Framing your photos – An Expert Guide


Framing your photos

Framing your photos sounds like an easy task. Getting a good result is anything but that. I know this from personal experience. Even when taking a print to a “professional framer” it is easy to get a result that 10 years later will prove to be less than ideal.

About a month ago I decided to change the framer I was using, as it had changed owners and recent work was not up to the standard I expect to pass onto my clients. So I started the process of looking for a replacement framer, and this is when I learnt how little I knew about framing and what questions to ask of a framer. So I did a ton of research; I spoke to a number of professional framers and scoured the internet.

The biggest discovery I made is that most framers, despite having multiple options for the types of glass, varieties of mat boards and backing boards, and different mounting techniques did not educate their clients to these options and therefore clients didn’t know there was an alternative choice. Most framers helped their clients chose a frame style and a colour for their mat board. They then picked the most inexpensive choices for the remaining options. This meant that almost every client went home with 2mm standard clear glass and other materials that are not designed to preserve photos over time. This means that prints that were professionally framed less than 20 years ago had faded significantly over time.

If you are a type A personality and want to understand all the options for each part of the framing process, I suggest you read the whole post. If you would rather read just my recommendations, read the first 2 sections and then scroll to the bottom of the post and read the last 2 sections on advice for choosing a framer and final recommendations for framing your photos.

 

What goes into expert framing of a print?

Here we will discuss your choices framing an important photo that you wish to place on your wall. Custom framing is an expert trade that when done well can make a photo really standout on a wall. Good framing practices and materials are designed to ensure the safety and longevity of a framed work. A balance needs to be struck between the aesthetic, conservation of the photo, and the price.

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.

Framing consists of five main components:

Glazing – Type of glass (or acrylic) used. 

Frame – this includes raw, stained or painted wood or wood composites or a metal or synthetic frame materials.

Mat board  – this creates a window around the picture. It gives a sense of space and leads your eye towards the art. It’s also a creative way to accent colours and add depth.

Back board – also known as backing board or mount board, this is what sits behind your photo in the frame. 

Backing Paper/Tape – Adding a paper backing to your frame adds a clean, finished look that keeps dust and other particles from sneaking inside of your frame.

Anatomy of a framed photo

Print Longevity

Known as conservation, archival or museum grade framing – these terms refer to the use of framing practices and materials designed to ensure the safety and longevity of a framed work. 

A key requirement of conservation framing is that all necessary attachments to artworks must be be fully reversible and the framing must not permanently alter the state of a work.

The quality of the material that you choose to use is an equally important decision when framing and 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 by some photographers, 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 for any material that comes in physical contact with your print (e.g. adhesive, mat board, back board, etc). This will ensure that your prints look their best for years to come.

Glazing Choices

Glazing is used to protect the image dust, marks, and fingerprints. Not all glazing is created equal. If you wish to protect the image from fading or yellowing it is important to choose a glazing with strong UV filtering properties. UV light exposure is not only responsible for the fading of pigment and dyes but also accelerates the breakdown of paper fibres.

The standard choices of glazing are:

Standard clear 2mm glass – Unless you specify otherwise, this is the glass that will be used for the framing of your photo. This is also the glass you will find in almost all off the shelf available photo frames. This glass has no UV retardant properties and therefore is not recommended for use with photos

Non-reflective glass – Provides the same level of protection as standard glass, but with the added benefit of a reduction in reflections on the glass. This glass has no UV retardant properties and therefore is not recommended for use with photos

UV clear glass – This glass blocks 99% UV light and therefore from a conservation perspective is appropriate for use with photos. It does however suffer if placed in a position where it will receive reflections from natural or internal house lighting. It should be considered the minimum level of glazing choice for photos.

UV non-reflective glass – This glass blocks 99% UV light and therefore from a conservation perspective is appropriate for use with photos. This glass is better and reducing reflections a slight haze to the photo. It should be considered a good choice of glazing for use with photos.

Museum glass – This glass blocks 99% UV light and blocks approximately 99% of reflections. The anti-glare coating makes this glass seem almost invisible. It is by far the best choice of glazing for use with photos.

Perspex/Acrylic – Acrylic is a suitable alternatives to glass, offering a lightweight and shatterproof option. Acrylic is available in plain, UV protected, non-reflective and museum options similar to glass options for framing. Acrylic is a safe option for oversized frames or areas with safety concerns but is more expensive when compared with its glass equivalent. Acrylic is also more prone to scratching than glass, and if it becomes statically charged is great at attracting dust from within your house.

Cost – As you move down the list from standard clear glass towards museum glass the prices increases.

 

Glazing options for photo framing

Frame Materials

Frames come in an huge variety of widths and designs, 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. Simple frames allow you to highlight the print, whereas ornate frames risk the viewer being distracted from the photo. A decadently carved frame would likely seem out of place in most modern living rooms or offices. Don’t forget to consider the color of your frame relative to the colors in your photograph and/or matting. Also consider the style and colours of the room in which you intend to hang your print.

I highly recommend doing a quick mockup in the following free and easy to use online service to get a feel for the frame type, colour and mat board choice. This website will create a preview of what your finished framed photo will look like. Just make sure you upload the photo before choosing your frame, mat board, etc.  

Mat Boards

A mat board (also known as a mat, mount board, or mount) creates a window around the picture and is designed to sit in between your image and picture frame. They are generally made of a cardboard-like material and can provide an aesthetic boost to your images through a range of colours.

Why use a matboard?

Protection
A matboard can protect the image inside the frame from moisture damage by keeping your image away from the glass. They provide a small gap, reducing the chance of direct contact between the image and glass, which is where most condensation builds up. The matboard will tend to absorb moisture first, thus limiting the amount of condensation that will build up on the glass. If there is no gap and your photo is against the glass for too long, moisture can build up and cause your photo to stick to the glass. Not only does this look awful, it also damages the artwork.
 
Decoration
A mat board gives a sense of space and leads your eye towards the art. In some cases a frame can be too distracting when placed right next to an image, adding a matboard will help provide a visual break between the frame and artwork.
 
Using the right colours around your image can help draw your eye toward the image and accent it’s key colours. It’s also a creative way to accent colours and add depth.  

Types of Mat Boards

Non Conservation Grade Mat Boards

  • An economical option and are perfect for pictures not requiring conservation quality matting.
  • Not recommended for photos
 
Conservation Grade Mat Board
  • Acid-Free and pH Neutral, reducing the risk of discoloration and damage
  • Many colours available for the external facing side
  • More affordable and the ideal option where Museum mat boards are not affordable or justified.
  • High quality and more affordable.
  • Highly recommended as there are a wide range of colours available and they still protect your valuable photos.
 
Museum Grade Matboards
  • Highest archival standards
  • 100% cotton fiber
  • Naturally acid and lignin free
  • Buffered with calcium carbonate
  • Available in Black, Off-White and White
  • Highly recommended on all irreplaceable photographs and important photos in which you do not own the resolution digital file (JPEG or TIFF) or a negative (for film era photos).

What is a V-Groove?

A V-Groove is a thin line, carved into the matboard about 10mm away from the opening (this may vary based on size of border).This cut out creates a similar effect to a double mat, but at a much lower cost and more subtle visual result. It also exposes the core colour of the matboard, for example Black Core mats will show a black line around the opening. This colour will match the colour of the bevel in the opening (where the photo is positioned).

What is a Double Matboard?

Using two separate matboards, you can provide an accent colour to bring out and highlight a particular feature in the image. You can also use two of the same mat colours to create a tiered effect and bring more focus into the piece. 

Double Mat Board

Back Board

There are two considerations for attaching your photo to a back board: materials and attachment method. Both are equally important. The attachment method is more commonly known as mounting, as is discussed in more detail in the Mounting section.
 
Materials:
 
The two most important properties of choosing your back board material are rigidity and quality. Rigidity is especially important for large or un-matted prints where buckling can occur. It is terrible to see a beautifully framed print that bends toward its glass due to inadequate backing. It is important to know that temperature and humidity are capable of increasing the risk of your back board 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 frame depth.
 
MDF – MDF backing is the cheapest choice, this is a sturdy option but may cause damage over the years to your image due to the acid levels present. 
 
Foam core – both adhesive and non adhesive options are often available. The adhesive option is used for mounting the photo to the foam core and is irreversible and therefore not recommended for photographs that can’t be reprinted at a later date if required. Foam core options are best suited to treasured photographs or works of art with value that you may want to preserve for longer as these are acid-free options.

 

Gatorboard – This is typical used as a backboard when the photo is not going to be framed, but rather displayed mounted directly to the Gatorboard and then hung directly.

 

The Mounting Process - Keeping Your Photo in Place

To protect your photograph from bending or wrinkling, to prepare it for framing, or to keep it stiff while hanging on the wall, it is necessary to mount your photograph on a rigid backing. Mounting is the technique used to secure a print to the back board. There are several different methods and materials to choose from when mounting a photograph.

Materials – The most common options are listed above in the backboard section.

Mounting Methods

Hinging Tape

Hinging tape is used to “hinge” a mat board to the mount board. The hinging tape must be acid-free in order to avoid damage to the photos. The most common  materials used for hinges are acid-free linen tapes. The two methods used are the T-hinge and the V-hinge.

Hinging Tape

Photo Corners

Triangle corners similar to those in photo albums. The corners are attached to the backing board or matboard, and the print slides into them without any adhesive. Perfect for conservation mounting since no adhesive comes in contact with the art, and it is highly reversible.

Not all photo corners are created equal. Ensure the photo corners being used are acid- and lignin-free archival paper and are backed with a safe adhesive that will not damage delicate photo emulsions.

Make sure you do not use photo corners that contain PVC plasticizers or acidic compounds. The two most common types of archival quality picture corners are made from polyester film, more commonly know as Mylar (Dupont Mylar Type D) and polypropylene.

Mylar Photo Corners are the first choice of museums and provide the clearest plastic. Polypropylene Photo Corners are not as clear as Mylar but are also inert, acid-free, safe and also widely used for mounting. Whilst these archival photo corners are more expensive than regular photo corners they are still cheap compared to the other mounting methods and I recommend them highly for all prints that will include a mat board within the frame. 

As you can see from the diagrams below, it is very useful that when you print your photo you add a border around the print of at least 2cm. That way the photo corners go over the border and not your photo.

Acid free Photo Corners

Mylar Photo Corners

Foam core Backboard with Adhesive backing

This is similar to pressure sensitive adhesive mounting except that the foam core board comes with the adhesive backing already attached. This means that the print cannot be moved around during the attachment process, you must position it perfectly first time.

Adhesive Board

Dry Mounting

With this technique the image is permanently attachhed to the mount board. It is often used in cases where the image will be float mounted or left un-framed on a thick aesthetically pleasing mount board. The dry-mounting process cannot be reversed so it is not a conservative technique. Over time bubbles can form in the artwork depending on environmental conditions, and the skill level of the person. It is generally not recommended for Polaroid and Inkjet prints since both are sensitive to temperature.

Dry mounting works by placing a special adhesive tissue between the photograph and the mount board. It is then placed in a special press that will apply pressure either mechanically or with a vacuum to press the artwork against the mount board while applying a high temperature to activate the adhesive in the tissue.

Dry-mounting is more expensive than wet-mounting but cleaner, neater and faster.

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.

Dry Mounting

Pressure-Sensitive (Adhesive) Mounting

Similar in nature to dry mounting, except without the use of heat.

Spray Adhesive

Typically the spray adhesives are not as permanent as dry or wet mounting. If the professional framer is not meticulous and skilled, dust particles can become trapped in between the print and the back board. After time, and with changes in temperature and humidity bubbles can form in between the print and the back board. Typically the spray adhesives are not as permanent as dry or wet mounting.

Wet Mounting

Wet mounting is similar to pressure-sensitive mounting however; you must apply wet glue or paste to the mount board. Wet mounting is a permanent mounting process that uses liquid glue as the adhesive. Since the process is permanent, you should not mount any original, limited edition or collectable print that you would ever need to remove.
 
The glue is applied to a backing board; then the print is placed on top of the glue surface. The piece is placed into a vacuum press, with the heat turned off, to completely flatten the art. Since liquid glues are water based, there is a chance of the backing board warping as the piece dries. 

Backing Paper

A dust cover, also called backing paper or a dust seal, is a thin sheet of paper attached to the back of picture frames to prevent dust, air pollutants and bugs from entering the picture frame.

Dust covers also keep the humidity levels from fluctuating too much within the frame, which can permanently damage artwork. The dust cover also serves an aesthetic purpose to make the picture frame look neater and cleaner.

Three commonly available types of backing paper: standard Kraft backing paper from Scotch™, Tyvek acid-free backing paper and Lineco acid-free backing paper. Standard Kraft paper is one of the most common types of backing paper used in non-conservation framing projects. As a standard paper, it contains lignin; over time, it may become brittle and tear more easily.

Tyvek is made from extruded polyethylene, while the Lineco dust cover is an acid-free paper that has also been buffered with 3% calcium carbonate. Both backing papers are acid-free, meaning that they can be used for conservation-style picture framing. They are also puncture-resistant but breathable, additional benefits for those who are framing artwork for the long term.

Lastly it is important that the tape used to secure the backing paper is also acid free, such as Scotch 908 Gold Adhesive Transfer Tape. 

Advice for choosing a framer for your important photos

  1. Ask the framer some of the following questions: Do you carry museum glass? What other glass options, with UV protection, do you have available? Do you have archival mounting methods available? What options are available for mat boards? What options are available for backing boards?  Check the materials the framer is using. A good framer will have detailed information regarding the glazing, framing, and matting being used. If not, they probably don’t deal a lot with framing of important photographs and I would avoid these framers.
  2. Inspect some finished works. This should show their attention to detail in the finished product. Look for any obvious trapped dust behind the glass.
  3. Do they provide knowledgeable advice about there product range and can they assist you in wading through the extensive choices available.
  4. Check reviews online regarding their customer service and workmanship.
Framing your photos

Final Recommendations for Framing your Photos

1. Decide where in your house you wish the photo to be displayed. This allows you to check the decor in there room with the frame and matt choices available. Place an A4 coloured piece of paper on the wall with a piece of blue tac, stand back and take a photo of the whole wall. This information can be given to your photographer who can place your print in the right size into your photo of your room. This allows you to check the size dimensions of both the print and frame to ensure that the size is appropriate for the space. 

2. Print your photo if not already done. I recommend including a border around the image of at least a minimum of 1cm, preferably more. This allows for more options in the mounting process and minimising damage to the photograph.

3. Decide how important this photo is, for example do you want to have it hanging for the next 2-5 years or 20 plus years on your walls. This is important as you will need to make decisions on materials. Materials that are considered archival are more expensive but will last longer, not damage the photo and allow you to hang the photo in more locations as the special glass will protect the photo from UV damage.

4. Take the photo you wish to be framed to a professional framer.

5. Choose your frame material first – make sure the frame width is appropriate for the size of the photo.

6. Choose a variety of possible matt board choices, including having a double mat or a V-groove. Ensure your choice of mat board is acid free and pH neutral. Lay the photo and frame flat on a bench, and interchange the matt board samples until you find a combination you like.

7. Choose your choice of glazing. I highly recommend at least something with a minimum of 70% UV protection, with a good level of clarity.

8. Discuss with the framer your choice of mounting options. I highly recommend photo corners and/or hinging type (ensure that they are acid free versions). Avoid spray adhesives unless you are very confident in your choice of framer.

9. Discuss with the framer your options for a backing paper and tape, ensuring they are also acid-free if print longevity is a priority.

10. Discuss with the framer what options are available for hanging your framed photograph.

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