Frame on a Budget / by Chris Dahl

After attending a presentation at the Booth Photography Guild on Mating and Framing I decided to try out the idea by matching it up with the requirements that the Shows/Galleries hold us to. There are two approaches below. The first one is like fitting a square peg in a round hole. It is labor intensive. So if you are not technical skip to the end (Ordering a Custom Sized Frame and Mat), where I show you how to used a “Custom Mat” wizard to have the Mat and Frame ordered cut to fit my print.

The reality is you only pay a few dollars more for the custom Mat and Frame. The online tools make it bery easy to do.

Many of my friends are in photography clubs and want to enter the competitions but find it hard to afford the cost of printing and framing their photos. You might think, just go to a discount store and buy an off the shelf frame for 40% off and slap the photo in it and you are done.

Clubs do not make it that easy. The Booth Photography Guild (BPG) has had its members submit images to the 2019 Fall Exhibition which will hang in the Booth Western Museum in Cartersville starting August 27, 2019. I have entered the show several times and am honored when one of my images is selected. This year I will have two images going into the show, so I could have a pretty big framing bill if I do not watch how I handle this.

Most clubs have a list of requirements that must be met in order to get the image into the show and then display the image at the show.

The BPG is no different. BPG is a Smithsonian affiliated Museum with a Permanent Photography Gallery. The requirements are ridged.

The printed image must be a minimum of 320 Square Inches (16x20 inch).

The Frame must be wood, Black and 2 inches wide or wider.

The Mat must be white or off white.

The reveal of the Mat’s cut edge to the frame must be 3 inches or more.

For the full list of requirements go to the BPG Web Site.

Often times we like to call our photos Art. I must admit many of the images I see entered in these shows are indeed Art. Lots of care goes into the capture, editing and printing of these images. The Museum wants to display them in the same building that has housed images by the greats such as Ansel Adams. Therefore, you want the finished products to look good.

This is also a Photo Competition. Framing is an Art form. Photography groups usually do not want the frame to distract from the photograph.

I am a member of the Georgia Nature Photographers Association (GNPA). I was recently at the GNPA Expo in Columbus Georgia. Eric Bowles gave a presentation on Framing and Mating on a budget. So I suggested we have him speak to our BPG members and give the same presentation.

The problem most photographers face when it comes to the framing is that we seldom frame our images and have limited resources.Standard off the shelf Frames and pre-cut mats usually do not fit. If you are willing to put in the effort, you can save yourself some money.

I did a little experiment outlined below. I print my own images (This will work if you get your images printed by a vendor as well). I decided to price out both a “pre cut” Frame and Mat vs a custom sized Frame and Mat.

Pre Cut Frame and Mat

Let’s start by talking about Frame and Mat sizes. When we shop for a frame or a mat they are listed at a specific size, for example, 24”x30”. For the Mat this will be the outside dimension. For the frame the 24”x30” size is that of the “Rabbit”, which is the notch inside the frame that holds the artwork (Mat). The outer size of the frame will be larger depending on the size of the molding used. Let’s take a look at a profile of a frame that meets the requirements for the BPG Show. This is one I have used in several shows that can be purchased from Frame USA.

2” Frame Profile.

2” Frame Profile.

The rabbit is the notch you see on the right edge designed to accept the Mat and backer. To calculate the size of the frame for the outer dimension you add the width of the frame minus the rabbit X 2. This site gives you that dimension as 1 5/8”.

1 5/8” x 2 = 3 1/4” in our example the 24x30 frame becomes 27 1/4” x 33 1/4”.

How did I come up with a 24 x 30 frame you ask?

I knew that the minimum 320 square inches can be achieved from a 16x20 print. A Full Frame image from my camera is a 2x3 ratio. This comes out to ~ 16 x 24 (Larger than what I need). I went to the Frame Destination web site and used their Mat Calculator.

Now I need to figure out my printing and the pre-cut Mat.

My printer will print on 17” wide paper and I buy 17”x25” paper. I also never print all the way to the edges. My Maximum print size is about 16. 1/2” x 24 1/2”. The next thing I do is decide about how much reveal between the image and Mat that I want. For me, it is usually between 1/4” and 1/2” and I may leave a little more below the image to accommodate my signature Knowing this I can look for Mats that are near the maximum print size that I can produce and not go below the minimum print square inches. Also, the Image I am using is almost full frame. I do have room to crop in all directions (this is why I suggest you look at framing options prior to submitting images).

I am looking for a Mat Opening that can be a bit larger than my full frame 16.5 x 24.5 image that I can print plus the reveal of 1/4 to 1/2” all the way around. To start I add 1/2 inch all the way around my Maximum print. so now my maximum Mat opening is 17 1/2” x 25 1/2”.

My job now is to find Mats that have a “Window Opening close to 17 1/2” x 25 1/2”. Keeping in mind that includes the reveal between the print and the Mat’s edge.

Also, I know I can crop my image to some degree. After going through the list of pre-cut Mat’s I find one with a 17 3/4” x 23 3/4” opening (which is a little larger than my estimated size).

I found the Mat below with a window opening is 17 3/4” x 23 3/4” (I add space around my image to allow for “Floating” within the cut edge).


Now I want to remove the reveal and get back to a print size based on the Mat opening. If I pull off the 1/2” I added, the print will be 16 1/2” x 22 1/2”. However, my maximum print size is 16 1/2 Inches.

This works. I will use 16 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches and this increases my reveal to 5/8”. There is an alternate option. I can print the image slightly wider and make the reveal even on the top and both sides leaving a wider reveal on the bottom for a signature (I will show both below).

Now I can plug this size into the Custom Crop tool in Lightroom , to see if I can work with the additional crop.

Click Crop and in the drop down select Custom Crop.

Click Crop and in the drop down select Custom Crop.

Adjust the crop to your liking.

Adjust the crop to your liking.

Now I have a Mat that dictates the Frame size and the final print size.

Frame size is 24” x 30 “, the Outside Dimension is 27 1/4” x 33 1/4”

Mat size 24” x 30” Opening is 17 3/4” x 23 3/4”

Print size 16 1/2” x 22 1/2”

At this point, I would order the Frame and Mat from the supplier. For my images, I trim the final print to the image and mount it on a backer board. I use the same material that the Mat is cut from. This has a nice finished look. The two Mat boards match and the beveled edge acts as a separator.

Once I have the Mat (Frame) and Print worked out, I can finish the job.

I use a 3M product name Positionable Mounting Adhesive 568 to float mount my images to the backer board (I use the same material as the Mat).

This adhesive is easy to work with and if you go this route, I will be happy to tell you about my experience and give you suggestions.

Another method that I have used, is simply print on larger material and leave an inch or two of the paper around the image. By doing this you can use T-Hinges or Photo Corners and float the image on the Mat. You still achieve that clean look of having a paper white gap between the image and the cut edge of the top Mat. This actually looks really good when you use a high end papers. But always check with the gallery to make sure it is acceptable.

Additional steps I find useful:

I also go to the trouble of drawing out the layout. Below is a drawing to show me what I have planned for this image.

Mat and Frame Size.JPG

The following example is how I might setup a Mat with image to reveal a larger area for the signature below the image.

Custom Size.JPG
Paper Back.jpg

Another step I take with my framed images is I enclose the back of the frame with brown craft paper. I use a 3M double stick tape to attach the craft paper.

Then I attach a label with my contact info, and the artist statement that I write for the image. This is printed on a nice 8 1/2 x 11” paper stock and cut to size. I use the same 3M product that I mounted the print with to attach the label.

Ordering a Custom Sized Frame and Mat

I use the Frame Destination website to calculate the Mat size below.

Using the final print size we will add the reveal size (3 inches) plus the rabbit depth (1/4 inch) both times two..

16x20 print

16 +3+3+1/4+1/4 = 22 1/2

20+3+3+1/4+1/4=26 1/2

This is your Mat size and In the custom frame section you will order a 22 1/2 x 26 1/2 frame.

Mat Size.jpg

As we discussed earlier, the Mat Size matches the Frame size 22 1/2 x 26 1/2.

I started out by telling the wizard the print size. This site has an “Art Overlap” option. I used a negative number to account for the 1/4” that I wanted.

Next, I moved on to the outside size of the Mat. I added the 6 “ I want of the exposed Mat in width and height plus 1/4” to account for the rabbit.

This gave me the dimension of the frame we calculated above.

Below is the cost for both frames. The first price is the pre-made model and the second price is a custom size 23x30. You actually save a few cents on the Mat and Acrylic material, but the cost of the frame is slightly higher.


Typically I cut my mats for shows. I am thinking of taking this approach and using the custom Mat and Frame options offered by both of these vendors. After going through this exercise, I found that ordering the custom size is not much more expensive. It also gives you creative flexibility to create your art.

I generally find that most of my crops are about the same. The good news is that I am able to reuse some of my frames and cut new mats as needed. Ordering custom sized frames typically take longer to receive since you are adding the production of the Frame and Mat to the job..

The Cost for Frames I used in this example:

The first price is the pre-made model. The second price is for the custom size.


Some useful resources:

Proportional Scale is a handy tool that generally cost around $10.00.


Frame Destination

I am not sponsored by any of these vendors I have used them and will use them again.