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Photography is easy, framing is hard

I’ve done a lot of damage to my framed photos, the ones I take to the markets to sell. Only small damage in each case (tiny marks) but noticeable and to a big proportion of the stock.

I’ve always used custom-made mounts and frames. I like to make the mounts myself. It’s very satisfying and it’s part of offering a hand-made product. Framing is more specialist so I’ve always bought the frame in.

To make the perfect mount, you measure up and determine the optimum mat dimensions (the mat is the top part of the mount, the mount is the bottom part of the mount, with the print sandwiched in-between). The mat dimensions basically means the widths of each side. So for an 18″x12″ picture size the mat size might be 8cm on the top and sides and 9cm on the bottom. It’s common for the bottom to be heavier to compensate for an optical illusion that makes the bottom side seem narrower than it is.

You definitely don’t want the sides to be a different width than the top and you want the bottom to be just the right amount heavier than the other three sides. In short, you want symmetry and harmony.

If all your pictures were the same size and shape (aspect ratio) then all your mounts would also be the same size and shape. However, I have pictures taken on APS-C sensors (3/2 aspect), micro-4/3 (4/3 aspect) and 35mm scanned slide film. This last is nominally 3/2 aspect but due to the slide mount plus the scanning process each one is actually slightly different, though generally close to 3/2. But then you get pictures that have been cropped slightly (for “artistic” reasons) and which will be any arbitrary aspect ratio.

Finally, there are portrait (vertical) shots and landscape (horizontal) ones. They have nominally the same aspect ratio but if you make the mat bottom side thicker this makes a difference so that the mounts for portrait and landscape shots of otherwise identically-sized images will end up different sizes (think: the “bottom” of a portrait shot is a short side, for a landscape shot it’s a long side.)

So I make each mount myself, measuring each picture individually, all in the cause of aesthetic perfection. The end result is there’s a big variety of sizes and shapes and few (possibly none) of them will fit into any ready-made frame that you might buy at a shop. This is a shame because custom-made frames are expensive (£30+ for the cheapest moulding for a typical 18″x12″ image size). It also means I can’t tell my customers they can just buy any cheap frame from Ikea.

To fit into a standard frame you have two choices. First, make the sides of the mat a different size than the top/bottom – which looks naff. Or, second, make the mat crop some of the image area. This is likely to be a significant crop which is likely to be artistically unacceptable.

It’s made both easier and harder because there’s really no such thing as a standard-sized frame. There are just sizes that are more or less commonly available. This makes it harder because you can’t just work out which size to target and then get your preferred style in that size. It makes it easier because with a lot of variety of sizes, you can perhaps find a frame style that comes in a size that’s a closer match to what you need.

I have two types of frame at the moment. Wood and aluminium. A typical wood frame has the picture and the backing board held in place with special tiny “nails”, the type you’ll be familiar with from buying ready-made frames to put holiday photos in. You bend back the little metal tabs to remove the back. It then has a sticky paper tape stuck all round the back to seal the gap. These aren’t really designed to be taken apart on a regular basis.

My aluminium frames, on the other hand, are put together with machine screws and no tape. They come apart and go back together again very nicely. I’ve taken advantage of this, swapping prints between frames to make a sale at a market.

It would therefore be nice that any ready-made frames also allow such flexibility. But it also suggests another option. If I make an effort to standardise aspect ratio (which is easier with the digital shots) then I can standardise the mount size and order a small number of custom-made aluminium frames in these sizes. I’ll get the flexibility to change which photos are framed and be able to re-use frames more easily.

I’m still working through this. Feels like swimming through treacle.


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