, by definition, be acid-free, however, this is not necessarily the case. While a matte board may be technically acid-free, it may not be permanently acid-free. Decorative matte boards, like the kinds you find at a hobby-store, will often fall into this category.
Conservation matte board and museum matte board are grades that both offer longer term solutions for preserving your artwork. The primary distinction between these grades are the processes used to manufacturer the matte board and the materials. Conservation matte board is still manufactured with wood pulp, but it is more highly refined than decorative matte boards. Museum grade matte board, on the other hand, is made from 100% cotton, which is naturally lignin and acid-free. Choosing between conservation or museum grade matte board comes down to money and how far you willing to go for archival purposes. Museum grade matte board is considered superior as it is the more stable product, but it also more expensive than conservation grade. Conservation matte board is more affordable and, while it can offer archival standards depending on manufacturer, it is not as pure as museum grade. Also, there is the subject of longevity. How long does it take for an acid-free decorative matte board to cause matte burn versus a highly neutralized product like conservation matte board, or naturally neutral 100% cotton museum grade matte board? For acid-free decorative matte boards I’ve read suggestions that matte board burn can occur within 25 years or less while conservation and museum grade matte boards can exceed hundreds of years, depending on environment. It’s likely that the photographs you have printed are done with some measure of care using high quality printing paper, so a high-quality conservation matte board should be the minimum consideration.
I learned that there are several factors to consider when choosing between acrylic or glass for your frame. First, not all acrylic or glass are created equal. You will encounter acrylic or glass that has UV protection, anti-reflective coatings, and other treatment applied, or none at all. Whether UV protection or anti-reflective coatings are required will depend on where you plan to hang your artwork, but I think it’s a safe choice to consider an option that has some level of UV protection. If your artwork has even a remote chance of being in any direct, or indirect, light UV protection will help prevent any long-term damage caused by UV light. Something to keep in mind is that UV protectant coatings can produce a slight yellow tint as a result of the treatment.
The second factor is whether to use acrylic or glass. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Acrylic has the advantage of being highly impact resistant. If, for example, a frame had fallen from the wall acrylic will not shatter the same way glass might. If the acrylic does break, the pieces are unlikely to damage the artwork. Acrylic is also lightweight, making larger framed pieces easier to handle and mount on a wall. The primary disadvantage of acrylic is that it is highly susceptible to scratching if care isn’t taken when cleaning the surface. I have found that a water damp micro-fiber cloth, or a non-scratch equivalent, works best.
There are several benefits to glass. First, it's easier to clean when compared to acrylic. Second, and this is my own opinion, glass looks better. It isn’t so much that glass produces a clearer image, in fact acrylic can often be clearer than glass, it’s more of how the image is presented in the frame. After having framed a few photographs with acrylic and owning a number of prints framed with glass, I tend to favor glass. With that said, there are, however, three primary disadvantages in choosing glass: it is expensive, it is heavy, and it breaks. What might dictate your choice is the size of your photographic print if you plan on ordering your materials online. Some online frame suppliers will not offer glass as an option over a certain size, so it's best to confirm the maximum allowed size for glass. If this is your first time framing a photograph I would actually recommend ordering one of each type. This is what I did and it was useful to see both side-by-side so that I could choose which one I liked best.
Two common approaches for mounting a photograph, or any artwork, is using framers tape or photo corners. Framers tape is often used to create what is called a 'T' hinge. A small portion of the tape is applied to the back of the photograph itself while another piece of tape is applied perpendicularly on to the first piece of tape and then onto the backing board. A useful reference is this YouTube video that demonstrates how to apply a 'T' hinge.
The other option are photo corners. Archival photo corners are made with an acid-free adhesive with a base material of either polyproplene or polyester (photo corners produced by the company Lineco are good examples). The photo corners adhere to the backing board and the photograph slips into the pockets of the photo corner. Having used both methods of framers tape and photo corners, I personally prefer photo corners when I can use them. In cases where there is only a marginal white boarder around the image, photo corners may not work well since the lack of a border may not be enough to hide the photo corner entirely behind the matte board. In other words, you may end up seeing the photo corner from the front. The main advantage that I can find in favor of photo corners is that the photograph is not adhered to anything. The photograph can be easily slipped out the corners themselves in the unlikely event the photograph would need to be removed after having been framed. With framers tape, more work would be involved to separate the tape from the photograph. Regardless of the method you choose make sure that the photo corners or framers tape is of archival quality and acid-free.
I do want to mention a few miscellaneous thoughts on backing boards. If ordering your framing material online or through a local hobby store, be sure to choose a backing board that is acid-free. High quality backing board is important as the photograph is typically mounted to the backing board only. I have seen some approaches where the photograph is attached the matte board but I find mounting the photograph to the backing board is preferrable for several reasons. First, it makes positioning your photograph within the matte board window far simpler. Second, if you decide that you would rather have a different matte it would require you to detach the photograph from the matte board, which, depending on the method used to mount the photograph, could be difficult. Mounting the photograph to the backing board eliminates any issues with maintaining the correct position within the matte board window as well as replacing the matte board later on if you choose to do so.
To secure the glazing (acrylic or glass), matte board, photograph, and backing board into the frame, you will want to use frame points and a point driver. There are manual point drivers available but do yourself a favor and buy an automatic point driver. They can be expensive but it's a tool that is worth every penny (automatic point drivers from Logan and Fletcher are popular options to consider). Once the material is secured into the frame you will then want to attach a dust cover to the back of the frame. Dust covers can be made from different material such as kraft paper or Tyvek. Regardless of material, an acid-free dust cover is recommended. The dust cover itself is then attached to the back of the frame using an acid-free double-sided tape.
The last step is to finish the frame with framing wire so that it can be hung on a wall. The approach that I particularly like is using D-rings simply because they lay flat to the frame, unlike some other options such as eye hooks. There isn't much to be said about framing wire other than to pay attention to the rated weight limit. Some framing wire supports more weight than others. With the framing wire attached, your photograph can then be hung on the wall.
I set out to write this article not so much as a step-by-step guide on how to put a frame together but rather points of interest to consider when starting to frame your own photographs. What I learned is that framing can be surprisingly complex and I wouldn't be surprised if a professional framer might cringe with some of the approaches that I have offered. However, at the very least I hope I provided you with a baseline that you can then work from. If you enjoy printing your photographs, I can assure you that taking the time to frame your own photographs yourself will be just as satisfying.