How to Display Your Photos like a Pro

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The rise in popularity of digital photography in recent years has radically changed the way we interact with photographs. Much of this change can be attributed to the transformation of photos from physical objects to pieces of data. Drugstore envelopes and shoeboxes have been replaced by hard drives and, more recently, “cloud” systems, as preferred methods of image storage. Likewise, computer and phone screens have ousted photo albums as the dominant means of sharing family memories and artistic creations alike. Yet, for many, the barrage of images on touchscreens and monitors has led to a newfound appreciation for photographs that you can physically touch and hang on the wall. Analog processes have rebounded among dedicated professionals, as well as the casual photographer, nostalgic for the “feel” of film photographs. Although arguments over whether digital prints will ever match or exceed the aesthetics of analog photographs will probably go on forever, we can all agree that printing technologies have evolved to the point of creating quality photographs that deserve quality presentations. 

Preparing and displaying your work can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. If your photo is destined for a frame on your desk at work, this article is not for you. There are plenty of options available to take care of this need, here. On the other hand, if you have a photograph that you have been itching to get on the wall, whether it be in your home, office, or an art gallery, what follows should help orient you in the world of mounting and display.

The anatomy of a frame

Before getting too deeply into the decisions that go into preparing and mounting your photograph, it is important to come to grips with the components that make up a frame.


The components that make up a frame

Frame  Frames come in an infinite variety of sizes and shapes, from tiny to gigantic, minimal to extravagant, wood to metal. Ultimately, your frame choice is a personal decision but a few factors should be kept in mind. Since you will be framing photographs to hang on a wall, it is useful to think about the space that your photo will occupy. A decadently carved frame that looks like it was stolen from the Palace of Versailles would probably seem out of place in most modern living rooms or offices. Contemporary galleries and museums tend to favor simple designs. This makes sense when you consider that ultimately, you want your audience to focus on your photograph rather than the object protecting it. Avoid frames that might distract viewers from your work. Don’t forget to consider the color of your frame relative to the colors in your photograph or matting. If you are computer-savvy, it never hurts to do a quick mockup in an imaging program to create a preview of what your finished framed photo will look like. Depending upon your chosen wall or the size of your work, weight can become a limiting factor. Metal frames offer a simple and lightweight alternative to wooden frames. Also, if you are working with a frame that has a rabbet (inside) made of raw wood, frame-sealing tape can be used to prevent unwanted toxins from transferring to your print.

Glazing  This refers to the sheet of glass or acrylic forming the “window” that your audience will look through to see your print. Not all glazing is created equal. If long-term preservation is your aim, it may be worth shelling out the extra dollars to use a conservation-grade material that blocks UV rays from reaching your print. Glass and acrylic both offer pros and cons, depending upon your particular application. The chief benefits of acrylic are its light weight and resistance to shattering. These are especially important qualities if you ever plan to ship your work. Shipping a glass frame, no matter how carefully packed, is always a daunting task at best. The area where glass trumps acrylic is on its surface. Acrylic is more prone to scratching than glass. Also, if your sheet of acrylic becomes statically charged, you will quickly learn just how much dust and hair is floating around in the room in which you are working. With this in mind, the benefits of anti-static gloves and anti-static cloths can hardly be overstated. This is equally true when handling your print. The best way to avoid getting grease or dirt on your photo is to never touch it with your bare hands.

Mat / Mounting Board  The materials to which you attach your photograph are especially important because they should be the only materials that physically touch your work. There are several options available to fulfill this role. Choosing the proper material for your needs will be discussed at length later in the article.

Dust Paper  Adding a paper back to your “framing sandwich” not only adds a clean, finished look to your job but, more importantly, keeps dust and other particles from sneaking inside of your frame.

Wire  Last, but certainly not least, is the equipment responsible for securing your frame to the wall. The most important specification to take into consideration is the maximum weight that your wire can support. Be sure to use a wire that supports well over the weight of your framed work. Equally important is what you use to hang your photograph. Most framing wire kits will include appropriate weight-bearing hooks to secure your work to the wall. Nobody wants a broken frame and a ripped-open wall.

Choosing a back

The first step in your photo’s journey onto the wall involves choosing a suitable mounting back. The two most important properties of your back to take into consideration are rigidity and quality. Rigidity is especially important for large or un-matted prints where buckling can compromise your display. There are few sadder sights than a beautifully framed photograph that bends toward its glass on account of inadequate backing. You want to choose a material that will keep your image parallel to the wall. It is important to know that temperature and humidity are capable of increasing the risk of your mounting material warping over time. In general, the thicker the better—just so long as the total thickness of the materials in your frame do not exceed the depth of your frame’s rabbet (the inside part of the frame).

The quality of the material that you choose to use is an equally important decision when mounting your photograph. We all have witnessed the damaging effects of improper storage of photographs at one time or another. Despite the popularity of sepia toning in some segments of the photo community, nobody wants their pictures to end up yellowed or browned unintentionally. Without getting into the complex criteria used by museums when preserving their collections, it is worth emphasizing the value of choosing acid-free materials. This is true not only of your mounting board, but also of any material that comes in physical contact with your print (e.g. adhesive). This will ensure that your prints look their best for years to come.

Three popular and common materials for photo mounting are: mat board, foam core, and gator board. The table below compares the attributes of each medium so that you can decide which is most suitable for your photo.


Material

Acid-Free Option

Components

Cutting

Rigidity

Mat Board (also called Museum Board)

Yes

Laminated paper

Easy

Varies depending on number of plies

Foam Core

Yes

Polystyrene foam laminated on both sides by paper stock

Easy

Rigid

Gator Board

No

Extruded polystyrene foam encased between melamine and wood fiber veneer

Difficult

Extremely Rigid

Beyond these options, there is also an array of other backing substrates that many professional framers or printing and finishing labs use, including Plexiglas, Sintra, aluminum, Dibond, and other composite materials. These materials are less common for personal use due to their availability and difficulty to work with in household settings.

To mat or not to mat?

Hopefully, by this point in the article, it has become obvious that photographs are sensitive objects that are easily damaged by their environment. Add glazing to the list of things that your photograph should never touch. Time, humidity, and temperature can easily team up to cause the emulsion or surface of your print to adhere to glass or acrylic, wedding them (unhappily) for life. While it is crucial that your photograph does not physically touch its glazing, there are a variety of ways to accomplish this task. Placing a mat with a viewing window cut out of it is the oldest solution to this problem.

If you are working with a standard-sized image, pre-cut mats are available to simplify your life. Be aware that, often, a mat window will be slightly smaller than the size of the print that it is designed to display. So, for example, a window cut to display an 8 x 10" print is actually 7.5 x 9.5". This will ensure that the edges of your print are safely positioned out of view. At the same time, you want to make sure to have your photograph cropped in such a way that significant details of your print do not get obscured by the overreach of the mat window. An easy solution to this problem is to add a small, white border around your image. If your mat window eats ¼" of your print on all sides (½" of your total picture) you can minimize its effect on your composition by adding a 1/8" border to your photograph. This gives back ¼" to your picture while still making sure that there is enough overreach to prevent anyone from seeing the border once the print is mounted.


Logan Graphics 32" Compact Elite Mat Cutter
 

If you find yourself needing a custom-sized mat window, you have two options. Pay someone at a framing or art store to cut it for you. Or, alternatively, cut it yourself. I only mention the first option because cutting mat windows is not exactly the easiest thing in the world to master and the equipment necessary to get reliable, clean cuts can get rather pricey. If you are only framing one or two prints, you might spare yourself the headache and have someone else do it for you. However, if you intend to do a number of prints, investing in a quality cutting system is well worth the expense. Many options are available, depending upon the volume of your output and the size of the boards you are using. Keep in mind that boards generally come in standard sizes, so you should choose a system that accommodates boards larger than your intended dimensions, since you will be cutting them down.

The popularity of large prints, coupled with the somewhat conservative connotation of a matted photograph, has led many photographers to explore alternative ways of displaying their work. Among the more popular options used today is the positioning of spacers between a print and its glazing. Spacers may be made of archival plastic or simply strips of foam core cut and adhered to the rabbet of the frame. This allows your photograph to fill the entire space within your frame while still protecting your print. If you decide to cut spacers out of foam core, make sure that you are using an acid-free board.


Another alternative to matting your photograph is what is known as “float mounting.” This technique is a popular means of displaying drawings and other paper arts that has recently been picked up by photographers as well. You can either float-mount flush with your backboard or place an additional board in between to create an elevated, shadowed effect.

Printing and stretching photos on canvas has become a popular alternative to framing altogether. Kits are available that simplify this otherwise complex process. Be aware, of course, that this means of display leaves your print vulnerable to the elements. A protective varnish is recommended to help preserve your work if you choose this option.


Hahnemuhle 10 x 15.75" Standard Gallerie Wrap Frame with Daguerre Canvas
 

Keeping Your Photo in Place

Now, you need to decide the best way to adhere your photograph to its support. First, a few words of advice on how NOT to mount your photograph. Despite its popularity in high school photo classes back in the day, never use rubber cement to adhere your work to its back. Doing so will make all of the preservation steps mentioned in this article completely useless, as you pour toxins straight onto your precious photo. Similarly, never assume that a tape or adhesive is archival. Always check the labels of any product that you put in contact with your photographs. Ok, now onto better options.

A tried-and-true method to permanently attach your print to its backing is to dry-mount it. This is a fairly straightforward procedure, where dry mount tissue is placed between your print and its mount before applying pressure and heat with a dry-mount press. This approach allows you to freely manipulate your print prior to its adhesion and promises a flat mount when done properly. However, prints mounted in this manner are plagued paradoxically by the permanence and impermanence of the adhesive used. Depending upon environmental conditions, dry-mounted photographs are susceptible to peeling away from their backings, making for a difficult situation where part of the print peels away while the rest of it remains permanently bonded. For this reason, conservators usually advise against this method—if only to spare themselves headaches in the future.


D&K 210M Commercial Dry Mounting Press

Spray adhesives offer a cheap alternative to dry-mounting your photograph if you are in a rush or do not want to invest in a dry mount press. The downside of this method is its potential to make a mess of your print, mount, and surroundings. Unless you are a photographer by day and graffiti artist by night, you may want to choose a less sticky solution. Wet mount adhesives can be used as an alternative to sprays. Be sure to apply the adhesive evenly and use uniform pressure to your photograph while it dries.

One of the safest and most popular ways to mount a photograph is to use hinging tissue. While this method can serve as a permanent adhesive when left alone, its adhesive is removable via mineral spirits. Of course, you want to avoid or limit your print’s contact with such caustic agents.  

For the ultra-conservative photographer, try using mounting strips or mounting corners. The benefit of this method is that no part of your photograph touches adhesive, leaving your work completely clean and undamaged. The only downside of this method is that it necessarily eats up a portion of your image either in the corners or sides. This is no problem if you are using a mat with a viewing window. However, it is a less feasible option if you intend to show your work to the edge of its frame.

Now that your photo is in place, the last step is to make sure that your entire framing setup stays secure. If you are working with a wooden frame, you will want to use a point driver to insert points behind your backing to keep everything in place. Depending upon how long you anticipate keeping your work framed, you can choose flexible points that are bendable or rigid points that will stay in place.

Wiring Your Frame

Now that your photo is snugly secured inside its frame, it is time to put on the finishing touches. Double-sided tape can be run along to the edges of your frame’s back before applying dust paper. A little pressure along the edges will secure the paper and a razor blade can be used to clean up the edges. At last, it is time to add your wire and hang your frame. A good rule of thumb for hanging your frame is to position your screws 1/3 of the way down from its top. Use a ruler—never “eyeball” your measurements. Screw in your hangers. Next, cut your framing wire a little longer length than your frame. One side at a time, pass the wire through your hanger and tie a knot. Wind the remaining wire around itself a couple of times and trim the excess. Make sure that your framing wire has some tension—you don’t want it to sag too much under the frame’s weight.

Conclusion

Presenting and framing photographs is an art in and of itself and those interested in learning more should check out the many resources in print and online. Once you get the hang of the many possibilities, your options will be limited only by your imagination. Now go take some frame-worthy pictures!

6 Comments

I would think that having a good glass cleaner handy is important for cleaning the glazing. Do you recommend any?

Hi Christopher,

For glass surfaces go with a microfiber cloth and ammonia-free cleaner. For stubborn fingerprints, try rubbing alcohol. In either case wet the cloth, never spray the glass which can cause the liquid to seep into the framed art. Also, if you are cleaning plexi, you will need a specialized cleaner and want to be very careful when cleaning to avoid scratching its surface. Hope this helps!

This article was a great refresher for someone who likes to do her own framing. Over the years I've used wood and metal. The advice here is spot on for preserving and showing off photographs. Also the comment about using bumpers on the back bottom of the frame is great. I use them on both wooden and metal frames. 

Another finishing touch I use is the addition of two small, self-adhesive "bumpers" to the bottom back corners of the wooden frame. These bumpers protect the wall from the frame and, possibly, the frame from the wall, as neither of these two are ever in contact with each other. It also facilitates air circulation behind the print.

I adhere the bumpers directly to the wooden frame. This means I have to cut away a tiny portion of the backing paper in each lower back corner. This prevents from the bumpers being lost should the backing paper ever be removed.

rjk

Great tip, Raymond. Bumpers are definitely useful as a last line of defense and a good way to keep your frame evenly positioned against the wall. Thanks for reading!

Great article! I usually have my photos professionally framed but will have to try some of these techniques next time myself. 

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