A Frustrated Photographer Takes Framing Into His Own Hands

Saw & Mitre Frame Company founder David Rathbone describes his journey to start his own framing company, and offers advice on framing art.

After several years of being frustrated with the poor quality and high price of frames for my photographs, I decided to design and construct them myself. In mid-2014, I quit my corporate job and founded Saw & Mitre Frame Company. Our goal is to make high-quality printing and framing easy for photographers.

Not all frames are created equal. From materials to design, choosing a frame for your photograph can have a significant impact on how your artwork is displayed, and ultimately, perceived by your audience. I firmly believe that a frame should enhance the art, not pull focus away from it. The process is similar to a great electric guitarist playing a concert; most of the audience may not know the type of amplifier or pedals the guitarist is using, but those factors play a vital role in how the audience experiences the music. A frame should play a similar role to a photograph.

When it comes to framing, the multitude of choices and decisions to make can become overwhelming. Unless you have a framer that you work with closely and trust, it can be easy to get bogged down in the decision making process. Here are three key areas to keep in mind when framing and displaying your artwork.

Design Matters

A one-size-fits-all approach to designing a frame for a photograph doesn’t necessarily work. With off-the-shelf, ready-made framing, the design choices are typically made to satisfy a broad audience and may not work with your unique vision. Is the photograph minimalist and stark? Then a wider cut mat around the photograph may be a better fit. Does the photograph portray an intimate moment? In such cases, a more narrowly cut mat will better draw the eye to the focal point of the image. It can be difficult to make these decisions by simply looking at framing and matting choices on a computer screen.

Helpful Tip: Before you visit your local framer or have a custom frame made, take a few minutes to sketch some ideas with a pencil and a ruler. Start with the size of the photograph and then draw a couple different mock-ups with different matting widths. Try a narrower mat, something wider, and maybe a weighed mat (slightly wider at the bottom than the top or sides.) 

Inside the Saw & Mitre workshop.

Inside the Saw & Mitre workshop.

At the Saw & Mitre workshop, this is how each of our frame designs begin. Drawing your artwork to scale at a smaller size helps to rule out poor designs quickly. Once we have ideas sketched out, we then draw the design to scale on a whiteboard to see the design on a wall at eye-level. If you don’t have a whiteboard handy, the oversized drawing pads sold at office supply stores work great as well. Visualizing how the size and proportions of the frame and matting relate to the photograph helps tremendously. At the end of the day, putting in a little more effort on your part at the beginning will make the final decisions go much smoother.

Color Palette: Choosing The Correct Color Frame

There are no right answers when it comes to choosing a frame color, finish, or style, but some are better suited to your art than others. Selecting a frame simply because it is on sale is not worth it in the long run. If you are having trouble visualizing what your photograph will look like when framed, make a color board. This can be done by bringing the photograph into your computer and adding colored borders to see what works best.

The environment in which your photographs will be presented must also be kept in mind. Framing your art for your home or for a gallery exhibition may call for different aesthetics. Take into consideration the paint color/wallpaper pattern and the furniture in the room. If possible, when making your color board, keep in mind where the frame will hang.

Stewardship: Guardians of the Artwork

Whether you are framing your photographs for clients or for personal display, preserving the print is vital. You’ve worked extremely hard to conceive, create, and print your photographs, so it is worth the effort to protect them.

At Saw & Mitre, we use only archival framing materials. In order for framing to be considered archival, all materials must be acid free. From the ink and paper used to create the print to the matting and adhesives used in mounting the photograph, any use of acids will burn and discolor the work over time. Pay particular attention to all the materials coming in direct contact with your artwork. The concert guitarist analogy holds true here as well: It can be easy to gloss over these details and opt for cheaper materials that most people will never be aware of, but the pH level of your matting really matters, especially over the long term. To create a truly great experience, like the difference between Eric Clapton and the guy at the local bar, it's in the details where the difference between good and great is achieved.

To see the high-quality, custom frames from Saw & Mitre Frame Company, visit SawAndMitre.com.

Guest contributor David Rathbone is a photographer and frame-maker in North Carolina. He can be reached at david@saw-mitre.com. This post was sponsored by Saw & Mitre Frame Company.