Plugged In: Do better than OK for prints on display

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

A regular reader has inquired about the most effective way to present her photographs. That’s a matter of widely varying personal taste, but I’ll venture my personal preferences this week.

There remains a general consensus that a coherent “body of work,” a thematically related grouping of well-made images exhibited adjacent to each other, has more overall visual and artistic impact than a series of small images viewed for a few seconds each on a computer or cellphone screen. Electronic displays, even the best affordable ones, display only eight to 10 distinct tonal levels per color channel, with less resolution than even mediocre consumer cameras. In addition to their evident lack of subtlety and fine image quality, there are practical limits to electronic displays, including image quality, cost, visual obtrusiveness, weight and general unattractiveness.

Good quality digital photography files can often be printed impressively large before noticeably losing visual quality. Framed prints are certainly easier and less expensive to display in your home or office than five or 10 large wall-mounted screens, each flashing images. And framed prints are always “on” to be enjoyed as part of your decor without increasing your electric bill.

For general use, such as photos of family and friends, favorite landscapes and travel photos displayed at home or work, I personally prefer prints made on good-quality photographic paper rather than other newly popular media, like canvas or aluminum, although I have recently made a fair number of canvas prints. Which media works best depends on your taste and the individual photo.

Traditional photo paper is easiest to work with, both technically and practically. There’s a quality paper for nearly every taste. My own preference for exhibition prints tends toward traditional heavyweight photo papers with a bright white paper base, cool to neutral tones and very deep blacks in the darkest areas. Because I like good separation between colors and tones, I use papers made with satin or glossy surfaces finishes, avoiding matte-surface “fine art” papers.

When using my Epson 7900 roll paper printer, I prefer 24-inch-wide rolls of Epson Exhibition Fiber glossy paper, a premium paper made in the classic fashion with a thick paper base and baryta coating. Red River’s 75-pound Arctic Polar Luster is an excellent RC-style “paper” and works very well as cut sheets up to 17-by-25 inches with my Epson 3880 printer. Inexpensive Kirkland glossy photo paper, available at Three Bears and Costco, works surprisingly well for letter-size photos. It’s satisfactory for most purposes, even routine professional photos and basic fine-art printing.

Photographs printed on photo paper are usually mounted on 1/8- to 3/16-inch foam core board, with a cut window mat in front. Although it’s generally recommended that photos be attached to the front mat with a single top hinge of artist’s tape, I’ve found that photos attached in that fashion soon show rippling and other distortions that cause sloppy-looking reflections. I now permanently mount any prints used for public exhibitions to the foam core backing board, either by dry mounting prints with heat-activated board or vacuum mounting them with adhesive.

Neither dry mounting nor vacuum sealing is considered acceptable for archival purposes or third-party sales, but permanently mounted prints definitely look neater and more professional when on public display. Unless you have your own mounting equipment, you’ll need to have dry mounting or vacuum sealing done by a professional frame shop. I have Frames and Things in the Blazy Mall dry mount my own framed exhibition prints and, where possible, sell only unmounted loose prints.

I print using Adobe Lightroom, which allows me to print a thin black border around the edges of any photo. If not covered inadvertently by the front mat board, a thin black border can be visually effective.

If you plan to display more than a single print, I suggest maintaining a consistent style of framing. Too often, especially with photographs, we see a jumble of print sizes and varying frame and front mat colors — a maroon mat here, a blue frame there — and all look thrown together.

If you’re displaying several photographs together, even if in a small exhibit at Kaladi Brothers, then I suggest making prints that are approximately the same size and all framed with white window mats in front. Museums and galleries generally insist on consistent white front mats, and they certainly have more experience optimally exhibiting images. Be sure that the “whites” match, as well. The visual mismatch between a pure white mat hanging next to an “ivory white” mat will be painfully evident. Pure white mats, rather than visibly yellow-white windows mats, seems to work best with photographs.

After doing a fair number of shows, I now use a single frame style, color and size —Nielson Radius style metal frames in “German Silver” color, with exterior dimensions of 24-by-30 inches. Photos are printed approximately 18-by-24 inches. These dimensions seem large enough to be striking, yet still affordable and small enough that 15 to 20 framed images can be fit into a fairly small gallery. I reuse those same frames for each later show, avoiding redundant framing costs. Those consistent exterior dimensions are key to reusing your frames easily.

Regular glass is too heavy and fragile to be used in large frames. Many galleries and juried shows require Plexiglass or similar clear acrylic for any frames larger than 16-by-20 inches, and that makes good sense. Although Plexiglass does not shatter as easily as glass, it does scratch with repeated use, so it’s wise to have a spare sheet or two of unused Plexiglass available to replace noticeably scratched ones.

Canvas prints are expensive when made by a third-party printing service, but in fact are not very difficult nor expensive to make if you have the right printer and media. I’ve used an Epson 7900 printer and 24-inch-wide rolls of Epson Exhibition Canvas Satin with good success, most recently to make a 12-foot-long print that includes seven images from the Nazi-era Dachau concentration camp for a recent exhibit. Printing those seven photos serially on a single long piece of canvas was the only practical way to make that sequence as an integrated single print.

When printing on canvas, I’ll leave at least two inches margin on all sides, printed a uniform deep black to the very edge of the canvas. That allows the frame shop to attach the print to canvas stretchers while preserving attractive unfinished edges. Done in this manner, very large photos, collages and panoramas printed on canvas media can be “gallery mounted” without an expensive surrounding frame.

Canvas prints are well suited for portraits, some fine-art images that need a somewhat softer presentation and images that are very wide relative to their height. One disadvantage of a canvas print is that there’s nothing in front of the image to protect the surface from abrasions and other mechanical damage.

Even though initially expensive to produce, prints made on an aluminum backing have recently become popular. They have several advantages, including quite large maximum size, ease of hanging and a depth of tone that can be visually striking. Aluminum-backed prints generally do not need to be framed for exhibit, and that’s a real cost savings.

They’re very suitable for most commercial purposes, especially in dimly lit areas. Despite those real advantages, my personal taste does not run toward aluminum for serious fine-art prints because aluminum prints seem to lack subtlety. Still, that’s a personal preference and one that I suppose can change in time.

In short, be open to using whichever media works best for your and your work but be consistent in your presentation. Not only does it look better, but over time it’s less expensive and easier to reuse.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Do better than OK for prints on display

  1. jack

    including a black 2 inch border around the image is a great tip.
    I have been adding two inches to the “canvas size” and leaving white.
    now it will be black…..or maybe white……
    thank you

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