Modern Life

A field guide to frame-worthy photos

Learn how to compose and frame personal photography that deserve a bigger showcase than your smartphone screen.

By Garage Staff — January 17, 2019

Thanks to the ease and convenience of the smartphone camera, you’re likely taking more photos than in the pre-digital era. The downside: Most are probably still trapped on your device, where you have to frantically swipe, swipe, swipe down memory lane.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks to reliable, affordable photo printers and online printing and framing services, it’s never been easier to free those standout photos from your crowded camera roll. The only thing you have to do is take a striking shot, decide where you want to show it off and enjoy gazing at the person or place that holds a special place in your heart.

We asked experts — from photographers to curators — for their best advice on creating and showcasing the perfect image.

“Ultimately, what’s frame-worthy comes down to personal taste, whether that’s scenics, a good memory or just a portrait of someone you love.”

—Liz Ligon, photographer

Consider your composition

There’s no one right way to frame a shot, but proper positioning is key to capturing a moment. Most camera apps offer a grid feature for easier centering, and the tried-and-true “rule of thirds” can come in handy. Simply position important elements like faces or objects where the horizontal and vertical grid lines intersect.

“Your phone's grid is a fantastic tool for anyone interested in learning to create nicely composed photographs,” says photographer Liz Ligon. “Of course, as with any art form, there are also times when breaking the classic rules is what makes a photograph more interesting."

If you think the background should take a backseat to your loved one or furry friend, don’t be afraid to get close — even closer — and fill the frame completely. You want the printed version to pop on your wall or desk, and too much atmosphere can make your subject feel like an anonymous face in the crowd.

Try experimenting with vantages. A bird’s eye view can be great for environmental details, while subtly angling downward can make your subject seem smaller. The downward angle mimics the way you see your kids on a daily basis — a nice way to remember them when they’re taller than you. Another option: Get as low as possible and shoot upward. This perspective makes your subject look heroic or larger-than-life.

Find light that flatters

The technology built into digital cameras is wonderfully forgiving, but capturing the ideal light environment still takes some planning. “Just because it’s a smartphone doesn’t mean you can forget the elements of good photography,” says photographer Eric Ray Davidson. “If it’s the middle of the day, avoid that overhead sun and find a good shady area.”

Of course, you can’t always pull the kids off the beach to snap a photo in the shade. But you can rely on some of your phone’s bells and whistles to enhance your composition before you snap. Most smartphones feature pre-snap light adjustments, usually a simple finger tap and drag to manipulate the brightness levels.

“To get a great picture, you want as many tones and details as possible,” says photographer Jai Lennard. “Manipulating photos that are slightly too dark is always easier than correcting those that are too bright.”

Jakob Owens

Perfect it in post

Shooting on your smartphone means that you’re not just a photographer, you’re also an editor. Embracing your device’s corrective tech can be the difference between a good photo and a great one.

“Contemporary artists like Stephen Shore and Cindy Sherman are using their phone cameras in their work more and more,” says Karen Hernandez, manager of product development and art reproductions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “New apps and filters allow digital manipulation that expands their creative practice far beyond what they could do in analog or even digital five to ten years ago.”

Some popular smartphone apps for photo editing, color and highlight tweaks include Snapseed, VSCO and Afterlight. But remember: When it comes to corrections, subtlety is key.

“Just like with a camera, taking a great photo on the phone is all about the light and shadow,” says Ligon, who generally avoids over-manipulating images with filters, fades and tilt shifts. “Using the phone’s functions to bring down the brights and deepen shadows is really all I do.”

Size it up

From home devices like the HP Envy Photo Printer to online print services like Snapfish or Shutterfly, there’s no shortage of ways to turn digital files into frame-ready prints. How crisply your images stand up to printing, however, ultimately boils down to the pixel-count of your camera. The good news: That front-facing lens in your pocket probably packs a hi-res punch.

As long as you’re saving and transferring files at the highest-possible resolution, the usual 4x6 and 5x7 prints are no challenge. If you’ve invested in a top-of-the-line device, you can likely go even bigger. “The new cameras on current smartphones are incredible,” says Davidson. “You should have no problem making 16x20 prints.”

Lennard is more conservative and shies away from printing camera phone pictures in formats larger than 8x10, and only if the image is crystal clear and taken outdoors. “If you plan on printing a lot, consider getting a beginner’s DSLR camera,” he says.

Don't forget the frame: it can elevate a photo from a snapshot to a piece of art.

Michael Hitoshi

Don't forget the frame: it can elevate a photo from a snapshot to a piece of art.

Establish boundaries

Choosing the right frame can elevate a photo from snapshot to showpiece. For a sophisticated, contemporary look, Saatchi Art’s chief curator Rebecca Wilson suggests a one- to five-inch frame in natural wood or white, with no mat board. “This means the photograph will come right up to the frame, directing focus entirely on the image,” she explains.

Matting protects prints by keeping them from pressing against the glass, so if you want to add a safeguard, Wilson recommends selecting a mat that’s half an inch wider than the frame.

If you’re custom framing, you’ll also have your choice of glass or plexiglass. Plexiglass is lighter and more suitable for heavier frame jobs, but whatever you choose, make sure it offers UV protection to protect your image from fading. Nonreflective museum glass or plexiglass is also an option, but it can be pricey and is only necessary for very dark photographs.

Of course, there are non-custom framing options that still look professional. “Magnaframes, which we sell in our Design Store, are a super easy, flexible, and fun way to frame,” says MoMA’s Hernandez. “They come in standard square, Polaroid, and small format options and can be configured on your wall in a variety of ways.”

Use a level when hanging framed photos to ensure straight lines and a stunning presentation.

Getty Images

Use a level when hanging framed photos to ensure straight lines and a stunning presentation.

Put it in its place

Once you’ve framed the image, it’s time to find a proper home for it, and like any other work of art, presentation is key. “Where you hang your photograph is critical to your enjoyment of it — as well as how it’s perceived by others,” says Saatchi’s Wilson.

If you’re hanging your photos on a wall, traditional nails or picture hooks should support your framed work just fine. She suggests measuring and marking so that the center of the frame sits 57 to 60 inches from the floor — roughly eye level.

For a group of related photos, consider arranging them in a coordinated pattern. “A symmetrical grid of four or six with identical frames will look very sophisticated,” Wilson says. Or, if you want to create a gallery effect with framed images in different sizes, Wilson recommends laying the frames out on the floor first to make a plan. “Start with one large one in the middle, then arrange the smaller works around it,” she says.

Her final piece of advice: “Use a level.” It’s a lot more effective in ensuring a straight hang than cocking your head to the side and pushing the corner of your frame millimeter by millimeter.

Shoot first, ask questions later

Ultimately, the best way to land that elusive perfect shot is to shoot and shoot and shoot some more. Luckily, the average camera app makes over-snapping (and easy deleting) incredibly simple.

“Don’t be afraid to take 40 to 50 shots to get the right one,” says Davidson. “I have the same mentality shooting photos of my kid with my phone as I do on set: Shoot now, shoot a lot, think later.”

As for the perfect subject? That’s still up to the photographer.

“Ultimately, what’s frame-worthy comes down to personal taste,” says Ligon, “whether that’s scenics, a good memory or just a portrait of someone you love.”


Find out how taking photos can help you enjoy the moment as you’re preserving it.