Friday, September 25, 2015

Prepping For The Contest

My wife had been suggesting for years that I submit photos to several contests she had come across. At the time, I wasn't ready. I didn't think I was good enough. I didn't think that any of my photos stood a chance of winning. I was afraid of how I would feel when I lost, the idea of a thing I had lovingly made tossed aside like garbage. I was also embarrassed at the thought of having my amateur slop side-by-side the work of professionals. So what was different in 2015 that made me change my mind?

How It Started

It really started a few months earlier. In typical fashion, I had taken tens of thousands of photographs over the last couple of years, yet the frames in our house were all filled with very old pictures of my then infant son and my daughter at half her age.  So just like me, I had forgotten my wife's many pleas to refresh them. Eventually I got around to it (nothing like a last minute set of Mother's Day gifts to get you started). I was looking through the last one year of photos for good pictures of the kids in both portrait and landscape layout that could be cropped to a variety of print sizes (that's going to be an important upcoming post - lots of hard lessons there). In there I came across five non-people photos that really stood out among the rest. Plenty of good ones of our kids and family, enough to fill over 100 frames. But these were different.

I post processed the five that I liked, then when I was mentally ready I showed them to my wife. She immediately identified three that really stood out. At the time, these were just going to get printed for our walls, nothing further. I ended up including small samples (5x7) of all of them in a print order to Adoramapix on a couple of different papers both with and without color correction.

A little time went by and a reminder of the yearly photo contest at work came up. I hadn't even considered entering, but I remembered a specific photo I had taken last year that would be a perfect candidate (Determination). When the categories were announced, disappointment set in. That photo could not possibly fit into any of this year's categories. Even though I felt let down, I realized that I had something worth sharing, and I was ready to put myself out there.

I started looking into other options, and I remembered the 4th of July contest in town (which my wife suggested I enter last year). When I found out that I could enter three pictures I narrowed it down to Determination, Thanksgiving Snowrise, and Fall at Wasserman. I really do like Natural Bridge State Park, but I decided to stick with local photos.

Those printed samples from Adoramapix looked great, though I had been led to believe that both having a color corrected monitor and using printer profiles for proofing were mandatory. I found that my original edits were practically perfect (pun intended). The perpetrators of this fallacy had been general advice found on the Internet and my own experience with many low quality print services (do not confuse price with quality). Even after acquiring a monitor calibration tool, I still found my edits were just fine. Even proofing with the Adoramapix printer profiles found nothing that needed to change. The prints were good, but now the next challenge was how big to print and what ratio to use.

This was far more difficult than I ever imagined. Cropping to a standard print dimension and throwing into a matching frame was out of the question for multiple reasons. The first was that at least one of the pictures cannot be cropped without voiding the message (Determination). I wanted all of my photos to show cohesion, so I needed them to look similar. Another important factor was cost. I needed to spend as little as possible on printing, framing, and matting.

What followed was not a linear process by any means. It was more like weathering a hurricane on the open seas. I tossed myself between ideas that worked and some that didn't. There were highs and lows, happiness and disappointment (yes even about framing, I kid you not, this is art not science). When the seas settled I had decided on a cheap frame, custom cut matting, and my original 2x3 ratio.


I spent a lot of time looking at pre-cut mats and standard frame sizes. I felt like nothing would fit, even if I left extra white space around each photo (called "floating"). I was right. Even if I printed to a 2x3 dimension but made it smaller than one of the standard mat sizes it wouldn't fit. One of the sides would have excessive white space and make the whole look just feel wrong. I tried out a few examples by adding borders to one of my photos in Irfanview (a great little free image editor that loads and runs extremely fast). So I started down the road of custom cut mats. This was another new frontier, and I was nervous about this too. What if it cost too much? What if it got bent during shipping? What if it didn't arrive in time? What if I made a mistake in my measurements? I'm pretty sure that if this stuff doesn't fill you with doubt then you're doing it wrong, or you're not human. I played around with the calculations and found out the cost on Frame Destination's web site. Turns out it's not expensive at all, and it's easy to specify the dimensions. So I knew this was the right direction which finalized my decision on a frame.


I needed cheap frames, and unless I bought them in bulk, I was SOL. Anything that's a good size from any local craft store, or even Amazon was going to run me more than would have made this worthwhile. Curiously enough, some of my research kept bringing up a frame by the name of "RIBBA" from a little place called IKEA. The crappy part was the non-standard frame and mat size for the 20x16ish one. I mean "ish" because it's something odd like 19.25 by 15.25. But it's dirt cheap ($10!) and just kind of melts into the background. We actually already had a few in the house so I was already somewhat familiar. They seem to hold up well enough and feel sturdy. Odd Sweedish dimensions be damned, because I can get custom cut mats! (Seriously though, WtF can't you stick to 20x16??? You'd sell millions more!!!) So I picked up three of them on a little trip to IKEA.

Then I ordered my mats cut to the exact frame size as well as some acid free mounting tape. I also ordered an acid free archival quality pen to sign the prints. All that was left was to enlarge the photos and send them for printing.


Enlarging is a tricky process. There's so much advice on how to do it properly. The number one most important thing is to sharpen properly for printing. I happen to have the full set of NIK tools, and a really great sharpening program is included (thanks to my wife's generous Christmas gift a couple years ago). I will write a full article about this so let me keep it short for now. You basically have to resize your photo to your printers dimensions for the size you need to print at. In my case Adoramapix prints at 300dpi. Some of my photos are at a lower resolution than my desired print size of 10x15, so I first had to enlarge them and take care of any added noise. Then I was able to quickly sharpen them in NIK, and dialed it down a when it seemed a little too extreme. The results were amazing, I can clearly print larger and I plan to.

Putting It All Together

After all my materials arrived I simply had to sign the prints and assemble the finished work. This takes more time than you think due to the care you're putting trying not to damage the mattes, break the glass, or bend the print. One tip here is to try to make yourself a "light table" so you can center the print in the matte. Since you mount it upside down you want to see through the print. I accomplished this by holding it up to a window, but that was harder and slower than if I had a flat surface with a light underneath. Once assembled I wrapped in bubble wrap (the same that came with my mattes) for transport to the contest.

Here they are fully mounted:

Since I didn't sell any, they are now proudly hanging in our home. They are awaiting the final piece to be printed LARGE (Natural Bridges).

This process wasn't completely without guidance.  In finding a pen that would not smudge, not fade, not discolor, and not damage the print, I found advice at The Online Photographer in both the post and in the comments.  In learning about "floating" and help with framing and matting, I found a great article at Photsy.

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