6 Photography Framing Tips to Live By

"Givenchy Hat B" by Frank Horvat, 1958, signed and numbered, Archival Inkjet print, 23 x 33 inches. By Hamburg Kennedy Photographs

Photography is arguably the most popular art form of today. From classic black and whites that capture pivotal moments in wartime history to seemingly infinite seascapes by more contemporary artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto, the market is both vast and diverse.

Once a collector purchases a work of fine art photography, the immediate next step is to preserve its condition – that is, to frame it, then consider where it will hang in the home. And if you’re not properly prepared, that can turn into an overwhelmingly tedious, expensive process.

Fear not. With over 30 years experience in the art framing business, Richard Siegel, owner at one of Boston’s most reputable framing companies, Stanhope Framers, gave us some of his insider tips for framing fine art photography. Here’s everything you need to know.

1) Keep it simple.

For the most part, if you’ve just bought a photograph, the photograph itself is where you want the focus to be, says Siegel. “We take a pretty conservative approach to framing photography. It’s about letting the artwork come through and do the talking.” What’s more important is the quality of the materials used and the subtle ways to make the photograph stand out, like matting. In a color photograph, for example, opt for neutral matte tones to avoid detracting from the work.

This “keep it simple” rule is one that galleries and museums often follow in hanging multiple photos up in one room. “In a gallery, when you’re hanging 10-20 frames at a time, you don’t want each frame to stand out as its own entity. You want them to disappear,” says Siegel. “More often than not, you will find that in photography shows, photographs are framed with the same frame.”

2) Complement it, don’t overpower it.

When a person’s buying their first piece, their landmark piece of artwork, they may want to put more money into it to make it stand out. If you do choose to go a more complex route with your frame, you can find subtle ways to complement the photo; for example, you might choose a frame that has some kind of texture to complement (but not detract from) the work. Or, you could use an 8 ply matte rather than a 4 ply matte, says Siegel. The 8 ply is a double-thick matte that gives more depth to the window of the opening.

“If you traditionally uses white lacquered frames, which have become the standard for photography, you could also use the profile of the frame to accentuate an image. If there’s rock formations in the photo, for example, one could use a more beveled shape frame to bring out the texture in the photograph.”

3) It’s not always about the trends.

Today, says Siegel, some recurring trends include the use of no frame. While that’s not good news for framing companies like Stanhope, many types of contemporary photography you see in galleries and museums have no frame, and that works. “That’s called ‘face mounting’ the photo to a piece of acrylic, and to plexiglass. It’s a slick, sexy look that often works well aesthetically.”

Exhibitors will also show works that are mounted (not face mounted) to a vacuum board, seemingly “floating off the wall.” That’s a trend that’s gone through cycles over the past 30 years, says Siegel, but there’s a downside. If you don’t put acrylic over the face of a photograph, it’s dangerous. Even with face mounting, the photo is protected, but the acrylic face could be damaged. “Because they are now one in the same bonded together, if the photo is damaged, it can’t be replaced. That’s why museums that buy artwork that’s face mounted often make a request for a second print to be kept in storage, in case something were to happen to the original.”


Teatro Colón Buenos Aires” by Candida Höfer, 2006/2008, c-print, Concept Art Gallery

4) Expect to spend.

Framing is expensive. Why? There are a few components, says Siegel. One, the materials for framing are expensive. You absolutely can frame photographs inexpensively, but your photograph will look inexpensively framed. “It makes the artwork look inexpensive.”

Two, labor is expensive. “We have people at Stanhope that have a certain appreciation for what they’re handling, and a level of skill from having done it for awhile. Everything that is framed gets treated with the same level of respect,” he adds.

Three, there’s really no way to mass produce custom frames. “Not everybody has that 8×10 block that the artist, for example, creates a watercolor on. So we can’t premake frame selections that are 11×14 to factor in the 3 inch matte. Everything that comes in to get framed is written up and a frame is fabricated for that specific piece. That’s how it is in the framing world.”

5) Frame the art for the art, but consider all of the variables.

There are a lot of factors that that go into the framing and hanging decision making process. Knowing where you’re going to hang your photo is important, but if you frame with the primary goal of complementing the artwork, it will give you flexibility when you want to move it to a new location or paint a wall. “But it certainly doesn’t hurt to know that a white frame won’t work on your off white wall. Consider presently where the photo is going, but don’t make extreme calls based on that location,” says Siegel.

Then there’s the question of how high to hang it. “The common rule for hanging art is 60 in. high for the center of the artwork. But that’s in the gallery environment, where there’s no furniture or file cabinets next to it. I think you have to choose a location the same way you’d choose a frame. The good thing is once you hang it, you can always move it.”

Lot 385, “Aspens, Northern New Mexico” by Ansel Adams, 1958, gelatin silver print,
Doyle New York (April 13)

6) Avoid the biggest framing misconception.

People can frame their artwork themselves; they have proven they’re able to. However, the misconception, like many things we do ourselves, is the amount of labor that’s involved in doing it. “It’s an extremely tedious process to do, and to do well: to size things the right way, to make sure the proportions are right, to get ahold of all of the materials needed.”

“The most important component is how the artwork is attached or fit into the frame; how it’s attached to its backing board. You have to think about the kind of hinges or photo corners used, so that you’re not doing irreparable damage. But again, the biggest misconception is how tedious the process can be when you do it yourself. You might find yourself wasting an hour chasing a speck of dust. It’s a task that professionals make look easy.”