How to Choose Frames Like a Pro

My clients have several options when it comes to enjoying their printed photographs in frames…

Since every portrait my clients purchase includes the high-resolution digital version, they are welcome to go out, print large, frame, and display their images as they like. This is the cheapest options with the most work, for obvious reasons.

My clients also have the option to have me print the image for them. Then they can take care of selecting and purchasing the frame themselves. This guarantees that the print will look right and will be of high-quality, but the client saves money by doing most of the work of framing.

The third approach is to have me handle everything: the printing, framing, and the installation. This is the most expensive option, but it also means that everything will be done perfectly without you having to lift a finger.

This Blog post is for those clients who really prefer to frame their own prints (whether the print is through me or through another vendor) and for those who want to know more about the advantages of purchasing the frames I offer. Because when it comes to selecting frames, there are many options out there at varying price points. And while two frames might look identical, there are some very important things to consider when making that choice if you’d like your frame to still look good in five years.

1. The Mat

The mat is probably the most important piece since the it directly touches the print, which is why we’re going to talk about it first. Mats can be really cheap or really expensive and that depends entirely on the composition of the mat and the thickness. For smaller images, a 4-ply mat makes sense, but for larger artwork, you always want to pick the 8-ply mat, which is about 1/4” thick. It allows the print to have proper space from the glass and also looks much, much better.

And here is where it gets tricky..

Mats are made from paper-type material, but the composition of that material is the difference between your mat staying white or yellowing over time (not to mention effecting your photograph). The best type of mat is “100% rag”, which is another way of saying it’s 100% cotton (or 100% pulp). This means it doesn’t have any acid or chemicals that will destroy things over time.

Everything else (literally, every single other type of mat) isn’t going to hold up. If you’re at the store and you’re buying an “acid-free” “archival” mat for your frame, you are probably getting something that still has acid content. Why? Because companies know that’s what people are looking for and they label their product in the best way to appeal to the consumer. In the end “acid-free” and “archival” don’t adhere to any sort of standard. It basically means nothing.

So how can you tell if you have a museum-quality mat? If, in a few years, the core of the mat turns yellow, you know that acid is present. And if you’re buying a new mat, look for “100% cotton” or “100% rag” instead of “archival” or “acid-free”.

2. The Frame

Let’s talk about the quality of the frame itself. First of all, if you’re buying a wood frame, you should always make sure it’s actually 100% wood. Composite woods and veneers are popular, not only for furniture, but for framing. Heck, I have IKEA frames that look like standard wood stuff you get everywhere else but are literally made out of painted cardboard. Real wood is stronger and more durable (think of all the 200+ year old houses that are still standing that are made out of wood), and yes, it will certainly cost more as well.

The other important thing to look for is attention to detail when it comes to frame construction. Do the points of the frame match up perfectly? Because if they don’t they will keep separating over time to create a huge gap. What does the wood grain look like? And has the finish been properly applied? How was the frame put together? Using glue or

Fun Fact: With my framer, I insist that the inside edges of white frames are painted white (this is apparently called a “rabbet” for anyone interested). That edge isn’t actually seen, but the glass or acrylic will reflect it ever so slightly, and if it stays the original wood color, it will be somewhat visible. That extra care and attention to detail makes all the difference, which is why I love my frame vendor so much.

3. The Front

With frames, the photograph is protected from dust and the elements by a piece of glass or acrylic covering the entire front. I personally prefer shatter-proof acrylic over glass for very practical safety reasons (especially with children around). But with both, there are various options. Standard glass/acrylic is reflective. One step up is the glare-free version. And the best is UV-filtering, glare-free.

Now, no piece of glass is going to filter out 100% of UV rays.. which is why it’s always referred to as UV-resistant, because it helps but doesn’t completely eliminate the potential damage that could be caused by sunlight. Sun is a powerful thing. And light will slowly fade colors and turn whites yellow - the best thing you can hope for is to slow down that process for as long as possible. The only sure-fire way to protect a piece of art from damage is to keep it safely stored away in a dark climate-controlled room, but the whole point of family portraits is that you should enjoy them! Which means they should be out on display.

4. The Backing Board

The last piece, and this is still quite important, is the back of the frame. The part nobody will ever see. All too often a piece of regular cardboard is used for this purpose, which really isn’t adequate if you’re trying to preserve the photograph. Once again, you’ll want the paper backing to be free of harmful acids.. and if your frame’s company is trying to cut costs, this is definitely one of the areas they’ll do it.

And, of course, there is also the way the photograph is held within the frame. Never use household tape (especially masking tape) as it will leave sticky residue on the photo and might tear the paper when removed. Instead, use photo corners or mounting strips, which don’t adhere to the artwork.

I remember ordering my first framed print from a professional photo lab when I started being serious about being a photographer. Even then, I could tell that the frame wasn’t great (apparently it’s standard to imprint plastic with a wood texture) and the mat was thin and wimpy. So I kept the sample.. but I never offered it to my clients.

Fast forward to a few years later when I came across a framer who was building and selling museum-quality frames from his workshop in Virginia. These were real wood heirloom pieces with incredible attention to detail.. and they were gorgeous. I knew, right then, that these were the frames I wanted my clients to have. And three years later, the Studio sample frames I ordered (the ones that hang in the sunniest room in existence and go out to fundraisers) are still as pristine as the day I got them. And that’s saying a lot! Quality is important when it comes to framing.. and knowing what to look for is even more so.