The Big Picture

The Big Picture

by Mark Alberhasky, January 20, 2016

Many of us are photographers for different reasons, but at a basic level we all want the same thing from our images: satisfaction. In this post I’m going to suggest something that may seem foreign to many of you as an alternate path to deriving satisfaction from your photography.

Right now you’re reading this on some electronic device. For many it will be a phone or a tablet while others will be at a desktop monitor. Pixels on an electronic display is the standard mode for image consumption these days and I understand all the reasons why. Instant accessibility, ease of sharing and beautiful rendering quality. I get it.

But guess what? When I look back over the past year (January is good for annual reflection if little else) you’d be surprised to find me saying that on my list of photographic satisfaction, one of the top items had little to do with bits or bytes and everything to do with canvas.

In the digital age all photographers are making more images than they can possibly appreciate. Even if we aggressively cull the thousands or tens of thousands of images we shoot each year, among those hundred great images how often do you actually view them? If you’re like me, browsing through the photo app on my iPhone or poking around in Lightroom’s catalog, it’s often a surprise to revisit images I’ve made earlier that year and already forgotten. So what’s the answer to getting more satisfaction from your greatest photograph(s)? Physical versions hanging on your wall that require no electronic hardware to be appreciated.

Fine prints have become a forgotten vestige for photographers in the have-to-have-it-now and share-it-on-Facebook era. And by fine print I’m not talking about any of the standard print sizes available from either your ink jet photo printer or the Costco print center nearest you (though in all fairness I’m blown away by the quality and price of a 16×20 from Costco). Prints 11×14 or smaller do not convey the depth of quality found in the digital files you’re shooting with your current generation 16 MP or higher camera. Not only that, but prints of that size also do not communicate their importance to the viewer. Think about it… When you go to a museum and view great works of art, what size are the vast majority? LARGE. Perhaps larger than any print you’ve ever have made from your own work. So if you want to experience the kind of satisfaction I’m talking about, think BIG. In the range of 30-40 inches in greatest dimension, or larger. When you hang a print this size on the wall you’re making a statement. People will stop and take notice because as an artist you are saying, “This is important.”

There are a couple of things to consider as you think BIG. Choose wisely. Be critical and confident that what you’re showcasing is an image you’re incredibly proud of, brings you continual viewing pleasure and one that possesses the appropriate technical quality for large reproduction. If the image isn’t critically sharp, for example, a 40” wide version may not make it look better. Also have a plan about where you will display the image. Done well (and more about that is coming) you will need a large wall space that affords an appropriate viewing distance and has good lighting. DO NOT create a masterpiece and then hang it without lighting it correctly! As a consumer what would be your response be to a dish in a 5 star restaurant served cold? That will be the viewers experience if your print hangs as an afterthought in a dim hall or corner of the room.

The more practical of you have already raced ahead, thinking one of two things: this will be expensive or this will be heavy. The answers to both these questions is not necessarily.

As a visual artist you are about to make a statement about the value of your work. Wrap your head around what that means. With that understanding the fact that you are going to spend at least a couple hundred dollars becomes easily justified.

As for big and heavy, these two terms are not synonymous. I have huge prints hanging in my house that are not heavy. The weight you’re thinking of is caused by glass. We’re not going to use glass.

If you’re making a classic photographic print (and there is nothing wrong with that), have your print made including a border of white that will serve visually as your mat. When the print is made it will not require actual matting.

A print with intentional white border requires no mat for a mat-like effect.

A print with intentional white border requires no mat for a mat-like effect.

You should also have the print laminated with a thin layer of plastic film, available in glossy, satin, or matte finish. For a regular paper photo I prefer satin, also sometimes referred to as lustre. The plastic film seals the emulsion surface of the paper, protecting it from atmospheric elements and UV light, both of which can diminish the life of an unprotected print. The film layer also negates the need for glass or acrylic, keeping the artwork light weight for it’s size, and makes the viewing experience reflection free, another big plus. A classic paper based print can be then be mounted by the photo lab on Gatorfoam, available in different thickness. Gatorfoam won’t warp and is available in black should you choose to simply hang it bare for a simple, contemporary presentation. If you choose to frame the Gatorfoam mounted print, do so in a float style frame intended for a painted canvas (a float frame leaves a small gap, typically 1/8 inch, around all borders so the artwork appears to float in the frame).

Gatorfoam mounted print in float frame. Note 1/8th inch float spacing. (Click for detail)

Now for the buzz word which inspired this post: canvas. There are several characteristics of photo printing on canvas that make it a desirable choice. The slightly textured surface of the canvas can hide imperfections in your image that might become accentuated when you enlarged the image, so it is a visually forgiving surface. Prints on canvas don’t require mounting on a substrate such as Gatorfoam, but instead are stretched on a canvas stretcher frame. These frames are available at art supply stores and are relatively inexpensive. You can pay someone to stretch your photo canvas for you or learn to do it yourself, which is relatively easy. Once you see how much someone else will charge you you’ll appreciate the value of doing it yourself. Start with a couple of small canvas prints until you have the hand of it and then graduate to large prints. The only tool you actually need is a decent staple gun from Home Depot or Lowes, which can be purchased for under $30. You’ll find other uses for it so it’s a good home improvement purchase. Even a large stretched canvas is quite light so hanging them is a cinch. I just mounted several 60” wide canvas prints and they are stunning.

This 60″ wide Death Valley sunrise greets us each morning in our bedroom.

This 70″ wide paper based print was mounted on Gatorfoam and placed in a float frame. 10 years later the laminate film protection has kept the print like new. The light weight made it easy to relocate the print three times without damage.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity you might be asking, “Where can I get canvas prints made?” The answer is all over the place. I have been using Bay Photo, an internet photo lab out of CA, and have been very impressed with their customer service and print quality. The canvas print can also be covered with the thin plastic film. I experimented with both glossy and matte film, finding that they give quite quite a different feel to the finished image. Glossy film on canvas adds a tiny reflective quality that makes the canvas “sparkle” just a smidgen when well lit. Matte, as you’d expect, gives a very flat surface result, which depending on the subject matter can be very effective. Again you can order your canvas print stretched on a frame but you’ll pay for the convenience. Ordering a loose canvas print means you will receive a mailing tube with the canvas rolled up inside. This decreases shipping costs and helps keep the price lower. Loose canvas prints are normally printed with a white canvas border of 2” so you’ll have material to pull and staple on the sides of your frame. I ask for 3” borders because I’ve found it makes handling the material easier when applying the canvas on the stretcher frame. There are also options for how to handle image content at the sides of the stretched canvas. You can intentionally make the image larger, planning to lose the peripheral two inches all the way around or duplicate image content in Photoshop at the edges so your original image is shown completely on the front surface but there is redundant image on the sides. Both approaches mean the sides of your stretched canvas are covered by image extending to the wall. You can also put a black border around the image area so that the sides of the stretched canvas are black, giving a clean finished look. There are numerous internet videos explaining how to mount a stretched canvas. Watch one to see that it’s not rocket science. To carefully stretch a 60” print will take you an hour the first time while you figure things out. By the time you’ve stretched several prints you’ll cut that time in half and be doing a better job.

How do you get a file that looks good at 100″wide? This is 4 vertical captures made into a panorama, perfect for a canvas presentation. (Click for detail)

How to display a large stretched canvas? You could just hang it as is. This works best with black or redundant image edges as they look cleaner than a bare white edge. You can also mount the stretched canvas in a floater frame. If you’re the least bit handy and want to save big bucks consider making your own frame because it’s easier than you think and doesn’t necessarily even involve mitered 45 degree corners. You can build a simple rectangular profile wood frame using just 90 degree end cuts and the result will clean up the unfinished edges of the stretched canvas. When you buy the wood for a simple 90 degree corner frame, if you’ve done your homework and know the exact length dimensions, Home Depot or Lowe’s will usually cut the wood to your dimensions, often for free.

Here’s one last presentation detail to consider: the wider the visual “mat” surrounding the image area the more important the image will appear. Here is an example of a large print with a dramatically wide frame which demonstrates this point. You decide which appeals to you and may be the best answer for your project. For this canvas I built a simple float frame with 90 degree corners, then mounted it on a wide, miter cut large frame which creates a magnificent presence on the wall.

Start planning your project and periodically check Bay Photo’s website (or your favorite vendor) for special discounts. Last Black Friday Bay Photo ran a 40% off deal for loose canvas prints of any size. A 60” x 30” print ran about $180, quite a deal for what became a huge piece on my wall.

Over the years I’ve indulged in a number of large prints for display in our home. They leave no doubt about your skill as a photographer or your passion for your work. I guarantee that every time you walk past your masterpiece image, printed large, your heart will swell and a private smile will remind you why you’re a photographer. Satisfying? You betcha.

A favorite image from The Palouse region in the Pacific Northwest takes on a painted quality that is dazzling on canvas. I made the frame over a weekend for about $50 in materials. Though seemingly oversized for this wall, the stark contrast of black and color on the light gray wall draws viewers into the small hallway.


Making my own float frame was easy with 90 degree corners. This was then mounted on wide boards cut with 45 degree corners.

Making my own float frame was easy by building it with 90 degree corners. This was then mounted on wide boards cut with 45 degree corners to create a large presentation with the desired dramatic effect. Sanded wood was sprayed black.


Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks,

and leads destination photo tours for PhotoZoneTours.com.

Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning!