A New Look to Your Fine Art Photographs

Giving them a deckled-edge look can separate them from the crowd

By Herbert Burkholz Back to


During 25 years of doing fine-art shows, I became dissatisf ied with the sameness of exhibited photography. The almost endless combinations of frames and mats all had that typical straight-line cut. There was little individualism in the presentations to associate the work with the artist. There was little, if anything, unique about the framing and especially the matting. Close examination of both painters’ and photographers’ works eventually made me realize that presentation was everything in making an outstanding impression—which is what it takes to make a sale

I’ve always liked the ragged edges foundonmany lithographs. It reminded me of the deckle edge that was common to snapshots many years ago. But unlike the deckle edge, which simply replaced the straight edge of the photo, the ragged edges of lithographs actually tear into the image itself. The lithograph is then fastened to the mount with anywhere from 1/2 to 1 inch of mount board showing before the mat appears. The finished look is elegant and very professional.Taking a cue from lithographs that are done in this way, I experimented with combinations of materials to construct a mask that would give me the desired effect. This technique works with both black-and- white and color prints.

Two things were important. Ansel Adams spoke of chemical stain creeping into an image from the edges over time. He recommended not printing to the paper’s edge, but instead keeping the image in from the edge, then trimming the edge by 1/2 to one inch, thereby removing any contamination that might have seeped into the paper from the cut edge. Just how valid that argument is, I cannot say. But printing a torn edge by way of a mask that keeps the image about an inch from the paper’s edges would certainly accomplish what Adams prescribed. The second benefit is that the photo paper’s unexposed white edge provides a perfect place for the title of the image and the photographer’s signature, much the same as is done with lithographs. I believe that all glossy papers available today can be written on with a Schwan Stabilo #8008 pencil (available from most art supply stores). I find it best not to have the pencil too sharp. A broad line from the pencil looks best for both title and signature.

Two relatively simple items are required.The first is a mask that will provide the ragged-edge look to your photograph. The second is a simple and inexpensive easel to aid in the perfect alignment of the mask. I will explain the construction of the easel and masks of any size up to 14×18 inches. A 14×18-inch mask uses 16×20 paper, about the largest size suitable for this technique. First, let’s talk about the easel.

The masked-border technique can be used with most standard easels to make prints up to about 2 inches smaller than the capacity of the easel. When making such smaller prints, I tape the mask to the blades of the easel. However, for making larger prints, your regular easel might not be suitable. Needed is a white Formica- covered piece of particleboard that’s at least 2 inches larger than the largest print you intend to make. Such material might be found at a local building supply house or a local cabinet shop. A 1-inch wide strip of either wood or mat board needs to be glued or taped to the top edge and left-hand edge of the easel. These strips serve as the border guides to position both print and mask. I use two thicknesses of mat board that I glue together, then fasten to the edges of the Formica easel using double-stick Scotch tape.

The following instructions are based on the use of the Formica-covered easel. To construct a suitable mask using an existing easel requires dimensions that an existing easel can accommodate. The actual construction of the mask is basically the same. It’s only the outer dimension of the mask that might need to be adjusted.

The first step in constructing a mask having a ragged- or torn-edge look is to determine the exact size of the final image. Consider the standard paper sizes, remembering that a minimum of 1 inch of the photo paper on all four sides must remain unexposed. The width of the paper- white border that you want to complement your image is a matter of personal taste but I like a 1/2-inch margin on most matted images.

Next, select a piece of two-ply mat board (any color) that measures 3 inches longer and 3 inches wider than the image in question. Make a cutout in this mat that is 1/2-inch larger than the intended image in both dimensions. The location of the cutout should result in a 3/4-inch margin on the left side of the mat and a second 3/4-inch margin along the top edge of the mat. The wider margins along the bottom and the right side of the mask simply add a bit more body to the mask.

The next step is one that might require some practice. After much experimenting with different materials, I found single-ply mat board to be best- suited to the ragged-edge effect. I get this material from a local frame shop simply by asking for scrap single-ply white mat. I’ve never had to buy any, as framers usually have lots of scrap. I achieve the torn-edge effect by actually tearing the single-ply mat into narrow strips. Mat materials have a “grain,” if you will. That is, you might get a rather fine tear effect in one direction and a much more rugged tear that is 90° in the other direction. Experiment to see which you like best. I find that the rough tear looks best.

To begin, use a piece of mat that is long enough for your mask. Mark the two sides of the mat material “A” and “B.” To make the tear, slip the mat “A” side up, under a straight edge that can be held firmly in place. Allow a full inch of mat material to show beyond the straight edge. Then simply tear the mat with your fingers along the straight edge by pulling the material upward a little at a time, and work your way from the starting point to the finish. Your fingers must begin the tear by lifting upward on the mat for no more than 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Then you get a new hold as close to the straight edge as possible and repeat this process until completion. The 1-inch piece that you have torn away is scrap; use the remaining torn edge under the straight edge. Again, mark the “A” and “B” sides near the torn edge. This is necessary because it’s the “B” side of the torn mat that needs to come in contact with the photo paper during the exposure. Once you have experienced making a mask, you will recognize the difference and it will no longer be necessary to identify the sides. Next, cut a strip of about 11/2 inches parallel to the torn edge of the mat material. With the “A” side up, f latten the torn edge using a round plastic pen the same way you would crease a piece of paper. Repeat the above-described process until you have four strips, one for each side of the mask.

Next, the position of the strips that produce the ragged edge must be marked on the mat using a sharp pencil. Measure exactly 1/4-inch in each direction from the inside corner for your mark. Then, using glue or double- stick tape, attach a strip, “B” side up, using the 1/4-inch corner marks as your guide.Twostripsarewiderthan necessary at this point, but they will be trimmed after all gluing is completed. When all four strips are in place, use a small piece of masking tape at each corner to block light leaks at the corners of the mask. Now trim the excess from the strips to the outer edges of the mask. Finally, to be certain that no light will leak along the ragged edge of the mask, I use a fast-drying black spray paint to blacken the edges.

To use the mask, simply place your photo paper against the stops of the easel and place the mask directly over the paper, also against the stops. At this point I use four strips of 10×2- inch, 3/4-inch plywood. Place one strip on edge on each of the four sides of the mask to ensure that the mask is in firm contact with the paper and that everything is stable. You are now ready to make an exposure.

After your print has been mounted on material such as foam core, the mat should be cut so that a margin of photo paper white is shown between the ragged edge and the mat itself. Small prints might look best with no more than 3/8 inch of white. I find that most prints up to 14×18 look best with a 1/2-inch margin. This provides sufficient space for the title and a signature at the bottom of the print. I think that you will find this photo technique gives your work a whole new look.

About the Author

Herbert Burkholz
Herbert Burkholz began photographing in 1948 when he became staff photographer for a resort/hotel complex in Wisconsin. Though he has attended workshops, he is primarily self-taught. His greatest interest is large-format black-and-white film. He has also taught photography at a local community college.