A Frame of Reference: How Should You Frame Your Print?

Framing decisions can be among the most perplexing issues facing photographers who are new to exhibiting their work.
Framing decisions can be among the most perplexing issues facing photographers who are new to exhibiting their work.

For some lessons, we learn the hard way. I certainly have.

Decisions for framing photographs are perhaps the most vexing of problems for artists. Do I let the framer decide? What frame do I use? What mat is correct? How should I frame a solo show? All difficult issues, and trust me, I’ve been there.

And if you have too, or are facing a looming framing decision, this post should help.







Before I continue, I’ll say this up front: When you choose to purchase framing supplies online, or printing papers such as Hanhemühle, Red River, Epson, Canson or Moab, please do so using the links on this blog, Dick Blick Art Materials and Red River. Whenever you purchase by clicking through from this blog to these sites, it helps pay for all the materials, ink, time and technology I need in order to provide you with these posts. Thanks in advance.




In the opening paragraph, I mentioned I learned the hard way that framing decisions were more difficult than I imagined. That lesson came in the form of a museum director letting me know in no uncertain terms that the frames and mats I had used for a group exhibition were just fine for a commercial gallery bent on selling photographs, but not a serious museum interested in highlighting artists’ work. Ouch.

Yes, you can let your framer decide, she continued, but the framer isn’t the photographer or the curator, and the exhibition piece isn’t about the frame or the mat, regardless of what a framer might say. Framers mean well, she said, but they aren’t properly informed. While I didn’t agree with her (I happen to adore my framer, and I think she has an astute sense of presentation), I was shaken.

In short, she told me I’d compromised the impact of my images, my professionalism, and my public image. The message hit home.

And thus I embarked upon honing a new facet of my artistic career: writing a framing style guide. What the heck is a framing style guide, you ask? Keep reading.

Understanding a Framing Style Guide

The two types of ebony wood frames I use; the bulkier frame size is for larger images.
The two types of ebony wood frames I use; the bulkier frame size is for larger images, as it supplies the necessary support for the heavier weight.

A framing style guide is simple. It consists of a simple, word-processed page that you hand to a framer, and it specifies the exact framing requirements, mat and display requirements, glass requirements, and certification presentation requirements. By providing this guide, you guarantee your framing will look the same for every image in a solo show, a group of images in a select group exhibition, or even a single image in a curated group show. Moreover, you let everyone who sees your displayed images know exactly who you are and your professional standards, regardless of which images you are showing. A framing style guide provides a public consistency.

So, if you’re going to write a framing guide, you’ll want to make sure to do research, draft a guide, work with your framer to refine the guide into a watertight document, and then stick to it for a long time—years, in fact. The sections below explain.




What a Curator Expects

Figure 01. A 1", black wood frame, coupled with museum glass and a 3" or 4" white archival mat, is usually what curators prefer.
Figure 01. A 1″, black wood frame, coupled with museum glass and a 3″ or 4″ white archival mat, is usually what curators prefer.

Curators don’t like ostentatious framing. Shows aren’t about the frames, they’re about the art, and so the frames and mats should be very unobtrusive, even nearly invisible. Essentially, the frame provides a visual reference space for the image you’re showing, and nothing more.

Thus, most curators will implore you to avoid anything glitzy. Leave that to customers who buy your work and frame it later.

A curator almost always expects an archival, often 8-ply (thick) mat, mated to museum glass and a black frame (see Figure 01). I don’t necessarily follow this line of thought completely (my good friend Gregory Heisler and I were just debating this dogma a few days ago), but the curators are running the galleries and museums. And we should play nicely, since those curators give us space for exhibitions.

Here’s my suggestion, though. I exhibit both color and black and white images, but not usually in the same show, so I have two different framing styles. The two styles are close, but not quite alike. I prefer a black wood frame style for my black and white images, and a brushed satin pewter for my color prints, but both with white mats. The satin offsets the color properly, while the black complements the tones in the black and white images. And once that style is set, don’t deviate, because your clients will come to associate the style with you as a professional. It’s in your best interest.

Ready to write your own framing style guide? Here we go.


Step One: Go See Your Framer.

Your framer is your partner in this work, not your enemy. Find a reputable and honest framer with whom you can build a long relationship (I’ve been working with my framer for more than 7 years, and I refuse to throw her over—she’s that good), and who will abide by your specifications. This isn’t a sales exercise, it’s long-term process, and it should be treated as such. Set up an appointment, because this will take at least an hour of time.

Also, bring a notebook to document each step:

  • Frame material, color, width, shape, brand, and SKU (manufacturer’s ID number)
  • Mat ply (thickness), texture, color and brand
  • Exact width of the mat from opening to frame edge
  • The amount of space between the mat bevel and the image (you should leave room for your signature and edition number)
  • The type of glass or acrylic
  • Mounting method for your image (usually an archival mat board, with the image dry mounted)
  • Budget information and price quotes

Bring at least four of your best images to the meeting, and if you show both color and black and white photographs, bring four of each.


Step Two: Choose a Frame and Mat.

Figure 02. Mat Samples.
Figure 02. Mat Samples.

Choose one frame for the color images, and one for the black and white, or one type for all images. Remember:  frames are NOT the focal point, but a tool. They delineate the boundaries of your image, nothing more. They should fade into the background. Spend time placing a white mat and the various frame samples with your image.

Make this selection very, very carefully, because you’ll be sticking with this choice for a long time. Be sure you can live with the frame, and that it will not detract from your photographs; a frame should be elegant, not gawdy. Avoid frames that will go out of fashion quickly.

With a mat, remember that it gives your image dimensionality; a 4-ply mat is thinner, while an 8-ply gives a thick—think deep—opening where the image can live. There is no right choice, only the one that you feel suits your images best. Personally, I prefer 8-ply, as it has less of a tendency to “waffle” over time.


Figure 03. My chosen frame type, brand, and sku number.
Figure 03. My chosen frame type, brand, and sku number.

Once you’ve decided, mark down the exact frame name, manufacturer, SKU number, materials, color and dimensions for your guide. Record the mat texture, material, color, manufacturer, and SKU number.

I like to also shoot a photo with my phone to document this, just in case I make a mistake in writing down the details (see Figure 03). Doing this also helps you gather any extra information you might need for your clients.





Step Three: Determine your mat opening and width.

Mat opening and width can be perplexing. Personally, for smaller images, I prefer a 3-inch mat border, while a 4-inch is my preference for my larger photographs. Ask your framer to show you both types with scrap samples. Either way, I specify a 1/2-inch space between the image itself and the beveled mat edge, as this allows space for my signature and edition number to be visible.


Step Four: Choose your glass or acrylic type.

Ugh. Which protection should you choose? Generally, there are nine types of clear image protection:

  • Basic glass or acrylic
  • Low-glare glass or acrylic
  • 98% UV-protective glass or acrylic
  • Low-glare, 98% UV-protective glass or acrylic
  • 99% UV-protective, no-glare museum glass
Figure 03. Conservation glass v. museum glass.
Figure 04. Conservation glass has more reflective qualities than the anti-reflective museum glass.

Essentially, glass choice comes down to three factors: price, performance and preference. I want my images to look as good as possible, and have the ultimate UV protection, so I use the best option: museum glass (see Figure 03). It’s also very expensive (about 3 times the cost of regular glass), so this will depend on balancing the three P’s. Again, even with 99 percent UV glass, images should never have prolonged exposure to direct sunlight in order to avoid fading.






Step Five: Determine your image mounting method.

Image papers can have waves and curls that are nearly impossible to remove completely, and those imperfections can look positively awful in a frame. As a result, I have my framer perform archival dry mounting for all my images, using museum-grade 4-ply mat board. Why not foam board? It’s simple: During the dry mounting process, foam core can accidentally dimple, and if you’re using luster or glossy paper stock, those dimples will be very visible in the frame. Stick to 4-ply or 8-ply museum mat board.


Step Six: Discuss—and agree—on the production window and price.

Last, and most importantly, discuss price. Get a set of prices, by image size, for each size of frame, and on the framer’s official stationery. Both of you should sign it, and both of you should have a copy to keep. Moreover, ff you’re going to be doing a lot of framing, and committing to this framer for a long period of time (which you should), then you should receive some form of discount. This may be between 10 and 15 percent, depending on volume. If you do an abnormally large volume, ask for 20 percent; after all, since you’re always using the same frame types and mat types, your framer can buy in larger volumes to keep some in stock. He or she will save money because of this, and so should you.

Also, since you’re not the only customer for your framer, determine a ideal window of time for drop-off and production, and include this on the bid sheet. This way, both of you will know each other’s expectations for a general time frame (pun intended) to complete the job. While you may not always be able to keep to this ideal, try your best. Your framer will be happier to see you, and you’ll keep your “rush delivery” costs down.




Like much of my advice on this blog, the primary lesson here is to research, prepare, and document. You’ll have a consistent framing style, a better relationship with your clients, and a much better relationship with your framer. You may even save quite a bit of money. But most importantly, your framing will show you are a serious, professional photographer.


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