How To Buy The Perfect Photo Print

Photo Print Buying Advice

You’re in the market to buy a fine art photograph for your home or office but have no idea where to start.

Which photo print is right for me? Should it be a nature, landscape, abstract, or maybe a lifestyle composition? What format is best; paper, canvas, metal, acrylic, etc.? Glossy or matte? How big and what shape should it be? Framed or unframed? Wire hanger or float hanger?

Don’t feel alone. Few people know exactly what they want when they start the buying process.

If you prefer to read this guide off line, or would like to archive a copy for future reference, Subscribe to Our Email List and download a pdf copy free. Already a subscriber? Send me an email and I’ll send the pdf version to you.

Methodical Approach

Start by considering every thing & everybody.

Start by considering every thing & everybody.

The choices are endless and can be overwhelming. So overwhelming that it’s not uncommon to get decision fatigue and just give up. Paralysis by analysis!

A finished fine art photograph is a substantial financial investment for most people. You want to get it right.

Minimize the risk of buyer remorse. Use a methodical approach.

A structured approach doesn’t mean you can’t make the buying process fun. But a little forethought could make the difference between buying something you’ll cherish for a lifetime versus buying a print you eventually re-gift!

Below is my common sense approach. It methodically steps you through the decision-making process from start to finish.

My approach is not the right way or the only way. It is merely one approach intended to increase your chances of buying the perfect print that meets your needs and expectations. A print you will cherish for years to come.

It’s All About You!

The starting assumption is that the print is for you. If instead the print is to be enjoyed by the whole family, a partner, or a group work colleagues, you may want to include others in the decision-making process.

I recently had a client who had been contemplating a purchase for a long while. The photograph was to be hung over the home fireplace and enjoyed by family and guests.

Methodically narrow the choices.

Methodically narrow the choices.

When she was ready to make a purchase she smartly sat her husband and son down in front of the computer and together they viewed hundreds of images.

The idea was to get a general sense of individual likes and dislikes. Which photographs gave each person a reason to pause for a second look? Which images were uninspiring?

After the first portfolio review they agreed on a composition type. The consensus was it had to be a mountain scene and it had to be a scene that was familiar to them.

Quickly the list of a hundred possibilities became a double digit list. I cautioned them not to make THE final selection until they considered other factors like size, format, etc. I recommended they narrow it down to five to ten top choices.

Will the photograph serve a larger purpose or objective?

This step can be swopped with, or incorporated into, the above step if you choose.

Ask yourself, Am I filling blank wall space or do I have an objective in mind?

For instance, is the photo intended to establish a mood; calming, peaceful, or inspirational? Maybe it’s all about a past experience or place on your bucket list, nostalgic remembrance.

Are you hoping the photo will be a conversation starter for visitors or guests? Will the piece be used to create a room theme; natural world, country living, ethnic culture, etc? Is it intended to compliment a bigger collection of art pieces?

It’s not necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time on this step. Just consider what the photograph will bring to the room, home or office space.

The client mentioned above was purchasing a photo to go over the fireplace in a recessed nock. It was to be a ‘feel good’ photograph. A piece to remind the family where they live and attract admiring attention from visitors.

Size and orientation matter.

How much space do you have? Is it a narrow hallway? A big expanse over a window or couch?  A family room filled with other art?

Pano over coach.jpg

In general, it is a good idea to have some blank space around a piece of wall art. The space serves to separate it from other objects and allows the viewer to focus his or her attention on the photograph. Items that crowd it will be distractions.

Here’s a couple of other points to keep in mind.

  • Most photo pieces should be hung at eye level. Large pieces may be the exception to the rule but a big head tilt should be avoided! Even photos hung on stairway walls should be mostly at eye level as you walk by them.

  • The larger the photograph the more distance there should be between the viewer and the image. For example, a large piece in a narrow hallway will never be appreciated no matter how stunning or dramatic it is. The opposite is also true i.e. a small piece over a tall fireplace.

When it comes to final size choice I always recommend measuring the wall before you go shopping. Decide how much of the wall you want to cover.

Shop a bit and write down sizes of things you liked. When you get home grab some cardboard or butcher paper and start cutting. Create some templates for the sizes you’re interested in.

Tape the smallest one to the wall first. Use some painters trim tape to prevent paint damage. If it looks to small tape a large one over the top. Continue the process until you find the right size.

The folks I mentioned earlier had a size in mind. I went to their house with my cardboard cut outs. Up went the first cardboard size until they agreed on a final size. It turns out the size they had determined ahead of time without a visual reference was too big!

Final Piece Shape & Orientation

Ok you know how much space you have. The next decision is the shape of the photograph; square, rectangular, long and narrow, square, etc. What are the shapes of the things around it; couches, tables, fireplace, etc?

If you decide a square shape is for you then you’re done!

However, if you decide on a rectangular or a long and narrow piece you’ll have to decide if its orientation. Will be vertical versus horizontal?

Vertical unframed print

Vertical unframed print

Really long and narrow (panorama style) pieces generally look best above a set of windows or above a long couch.

Paper, Metal or Canvas? One Panel or Multi-Panel?

So you know where you’ll hang it, you have a good idea of size & orientation, and you have some idea about subject matter and purpose. Now its time to choose a print format.

There are lots of print format choices; paper, metal, canvas, acrylic overlay, wood, ceramic tile, etc. We’ll stick to paper, metal and canvas for discussion purposes.

Paper Prints

Paper prints are typically matted, framed and covered with acrylic or glass. Most finished paper prints have a traditional final look. Keep these things in mind if you decide to go the framed paper print route.

Paper print w/barn wood, black over white mat & acrylic cover.

Paper print w/barn wood, black over white mat & acrylic cover.

  • Keep the frame style simple. Frames come in a many different materials, colors and shapes. Do yourself a favor keep it SIMPLE! If you want the photograph to be the center of attention select an ordinary looking frame and mat combination. Simple designs and colors are best.

  • Know the outside dimensions of the piece. Remember a frame adds inches to the piece. Be sure you knowthe total size of the piece before you make the purchase. It might be a 20” x 30” print but with a frame the finished size could be 25”x 42”.

  • Standard or non-glare acrylic. Few paper prints are covered with glass these days. Most are covered with clear, polished acrylic. Acrylic is lighter but like glass it is reflective. Depending on where you’ll hang the piece decide if you need a non-glare version of acrylic.

Canvas Prints

Photos on canvas render much like paintings. Frequently the textured canvas softens the image. Canvas prints are less reflective than metal.

The canvas material is stretched and wrapped on an internal wood frame. Internal wood frames usually come in 3/4”, 1-1/2” and 2” profiles. The depth profile is a matter of preference. However, wider profiles i.e. 2” in a small room can be problematic. When viewed from the side it might make the room feel even smaller and could be a bump hazard if its in a hallway.

Canvas framed print.

Canvas framed print.

There are several options for the sides of a canvas print. You can choose; (a) a solid color, (b) the image can be included as part of the side wrap (this will make the total dimension a bit smaller), (c ) a small portion of the image can be a mirror (duplicated) on the side or, (d) the image can be digitally stretched and faded to a color.

None of the above is important if you choose to frame the canvas print. The frame usually covers the sides. If you choose to frame the canvas print keep the frame simple so as not to distract from the photograph.

Bend Fall 151287NWND8 example.jpg

Metal Prints

Metal (aluminum) prints are popular these days. They tend to be vibrant, exaggerate details, and almost render the image 3D. If the goal is to create a soft, subtle mood metal probably isn’t the first choice.

The photograph is actually embedded into the metal. The process is called ‘transfer infusion’. This is not a paper print glued to a piece of metal!

Once embedded a protective coating is added. The protective coating can be a glossy, mid-gloss or matte finish.

Appreciate that even the mid-gloss finish is a bit reflective. Think about where you plan to hang it. Direct sunlight won’t fade the print, however the glossy finish may act like a mirror in some situations.

Metal prints can be hung unframed or can be framed.

Metal prints are easy to care for. If printed by skilled print-maker the colors are every bit as archival as paper or canvas. Checkout this tip on how to care for metal prints.

Final Photo Decision

You have done the hard work. Now it is time to decide which photo you will buy.

Pull up your top ten photos that made your final list.

First, based on your decision about orientation, vertical versus horizontal versus panorama versus square, determine which photos are still an option?

Then ask yourself, will this photo be best for the format I have choose. For instance, if you selected a metal format but the image you really like is a soft, foggy forest scene this might be a contradiction. Notice I said, “might”. In the end it is your choice! If you like it go for it.

You’re almost done! You’ve selected a photo, finish, style, size, and orientation. There are just a few more things to consider.

Be A Smart Buyer

Contact the photographer and introduce yourself. Artist’s love to talk about their art. Explain how you found their work and how you came to choosing this specific photograph.

No doubt they will be very impressed. Talk to them about pricing. Ask if there are any special handling or shipping fees. Ask if it will arrive ready to hang (wall hanger attached). Ask how it will take to receive it.

Treat this like any other purchase. Ask about their Return and Exchange Policy. Ask if they have a secure SLL Encrypted Website.


Final Word

Purchasing a photographic print can be challenging. There are so many choices and options.

To avoid paralysis by analysis take a methodical approach. Decided what purpose the photograph will serve, where it will hang, how big it should be, what style, orientation and format works best, and what photograph grabs your attention and keeps you engaged for more than a moment!

Remember this buyers guide is just one approach. I hope it is helpful the next time you’re in the market for a photographic print.


Steve J. Giardini

Nature, Landscape & Lifestyle Photographer

“Capturing the outdoor world in natural light."

Giardini Photography, LLC

Bend, Oregon, USA