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And, we’re live!

Last night, I took down my old site and redirected https://lamarche.photography to point here. I soft-launched this new website several weeks back, and everything seems to be working pretty well. I’ve made multiple sales on the store with no major hiccups, and I spent some time increasing the security of the site after noticing a bunch of failed attempts to log in as me. I feel pretty good about where this site is now, so it seemed like the right time to launch.

I’ll be working over the next few months to bring more and more of my photo archives into downloadable image packs and finding more shots to sell as prints. I’m also going to be on the lookout for new, affordable merchandise I can offer.

I’m also starting to plan some new shoots, so I’ll hopefully have some brand new content to post before too long. Plus, around the end of the month, I should finally be able to show you some pictures from that shoot in April and explain why I couldn’t share them earlier.

Thanks so much for checking out the new site. I’m always open to feedback and suggestions for new content and can’t wait to bring you more of my work!

Banner photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

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Getting Started with Nude Photography: Inspiration, Motivation & Confidence

A woman wearing nothing but heels sits on a red couch.

In my original outline for this series of posts, I had intended to dive right into talking about light and lighting equipment and then finding models. After some recent conversations with some other photographers, I realized there’s another subject I want to tackle first, which are some of the the mental challenges around doing creative photography.

Anyone Can Shoot

Photography is at an interesting place right now. For most of the time that it has existed, there has been a huge difference in quality between the pictures that a professional photographer could take, and what most people using consumer equipment could take. The combination of knowledge and experience combined with much more sophisticated equipment meant there was a huge value in hiring a professional for most types of photography. Film was far less forgiving than modern digital cameras, and there was plenty of work for photographers with some domain knowledge, good equipment, and a decent eye.

It’s actually still true that there’s a difference in quality between the images an experienced photographer with professional gear can produce and the images an amateur using consumer gear can create, but it’s far less of a difference than it once was. That, combined with the just massive amount of pictures being taken and posted to social media has led to a de-valuing of technical photography skills. And that’s not actually a bad thing, unless you want to gatekeep. Also, please don’t.

Our reality today is that anyone with a relatively recent mobile phone can capture good quality images (and movies), and they can do it by just taking their phone out, pointing it at something, and tapping a button. The most sophisticated phones even give good results in ridiculously bad lighting situations that would have been virtually impossible to shoot in the film days, and even the editing tools on phones have gotten fairly sophisticated. The built-in editing tools on today’s phones can do a lot more than early version of Photoshop could.

Are the photographs taken today by an experienced photographer with professional gear better than a phone shot of the same thing taken by an amateur? Most of the time, probably. But for many people, for many types of photographs, they won’t be enough better to justify the expense of hiring a photographer. As sensor technology and computational photography algorithms continue to get better, the difference will only shrink.

That means, as a photographer, technical skills are less valuable than they’ve ever been, and if you want to establish yourself, you need to focus on more than that. Nobody cares if you know what the inverse square property of light is or how an ƒ-stop is calculated. They care that your pictures stand out.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the technical skills. It just means that they’re no longer enough. Honestly, some of the most memorable and exciting pictures I’ve seen recently, were created by people who probably have far less technical knowledge about photography than I do, but they know enough to create their vision and in doing so, they produce images that stand out from the constant stream of photos that barrage us on social media.

Gauging Improvement

With many types of art, it’s easy to see when you’re making progress. You can look at a recent piece you’ve created and compare it to one you created in the past, and see your progress. Because computers today remove so much of the mental overhead of getting a properly exposed image, even brand new photographer can get really great photos. The difference between an experienced photographer and an amateur one isn’t so much the quality of any individual photograph as it is their consistency and the percentage of their shots that are good.

Even in my earliest shoots — some of which, I readily admit were not great — there are good shots. My more recent shoots have a much higher percentage of good shots and the good shots are overall better. But… comparing the best shot from a shoot five years ago to the best shot from my most recent shoot doesn’t give a true measure of my improvement over the years. When I look at all the raw images from both shoots, it becomes much clearer to me that I actually have made tremendous progress. That’s easy to miss that when you’re only looking at individual photos.

Subjectivity

The technical aspects of photography are fairly easy to judge. Even an inexperienced eye can see when a photo is not properly exposed, has a color cast, or is out of focus. The problem is, sometimes technical aspects need to take a back seat to what you’re trying to achieve. You might, for example, miss focus or overexpose intentionally to say something, or color grade to evoke a specific emotional response. You also might do one of those things just because you think it looks good, without any particular reason or justification.

And then there’s what Bob Ross called the  “happy accidents” – where you got something wrong unintentionally, but it looks good or better communicates what you were trying to say than it would have without that mistake. Nobody else knows it wasn’t intentional, but you sure do, and that will color your opinion of it.

This inherent subjectivity can make it hard to be confident in your work, but without confidence, it’s easy to lose motivation and without motivation, you’ll shoot less and improve more slowly.

Time

One of the oddest phenomena when it comes to judging your own work is that your perception of it changes over time. There are two basic reasons for this:

  • As you shoot and edit more images, your eye improves, and you become a harsher critic of your own work. Often, your eye improves faster than your skill as a photographer, which can make it feel like you’re not improving, or even getting worse, at times.
  • As more time passes, your memories of the actual shoot and your interactions with the model fade, and they color your perception of the images less, meaning you’re able to view them more objectively.

I’m always excited to share images after a shoot and often post at least one image the day of the shoot. But honestly, one of the best things I do (sometimes) is to sit on the images for a while. I feel like my judgment becomes clearer after some time has passed, and I’m better able to evaluate whether the images are good or not.

Imposter Syndrome

In software development and other similar technical disciplines, you’ll often hear about something called “imposter syndrome”, which is where someone doubts their own ability or even feels like a fraud because they perceive that others around them are better, smarter, and struggle less than they do with the complex tasks those jobs require. It’s usually not true, but it is something a lot of people feel when working in those fields.

In all honesty, I’ve struggled more with imposter syndrome with my photography than I have with technical disciplines because of the inherent subjectivity. There are no benchmarks or tests you can run to tell you that an image is good. Often the images I like the best are less popular on social media than ones I think are only so-so. When somebody says something nice about one of my images, I sometimes have trouble accepting that it’s offered sincerely because I often feel like my images don’t live up to their compliment.

Staying Motivated

Given how hard it is to judge your work, how do you stay motivated when you start doubting yourself? First of all, some amount of self-doubt and self-criticism is valuable. You need to learn to see things in your images that can be improved if you’re going to improve as photographer. Overconfidence and arrogance can be just as big of a problem as being too hard on yourself. There’s no silver bullet here, but there are some things you can do when you start doubting yourself.

Avoid Black and White Thinking

First, realize that something can be good — even great — yet still have room for improvement. Just because your composition can be improved, doesn’t mean you composed the image badly. Just because your lighting can be improved, doesn’t mean your lighting is bad. This is true for all aspects of photography.

If you can’t get out of the trap of thinking that your images are either great, or else they’re trash, you’re really going to struggle. You need to embrace the fact that not only is image quality a spectrum, it’s a different spectrum for each viewer. Almost nobody will judge your image the same way you do. Nobody else knows what went into creating it. Nobody else knows the challenges you faced. Nobody else knows what you were trying to say unless you tell them, and often you won’t have a chance to tell them (and they might not listen even if you do).

Do it Because You Enjoy it

With any creative pursuit, if you don’t love the act of creation, it will significantly limit your ability to improve. You need to love photography, not the idea of being a photographer or the adoration of followers. If there’s any one factor I could point to that can predict whether somebody will become a really good photographer, it’s whether they love planning shoots, shooting, and editing their images more than they love the serotonin hit from getting likes and compliments on social media.

I know this one seems obvious, but it requires some serious self-honesty. Kudos and compliments from others are nice, but they’re not going to be enough to stay motivated if you don’t truly love both the creative process and the images you create. With model photography, that also means you need to love interacting with your models.

And by “interacting”, I don’t mean “being in the same room as them when they’re naked”. Who doesn’t enjoy being in a room with a naked person they find attractive? I certainly do. But, if that’s the primary (or only) thing you love about photography, you’re destined for mediocrity. At best, and there are better, cheaper ways to do that.

Honestly, one of my biggest red flags when it comes to other photographers (and I see it more often than I’d like), is when I hear photographer’s bad-mouth models, or make comments like “you know how models are”. I do know how models are. They’re creative, interesting, amazing, often unconventional people who enrich my life. They’re a large part of why I keep doing this. They’re people who enable what I do and contribute to the creative process. They’re also individuals with feelings and other stresses and priorities in their lives besides shooting with me. Don’t stereotype the models you work with. View them as fully-fledged individuals. Treat them as equals in the creative process. Interact with them respectfully, and think hard before you say anything negative about a model to another model or another photographer.

Find Your People

As you develop a following on social media, it’s likely that most people you’re reaching after a while won’t be photographers and models. This is especially true if you’re shooting nude or erotic images. Followers are awesome, but you also need to surround yourself with photographers, models, and other types of creative people, preferably ones who encourage you and help you get better.  Those are the people who understand your struggles. Those are the people who can help you when you’re stuck or who can offer a second opinion when you don’t trust your own.

On the other side of that, you should also give back by being that positive peer that helps other photographers — especially less experienced ones — reach their potential. Think about criticism before you say it. Don’t only focus on the negative. Phrase things so they don’t sound like an insult. Help others see the good things in their work as well as the things that can be improved. Encourage them and like their posts even if you see obvious problems with them, because at some point, those problems might not have been obvious to you.

Offer criticism using private channels if you can, and only if you know they want it. Offer compliments on public channels. Help people feel good about what they’re doing, because nobody benefits when we chase people away from the things we love. Many of us have a tendency to view everything as a competition, but you shouldn’t treat photography or other creative pursuits that way. Another photographer can be amazing and that’s completely orthogonal to your abilities. You can both be great and you can both help each other be better if you’re not focused on being “better” than them.

If you can find an in-person meetup group to join or find some local photographers to hang out with occasionally, consider doing it. Having peers both in real life and online can be tremendously helpful.

Ignore the Hate

For all the good things about social media, there are downsides to it. One of those, is that there are people who seem to get off from insulting or hating other people’s creative output. I’ve never understood why people do this, but it’s an undeniable fact of the internet. It even has a name: the online disinhibition effect, also known as the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

As soon as your following on a social media platform goes much beyond your friends, family, and peers, you will inevitably get negative comments from these internet fuckwads. Rarely, these comments are useful critiques just phrased badly or insensitively, but more often than not, they’re made only to put you down and make the fuckwad feel better about themselves.

You will be tempted to respond to defend yourself and to “set the record straight”. That’s usually the worst possible idea. The more you interact with a troll, the more engagement you create, and the more people who will see their negative comments. Doing so also gives them a chance to make more disparaging comments as they respond to your comments. Those type of people almost will almost always try and get the last word in, creating a downward spiral for you.

Arguing with someone who’s not arguing in good faith is always a bad idea. Delete the comment, block the follower, and move on with your life. Spend your online time interacting with people who value you and your work, not with those who delight in knocking you down.

I’m making this sound easy. It most certainly is not. There are few feelings worse than somebody delightfully shitting on something you invested time, energy, and passion into creating. The most effective troll comments feel like a gut punch and it’s hard not to let them get to you.

Conclusion

As I stated near the beginning of the article, there are no silver bullets. The human brain is complex and not alway as rational as we like to think. You will doubt yourself. Others may too. You will get frustrated. You might, at times, convince yourself that you’re not good. You will, at least, feel like you’re not getting better fast enough sometimes.

Try and remind yourself that it’s a process, and remember that you enjoy the process. Creating is what’s important. The output is a bonus. Take breaks if you need to. If you get overwhelmed, get offline and put your camera away for a week. You won’t forget anything in that time, and the internet won’t forget you.

And don’t expect too much of yourself. Really finding your creative voice and mastering the technical skills of photography both take time.

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18 USC §2257 & 28 CFR Part 75

Let’s talk about a somewhat obscure bit of US Law that you might not be familiar with, but if you’re involved with creating any kind of NSFW content, you should be very aware of it. It’s a law that establishes recordkeeping requirements for creators of adult content. It was designed (in theory) to prevent sexual imagery of children from getting produced or sold.

The law is called the “Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act”, 18 USC §2257 and dates back to the 1980s. Like many US Laws, the law itself is actually pretty vague; Congress left it up to the executive branch to promulgate detailed regulations to actually implement the law. This is a common approach to certain types of legislation because the executive branch can move more quickly and respond to changing circumstances faster than Congress can (though, in this case, they haven’t). The implementing regulations for 18 USC §2257 can be found at 28 CFR Part 75.

This law—though at least partially well-intentioned—is deeply problematic for a number of reasons and—as I’ll discuss—it may be impossible for many content creators to fully comply with the law at all, or at least without sacrificing their personal safety.

Important: Since I’m discussing legal stuff here, I need to point out that I am not your attorney, I am no longer a practicing lawyer at all, and the information in this article should not be treated as legal advice. If you are a content creator concerned about your liability under the laws I’m discussing, I would suggest talking with an Attorney. If you can’t afford one, consider reaching out to your local Legal Aid Society.

The Basics

If you’re creating “visual depictions of actual sexually explicit content” in the US (or plan to distribute such works to the US), this law creates certain documentation requirements you must follow. Failing to comply with these requirements can result in a fine and up to five years of prison time per violation and up to 10 years (with a minimum of 2)  if you’ve been previously convicted under the same law. Those penalties apply per published image for which you don’t have the required documentation, so the stakes are high here.

Now, you might be thinking, “I don’t shoot sexually explicit content, just nudes, so I’m okay”, but “actual sexually explicit content” is a term of art defined by the law and it doesn’t mean what a rational reader might assume it means. You can be on the hook even if you’re shooting content that’s not actually sexually explicit.

Isn’t legal terminology great? 🙄

In photography forums and on social media, you’ll sometimes encounter people claiming that 18 USC §2257 has been ruled unconstitutional and does not need to be followed any more. That is absolutely not the case. One Circuit Court of Appeals did rule the recordkeeping requirements unconstitutional, but in an en banc re-hearing, that decision was reversed, and the case was never granted certiorari by the Supreme Court, meaning the statute, under current law, should be considered valid and enforceable. Until or unless one of these challenges makes it all the way to the Supreme Court and is successful, you would be foolish to disregard the record-keeping requirements unless you’re ready and willing to be a legal test case.

When You Need to Follow USC §2257

Technically speaking, you don’t need to follow the §2257 record-keeping requirements for straightforward art or figure nude shoots. Non-sexual nudity is constitutionally protected speech and 18 USC §2257 never even actually mentions the word “nudity”. That being said, some photographers choose to create the required records even for straightforward, non-sexual nude images just to be safe.

So when is §2257 actually required?

When you’re creating depictions of “actually sexually explicit content”, which is defined in 18 USC §2256, as follows:

  1. sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex;
  2. bestiality;
  3. masturbation;
  4. sadistic or masochistic abuse; or
  5. lascivious exhibition of the anus, genitals, or pubic area of any person;

Now, at first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. It is not.

For starters, there’s a contradiction between §2256 and §2257 (which incorporates 2256 by reference).  §2256 says “actual or simulated”, but §2257 specifies “actual sexually explicit”. This means the status of simulated sexual activity is unclear.

Unfortunately, the enabling regulations double-down on the inclusion of simulated content by including the following paragraph:

(o)Simulated sexually explicit conduct means conduct engaged in by performers that is depicted in a manner that would cause a reasonable viewer to believe that the performers engaged in actual sexually explicit conduct, even if they did not in fact do so. It does not mean sexually explicit conduct that is merely suggested.

So, basically, if you simulate it believably enough, it’s covered.

Let’s go back to the specific acts outlined above, #1 and #3 are pretty much what you would expect when you hear the term “sexually explicit”. If you’re photographing people having sex or masturbating, you need to follow the §2257 requirements. No surprise there, but there is a bit of nuance you might have missed. The definitions do not require penetration, only “contact”¹.

I’ll skip #2. Bestiality is illegal in every state except Wyoming, New Mexico, and West Virginia and really doesn’t warrant further discussion. I hope.

The last two items on the list are not so straightforward.

Sadistic or Masochistic Abuse

“Sadistic or masochistic abuse” is an extremely vague description. A plain-language interpretation would seem to indicate that even fully clothed bondage-themed shoots require keeping §2257 records. If your shoot will include any BDSM or S&M content, it’s probably worth your time to create the records, though I suspect light or fully clothed bondage images are unlikely to ever result in prosecution. If you’re creating more explicit BDSM imagery, you should create the records to be safe.

Lascivious Exhibition Clause

Finally, we have the “lascivious exhibition” clause that extends the documentation requirements to any imagery featuring “lascivious exhibition of the anus, genitals, or pubic area”. This is the part of the law that really throws a monkey wrench into everything. We know that nudity in art, in and of itself, is Constitutionally protected expression, but at what point, does nudity become “lascivious”, and does “lasciviousness” actually cause its Constitutional protections to disappear²?

The OED definition of lascivious is “feeling or revealing an overt sexual interest or desire”, which doesn’t provide any clarity at all, because it describes a wholly subjective thing. The inclusion of “pubic area” in addition to genitals and anus means images don’t even need to be that explicit for this clause to apply. Arguably, an image of a model suggestively pulling down their bikini bottom to reveal nothing more than a bit of their upper mons pubis, could be interpreted as a “lascivious exhibition” of “the pubic area”. It probably wouldn’t be, but it could the way the law is written (though that interpretation would almost certainly give grounds for a Constitutional challenge).

The huge gray area created by this clause is why many photographers and content creators opt to follow §2257 even when shooting non-sexual nudity. It’s not that hard to imagine why someone might prefer filling out a little extra paperwork to facing potential jail time in a federal penitentiary.

I wish I could give you more concrete guidance about where the line of lascivity is, but the law is vague and the meaning has never been clarified by an appeals court as ar as I can tell.

Up until recently, I would have argued that it’s highly likely that the entire “lascivious exhibition” clause would fail a Constitutional challenge. Unfortunately, we now have an extremely conservative and ideologically-driven Supreme Court, and I don’t have any confidence that they would respect precedent (or even rule rationally) on this issue.

If I had to guess how this would be interpreted, it almost certaintly applies to close-up images of genitals, especially images that include an erect penis, a vagina with labia spread or pulled apart, or of the anus with butt cheeks pulled apart. It’s not impossible, however, that much tamer depictions, such as Hustler-style open-leg nudes, or even less explicit types of nudes where genitals are visible could fall under this vague clause.

When in doubt, it’s safer to comply… if you can.

Roles Under §2257

Before we get into how to comply with this law, let’s talk about the “roles” that come into play, because the requirements under the law apply to people based on their role or roles relative to the shoot:

  • Producer: The person paying to create the images and who is legally responsible for making sure the record-keeping requirements are met.
  • Talent (or sometimes Model or Actor): This is any person who will appear on camera during scenes containing “actually sexually explicit” conduct. All talent must provide government-issued photo identification that is not expired and shows that they are at least eighteen years old. The way it’s worded, this requirement applies even if they are not directly involved in sexually explicit activity.
  • Document Checker: This is the person who inspects the talent’s identification to ensure they are a legal adult, that the identification is not expired, and has not been been tampered with or altered.
  • Crew / Photographer / Director: The people behind the camera involved with the technical details of actually producing the images or video.
  • Custodian of Record: The person, designated by the Producer, who is responsible for keeping the records and making them available to the Attorney General if they are requested.

In many cases, the photographer or content creator will also be the Document Checker, the Custodian of Record, and the Producer. On larger productions, these roles are more often filled by several different people. A Producer, for example, might hire a photographer and/or video crew, and designate their attorney or an employee to be the Custodian of Records. A photographer’s assistant or production assistant will often be responsible for checking and taking a copy of the identification documents.

Complying with §2257

The records that you MUST keep to be compliant with §2257 are:

  • An unsworn statement³ under penalty of perjury signed by all on-screen talent that declares the following:
    • they are over the age of 18
    • they have disclosed their full and correct legal name
    • they have disclosed all other names that they have ever been known by
    • they have produced a legal form of government identification
    • they have not provided any false or misleading information
    • each of the identification documents they provided were lawfully obtained by them and have not been forged or altered
  • A copy of the identification documents the model provided, including at least one that is government-issued, unexpired, and contains a photograph. The copy may be digital, photographic, or photostatic.

You can download an empty form for creating the unsworn statement here.

These documents should be kept separate and apart from your model release and any other contracts or agreements. 18 USC §2257 gives the U.S. Attorney General the right to access these documents without a warrant, so it’s best to keep them separate from your other business records; combining them means that the government must be granted access to the entirety of the combined documents upon request and without a warrant.

In addition, if the document checker and custodian of records are not the same person, it’s a good idea to have your document checker create an unsworn statement under penalty of perjury or affidavit stating that they personally checked the identification, the model was of legal age, and there were no signs of tampering or alteration of the documents they checked. This is not required by §2257, but if at some point in the future, the document checker can’t be reached, having that document will mean you can still provide admissible proof that the ID verification happened and was compliant with the law.

The final requirement under §2257 is that when the producer publishes the “actual sexually explicit” material, they must “affix” a statement “to every copy” that identifies who the Custodian of Record is, including a street address which can’t be a post office box. If you’ve ever watched any professionally produced porn created in the last thirty years, you’ve probably noticed the wall of legal text at the beginning or end.

Publishing to Social Media

Compliance with §2257 is tricky if you’re primarily publishing to social media or other websites that you don’t fully control. The law was designed back in the days of porn primarily being produced and sold on physical media through traditional distribution channels. The regulations had their last substantive update in the early days of the web before social media took off. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to comply with the letter of the law when posting to social media because the regulations require that “every copy” have the Custodian of Records information “affixed” to it.  Good luck fitting all that into 240 characters.

Additionally, the requirement that a physical address be provided for the Custodian of Records is problematic for small and individual creators who don’t have a separate business address or an attorney. This is especially true for women creators, many of whom already receive a lot of hateful and inappropriate messages simply because they choose to publish images of themselves online. For most content creators, including their physical address on their content would mean putting their physical safety in jeopardy, which is an unfair thing for the law to require.

Applicability to Self-Published Content

18 USC §2257 was written back in the 1980s in response to a handful of specific, high-profile situations, including the career of then-underage porn star Traci Lords⁴. The law was also written in an age when porn was distributed on physical media like VCR tape and distribution was handled by a small number of increasingly large production and distribution companies. It’s very obvious that none of the people involved with drafting this law were imagining a day when millions of people would be self-publishing adult content on a daily basis.

Although the enabling regulations were significantly revised and clarified in 1995, they have been largely unchanged since then other than small clarifications in 2005 and 2008. There have been zero substantive changes to the regulations since the advent of OnlyFans or Twitter, and the regulations, as written, are impractical or impossible for most small-scale content producers who distribute through social media to comply with.

So, where does that leave the individual content creator distributing images and videos online? In a bit of a pickle, honestly.

It is virtually impossible to comply with the regulations if you’re self-publishing explicit content either using a site like OnlyFans, or on forms of social media that allow explicit content like Twitter, Mastodon, or PixelFed (a federated Instagram-clone that allows nudity and explicit content).

As an individual content creator publishing images of just yourself, you are technically a “Producer” under this law, but there’s a weird catch-22 at play, in that if you are actually underage, you’d be tried as a minor. Also, checking your own ID and signing your own unsworn statement seems kinda silly since you know your age and it’s relatively trivial for you to prove it if it ever becomes an issue. This is clearly not the situation the law was intending to address and I would hope that a federal prosecutor wouldn’t ever bother going after an individual content creator for posting images of themselves… but they would appear to have the authority to do so if they wished.

Where things get even more problematic is if you’re collaborating with other content-creators. In those situations, you definitely are a “Producer” under this law and technically are on the hook for the required documentation.

The Current State of Things

In short, the situation sucks. The law was designed to create accountability under a publishing model that largely doesn’t exist any more and the regulations haven’t been updated to reflect the modern reality of the home-grown porn creation. For many content creators, the law can’t actually be complied with when publishing to the most common platforms because the wording of the regulations is hopelessly out of date.

The good news is, there are so many individual content creators now that it’s very unlikely that federal prosecutors would waste their limited resources going after them except in truly egregious situations. “Unlikely” is not “impossible”, though, and even outside of §2257, publishing content that includes underage people is a very serious offense that can be prosecuted either Federally or at the state level and can potentially result in having to register as a sex offender… even if you had a good faith belief that all the people involved were adults.

Even though you may not be able to fully comply the letter of the law, at very least you do need to be making absolutely sure that everybody involved is a legal adult and keeping records that proves it.

Until and unless the implementing regulations are revised, individual adult content creators are in a bit of a no-win situation and the only saving grace is that there are so many adult content creators now that the chances of any individual creator being asked for documentation or charged under this law is pretty miniscule.


  1. Curiously, #1 does not specifically list hand-genital contact, meaning one reasonable intepretation is that even though someone touching their own genitals is specifically covered because of #3, touching somebody else’s genitals is not covered by the law at all. I would not expect that interpretation to be very successful in court, however.
  2. Technically speaking, a work must be “obscene”, not just “lascivious”, for it to lose First Amendment protection. However, since this law just requires records to be kept and does not actually prohibit production of the images, there may not be a Constitutional issue as a result.
  3. An “unsworn statement” or “unsworn declaration” is a legal document similar, in some ways, to an affidavit, but is not made under oath. The document also doesn’t have have to be notarized or witnessed, but it is still made under penalty of perjury, which means that it is a crime to lie on it. These declarations are admissable as evidence in court in certain situations, such as when they are required by law or regulation, as is the case here, or when the person who made the declaration has died or is otherwise unavailable to appear in court.
  4. The ironic, but not unusual thing, is that this law would not have prevented the Traci Lords situation at all. She had convincing fake ID which was checked by several of the production companies that hired her. In the Traci Lords situation, all this law would have done is provide legal cover for the big porn production companies as long as they had documented the fact that they did, in fact, check her ID, but it would have done absolutely nothing to stop her underage porn from being produced in the first place.

Banner photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm from Unsplash.

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The “Magazine”

A few decades back, I worked in magazine production. That was back when digital tools were just starting to displace traditional paste-up techniques. Even though digital tools were shaking up the publishing industry, much of the process back then was still using old technology. You’d run film, and then make plates from the film, and then go do a press check before they started printing to make sure everything looked right. Even if you calibrated your monitors, it often took a few tries to get everything looking right.

Digital presses were just starting to become a thing when I was in that field, but back then, they were basically glorified laser printers. There were better technologies being developed, but they weren’t widely available yet and the on-demand technology tht was widely available just couldn’t match the quality or finish of traditional printing. Unfortunately, traditional printing methods have a significant up-front cost, which meant it usually wasn’t practical for small print runs, let alone individual one-offs.

Given that my knowledge of the field was was more than two decades out of date, I assumed that on-demand printing had become cheaper and higher quality, but I just didn’t know.

I have a few projects rattling around the old brain that are only practical if on-demand printing has achieved the same level of quality as traditional offset printing, so I threw together a 48-page “magazine” using a bunch of my outdoor nude images and printed it using Blurb to see where things are.

It arrived today.

The first impression from the packaging was very positive. The custom cardboard sleeve kept the magazine in great shape. The turnaround was also quick: This arrived exactly one week after I ordered it, and less than two weeks from when I decided to create it.

I have no plans to sell this, but if I were going to, I’d only have to make a few minor tweaks to a handful of images. Probably not more than five of them need adjustments, and those only need very minor tweaks… which is kind of crazy to me, since I’m comparing it to press-checks I would go to back in the 90s. Despite always sending out to service bureaus for proofs multiple times, we almost always had to re-do at least a few of the plates.

To have the images be so close to what was on my screen with so little work is just mind blowing to me.

It’s amazing to me that one person spending a few hours on a couple of evenings can produce something of this quality. My cost to produce this, including shipping, was about ten bucks. The quality of the paper and the printing are excellent. The only issues are things I could easily fix by tweaking my images or my Affinity Publisher file.

Here’s a short video where I flip through the pages.

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Reflection Shot Process

I posted this picture of Rose to social media recently and got a few questions about how it was accomplished. This seemed like a better venue to discuss it than trying to cover it using a bunch of tweets or Instagram posts.

The reflection in the shot is provided by highly reflective mylar foil designed for  grow-houses and hydroponics. I taped it down on the floor in front of the model. There are many options for doing reflections, including plexiglass, water, and actual mirrors, but I didn’t want a perfect reflection. The flexible mylar provided exactly the amount of softness and subtle distortion I was looking for without the potential mess or problems of using water in the studio.

This is what the studio looked like when we were shooting:

The studio setup. A fourth strobe is just off the right of this view.

The overhead softbox is the key light in this setup. I metered it for ISO 200 at ƒ8 then underexposed slightly by shooting at ƒ9. The strip lights shine on the model from behind and provide separation from the background and were also metered at ƒ8.  There’s a fourth light in this setup that isn’t visible in the shot above.

The fourth was a gelled strobe with a 5″ zoom reflector that I pointed down at the foil, angled so it threw blue water-like caustic reflections onto the model. You can see those reflections on the model’s torso, left arm, and right leg.

Most of this shot was achieved in-camera, but I did do a little bit of post work to get to the final image. The strip lights and their reflections were in-frame, so I Photoshopped those out to give myself some breathing room around the model. I didn’t want to crop in too tightly, but also didn’t want the strip lights in the shot.

There was also a slightly noticeable seam where the two pieces of foil came together, which I removed in Photoshop, and I cropped it in just a little bit to bring it to a 4:5 aspect ratio. Here’s what the image looked like coming out of the camera.

The unedited shot.
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The Calendar Project

I’ve long been fascinated by the pin-up calendars from the 1950s and 1960s. For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, they were one of the only socially tolerated — if not exactly socially acceptable — outlets for nude imagery in the US at that time. The most famous calendar girl model, of course, was Marilyn Monroe, who had posed for one of the calendar companies before she became famous.

Here are some examples of calendars from that era:

Calendar companies would custom print a company’s name and information on calendars that they could give away as promotional items. Most of the companies had a substantial catalog of images to choose from, with both nude and non-nude images. There were also many styles, but the most popular featured a single image with tear-off calendar sheets at the bottom. The popularity was probably due to the fact that it would have been fairly cheap to produce.

There were even some companies that produced nude calendars that came with an acetate sheet on them with a drawn-on bathing suit that could then be peeled off to reveal the nude image beneath. I assume this was to get around some kind of censorship law or to make the calendars more socially acceptable when delivered. I suppose it could have also added to the percieved naughtiness of the calendar, though.

A nude calendar with a drawn-on bathing suit that could be peeled off. I won’t be attempting this.

Recently, I decided it would be fun to do an homage to the calendars from this era. I’m not sure why the idea took me all of a sudden. A week into the new year is really not the ideal time for starting a calendar project, but… once it occurred to me, it just seemed like a good quarantine project.

My original thought was to set up a shoot specifically to create images in the style of some of the old calendars, but almost on accident, I stumbled across a series of photos in my library that already had the right feel:

Other than her tattoos, this shot of Juno could easily be from the 1950s or 1960s. The pose, her haircut, everything felt pretty on the nose with almost a Bunny Yeager feel to it. This was a perfect picture for prototyping the idea and saved me the expense of setting up a new shoot, at least for now.

Designing the Calendar

I didn’t want to exactly mimic any of the existing calendars, but rather create a modern calendar reminiscent of and inspired by those older ones. My main inspirations for the calendar portion were the Walt’s 505 Club and Denver Supply Company, Inc. calendars in the gallery above. I opted not to use the graphics honoring historical figures, though, and stick with just numbers to keep them less cluttered feeling.

I worked in Affinity Publisher to create my first design prototype. For this first version, there were no tear-off sheets and it was intended to simply show what the final calendar would look like.

Font Choice

For the calendar numbers and month names, I used Bodoni 72, which appears to be what the the Walt’s 505 Club calendar uses. For the rest of the text, I opted for Helvetica Neue. It’s anachronistic, since that font didn’t exist until the early 1980s, but I tried both Helvetica and Helvetica Neue and just thought it looked better with Helvetia Neue. As I said earlier, I’m not trying to exactly replicate those historical calendars.

Layout

The calendars from that era I’ve found come in a few different sizes. The most common size for the tear-off style of calendar seems to be 12″ x 19″, which works out well, because my photo printer maxes out at 13″ x 19″ borderless. That means I can print full page and then just trim a half inch off of each side.

I went with a two month calendar layout and played around with a lot of different design and font options until I landed on this, which feels sufficiently reminiscient of classic pinup calendars for me.

The one common element of the original calendars that I’m missing is the promotional text. I tried a few options, but I just like the simplicity of not having it. I also don’t have anything I really need to promote right now. While I do occasionally take paying gigs, photography is mostly a creative outlet for me and not something I’m trying to make a living off at the moment.

From Prototype to Calendar

Once I was happy with the design, the next step was to actually turn it into a physical calendar with tear-off sheets. I removed the calendar content from my digital prototype, and turned it into the calendar backboard. I replaced the calendar with a little promotional text. This text will never be visible unless somebody rips off the last month, but if they do, they’ll know how to contact me to find out if I’m doing another calendar for next year.

I moved the calendar content to a separate 4″ x 12″ document and then laid out all the months of 2021. I included all US federal holidays (in red), as well as many other major holidays. Space in this format is tight, so I couldn’t include every holiday, but I tried to include the major ones from the major religions. I did boot Columbus Day in favor of Indigeneous Peoples’ Day (they’re the same day), because I only had room for one and, well… fuck Columbus.

Unfortunately, the decision to go with a two-up layout means I can’t print them on normal letter size paper and had to order a ream of legal size paper for the project.

Laying out a calendar is a surprisingly tedious task. 😬

Construction

Once all the digital files were created and proofed, it was time to create the first calender to see if it works. There’s two parts here: the backboard, which I printed on my photo printer, and the calendar sheets, which I printed on my color laser printer.

Printing the Backboard

For the first calendar, I went with the best paper stock I had handy: Canon Platinum Pro N (Glossy). This is shinier and higher quality than the historical calendars that inspired the project, but will result in a nice image. I might order a matte or satin paper if I decide to make more, but this works and looks pretty good.

Printing the Calendar Pages

The individual calendar sheets are printed on a premium legal-sized office paper on a color laser printer. There are six pages total (two months per page). These will be cut out and stapled to the backboard to create the calendar.

Trimming the Calendar Pages

Unfortunately, I don’t have a guillotine cutter, so I used the best thing do I have: a Dahl professional heavy duty rotary cutter. It generally worked well, but was tough to be as precise as I needed while keeping the pages together.

Trimming the Back Board

I also used the Dahl to cut the backer board. That was an easier cut, since I didn’t have to keep multiple sheets together.

Assembling the Calendar

The final step is stapling the calendar sheets to the backer board. I used a cheap saddle-stich stapler to attach the sheets.

And once assembled, we have our calendar:

Just needs a hole punched and it’s ready for the wall!

Lessons Learned

With any kind of project like this, the first one you make is going to be imperfect, and this wasn’t an exception. Still, I’m really pleased with how it came out. Although there are some minor issues, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to hang this first one on the wall.

If I decide to make any more, there are a few changes I’ll make. My margins are a bit too small in a few places. The rotary cutter did a nice job, but it’s not as precise as a good guillotine cutter, and I lost a little bit of my margins to the overprint required for borderless printing.  Some cutting guides on the calendar printouts will also help during assembly.

All-in-all, though, I’m quite happy with the result!

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Creating Limited Edition Prints

If you’re really into photography, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve at least thought about selling prints, and if you’ve thought about selling prints, you’ve probably given some though to creating limited editions. It’s also possible you went no further than just thinking about it, because the idea can seem daunting and, unfortunately, it’s hard to find good information about it.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, though.

Let’s go down the rabbit hole of photographic editions and see how they work.

Open vs. Limited Edition

When you decide to sell a print, the first thing you need to decide is whether you’re going to issue the print as an open edition or a limited edition. If you already sell prints, and haven’t explicitly put a limit on how many you’ll create, you’ve decided to issue an open edition of those images, whether you realized it or not. With an open edition, you can make and sell as many prints as you want, and there are really no formalities required. You’re just making and selling a product, as many as the market will bear.

You can issue a formal open edition that has traits more commonly associated with limited editions—such as a signature or a certificate of authenticity—just with no limit on how many you can produce, however the bulk of open editions are informal editions without any of that.

With limited edition prints, on the other hand, you’re making a promise to your buyers that you will create, at most, a specific number of prints of that image. This limit creates the potential for scarcity, which may allow you to charge a higher price for in-demand prints and may cause the price of those print to appreciate over time. There’s no guarantee, of course. Limited editions aren’t magic. There has to be a market for the image that’s greater than the size of the edition for it to have any impact at all.

There are certain customs and formalities that are generally followed when issuing a limited edition. Some of these originate from law, but mostly they are customs that have evolved out of earlier reproduction techniques like woodcuts and vinyl cuts. Each print in a limited edition is typically signed by the artist and numbered. It’s also common to take steps to ensure that prospective buyers have a way to authenticate the print, such as by issuing a certificate of authenticity with contact information backed by good records about the production of the edition and about the sales of edition prints.

Choosing an Edition Type

It’s common for photographers without a lot of name recognition to assume there’s no value in issuing a limited edition because they may never exhaust (or, in other words, sell out) even a small edition¹. That’s an understandable way of looking at it, but here’s another way: A limited edition can end up being a huge gift to your early supporters. You may not ever become well known, but you might, and if you work at it, you will definitely be more known in the future than you are today.

It’s completely possible that your early limited edition prints could end up appreciating in value, and that’s a nice “thank you” to the people who supported you early on. Also, remember, once you’ve sold copies of a print outside of a limited edition, you generally won’t be able to create a limited edition of that image², so you may also want to identify the images you’ll want to issue as a limited edition, even if you’re not ready to actually issue it yet. Knowing which ones you might want to use can help you avoid accidentally losing the ability to publish a limited edition of that image later.

On the other hand, you don’t want to issue every print as a limited edition unless you’re famous or there’s a large demand for your work for some other reason. Limited editions are more work for you and only have the potential to increase a print’s value if there’s substantial demand.

For most photographers, you should only do limited editions for those images that you really like, are really proud of, or think are particularly sellable. Otherwise, you’re creating extra work for yourself without getting any real benefit from it.

Determine an Edition Size

When you do decide to issue a limited edition, the very next decision you need to make is the size of the edition. The larger the edition, the less potential scarcity, so the smaller the potential impact on the price… but the more prints you can sell.

Editions in older reproduction techniques, such as woodcuts, vinyls cuts, and lithographs, were often done in very large sizes—hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of prints—because they were essentially the mass production techniques of the day. Early photographic editions were typically smaller than that, but still usually involved at least a few dozen or a few hundred prints. The more recent trend in photography has been toward much smaller editions, with 10 and 25 being very common edition sizes these days.

While the edition size is a personal choice you have to make, the general guidance I would give is to try not to create an edition that’s larger than the number of prints you think you can sell during your lifetime. The ideal situation is to publish editions that are smaller than the number of people potentially interested in buying it. If there are fewer potential buyers than inventory (aka the edition size), having a limit creates no actual scarcity, and you won’t get a higher price than you could’ve gotten doing an open edition.

Of course, there’s guesswork involved so you won’t always nail the edition size, which is okay. Over time, you’ll get a better feel for demand.

You can create an edition size of one. These types of “editions” are usually called “one offs” or “uniques” and are labeled 1/1.

If you’re going to create multiple size prints of the same image, the number of each size should be decided right up front and set in stone before you create any edition prints of any size. If you don’t do that, you’re giving yourself a loophole to expand the size of the edition after you’ve sold prints, and that’s not really fair to your buyers.

I not only decide all of the size before making any edition prints, I also include all editions of the same print on the certificate of authenticity (which I’ll talk about later), like this:

A specimen Certificate of Authenticity showing multiple authorized print sizes. The certificate itself is for an 11x16½ print, but it also lists an 8x12 edition. it =
This certificate is for print 2/10 of the 11×16½ edition of this image. It also shows that I have authorized 20 8×12 prints of the same image. This way, any prospective buyer now or in the future knows about all of the prints that could ever be made of this image when making their purchase decision.

Edition Prints & Proofs

One of the oddities of limited editions, inherited from older, mechanical reproduction techniques, is that an edition may contain additional prints beyond the numbered member prints. Typically, each print in an edition is numbered (usually, but not necessarily, based on the order they were created), and once the whole edition is done, no more prints may be created. However, there can be other prints called proofs, usually printed as part of the creation process, that do not have to be destroyed.

There are several types of proofs that are allowed to exist without violating the edition limit, however, you generally should not sell proofs of your own prints. The types of proofs that you can create include:

  • Artist Proof: Before printing an edition, you typically need to create some number of test (or proof) prints to get your print settings dialed in. The final proof is referred to as the “Artist Proof” (or sometimes “Artist’s Proof”), and is not numbered. Instead of being numbered (e.g. 1/10), the final proof is marked “AP” (or, less frequently, “PA”, “E.A”, or “E. d’A”). Typically, the artist or printer will keep this proof. Artist proofs shouldn’t enter circulation until the artist dies or something unusual happens (such as the artist declaring bankruptcy). When artist proofs do enter circulation, they often sell at a premium over the regular edition prints.
  • H’ors de Commerce Proof: Another type of acceptable proof is the h’ors de commerce print. Translated from the French, it means “not for sale”. It was a common practice with many types of print editions, for the artist to mark a small number of prints “HC”, usually to be given as thank you gifts to their publisher, printer, patron, model, or others involved with the production of the images.
  • Printer’s Proof: This type of print, usually marked “PP” or less often “BAT” (which stands for “bon à tirer”, which is French for “good to print”)  is not usually part of limited editions of photographs, but conceivably could in the case of a very large edition printed by a third party lab or printer. Printer’s proofs are used like artist proofs when there are multiple printers or press operators, each needing a signed-off print to compare their output against. Sometimes printer’s proofs are marked the same as artist proofs (“AP”) if they were actually created by the original artist. Printer’s proofs are typically kept by the printer or publisher.

It is perfectly acceptable to keep your artist’s proof and also to create a small number of HC proofs to give as gifts to the people who helped you create your edition. Giving an HC print to your model, assistant, or printer, is fine. On the other hand, you should never sell proofs or use them as a way to extend an edition after exhausting it.

I would also discourage you from creating a large number of proofs when creating small editions. If you issue an edition of 10, you shouldn’t also have 10 HC proofs in circulation. My personal rule of thumb is to limit HC proofs to no more than 20% of the edition size, or 3, whichever is higher. Because I do my own printing, I only ever create one artist proof, which is the last proof I make before starting to produce the edition, and that one stays with me.

Mounting Edition Prints

While prints in a limited edition don’t have to be mounted, it’s pretty standard practice to do so. Usually they’re sold with a simple white mat with archival properties. Above a certain price point, prints are usually mounted in museum-grade rag board. For more information on mounting your prints, you can read this post.

Signature and Edition Marks

Limited edition prints are almost always signed and contain “edition marks”, which give information about the print, such as the edition size, and which print in the edition this is. The signature and edition marks usually go in one of three places: on the front of the print, usually (but not always) below the image, on the reverse side of the print, or on the mat. Edition marks should be done by hand, by the photographer, and should be written in pencil or an acid-free, archival pen such as a Pigma Micron by Sakura.

Several mounted limited edition prints on a cutting board.
Production day. Three prints (in two different sizes) of my most recent limited edition print. For this one, I put the edition marks and signature on the front, in the margin below the print and mounted them with extra space around the print so the marks are visible when framed.

Where you put your edition marks is mostly a matter of personal preference. Historically, the back of the print was the most common place for edition marks on photographs. More recently, putting them on the front of the print (which has been common for other types of printing for a long time) is becoming more common with photographs, probably because it allows the signature and print information to be visible when framed.

You should only put edition marks on the mat rather than on the print if you flush mount your prints. Flush mounts are semi-permanent, so marks on the mat will usually stay with the print. The other main type of mount—the hinge mount—is designed to make it easy to take the print out, so edition marks on the mat would generally be a bad choice if you use a hinge mount. For more information on flush and hinge mounting, try this post.

There is no required order or location when it comes to edition marks, but if you plan to put them on the front, it’s common practice to put them in the margin below the print, with the print number and edition size on the left and the signature on the right. You can also put the print’s title in the center if you wish.

These conventions about where to sign and put edition marks are just that – conventions. Although it’s often a good idea to stick with conventions unless you have a reason not to, you can put the edition marks anywhere you want. For my first two limited edition prints, I put the title on the left next to the edition number. I didn’t learn that the center was the customary location until later.

A signed, limited edition print and a certificate of authenticity for that print.
My first limited edition print and its certificate of authenticity. I put the edition marks on the front of the print, but I put the title in a non-standard location.

Certificates of Authenticity

Nearly all limited edition prints come with a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist. A lot of artists have a negative reaction at first to the idea of a issuing a certificate of authenticity. This may come from the fact that a lot of cheap, mass-produced products use certificates of authenticity as a marketing gimmick, but they really are a good idea for any kind of hand-created art, including limited edition photographs. Having a signed document that accompanies the print and includes your contact information means that anyone who obtains this print or is trying to authenticate this print, will know how to reach you.

There are really very few specific requirements when it comes to certificates of authenticity. If you do a quick web search, you’ll see there’s a lot of variety in how they look and what information they contain.

Screen grab from a web search showing images of seven different certificates of authenticity, all very different.
A selection of different results searching for “photography certificate of authenticity”

The only real requirements is the image name (if there is one), the edition size, the print number, your contact information, and a signature. Some artists include some kind of statement about the edition or the print or a thumbnail of the image to make it easier to match the certificate up to its print, but I’ve seen many certificates that do neither.

Another thing that’s not required, but many photographers do, is take steps to make it harder to counterfeit your image, for example, by including a serial number on a tamper-proof holographic sticker on the print and/or certificate.

A sheet of unused holographic stickers.
You can buy holographic stickers with unique numbers on them. I got these on eBay. There are also services specifically designed for limited editions that provide stickers and recordkeeping services through a website or mobile app.

I put a holographic sticker both on the certificate of authenticity and the back of the print itself. I also record the number of the sticker from the print on the certificate of authenticity and keep a spreadsheet that lists both numbers for every limited edition print I’ve made.

The back of a print with a second set of edition marks and a holographic sticker.
The back of one of my limited edition prints contain a second signature and set of edition marks well inside the margins. This gives the customer the option to trim their print while retaining the edition information and signature.
A closeup of the lower left part of my certificate of authenticity with a holographic sticker affixed.
The holographic sticker on the certificate. These stickers are tamper-resistant; if you try to remove them, the word “void” appears both on the removed sticker as well as the place it used to be affixed.

It has also become somewhat common to include information about the paper, dyes, or process used to create the print. This re-assures the buyer that they are getting an archival-quality print and that information can also be used to further authenticate the print.

A lot of photographers just type up a certificate in a word processor, then print it, and sign it. And really, that’s all you need. You don’t need to make a fancy certificates or go to great lengths to prevent counterfeiting. Unless you’re quite famous, the chances of someone actually counterfeiting your work is very slim. Despite that, there is still marketing value to creating an aesthetically pleasing, harder-to-counterfeit certificate and it’s not really that much extra work.

The back of a mounted limited edition print in a crystal bag, with the certificate of authenticity attached to the back of the mount.
I put my limited edition prints in crystal bags to protect them and keep them dust free. I affix the certificate of authenticity to the back of the mat using archival mounting corners. This makes the certificate easy to remove if needed, but makes it less likely that the print and certificate will get separated unintentionally.

Record Keeping

Anybody can create a “certificate of authenticity”, so you need to back yours up with good record keeping and a way for people to contact you. There are services that will handle this for you and provide a web page people can use to authenticate your work. I don’t create enough limited edition prints to justify paying for a service like that, so I  just keep good digital records (redundantly backed up!) and provide my e-mail address and phone number on the certificate for people to use if they want to authenticate the print. Because I haven’t used any of these third-party services, I’m not comfortable recommending one, though I can definitely see the value for someone who produces a lot of prints.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not currently set up to sell my limited edition prints online. You can see my limited edition prints in the image below. If you’re interested in buying one (or prints of any of my other images, for that matter), drop me an e-mail.

My current limited editions. From left to right: Bambii on the Cliffs #1 is available in an edition of 20 8x12s and 10 11×16½s; Triplicity is available in an edition of 10 8x10s and 10 11x14s; and Tree Swing is available in three sizes of 25 11x14s, 50 8x10s, and 50 4x5s.

  1. Even some famous historical photographers have limited editions that are not exhausted. Nobody bats 1.000, so that possibility really shouldn’t discourage you from doing a limited edition.
  2. There definitely are ways you can ethically do a limited edition of an image that was previously issued as part of an open edition. One way would be to track down each of the owners of the open edition prints. If you can account for all of the images and can retroactively make them part of the edition, or swap the open edition prints for a limited edition replacement, then you can ethically move forward with selling that print as a limited edition.
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Getting Started Shooting Nudes: Essential Gear – Lenses

Once you’ve settled on a camera body, the next must-have purchase before you can get started shooting is a lens. There’s a lot to know about lenses,  so buckle up and I’ll try and make some sense out of it for you.

Focal Length

Lenses come in a wide variety of “focal lengths”, which is an indication of the field of view that you can capture with the lens. Focal length is specified in millimeters, and is a measure of the distance between the lens and the image sensor or film plate when the subject is in focus.

Lower focal lengths are referred to as “wide angle” lenses because they let you take pictures that includes more of a scene, while high numbers are called “telephoto”, and let you take clear pictures of things that are some distance away. A lens that has a greater focal length than wide angle but less than telephoto is considered a “normal” or “standard” lens, since they are (roughly) equivalent to the field of view of the human eye.

The actual field of view for a lens is determined by both its focal length and the size of the sensor or film frame it’s being used with, which means that a 50mm lens on a full frame camera gives a different field of view than a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera which gives a different field of view than a 50mm lens on a medium format camera.

The following table gives the approximate ranges of focal distances for wide angle and telephoto lenses for several common sensor sizes.

Sensor SizeWide AngleTelephoto
CX<= 13mm>= 31mm
Micro 4/3<=17.5mm>= 42.5mm
APS-C<= 20mm>= 65 mm
APS-H<= 27mm>= 50mm
Full Frame / 35mm<= 35mm>= 85mm
Medium Format (645)<= 56mm>= 137mm
Medium Format (Hasselblad)<= 64mm>= 245mm

To keep things simple, I’m going to express focal lengths in “full-frame equivalents”  in rest of this post. If I refer to a “50mm” lens, I mean “50mm on a full frame camera or an equivalent lens on another body, such as a 38mm lens on an APS-H camera (1.7 crop factor), or 29mm lens on an APS-C camera (1.3 crop factor)”.

Prime vs. Zoom

There are two types of lenses available: prime and zoom. A prime lens has a single, fixed focal length, like 50mm, or 85mm. With prime lenses, if you want to include more or less of the scene in your image, you have to physically move further from or closer to your subject. The other type of lens is the zoom lens, which covers a selectable range of focal lengths such as 24-70mm, or 70-200mm. Zoom lenses give you a lot more options to frame your photo without having to physically move to a new location.

Traditional logic said that prime lenses are higher quality and that zoom lenses are a compromise for convenience, with the trade-off  being that the images aren’t as sharp and are more prone to various forms of distortion.  That traditional logic doesn’t really have much value these days, however. The majority of lenses made and sold now are zoom lenses because we reached a point several years ago where the image quality from a good zoom lenses became virtually indistinguishable from that of prime lenses.

If that’s true, you might be wondering why prime lenses are still made. The primary reason is that prime lenses are less expensive for comparable quality and focal distance, especially for “fast” lenses with an ƒ rating of 2.8 or less. While a professional grade 24-70mm ƒ2.8  lens might run you upwards of $1600, you can get a professional-grade 50mm ƒ1.8 lens for about $150.

A “faster” lens has a lower ƒ-rating and handles low light situations better.

Consumer vs. Professional

The cost of a lens is influenced by many factors, including the focal length and ƒ-rating, but the biggest impact on the price of a lens is the distinction between lenses targeted at consumers, and those targeted for professional use. There’s also a group of lenses that fall in between the two that are sometimes referred to as “prosumer” lenses.

Most professional-grade lenses are designed for full-frame or medium-format bodies, while nearly all consumer lenses are built for smaller “crop” sensor bodies. As smaller sensors have gotten better, we’ve started to see more professional quality glass being made for crop-sensor bodies, but it’s still pretty uncommon to find consumer-grade lenses made for full-frame and medium-format bodies, so if you opt for a larger sensor, expect to pay more (probably considerably more) for your lenses.

To give an example of just how much of a difference in price you can expect to see between consumer and professional lenses, let’s look at a common workhorse, “normal” zoom lens that runs from slightly wide angle to slightly telephoto, such as a 24-70mm or 24-85mm lens.

Note: the field of view on an 18-55mm APS-C lens is roughly equivalent to 24-70mm with a full frame lens

Here is a selection of DSLR lenses, all from the same manufacturer (Nikon), all with roughly the same focal length. The range of prices and features you see here is similar to other manufacturers’ lens lineups for both DSLR and mirrorless cameras:

Lens TypeLensSensorMSRP (7/2020)
ProAF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ2.8 ED VRFull Frame (FX)$2099.95
ProAF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ2.8 EDFull Frame (FX)$1599.95
ProsumerAF-S Nikkor 24-85mm ƒ2.8-4 IFFull Frame (FX)$744.95
ProsumerAF-S Nikkor 24-85mm ƒ3.5-4.5G ED VRFull Frame (FX)$499.95
ConsumerAF-P DX Nikkor 18-55mm ƒ2.5-5.6G VRAPS-C (DX)$249.95
ConsumerAF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor ED 18-55mm ƒ3.5-5.6GAPS-C (DX)$199.95
ConsumerAF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED IIAPS-C (DX)$119.95

That’s a pretty substantial range of prices for lenses with about the same basic field of view and functionality! The most expensive lens on the list is 17 times more expensive than the least.

If you’re looking to get started on a budget, the lower prices of the consumer lenses are going to be really appealing. The most expensive lens in the list for a crop sensor is $249.95, about a tenth of the price of the most expensive. Going back to my previous post in this series, crop sensor cameras aren’t just less expensive when initially buying the body. The lenses and some of the other accessories are also considerably less expensive, meaning you can often get a lot more bang for your buck with a crop-sensor camera, but your lens selection is going to be more limited, and most of the available lenses will be consumer grade.

You’re probably wondering what you’re going to miss out on if you buy less expensive consumer-grade lenses.

The main differences between professional and consumer lenses are as follows:

  • Construction & Repairability: Professional lenses are designed for full-time working photographers, so they’re made to take a beating and keep on working. They feature metal structural components and high-quality ground glass lens elements. Treated well, these lenses will work literally for decades. Consumer lenses, on the other hand, use more plastic components and lower-end consumer lenses may use polycarbonate lens elements rather than glass. Professional lenses are often repairable, but with consumer lenses, it’s usually more cost-effective to replace a lens if it breaks or gets damaged.
  • Optics: Consumer lenses are more likely to use plastic or lower quality glass for the optical elements, whereas professional lenses almost always use high-grade ground glass lenses that use extra-low dispersion glass. This means professional lenses will tend to be sharper across all ƒ-stop values, but the difference will be most noticeable in low light situations where the aperture is wide open. Professional lenses also are also far less likely to suffer noticeably from problems such as chromatic aberration, ghosting, and flaring.
  • Aperture: In large part because they use better optical components, professional lenses tend to be “faster” lenses with a lower ƒ-stop rating, meaning they let in more light and allow you to get better pictures with less light. If you look at the chart above, all the professional grade lenses have a fixed ƒ-rating of 2.8, meaning they can shoot at that value at all focal lengths. The prosumer lenses have ƒ-ratings that come in a range, meaning the camera’s ƒ-rating increases as you zoom out to longer focal lengths. The consumer lenses also give their ƒ-rating as a range, and a larger range at that, meaning as you zoom out, your lens becomes “slower”, and requires even more light to get good shots.
  • Weather Resistance: The higher quality construction often means that professional lenses can handle significantly harsher weather conditions without experiencing problems like condensation on the internal lens elements. It should be noted, however, that just because a lens is professional grade, does not mean it is weather proof or water proof, and you should take precautions to protect your gear whenever you shoot in inclement weather..
  • Size & Weight: This is something I didn’t realize before I bought my first professional grade lens, but professional lenses—especially zoom lenses—are much bigger and much heavier than comparable consumer lenses. The cheapest lens in the chart above weighs 7.4 oz, is 2.4 inches in diameter, and 2.9 inches long. The most expensive lens in the list is 38.4 oz, 3.4 inches in diameter, and 6 inches long. That means the most expensive lens is literally five times as heavy and over twice as long as the cheapest, despite having nearly identical focal lengths. The size difference is so dramatic that a lot of professional photographers will buy less expensive “vacation lenses” or “walking-around lenses” so they have something lighter and smaller to use in situations where they don’t need professional-grade glass.

Are these benefits worth the much higher price? That depends on your needs and your budget. For most working professionals and many serious enthusiasts who can afford them, the answer is a resounding yes. While they are expensive, they tend to last a long time. Often, you can use them for years on different camera bodies, with the lens retaining significant resale value even after years of use. If you ever have to shoot in difficult lighting situations, the lower ƒ-rating and better optics are really valuable, and if you ever shoot in tough weather conditions, it’s nice not having to worry quite as much about whether your equipment will survive and your pictures will come out well.

The fact that consumer lenses are “slower” than professional lenses is far less of an issue than it used to be in the film and early digital days where a few ƒ-stops could be the difference between being able to get a good shot and not. With a modern digital camera, you can often compensate for those few extra ƒ-stops by simply adjusting your camera’s ISO rating. You will degrade the quality of your images a bit, but increasing ISO by one or two stops won’t usually be noticeable unless you blow up your photos super large, and you can often compensate for some of that quality loss using a variety of post processing techniques.

You can get amazing images with consumer or prosumer equipment (or, hell, even your phone), so if you’re shooting for yourself, it’s really a matter of how much you’re willing and able to spend and whether you’ll ever be shooting in conditions where the benefits of a professional lens will even matter.  In bright daylight, or in a studio with strobes, you’ll barely notice a difference, and if your intention isn’t to shoot professionally, the additional cost of professional gear may very well not be worth it for you, even if you can afford it.

Buying Used

Just like with camera bodies, you can get used gear at a lower price than new, sometimes substantially less. A lot of people get into photography, and then don’t find time for it and end up selling their equipment. Other times, people decide to switch systems, upgrade their gear, or just find that they don’t use certain lenses very often.

As with camera bodies, I wouldn’t generally recommend buying used consumer-grade lenses, but professional lenses and some prosumer lenses are built solidly enough that buying used can be a great option, just make sure you get to test the lens before buying it to make sure there are no scratches or other problems with the optics. Unlike camera bodies, the age of the lens really doesn’t matter all that much as long as the lens has been cared for and maintained and has the right mount for your camera body. An older lens with good optics and no damage to the focus or zoom mechanisms will take just as good pictures as a new lens.

First vs. Third Party

Every camera manufacturer produces (or partners with another company to produce), a line of lenses for their cameras. These “first party” lenses are not the only option. There are companies out there, such as Sigma, Zeiss, and Tamron, that produce lenses for other manufacturer’s cameras.

First party lenses are typically very high quality, and they’re often the only lenses that people look at. However, when buying lenses from your camera’s manufacturer, you usually pay at least some premium. Third party lenses come in a wide variety of price points and quality, so you have to be careful when comparing lenses from different manufacturers, but it is often possible to get a comparable quality lens for less money by going with a third party option.

To give an example, the Sigma ART 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens is very highly regarded as a fast, sharp professional lens, in the same ballpark in terms of image and build quality as the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ2.8 ED lens from the list above. The Nikkor lens has an MSRP of $1,599.95 with a street price of around $1,450, while the Sigma has an MSRP of $1,299.00 and a street price of about $1,000, which amounts to about a 1/3 savings.

Which Lens or Lenses to Buy

So… the $64 question: which lens or lenses should you buy?

Among photographers I’ve met, there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to buying lenses. One school of thought is that every lens has a use, and you should buy all the lenses your budget can handle as you have a need for them. The other school of thought says that zoom lenses have gotten so good, there really are only three lenses most photographers will ever need: a good ultrawide-angle zoom, like a 14-24mm, a “normal” zoom, such as a 24-70mm, and a telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm.

If you’re not shooting large groups of people, architectural interiors, or landscape panoramas, I would even argue that the ultrawide-angle zoom is only rarely necessary.

A picture of a young naked woman on a tree swing.
A wide-angle lens can be useful in certain kinds of nude photography, such as landscape nudes, but most nudes are shot with normal or slightly telephoto lenses.

Personally, I subscribe  to the “most photographers only need a few lenses” school of thought. But… I also think that having a few high quality prime lenses in addition, can be a great investment. Probably 60% of what I shoot is with a 24-70mm lens, with maybe another 30% being shot with a 70-200mm. The remaining 10% are shot with a prime lens like a 50mm ƒ1.4, (aka the “nifty fifty”) or an 85mm ƒ/1.8 (sometimes called a “portrait prime”). Using a fast prime lens allows you to shoot below ƒ2.0, which can make it easier to achieve a desirable effect for portraits and head shots called “bokeh”.

A nude woman with long brown hair against an out-of-focus background.
This image, shot at 180mm, ƒ/2.8 demonstrates the bokeh effect you can get from using a fast and/or long lens. Notice how the background is out of focus, drawing the viewer’s attention to the subject.

I’ll talk about bokeh in great detail in a later post, but you don’t have to have a super fast prime lens to get a nice bokeh effect. You do need either a fast normal or wide angle lens, or a moderately fast telephoto lens, however, so if you can’t afford a fast zoom like a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, then a fast 50mm or 85mm prime lens can be a great, and relatively inexpensive option for shooting portraits.

For shooting nudes, you’ll only need an ultra wide-angle lens if you’re going be shooting nudes as a small part of a larger scene, where your subject just one part of the overall landscape, or to shoot full body images in cramped spaces. For most photographer, an ultra wide is not a good choice for a first lens.

Similarly, while telephoto lenses can yield lovely portraits, they make it difficult to shoot in many common situations. Even in a good size studio, it may not be possible to shoot full length photos using a telephoto lens.

Most of the time, if you’ll be focusing on one person, or a few people, and maybe not even shooting full body shots, the best choice for a first lens is going to be either a zoom lens that includes the “normal” range such as a 24-70mm or 24-85mm, or a standard prime lens like a 50mm or 85mm.

 

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Getting Started Shooting Nudes: Essential Gear – Choosing Your Camera

A nude woman lies on a cement floor with rainbow reflections

The single most important piece of gear you need to get started with nude photography—or any type of photography, for that matter—is a camera. You must have some device capable of recording an image. Though there are many other items that most photographers would consider “essential”, the reality is, pretty much everything else beyond the camera (and a lens) is optional.

If you already own a camera, start with what you already have unless you know, with certainty, that it isn’t sufficient for your needs. After you’ve done a handful of shoots with the gear you own, you’ll have a much better idea about what you need and will be better equipped to decide what, if anything, you should buy.

If you don’t have a camera, but you do have a recent, high-end mobile phone, you actually have a good enough camera for doing available-light photography, though you may find models skeptical about working with a “photographer” whose only gear is their phone. That won’t be an issue if your first models are yourself, a spouse, significant other, or friends, however.

Buying a Camera

At some point, if you get serious, you’ll probably want to buy a better camera. Choosing what camera model to buy is a very subjective and personal decision and the most important factor in determining what camera to buy will most likely be how much money you have to spend.

Getting the very best camera on the market does you no good if the purchase doesn’t leave you enough money to buy lenses and accessories, pay for models, or cover your rent and other living expenses. The “very best” camera on the market is also likely to be overkill for your needs. High-end “flagship” camera models can run $4k, $6k, $8k, $10k or even much more. These models have features that really target professional photographers who are shooting every day and which really aren’t worth paying money for, for most hobbyists.

So, before you do anything else, figure out how much you can realistically afford to invest in a camera system, keeping in mind that you’ll need at least one lens in addition to a camera body (unless you buy a camera with an integrated lens, which I generally don’t recommend). You’ll also need at least one storage card (SF, CF, etc.) to store the pictures you take.

Most photographers will steer you away from what are called “kit lenses”– which are the lenses that are sold together with a camera body as a package. Kits often also include other accessories that you probably don’t already have if you’re buying your first serious camera: things like blower bulbs, lint-free cleaning cloths, storage cards, filters, a flash, a camera bag, or a remote camera trigger. Although there are exceptions, kit lenses tend to not be very good, so most serious photographers prefer to buy their body and lenses separately. I take a more muted view on this. While I buy bodies and lenses separately, I recognize that a kit can often be a great choice for someone just getting started who’se on a budget. While a kit lens will rarely be great, if you’re going to be shooting mostly outside at high ƒ-stops, you can get really good results with them.

We’ll talk about what ƒ-stops are more in later posts, but a “high” ƒ-stop means the aperture of your lens is closed down very small so it lets less light in. When you shoot outside during the day under a cloudless sky, you can easily shoot at ƒ16 or higher. At these high ƒ-stop ratings, the difference between a really good lens and a “just okay” lens won’t be very noticeable at all. If you’re planning to primarily shoot outdoors to start, a good camera body with a kit lens might be the best option in your price range, just realize that you’ll probably want to buy a better lens (or lenses) at some point in the future as you gain more experience and become more demanding.

Digital vs. Film

For most working professional photographers, the digital vs. film debate was settled long ago and—spoiler alert—digital won. That being said, film is very much alive and has been seeing quite a resurgence of late. A lot of photographers are once again enjoying the challenges of shooting film.

Honestly, anything that motivates you to shoot is good, so for many people, film is good. But… I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say: if you’re just getting started, start with digital.

Digital photography borrows most of its terminology and paradigms from film cameras, so most of the skills you’ll learn using a digital camera will transfer directly over to film. But, digital is much more forgiving, so you’ll likely find it far less frustrating.  Once you’ve got a good grasp on the fundamentals of photography, switching to film will be much easier and less painful than trying to learn the fundamentals of photography at the same time that you’re learning the nuances of film.

Interchangeable vs. Integrated Lens

If you buy a camera with an integrated lens, you will be limited to the focal length and apertures of that lens. I’ll discuss when and why you might use different lenses in future posts, but getting a body that uses interchangeable lenses will give you a lot more flexibility and freedom to grow as a photographer. Even if you only plan to buy a single lens at first, choosing an interchangeable lens body will give you the option to grow your collection of lenses (aka “glass”) over time.

Additionally, good glass treated well, will likely outlive your camera body (several camera bodies, in fact), meaning you can buy the latest, greatest, newest body in the future without having to re-invest in new lenses, as long as you stay with the same vendor and system type (e.g. Nikon FX or Canon EF-S³). If you buy a camera with an integrated lens, when you outgrow it, you have to replace everything.

Sensor Size

One choice you have to make when buying your first camera is what size sensor will my camera have? The size of the sensor is one of the primary factors in the cost of a digital camera, with smaller sensors generally costing less, but also having comparably lower image quality. A larger sensor typically give images that are sharper, have a greater dynamic range, and contain less noise. Larger sensors also tend to have better low light performance.

But… sensor technology has been advancing at a breakneck pace over the last decade, so a larger but older sensor will often be inferior to a newer small one.

Here are the names of common sensor sizes you’ll often see thrown around, in descending order of size:

  • Medium Format Sensor (e.g. 43.8 x 32.8mm, 53.4 x 40mm): Generally only found in very expensive, high-end professional cameras, these are the largest sensors you’ll find in mass-produced cameras. The name “medium format” comes from the film days, when 2¼ roll film was called “medium format” because it was larger than 35mm, but smaller than traditional plate cameras that used 4×5 or 8×10 sheets of film or glass. Medium format sensors are nearly (but in most cases, not quite) as large as a traditional 2¼ medium format film frame. Today, the name “medium format” is used to describe a handful of different size sensors that are larger than a traditional 35mm negative.
  • Full Frame (35mm x 24mm): The most common sensor size used in professional-grade digital cameras, this sensor is almost exactly the same size as a 35mm negative. Since the earliest professional digital cameras were built from 35mm SLRs, the traits of other sensors are often specified relative to this one.
  • APS-H (≈29mm by ≈19mm): A slightly smaller sensor used in a lot of “prosumer” and enthusiast DSLRs, there are several slightly different versions of this sensor with slightly different sizes. Sensors of this size (and the next size down: APS-C) are often referred to as “crop sensors” because many of the bodies with these types of sensors can use lenses designed for full frame cameras, but the sensors only capture a portion of the image from the lens, resulting in the image being cropped. APS-H has a crop factor, compared to full frame cameras, of 1.3.
  • APS-C (23.6mm by 15.8mm): A little bit smaller sensor used in many smaller consumer DSLRs, this sensor has a crop factor of 1.7.
  • Micro 4/3 (17.3mm by 13mm): About a quarter the size of a full frame sensor, this size sensor is used in many mirrorless cameras, especially smaller, consumer-targeted ones.
  • CX (13.2mm by 8mm): A sensor used primarily in higher-end point and shoot cameras.
  • Small Sensors: There are a whole bunch of even smaller sensors whose sizes are generally given as a fraction of one inch on the long edge. Some of the small sensor sizes you may see are: 1/1.7, 1/2.5, 1/2.3, 2/3, 1/3.2, 1/1.2, and 1/1.8. These small sensors are primarily used in consumer cameras, webcams, security cameras, and mobile phones.
A display showing various comparative sensor sizes.
Relative size of many common camera sensors.

While larger sensors are generally “better” than smaller sensors, going with a less-than-full-frame sensor is one of the best ways to keep your costs down when buying your first camera. Full frame cameras are mostly targeted at working professionals and very experienced hobbyists, so they tend to have the most cutting-edge features. As a result, they cost quite a lot, with very few current-generation full-frame camera bodies starting at under $2000.

When shooting under bright daylight, or with studio strobes, many of the benefits of a larger sensor are far less evident, and the cost savings from a camera with a smaller sensor can be significant. At the time I’m writing this, there are some very capable crop-sensor cameras available for under $500.

The reality is, modern camera sensors are amazing pieces of technology and they’re only going to keep getting better. You can great results with any modern sensor and the benefits of a full frame or medium format sensor more often than not will be lost on someone who is just getting started.

In most respects, once you’ve selected your camera body, you don’t really have to worry about the size of the sensor any more. There is, however, one thing you need to know about cameras with different sized sensors: the lens focal lengths are different, and often the length specified is “full frame equivalent”.

What that means, is the stated focal length isn’t necessarily the focal length for your camera. A 50mm lens on a full frame camera does not give the same field of view as a 50mm lens on an APS-H camera. The “full frame equivalent” focal length for a camera with an APS-H sensor is roughly 38mm. To calculate that, divide the full frame focal length by the crop factor of the sensor you’re converting to. APS-H has a crop factor of about 1.3, so if we divide 50 by 1.3, we get 38.46. Since focal lengths usually only come in whole number values, we round down to 38mm, and that tells us that a 38mm lens on an APS-H camera will have roughly the same field of view as a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Must Have Features

When you start researching cameras, you might get a little overwhelmed by all the available models and features. Sometimes, two models from the same manufacturer will seem so similar, thatit’s hard to even understand why they both exist. There are a few absolute must-have features you should look for, though.

Adjustable ISO

ISO a measure of the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the less light you’ll need to get a correctly-exposed picture, but the trade off is a lower quality final image. The term is a holdover from the film days, when different film stock had different sensitivity to light and you would pick your film based on the lighting situation you were planning to photograph. Nowadays, it’s rare for cameras not to have an adjustable ISO, though some consumer cameras and most phone cameras hide this setting away and adjust the ISO automatically by default. If you’re going to get seriously into photography, you need to be able to control the ISO, and it’s best if the controls to change ISO are easily accessible while shooting. You don’t want to miss the perfect shot because you had to take the camera away from your eye to adjust ISO.

Manual Mode

Many consumer-targeted cameras either don’t have a fully manual mode, or are designed in such a way that using full manual mode is difficult. You want to make sure that the camera you’re looking at has full manual mode, and that shutter speed and aperture are easy to change without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

The three settings I’ve mentioned – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, make up what photographers call the “exposure triangle”, because they are the three values that primarily affect whether your image is properly exposed. Being able to adjust all three of these settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder will make your life so much easier when shooting.

I’ll talk about the exposure triangle in great detail in a future post.

Hot Shoe and/or PC Sync Socket

Many models of camera, regardless of style, will have a hot shoe, which is the little metal doohicky on the top of the camera body that you can use to attach an external flash. That hot shoe is also used to trigger studio strobes using wireless transmitters. As you start looking at more expensive “prosumer” and professional models, you’ll also start to see something called a PC sync socket somewhere on the camera body, which is used to trigger studio strobes with a hard wire. Most cameras with a PC sync socket will also have a hot shoe, though there are some high-end medium format cameras that have a PC sync socket, but no hot shoe.

A close up image of a hot shoe and a PC socket.
Two ways of triggering external flashes and studio strobes: the hot shoe (left) and the PC sync socket (right)

Even if you think you only want to shoot with natural or existing light, getting a camera with at least one of these two items is a good idea, because you may reach a point where the limitations of natural light start to frustrate you. Fortunately, most prosumer and pro cameras have both, and even the majority of consumer cameras at least have a hot shoe.

Raw File Support

Internally, all digital cameras use a “raw” file format that represents the image data exactly as it was recorded by the sensor. Cameras are capable of converting that raw file format into a standard image format such as JPEG, and some cameras default to this behavior and hide the raw file from you. Most serious photographers keep and edit only the raw file, which functions sort of like a digital negative, giving you a lot more latitude to make adjustments to your image without losing image quality.

A Camera that Fits You

One “feature” that rarely gets talked about when purchasing a camera is a really important one: how the camera feels in your hand, and whether the controls on the camera make sense and are easy for you to use. If you get serious about photography, you will spend a lot of time holding your camera. If it doesn’t feel good to you or the control placement doesn’t feel natural, then it’s not a good camera for you, no matter how nice the specs are³.

In general, it’s not a good idea to buy a camera you haven’t had a chance to hold in your hand. There are times when you can break this rule–such as when moving to an upgraded version of the same camera you already have—but generally speaking, you don’t want to buy a camera unless you know it feels good in your hand, isn’t too light or heavy, and has controls that make sense for you.

Mechanism Type

Digital cameras these days come primarily in two different styles that use different internal mechanisms: DSLR and mirrorless.

DSLR

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex, and is a style of digital camera that evolved out of film-based SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. In all single-lens reflex cameras, the image is reflected up to the viewfinder using a mirror and a pentaprism, so when you look into the viewfinder, you’re seeing the actual image that will be recorded when you press the shutter button. Prior to the SLR, when you looked through the viewfinder of a camera, you were usually seeing an approximation of what would be recorded on film, not the actual image through the same lens.

When you press the shutter button to take a picture with a DSLR, the mirror that bounces the image up to the rangefinder very quickly moves out of the way to allow the image to pass through to the shutter and onto the sensor.

Until recently, nearly all professional and prosumer digital cameras were DSLRs. While the mirror-and-pentaprism combination was revolutionary in the days of film, today, they are largely an artifact of the past because digital cameras can pull the image directly from the sensor and display that in the viewfinder or camera screen with just a few wires.  The mirror mechanism adds quite a bit of size and weight to the camera and adds a potential mechanical point of failure. It also limits the speed at which pictures can be taken. Even the highest-end professional DSLRs can’t exceed about 14 frames per second because of the time required to physically move the mirror out of the way and then back down.

Mirrorless

Several camera manufacturers started replacing the mirror and pentaprism mechanism in their cameras with a simpler system that pulls the image directly from the camera sensor and displays on an LED screen in the viewfinder,. By removing the large physical mirror mechanism that redirects the light away from the camera sensor, and the pentaprism that directs the image to your eye, mirrorless cameras can pack identical functionality into a smaller, lighter package that’s less prone to mechanical failure, or into a camera the same size that has much longer battery life.

The earliest commercial mirrorless cameras—such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1—used a micro 4/3 sensor and were primarily designed to compete with consumer DSLRs. It didn’t take long for the advantages of mirrorless to become obvious, however, and many more manufacturers started designing mirrorless cameras across all price and feature points. Eventually even Canon and Nikon—the two big dogs in the DSLR market—started releasing mirrorless bodies.

Digital Rangefinder

You may see the term “digital rangefinder” used for some types of cameras. A digital rangefinder is really just a mirrorless camera. Back in the days of film, a rangefinder was a type of camera where you looked through a device (also) called a rangefinder, which used one of a variety of mechanisms to approximate the view through the camera’s lens. The best-known brand of traditional rangefinder cameras is Leica.

While there have been a few digital cameras released that were true mechanical rangefinders, such as the Pixii A1112, the vast majority of so-called “digital rangefinders” produced today use a digital viewfinder that displays the image directly from the camera sensor. That means they are really just mirrorless cameras that have been styled to look like classic rangefinders.

Buying Used

One option to consider, if you’re interested in buying professional or prosumer gear, but just don’t have the budget for it, is buying a camera body used. I wouldn’t generally opt for buying a camera that’s more than four or five years old, but a lot of people do upgrade their equipment pretty regularly, and professional grade equipment is built to last, so if you can find someone who is unloading professional gear that’s just a few years old, you can often get a great deal. It’s better to buy local, as there are  a lot of scams out there. Many camera shops will also have used gear for sale. It’ll usually be a bit more expensive than buying directly from a consumer, but will usually have been cleaned and may have some kind of warranty.

If you’re considering buying used, see if the seller will let you take a few pictures with it. If they won’t, that’s a red flag. Among the pictures you should take, is one that’s just of a clean white sheet of paper, which will allow you to see if there are any problems, such as dust on the sensor or dead pixels.

Choosing Between Mirrorless and DSLR

We are clearly in a period of transitions, and mirrorless is the future. That being said, the DSLR is far from dead. While mirrorless cameras have several clear advantages, DSLRs have been around longer and are far more mature systems with larger ecosystems. The current Canon and Nikon lens systems, for example, have been made for decades, because they evolved from the lens systems used in 35mm film SLR cameras. There are literally dozens (maybe hundreds) of different lenses (from multiple manufacturers) that can be used with these cameras. Sony’s e-mount system (probably the largest mirrorless ecosystem at the time of writing), has about two dozen lenses… if you count adapters and converters.

There are also a lot of photographers who already have large investments in their DSLR system. While there are adapters that allow you to use some DSLR lenses and accessories on some mirrorless cameras, they are imperfect, and often require you to give up certain advantages of moving to mirrorless, such as faster focusing. That means a lot of photographers have a disincentive to move to mirrorless.

Although this is starting to change, traditionally, the ergonomics and control layout on mirrorless cameras have been inferior to those on DSLRs, which kind of makes sense, since modern DSLRs are literally the result of over fifty years of design evolution⁴. Mirrorless cameras have been around about fifteen years, but took off less than a decade ago.

If you’re just starting today and are not already invested in any specific system, I would almost certainly steer you toward mirrorless systems, since they are clearly the future of photography. That being said, one of my two main cameras is a DLSR and probably will for quite some time. While I love my mirrorless body, I have more glass for my DSLR and the downsides of DSLRs are rarely an issue for me. I honestly like the heft and feel of a larger camera in my hand and, in fact, my mirrorless Z9 is actually bigger and heavier than than my D850 DSLR. With the battery pack on the DSLR, they’re nearly identical.

Conclusion

There is no one right answer to the question, “which camera should I buy”. All the major manufacturers (and several minor manufacturers) make capable cameras across a wide price and feature range. A camera purchase is a highly personal decision, so your best best is to try out the cameras you’re interested in before buying anything. That way, you can be sure it works for you. We’ve honestly reached a point where you can get great results with the majority of digital cameras on the market, including less-expensive consumer-targeted cameras, so you need to figure out what features are important to you and what your budget is, then let that guide your purchasing decision.


1- When shooting with the sun, consider shooting during the first or last hour of sunlight. Because the sun passes through so much more atmosphere, it is a softer, warmer light that’s generally more flattering than the harsh, direct sunlight you get in the middle of the day. Photographer’s refer to the first hour of sunlight after the sun rises and the last hour before it sets as the “golden hour”, because the light is so flattering.

2- Lenses designed for crop sensor and full-frame cameras often use the same mount and are, technically speaking, interchangeable, but generally, you want to stick with the correct lens type for your body to avoid missing part of the image or getting vignetting.

3- My father, my wife, and I all have cameras bodies with similar capabilities. My father shoots Canon, I shoot Nikon, and my wife shoots Sony. All three are great cameras, and the only significant difference between them is the layout of the controls and the shape of the body. Don’t worry about what camera other people use; find what works for you.

4- The earliest DSLRs were actually built using film SLR bodies.

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Mounting Your Photographs

The first time I was invited to show photographs, I was asked to bring mounted prints. I had learned how to cut mats and mount photos a few decades earlier, but I hadn’t done it in at least twenty-five years. I didn’t really remember how and didn’t have any of the equipment I needed to do it.

I kind of panicked over the whole situation and never mounted any of my images. I showed up, sheepishly, with a half-dozen images in a display portfolio. Nobody said anything, but I still felt really awkward, so decided to re-learn how to mount photos for display.

For those of you who might be experiencing that same panic, have no fear. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process, and I’ll walk you through it.

Terminology and Basics

Mounting a photograph is, at its core, a very simple operation. You start with two pieces of equal size mat board that are larger than the photograph you’re planning to mount. In one of them (the front mat or window mat) you cut a hole that’s the same size as your print (or sometimes a tiny bit smaller or larger, depending on the effect you want). Your photograph gets sandwiched between that front mat and the other piece of mat board (called the backer board or back mat) so that your photo is visible through the window you cut in the front mat. Once the front mat and backer board are attached to each other, your image is ready for framing or display.

Mounting a photograph serves a couple of functions. It protects your print, and provides blank space around it, which reduces visual noise and distraction for viewers. It also helps keep your photograph away from the glass when put in a frame. If your photograph touches the frame’s glass, over time it can get stuck and become damaged. The mat board provides enough space between glass and your photograph to prevent that.

The boards also provides some stiffness, so the image can be temporarily displayed even without a frame by leaning it against something, putting it in a display stand, or hanging it with wire.

Mat Board

Mat board is a rigid board traditionally made from one or more layers of very thick paper. Mat boards can be bought in 2-ply, 4-ply, and 8-ply¹ variants, with the number of “plys” representing the thickness of the board.  The most common type of mat board is 4-ply. 2-ply mat board is sometimes used for economy mounting of images and 8-ply is sometimes used to give additional stability and a more luxurious feel, though not all mat cutters or frames can accommodate the thickness of 8-ply boards.

A selection of different color 36×40 mat boards and a 16×20 front mat with an 11×14 window cut out.

Mat Board Materials

There are two materials typically used in the production of mat boards: wood pulp and cotton fiber (sometimes also called cotton rag or just rag). What wood pulp and cotton have in common is that they contain a high percentage of cellulose, which is a natural polymer, and the thing that gives paper its structure. In fact, any organic material with a high cellulose content can be used to make paper and you can find boutique and eco-friendly manufacturers making boards from other materials such as bamboo, linen, and hemp. When talking about commercially available mat boards, though, they’re almost always made of wood pulp or cotton.

Cotton

Cotton is the more expensive of the two materials by a considerable margin. Being over 90% cellulose, it results in a board that is very durable and has a much nicer feel than boards made from wood pulp. It’s also naturally archival, rated at 300+ years, which is why it is used by museums for mounting or storing fragile, old, or valuable photos, lithographs, woodcuts, and paper documents.

If you’re selling prints above a certain price point, you should absolutely consider using a high quality cotton board. For many photographers, though, rag boards are a bit expensive for day-to-day use.

Wood Pulp

Boards made from wood pulp are considerably more economical than cotton. It’s important, however, to understand that wood is not, in its natural state, an archival product. Wood pulp usually runs between about 40% and 50% cellulose. In addition to the cellulose, it contains a number of other substances, including a different organic polymer called lignin. Lignin is essentially harmless… at first. Over time, unlike cellulose, lignin will start to break down. As it breaks down, it creates acid.

If you’ve ever seen an old newspaper that has yellowed, become brittle, and faded, you’ve seen the effects of the acid generated when lignin breaks down.

You do not want this acid anywhere near your photographs.

You should avoid using mat boards made from raw wood pulp. Unfortunately, manufacturers don’t always identify exactly how they make their boards, so you mostly have to identify them by the fact that they don’t mention any archival properties. If a board isn’t advertised as acid-free, lignin-free, pH neutral, or archival, you should assume the board is made of raw wood pulp and not use it for anything other than practice.

There are two processes that paper mills use to make boards from wood pulp that mitigate the problems caused by the naturally occurring lignin.

  1. Buffering the wood pulp, which offsets the produced acids, rendering them harmless
  2. Removing the lignin from the wood pulp so the acid is never generated at all

Buffered Wood Pulp

Buffering is the less expensive of these two options. It involves simply adding a chemical to the wood pulp designed to counteract the production of acids. These boards are usually advertised as pH-neutral and they are much better choice than raw wood pulp. They are not, however, considered to be archival.

While the buffering will prevent the acid from causing damage for a while, the buffering will eventually run out or lose effectiveness. How long it will take for the buffering to stop working will depend on the conditions: primarily the amount of heat, humidity, and exposure to direct sunlight there is. In challenging conditions, the buffering can lose its effectiveness in just a few years, so I generally wouldn’t recommend these for prints you’re going to sell, or for anything with high intrinsic or sentimental value.

Alpha Cellulose

The more expensive process involves actually removing the lignin from the pulp entirely so that the harmful acids are never produced. This is usually accomplished by separating out just the cellulose from the rest of the pulp and using that to make the paper. Boards of this type are typically advertised using one or more of the following terms: acid-free, lignin-free, archival, or 100% alpha cellulose².

While these boards are not as durable or sturdy as rag boards, they are considered archival, generally rated at 100-150 years or more, though that can vary by manufacturer. I consider alpha cellulose boards to be the default option for photographers selling prints for less than maybe $500.

The challenging thing when shopping for boards is that they do not have to be made from just one of the four options (unbuffered wood pulp, buffered wood pulp, alpha cellulose, or cotton). Many manufacturers will combine materials to create additional options. For example, some board manufacturers create boards with cotton outer layers, and alpha cellulose core layers. These boards are still archival, and still have the luxurious feel of a cotton board, but they can be produced less expensively than a 100% cotton board.

Similarly, you can also find inexpensive archival mat board sold as “backer board” that uses a less expensive, unbleached natural paper for its inner layers. As the name suggests, you should only use these boards for back mats, never for the front mat. While the outer layers may be acid- and lignin-free, the inner cores are definitely not acid-free, so cutting a backer board will expose your print to free acids. These boards also run the risk of exposing your print to acid if the mat gets torn, bent, or otherwise damaged.

Mat Board Terminology

There are some industry standard terms that you’ll encounter when shopping for mat boards. These terms aren’t regulated, so you can’t necessarily rely on them, but they are helpful to understand when shopping for boards.

  • Decorative Mats: This term is usually used to sell boards that don’t have archival properties. These boards will usually be made from buffered wood pulp, though you can also find boards sold under this term that are made from raw wood pulp.
  • Conservation Board: Used to identify boards that have archival properties, but are not 100% cotton. Typically, these are either 100% alpha cellulose, or a combination of alpha cellulose and cotton.
  • Museum Board: Used to describe archival boards made from 100% cotton.

Mat Board Colors

When we talk about the color of a mat board, we’re actually talking about three different colors: the front color, the back color, and the core color. Very often, all three colors are the same, but they don’t have to be. White front with a creme back is a very common type of mat board, as is black front with white or cream back.

You might be wondering what that third color is about.

Remember that mat boards come in versions with different numbers of layers? Well, when 4-ply and 8-ply mat boards are made, the manufacturer can choose to use a different color paper for the inner (or core) layers, and they often do. For example, you can buy white mat board with a black core, or black mat board with a white core.

The core color only comes into play for the front mat. When you cut a window out of your front mat, you won’t typically cut with a straight blade. Instead, you’ll use a special cutter that makes a bevel cut by holding the blade at an angle. This angled cut allows the core color to show through at the edges of the window. When the core color is different from the front color, the core color shows up as a thin outline around your artwork. This creates an effect that many people like.

Black mat board with a white core after cutting the front window mat.

What mat colors you choose is completely up to you. When framing an image to hang in a specific place, it’s not uncommon to select a colored mat that accentuates the image or its surrounding environment (or both). When in doubt, though, go with white for front and core (back color rarely matters). A white mat gets out of the way and lets your artwork be the star of the show. White mat board with a white core are also usually preferred–and are sometimes required–for showing in galleries or art shows or when submitting prints to a contest.

Foam Core Backer Boards

Sometimes, instead of using mat board for the backer board, some photographers will use foam core board instead of mat board. Foam core has two advantages over mat board. First, it’s much stiffer than even 8-ply mat board, so your final mounted photo will be a lot more sturdy. Second, foam core is inexpensive and readily available at any craft store. The main disadvantage of this kind of board is that the vast, vast majority of foam board—especially foam board purchased from craft stores or department stores—is not acid free and, therefore, not archival.

Foam core backer boards are generally best-suited to the temporary display of un-framed images—such as making a traveling exhibit or temporary display—since foam board is too thick for most frames.

Personally, I’m not a fan of foam core mounting outside of very limited situations, but it may be a good choice for some of your projects as long as you’re aware of its limitations.


Gathering Your Supplies

Before you get started, you’ll need to gather all the supplies and equipment you’ll need. Exactly what you need will depend on a couple of questions:

  1. Do you plan to cut your own mats or buy pre-cut mats?
  2. Do you want to create a flush mount or a hinge mount?

Pre-Cut vs. Cutting your Mats

If you’re printing your photographs only in standard sizes like 8×10, 11×14, 16×20, or 20×24 and are happy using black or white mats, you can buy pre-cut mats. You’ll pay a little bit more, but unless you mount a very large quantity of prints, the difference in price will be pretty minimal and you’ll save yourself the hassle of cutting the mat window and the expense of buying a mat cutter. You can even buy pre-made kits that contain pre-cut front mounts, backer boards, and crystal bags packaged together, which is an extremely convenient option if you’re looking to mount a lot of prints to sell.

If you print in non-standard sizes or aspect ratios, want to use non-standard mat colors, or want to experiment with fancy mounting techniques like double mats or french lines, then you’ll probably want to cut your own. Framing shops and some online suppliers will do custom mat cutting for you, but it tends to be considerably more expensive and it can take several days or longer to get your custom mats delivered.

Flush Mounting vs. Hinge Mounting

There are two main ways to assemble the front and back mat boards: flush mounting and hinge mounting.

With a flush mount, your front mat is attached to the backer board all the way around by some kind of adhesive. With care, a flush mount can be done in a way so the photograph itself is untouched by any kind of adhesive and can be removed from the mount without damage, but removing a print from a flush mount is almost certain to damage or destroy the mat boards.

With a hinge mount, the front mat and the backer board are connected along one edge using a piece of acid-free linen tape. The tape is used to create a hinge that connects the two boards while allowing the mount to be opened for easy removal of the photograph.

There’s no right or wrong choice here. Most galleries will accept either hinge or flush mounted images, and if you frame your image, you’ll never be able to tell which type of mount was used once it’s framed.

Generally, if you think the eventual owner of the picture is likely to want to remove the picture from the mount (for example, to frame it using a different color mat), then a hinge mount is the way to go. If you intend to display the mounted photograph without a frame, a flush mount is the definite winner because hinge mounts are more likely to come apart and are less stable when displayed freestanding. In pretty much every other case, it’s simply a matter of personal choice.

List of Needed Supplies

No matter which style of mounting you plan to use, you will need to a few things before you start.

Mat Board

For each print to be mounted, you’ll need:

  • Two Pieces of Mat Board: They should be the same size as each other and should be larger than the item that you’re mounting. If you’re mounting a standard size print, the general rule of thumb is use mat boards of the next standard size up. So, to mount an 8×10, you’ll want to get two pieces of 11×14 mat board. Some photographers prefer to use mat boards that are two sizes up from the print they’re mounting, which gives more white space around the image. In that case, you’d get two 16×20 boards to mount an 8×10 print or two 20×24 mat board to mount an 11×14). You can also experiment with larger and smaller mat boards to find what you like.

A Way to Affix your Photograph to the Backer Board

There are several options you can choose for attaching your print to the backer board, including:

  • Acid-Free Mounting Corners (like these): This is the approach I strongly recommend for most mounting projects. These mounting corners can be used to attach your photograph to the backer board without any adhesive touching the photograph. All of the other techniques below use some kind of adhesive to stick your photo directly to the backer board, which means there’s some chance of damage or destruction if you ever try to remove your photo from the mount. Mounting corners are inexpensive, archival, require no special hardware, and do not damage your print in any way. If you’re careful, you can even remove a print from the corner mounts and later put it back in. The only downside to corner mounts is if you print your images without a border, the mounting corners may intrude slightly into the mat window unless you cut the window a bit smaller than the actual print. Mounting corners may also not be a great option when mounting extraordinarily large prints.
  • Dry Mount Adhesive Tissue: This is the traditional way to attach a photograph to a backer board. This special tissue contains a heat activated adhesive that requires the use of a tacking iron or heat press. Typically, a tacking iron is used to lightly affix the print to the backer board, and a heat press is used to permanently attach it. Using adhesive tissue with a tacking iron is the next best option after mounting corners because the glue can be heated up and the print can usually be removed from the backer board with little to no damage. There might be some staining on the back of the print after it’s removed, but usually the front of the image will be completely unharmed if the removal is done carefully.
  • Two-sided Transfer Tape: Used with a special applicator, transfer tape is a strong adhesive that can affix your print to the backer board quickly and easily. Transfer tape is generally intended to be a permanent bond, so removing a print mounted this way can be very difficult and damaging the print is a strong possibility during removal.
  • Spray Mount: Spray mount is a spray adhesive specifically designed for mounting artwork. Removing photographs affixed with spray mount is not impossible, but it can be difficult, especially after a long period of time or if a lot of it was sprayed. The stuff also kind of just gets everywhere and makes everything in the general vicinity sticky, so it’s best to spray outside or under a vent hood. Even better, just choose another option.

A Way to Cut the Mat Window (optional)

If you’re going to cut your own mats, you’ll need a beveled mat cutter. You have two basic choices here.

  • A Handheld Mat Cutter: These are many types of special cutters and knives that can be used to create bevel cuts (such as this one or, if you want something less expensive, you could try this one). To use a handheld mat cutter, you’ll also need a self-healing cutting mat (like this one) and a ruler or, preferably, a T-square that’s large enough for the size mat boards you’ll be cutting.
  • A Full Size Mat Cutter: There are larger mat cutting devices like the Logan Simplex series, that make cutting mats faster than doing them by hand with a ruler and handheld cutter. These mat cutters are considerably more expensive than the handheld models, but they make it much easier to get consistently good results and they’re pretty much self contained – you won’t need a cutting mat or T-square to use them, and most will do both bevel and straight cuts. There are also heavier duty and even automated commercial options, but they’re not usually a good choice for hobbyists or even professionals working in relatively low volumes of prints because of how expensive they are.

NOTE: Most mat cutters are designed to handle 4-ply mat board and thinner. If you’re planning to use 8-ply mat board, make sure the mat cutter you buy is capable of cutting 8-ply boards. .

A Way to Affix the Front Mat to the Backer Board

How you connect the front and back mats depends on which type of mounting you’re doing. If you plan to flush mount your prints, you’ll need an adhesive to attach the front mat to the backer board. For this, I strongly recommend:

  • Two-sided Transfer Tape: Transfer tape comes in several widths. Generally, ½ inch works well for most mounting jobs. ¼ inch is a good choice when working with 8×10 or smaller mats, and if you’re planning to mount very large prints, you might want to look at larger widths.
  • Transfer Tape Applicator: Transfer tape isn’t a standard two-sided tape where you can just pull pieces off from a roll and stick them to something. It’s more of an industrial adhesive that comes on a roll, so using it requires a special applicator. You’ll need to get one if you want to use transfer tape, but IMO, it’s well worth the investment. I have two, one loaded with ¼” tape for smaller prints and one loaded with ½” tape for larger prints.

You could also choose to use one of the other types of adhesives mentioned earlier for mounting your print to the backer board, such as adhesive mounting tissue or spray mount, but the former requires additional equipment and the latter… well, it just gets everywhere. You can also use any glue or paste that’s acid-free, including glue sticks.

If you plan to hinge mount your photos, instead of two-sided transfer tape or adhesive, you’ll need to get:

  • Acid-free Linen Tape (sometimes called hinging tape or book binding tape): This special, archival (one-sided) tape will be used to create the hinge between your front mat and backing board. You can not substitute other types of tape (even if archival) for this purpose.
One brand of acid-free linen hinging tape

Extras

That’s basically everything you need, but here are a few other items that can make your life easier:

  • Gloves: It’s possible to mount a photo without ever touching the surface of the print, but it’s not easy, especially when mounting large, borderless prints. Wearing a pair of archival cotton gloves or unpowdered nitrile exam gloves at certain steps of the process can help avoid leaving inadvertent fingerprints or smudges.
  • Weight Bags: These handy little cloth-wrapped beanbag weights are designed specifically for mounting and framing. You can safely put them on your photo once you’ve positioned it on the back mat. The weight will hold your photo in the correct location while you attach it to the backer board and it won’t leave marks on your print if you keep it clean.
  • A Writing Utensil: Unless you have access to a very high-end automated mat cutter, you’re going to need to draw some guidelines on your mats to know where to cut the window and where to place the print. You also may want to sign your print or write edition marks on it (e.g. “1 of 25” to indicate that this is the first print made and that no more than 25 prints will ever be made). An old fashioned wooden pencil works best for marking your guidelines. I usually prefer a hard one—like a 2H—or a non-photo-blue pencil so the writing isn’t too dark, but nobody will ever see the guidelines once the mount is complete, so any pencil should be fine. For edition marks and signatures, a pencil is the traditional option because it makes it harder to counterfeit. I personally prefer using a pen, but if you go that route, make sure to use one that’s archival, such as the Sakura Pigma Micron pens so that you don’t risk damage to your mounted photographs.

Doing Your Window Calculations

The next step in mounting a photograph is to do some math to figure out where to cut the window in your front mat. Don’t worry, it’s not very hard math, but you do need to do some simple calculations to figure out where to cut.

The Simple Case – Centered Window

The easiest and most common way to mount photographs is to center the image in the mat. The math for this is relatively easy. You take the dimensions of the mat board you’re using and subtract the dimensions of the photograph you’re mounting and then divide the results by two. That will give you the size of the margins for cutting your front mat window.

For example, if we’re mounting an 11×14 photo using 16×20 mat boards and want the window the exact size of the print, we subtract 11 from 16 and divide by 2 to get the short side margin and subtract 14 from 20 and divide by 2 to get the long side margin, like so:

 

  Mat Board Photograph Delta Margin
Width 16 11 5 2.5
Height 20 14 6 3

 

Now, on the back side of the front mat board, use a T-square (or your mat cutter) to mark straight lines based on the calculated margins. In that last example, draw one line that’s 2.5 inches in from each side in the shorter direction, and one line that’s 3 inches in from each side in the longer direction. When done, your guides will look something like this:

The part of the mat between the four lines that you’ve drawn is the window that you need to cut out (colored in gray above).

Drawing guidelines on the back of the front mat.

Once you have your guides, place the board with the front side down and your drawn guides facing up on a cutting mat or your mat cutter. Cut the window by making four straight cuts with your mat cutter, each from one corner of the window to another corner.

Lining up the mat cutter and the guidelines.

You want to be careful not to let the board shift as you push down on the blade. As the blade makes contact with the mat board, it tends to force the blade a little to one side. Some mat cutters have a button you can press before starting your cut that will prevent the mat cutter from shifting. If yours doesn’t have that, you’ll need to hold your mat cutter very firmly as you press the blade down to ensure it doesn’t move from the starting location as it starts to penetrate the mat board.

The bevel cutter from a Logan Artist Elite mat cutter has a silver button that keeps the cutter in its current location while pushing the blade down into the mat board for cutting.

After you’ve made the fourth cut, you should be able to lift up the mat board and have the window just fall out.

After the fourth cut, the window should just drop out of your front mat.

If you flip the board over, you should see a nice bevel cut window that allows some of the board’s core color to show. This is your front mat, ready to be assembled.

The completed front mat.

Positioning Your Photograph

In order to position your photograph on the backer board, your best bet is to draw more guides. With the backer board, you’ll make your marks on the front of the board, rather than the back. I find the easiest and most reliable way to make guides for positioning the photograph on the backer board is to put the newly cut front mat on top of the back mat and align them. Once they’re aligned, take a pencil and mark each of the four corners of the window you cut. You’ll want to be careful not to get pencil on the bevel if you’re using a light color core.

Marking the back mat using the front mat

Alternatively, you can simply draw the same guidelines you did in the previous step.

Once you have guidelines, place the photograph on the backer board and position it using the guidelines you drew. Once you’ve got the print aligned with your markings, drop a weight bag onto the print to hold it in place.

Positioned image with a weight bag on it to hold it in place.

Before attaching the photograph to the backer board, put the front mat back on top and line it up with the backer board to make sure that the photo’s position is correct. If it’s not, make adjustments until it is, then remove the front mat again.

If you’re using mounting corners (and I highly recommend that you do), you can lift up each corner of the print, place a mounting corner on it, and then press it back down firmly to attach it to the back board. You may want to wear gloves during this step, especially when mounting larger prints, to avoid getting fingerprints or smudges on the print or mat board. If I use a glove, I typically only wear it on one hand because it’s hard to handle the mounting corners effectively wearing a glove.

Applying mounting corners to the print. Notice that my hand is resting on the weight bag, not on the print. This ensures the positioned print doesn’t move, yet stays free from smudges or palm prints.

If you use mounting tissue or transfer tape to attach your photo to the back mat, you can lift up one side at a time, lay down some adhesive, and place the photograph back down on top of it.

If you use spray mount, you’ll have to spray the entire back of the photo at one time, and then place it back on the backer board. With this option, you want to make sure that your guidelines are accurate before you start spraying. Praying might help, also.

The most important think to keep in mind during this step—regardless of how you’re attaching your print to the back board—is to make sure the photo doesn’t move. Even a small shift while affixing the photo could ruin the mount and print if you’re using a permanent adhesive. If you cut your window slightly smaller than your print, you have a little more wiggle-room to accommodate slight shifts.

Assembling the Mat

You’ve now got your front mat cut and your photo attached to the backer board. All that’s left is to assemble the mats. How you do that depends on whether you’re doing a flush mount or a hinge mount.

Assembling the Flush Mount

To assemble a flush mount, all you need to do is lay down some adhesive on one of the two mats. With transfer tape, I usually lay the adhesive down on the backer board, one strip the full length of each of the four sides. I don’t personally recommend spray mount or other adhesive options for assembling your mats, but any archival adhesive can be made to work. Transfer tape is nice because you have to actually apply pressure to make the adhesion permanent, so you can line up the mats perfectly before applying pressure and committing. With the other adhesive options, you’ll need to be very careful to line up the mats perfectly before letting the two sides touch each other.

Using a transfer tape applicator to adhere the front and back mat boards for a flush mount.

Assembling the Hinge Mount

The hinge mount is even simpler to assemble: just place the front mat upside down above the back mat and press them together so the top of the bottom mat is touching the bottom of the upside-down top mat.

Note: Because a hinge mount can be opened at any time, you may want to assemble a hinge mount before placing your photograph on the backer board. That’s not an option when flush mounting, but with hinge mounting, I find switching the order makes easier to position the print correctly.

Front and back mats lined up for a book hinge assembly. The hinging tape goes half on each board as marked in red.

Once they’re lined up, cut a piece of linen tape that’s the same length as the top edge of the mat or, perhaps, just a tiny bit shorter. Apply the hinging tape so that it’s half on each of the mats and press firmly down the entire length of the strip of tape. This piece of linen tape creates a connection between the mats called a book hinge. Make sure you use a tape designed specifically for this purpose. Hinging tape is extremely sticky, strong, and hard to remove once attached. Attempting to create a book hinge from a less aggressive type of tape, like masking tape, simply won’t work well.

Believe it or not, you’re now done. You can fold the top mat down onto the bottom like a book cover (hence, the name), and your mat is ready to go.

Conclusion

It’s taken a lot of words and quite a few pictures to describe a fairly simple and straightforward process, but once you’ve mounted a couple of prints, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll become comfortable with the process. There are, of course, far more advanced techniques you can experiment with if you want. Try searching the web for the term “French Matting” to find a lot of inspiration and ways to fancy up your mats by, for example, using more than one front mat with increasingly larger windows (double mat, triple mat, etc.), or by adding decorative borders—called french lines—which are drawn, painted, or even gilded borders around the window. There’s a very good web page containing information on advanced and historical matting and framing techniques on the Conservation Wiki right here, though it can often be quite technical.

For photography, the vast majority of images are mounted using a simple white or neutral-color mat with no additional decorations. Generally, the intention is to showcase the photograph, not to compete with it or overshadow it. But, the mat is part of the presentation, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to experiment with fancier mounting options. Just keep in mind if you’re ever going to display in galleries or at art shows, they will probably require your photographs to be mounted in a plain white mat with white core.


  1. Ply is used as a measure of thickness these days rather than an indication of how the board was made. While some boards are still made from multiple sheets of paper, many are produced from a single thicker layer. A board made from a single layer, but created at the same thickness as a traditional 4-ply board, will still be labeled as 4-ply.
  2. Alpha cellulose is the name of the specific type of cellulose found in wood.