Getting ready – Cumbria Photography Show

I’ll be at the Cumbria Photography Show this weekend, with a specially selected set of pictures focussing on mountains but especially Cumbrian mountains.

I’ve done some printing and mounting of shots I haven’t shown before. Getting stock ready for exhibition is, without doubt, the hardest and most tedious part of the job. I’ve spent about six hours in preparation today and what I’ve done is:

  • Added hanging wire to four frames
  • Mounted and wrapped four medium-size prints
  • Printed three small prints

…and that’s it. In six hours. I’m sure some people must be more productive than that. There is better mounting equipment I could buy that would make things faster but I have to sell a lot more before I can invest any more. Here are some pictures of the process.

I start with full size sheets of mount or backing board. These are too big for my small mounting machine so at this size I have to do the first cuts by hand with a ruler that isn’t big enough for the job. Note the piece of gear every printmaker needs – a very large sheet of cardboard as a sacrificial piece underneath. Also note the table isn’t big enough for the full cut either. See why I’d like to invest in more equipment?

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Cutting a full size sheet of backing board

With the backing board and the window mount cut (using the mounting machine) you place the print and attach to the back with T hinges.

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Attach print with T-hinges

Then add double sided tape which will hold the window mount to the backing board. Some (most) people use a single piece of tape to hinge these two together, making it easier to access the print. I like my method as it makes for a much sturdier product that will stand a lot of handling.

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Add double sided tape to three sides

Here are some special custom-made mounting tools. A nice heavy paperweight and a Tokina 70-200mm lens, in Pentax A-mount, wrapped in a sock as a second paperweight.

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Special tools

I sign the print in the margin and add the title, using a pencil (an “H” pencil) for this kind of matte paper. I also put a white label on the back with extra information. People looking through prints in the print browsers usually turn them over to see what’s on the back, so this label gives them something to read.

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Prints are signed and titled

Finally, the prints mounted and wrapped in cellophane ready to sell.

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Wrapped and ready to sell

I’m really looking forward to the show. I don’t think I’ll sell much. The audience will be mostly photographers and photographers aren’t likely to buy other people’s photographs, but I think there’ll be some really interesting people to talk to.

Photography is easy, Framing is hard

When I attend art fairs and markets I take a mix of framed prints and unframed mounted prints. Framing is a pain. The frames are easily damaged, one small ding or scratch can ruin it. It’s expensive to get custom frames made, and how do you know what frames people like? What if you try framing a particular print but it doesn’t get any response and you want to swap it for a different one? Can you dismantle it and try again? All in all, framing is a right royal pain in the backside. However, nicely framed prints look gorgeous and make a great impact on the stand or stall.

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I’ve always gone for the custom framing route before but now I’ve bought some ready made frames to try. Much much cheaper, they’re nice quality and look great. Because they’re from a major retail chain I reckon I’m fairly safe in the choice of design. The major retail chain knows what sells and what’s on trend and wouldn’t be stocking them if they weren’t popular.

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The key for me was the aspect ratio. My prints have a variety of aspects, 3/2 or 4/3 for the digital prints, and various for slide film scans, not to mention ones that have been cropped for artistic reasons. My main worry was whether the mount borders would be all wrong. It turns out that with the two sizes I’ve bought – 50cm x 40cm and 40cm x 30cm – the aspect is close enough that I don’t think anyone will be bothered. The person who fusses most about this is me and they look good to me.

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If this works out it will be a major breakthrough. I’ll be able to standardise print and mount sizes and by interchangeable, inexpensive ready made frames that will be less of a heartache to replace when damaged and less of a wallet ache to invest in up front and will let me try different prints in the frames to see what the response is.

And I have to say, they look gorgeous!

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It’s easy to find religious discussions on the internet about the pros and cons of cropping your images. Some people think it’s artistic heresy to crop, that you should get the image right in-camera. I think crop if you want to but one very good reason for never cropping is that if all your pictures are the same shape, printing, mounting and framing are MUCH easier. And if you really want an easy time of it, shoot in square format.

Let’s print again, like we did last summer

Epson printer ink costs more, gram for gram, than gold. Seriously. Actually not. Today’s gold price is £23.38 per gram. Epson ink is £21 for 17 grams (17ml cartridges). I’ve heard the ink/gold comparison many times and always assumed it was true, it certainly sounded plausible. Whatever, printer ink in 17ml cartridges is ruinously expensive. When I had a proper job and did photography as a hobby I could afford a regular fix. Now, I have to justify it from sales. I’ve been fortunate to have made a few (literally, just a few) sales recently. I also got some birthday money yesterday (the big 5-0). So I’ve splashed out on a full set and I can do another print run to replenish stock. I might have enough left over to do some personal prints of work in progress, though I doubt it.

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.