Framing Your Photography

Archival prints in the process of being framed. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Archival prints in the process of being framed. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

At some point you’ll probably have some photographs you’ve shot that you want to frame. How you go about the framing–the decisions you make–will have a big impact upon the impact that your images ultimately have. I’ve spent most of today framing and here are a few thoughts about the process.

Archival vs. Non-Archival Printing

Now that archival digital prints are inexpensive and easy to make, you’d be crazy to NOT create an archival workflow for your to-be-framed prints. Before the advent of archival pigment prints, creating archival prints—prints that will last well in excess of 100 years—was an expensive and laborious process: the prints had to be printed on a rag-type printing paper, run through multiple washes in an archival washer, then dried on fiberglass screening.  The same results or better are now available from the current generation of Epson professional printers like the R1900 or better; or you can simply get a lab using such a printer to make your prints for you.

Archival Framing Considerations

You’ll need acid-free storage for those archival prints you’ve created, because acid is the enemy of archival prints. I use the inexpensive archival prints boxes available from Dick Blick Art Supply, although there are lots of others sources out there as well.  Keep your prints loose in these boxes until you get around to making your framing decisions. The boxes are the second step, after your printing, in this archival workflow.

What You Need to Know about Mat Board

Now that you’ve made archival prints and have them safely stored in acid-free boxes, you’ll need to decide about the makeup of your framing itself. The first thing to consider is that almost ALL of the mat board that you see in those racks at the art supply or hobby store are NOT acid free product: put that in front of your archival print and you’ve just ruined the entire process. The acid in the mat board will eventually leach into your print, damaging it beyond repair.  What you’ll want to find is acid-free mat board, frequently described as ‘museum board,’ since it’s the only product that an art museum will use to frame prints. Two good brands of acid-free mat board are Strathmore and Crescent. I’ved used both with good results.

If you're going to do a lot of framing yourself, you'll eventually need to invest in a real mat cutter. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

If you're going to do a lot of framing yourself, you'll eventually need to invest in a real mat cutter. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)


Behind your mat board and your acid-free print, what sort of material do you want in contact with the back of your print? Acid-free, of course! So ordinary foamcore won’t do: you’ll need acid-free foamcore to back up your print. I buy this from Blick as well, whenever I place an order for mat board.

Metal Frames or Wood?

Photographs used to almost always be housed in aluminum frames, either silver or black. This is still a perfectly acceptable (and cheap) way to frame your images, but I prefer a wood frame for my photographs. I suppose I simply got tired of the metal frames, and the wood frames just look more substantial. A simple, tailored wood frame can’t be beat for showing off your best work. I use both black and a clear pickled finish for my wood frames, depending upon the tones in the image itself. A lot of my split-toned black and white images seem to work better in a pickled frame; you’ll have to figure out for yourself what best sets off your work.

Doing the math: precise mat boarders are crucial to an acceptable job when matting your images. I still draw a little diagram for each photograph. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Doing the math: precise mat borders are crucial to an acceptable job when matting your images. I still draw a little diagram for each photograph. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Two more minor, but important tips for your archival workflow; if you’re doing the framing yourself (and I frame all of my images myself), you’ll want to wear white cotton gloves while framing and use linen tape to afix your images to the backing board and to assemble the mat itself.

The white cotton gloves will keep oil from your fingers from attaching itself to your print or mat board, potentially ruining your archival print. I buy these from Dick Blick as well (and no, I’m not getting a kickback from Blick!).

Linen tape is acid-free and the best way to attach your print into position on its backing board when framing. You don’t want your print detaching itself from the backing board and slipping down inside your frame! (It can happen, trust me.)  Regular masking tape is not acid-free and will cause problems for you in the long run.

Whether you frame with regular glass material or plexiglass is up to you, both can provide an archival environment for you print. I use plex because it’s required for shipping artwork to any non-local shows and because it’s much lighter, reducing the overall weight of your piece signficantly.

So there you have it: my quick-and-dirty guide to archival print framing. I’m sure I’ve missed some things here, so if you have questions about any of this, ask in the Comments below and I’ll try to answer them.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

13 Comments on "Framing Your Photography"

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  1. Ana Matos says:

    Hi Andrew, I have some questions to you:

    – why the decision of making all the framing process yourself?
    – do you ever tried delegating the process to brands that do that?
    – do you recommend more the framing as you do or send it to brands could be an good option?
    – canvas printing do you ever had done it?

    My experience with this is none, I have printed with Snapfish a long time ago some small pictures (liked the quality), an family album with Blurb (also satisfied) and lately a calender with Vistaprint (not so happy). They say the quality of the printing paper is up to 100 years also. Is it reliable?

  2. Hey Ana,
    Thanks for the questions. There are two main reasons I do my own framing: I enjoy it, and it’s much, much cheaper. I enjoy woodworking anyway and framing is really all about attention to detail and craftsmanship, so making my own frames comes easily. I also have an uncle who used to who a small frame shop, who gave me some of his old equipment, plus taught me how to use it.
    My problem with readymade commercial frames is that they’re almost never the exact size I want. This is particularly true for mat board sizes. Your prints will always need something a bit different.
    I have not done any of the canvas surface printing.
    Finally, yes, the 100-year claims are reliable. This technology is fantastic and a huge step for all photographers that want to preserve their work.

  3. Michael says:

    HI Andrew,

    my questions concern size, if your framing an A3 size print what size mat would you use and how much lager than the print should the frame be?



  4. I take the opposite approach. Cheap, cheap, cheap!

    My long-term, acid-free, archival storage is on the perfect medium… my hard drive (yes, I have MANY backups). Even if the picture were to somehow last a long time (forgetting acid, I’m thinking kids, pets, falling off the wall, natural disasters, moving, earthquakes) I would just reprint and remount.

    I have yet to see a frame and/or mat board that lasts through more than 5-10 years of wear and tear.

    I recently had some discounts with a local framer. I went the whole “archival acid/free/hang it in a museum” route with a very nice 20×20 metallic print.

    Without the discounts, it would have cost me $500 to mount a $30 print. I think that’s rediculous. There has to be a better way.

  5. Charla says:

    I have the canon 3ti and when I’m shooting a portrait on a bright sunny day my pictures look washed out, when I check my histogram it looks ok but when I upload my images they just don’t look vibrant. If I’m shooting at f1.8 With a 50mm lens what should my shutter spear be? Also f5.6 with my 70-300mm lens? Please help, thanks

  6. Your approach is certainly viable, Marlo, but part of my personal path is about making my work ‘collectable’ as well. For that, I need to be creating limited edition, archival prints, thus my approach. Thanks for a refreshing other point of view!

  7. I usually frame with the same amount of ‘white space’ (mat board) on the top and left and right sides, then with just a bit more on the bottom. This seems to create a pleasing balance. Usually I’ll use either 3″ or 4 ” for my top, left and right sides, and a corresponding bit more to the bottom. My detail photo in the piece above shows off the calculations being made for those images this way.

  8. Enivea says:

    Thanks for this article Andrew, most appreciated. I recently had some work printed and framed for a competition, and for simplicity sake, at this stage, I used a commercial printing and framing place. However, I can certainly see the benefits of doing the whole process myself – once I can learn the necessary skills!
    I prefer timber frames also.

  9. Yes, it’s so blasted expensive to have it done ‘outside.’ Glad to hear you’re framing work though!

  10. Hey Andrew,
    personally I have not worked on fabricating my own frames (yet). I am a very big fan of frames made from aluminum. Usually they come pre-fabricated in typical sizes here in Germany. I also ordered one special fabrication for a very special image I took. The costs had been of course very high, but it was worth it.
    But indeed, your approach leaves plenty of room to creativity of sizes. This especially applies to panoramic images. Including a note of actual frame size and calculation is highly appreciated. It sounds like a good work for winter time…
    Cheers, Bernd

  11. You bring up a good point–if you can customize your mat board to truly fit your image, the metal frames offer an excellent and reasonably-priced way to put the package together.

  12. Rubianca says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your article. I enjoyed reading it.

    I am in the course of offering my clients mounted images. It just gives a more exclusive feel to the image so people appreciate a print much more. That is my point of view. I think it’s a pity that most of the people nowadays leave their images lost in the computer.
    So I am learning about mounting and how to best offer this product.

    Do you always use one color to all your images or do you match the mount according to the image?


  13. Color is up to you, but the thing I would concentrate on is setting up an archival workflow.
    The prints coming off inkjet photo printers are mostly 100+ year prints, so you want your
    matt board, foamcore, adhesive and/or linen tape to all be archival too.

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