What is a Panograph?

Wikipedia says that panography is “a photographic technique in which one picture is assembled from several overlapping photographs.” If you’ve ever seen an image constructed from a bunch of Polaroid photos, this is a classic panograph. I use the term because panorama has such a strong association with very wide, narrow views of landscapes and other subjects.

After experimenting for a while with panoramas of various widths and degrees of distortion (like a 360O view), I began to see that many subjects looked better in a slightly wider view than one frame of film or digital capture. I think this is partly because our peripheral vision is greater horizontally than vertically. Also, it seems to me that horizon lines (whether near or far off) influence how we “take in” a scene: we tend to look more side-to-side than up-and-down. Here’s an example:

alternate text

This is a nice-enough image of a California live oak on a hot, sunny June day in the Santa Ynez Valley. The main focal point for me was the larger oak in the left foreground. But I had also noticed the dark patch on the right side as well as the line dropping from left to right, starting from just above the top of the large tree, so I moved the camera to the right and took one more shot. After blending the two shots in Photoshop, here is the result:

alternate text

I think it’s a much better image this way for several reasons:

  • The large oak is still a main focus, but its context is clearer
  • The line described above is now complete, adding a graceful gesture
  • We can see that the dark patch actually has a shape as well as color
  • The small, lone oak on top of the ridge to the right adds a balancing tension
  • The descending ridge line on the right adds perspective to the horizon and sky
  • There is more of a form to the array of oaks in the background
  • See what I mean? Now, I could have just used more of a wide-angle lens and captured the final scene with one shot, but I would have ended up with lots foreground grass and background sky that I probably would have cropped out anyway. This also would have left me with a much smaller file with much lower resolution and, as a result, a smaller maximum print size. In a nutshell, size matters. To illustrate, consider the following:

    A standard 35mm slide or negative (or full-frame digital sensor) is about 1 by 1.5 inches in size. As a rule of thumb (there are lots of technical variables here), the largest gallery-quality print that can be made from a 35mm frame is about 16 by 20 inches. If you use a larger-format camera with 4-by-5-inch film, the same rule-of-thumb maximum-print size would be upwards of 4.5 by 6 feet! And, of course, the converse is also true. An iPhone 5S can take good photographs, but its sensor is only about 1/5 by 1/7 of an inch, so large gallery prints really aren’t an option.

    To make the point about resolution without going into a lot of technical detail, here’s another visual example. The two images below are similar views of Laguna Blanca in Santa Barbara, taken on different days with somewhat different light. The first one is a crop of a single frame showing the full width of the lake, but with quite a bit of foreground trees and background sky cropped out. The second image is a similar view from part of a panograph made with eight vertical full-frame captures taken with a medium-telephoto lens. These eight frames were balanced for tone and color in Lightroom and then seamlessly blended together in Photoshop.

    alternate text

    These next images below are enlarged details from the two images above. Just look back and forth between them and you will notice dramatic differences, particularly in tonal clarity and sharpness. As I said, the light is different, but look at the houses, the power-line towers in the hills, detail in the trees and so forth. Going back to the discussion of film or sensor size above, the single-frame image only has about 50% of the image data in one 35mm frame. The panograph has the equivalent of about six full frames of image data (the full image is wider). The result is twelve times more detail. I’ve sold several prints of the panograph image that are about 60 inches wide and sharp as a tack.

    alternate text

    Many of my finished images are panographs of one kind or another. Some are very wide panoramic views, others may be squares, verticals or typical rectangles, but the use of multiple captures in one finished image is a great way to balance creative goals with technical ones.

What is Glassless Framing and Why Should I Care?

When I first started to finish images for display I used a traditional approach with professional-looking gallery frames and mats with UV-filtering glass. After while I became intrigued with the idea of “float” frames where the image appeared to float in space inside a sort of shadow box with UV-filtering acrylic to protect the print. I had a small show at a local gallery with eight images from Death Valley National Park (you can see them here), and this was one of them.

alternate text

Now, this image is a composite of the image itself and a sort of mock-up of the frame done for a catalog of the show, but it looks more-or-less identical to the finished, framed (and glazed) print. A fellow from a nearby town bought the image and I delivered it to his home and hung it for him in the location of his choosing which was above a dresser in the master bedroom. He loved the image (he had worked as an engineer in DV so the view was familiar) but later complained that the acrylic glazing was reflecting light from large windows in the wall next to the dresser. Meanwhile, I had already been thinking about and researching ways to do archivally responsible framing and mounting without glass or acrylic of any kind (more on that below). So I ended up reprinting the image on heavier paper and finishing it in a different way. The next two images tell the tale. First, here is an actual photo of the original print as it hung on the wall in the man’s house. The glare is pretty obvious, particularly on the left side closest to the windows.

alternate text

And this is a photo of the same scene with the new, “glassless” print. See how the reflections are gone? Also look at the right side of the two images. See how much more presence there is in the glassless version? Even though it’s less obvious, the glazing picks up reflections from everything in the room and diffuses the light coming off the print itself.

For a more demanding test I moved the camera (on a tripod) further to the right so the window reflections would be more pronounced. Here are the results:

alternate text

The glazed print is worse but the glassless one still looks very good. There is some level of reflection/diffusion on the left side where the reflections are brightest, but even an oil painting would flash in light this bright and direct. I should also point out that frame width and float space are smaller on the glassless version which makes for a lighter, more image-focused look. If an image this size was framed traditionally with glass and a 3-to-4-inch mat, it would take up quite a lot more wall space.

For more on the glassless framing technique and its archival quality, see How Do You Frame Your Prints?

Why Don't You Sell Unframed Prints?

First of all, if you see an image that you would like to frame yourself, just click “Custom” in the print-size menu and tell me what you’re interested in. I will contact you regarding price and delivery. But that said, here are the main reasons why my preference is to offer framed fine art prints ready to hang:

  • Print sales based on standard frame sizes (8 x 10, 11 x 14, 16 x 20, etc.) means every image has to be a variation on a standard 4:5 rectangle. This may be a good aspect ratio for portraits, but even a single 35mm frame is wider (or taller) at 4:6. Anyway, I think the image should dictate the size and shape of the frame, not the other way around.
  • It seems to me an unframed print is unfinished. If you buy a poster, OK. But I think fine art of any kind should be finished, ready to hang and enjoy.
  • I think they look better. Everything I do with my work is intended to maximize visual impact, and so far I’ve yet to find an image that looks better with a mat, a wider frame profile and glass. At the first gallery show I did with glassless framing (the En Plein Air collection), people asked, “What are these? Photographs? They look like paintings.” That’s when I knew I was on the right track.
  • Priced as they are, I think my finished images are a good value. Even traditional framing with a mat and UV glass is expensive, and if you go for “museum glass” (anti-reflective), the cost is astronomical. Also, I doubt many shops are set up to do the kind of print lamination, mounting and surface protection I provide.

What About Gallery Wraps and Metal Prints?

Both of these ways of finishing images have become popular recently, and both are widely marketed by print labs and service bureaus.

With gallery wraps, a photograph is printed on canvas and then stretched around stretcher bars as if it were a painting. Often the edges of the photograph are allowed to “bleed” and be visible on the sides of the stretcher bars. Sometimes the resulting canvas is mounted in a float frame similar to those I use, or it may be simply hung on the wall with no frame at all. I think this is sort of a mixed metaphor, intended to make the photograph look like something it isn’t. I think it looks a little odd when part of an image is used to cover the edges of the work as if it were extraneous (one man’s opinion).

The metal look is interesting as a minimalist, contemporary print/mount medium, and fairly cost effective since you don’t need or want a frame. But I think most images benefit from being isolated a little, set apart from the wall they’re on. Even with only a narrow-profile float frame, the image is clearly put in more formal presentation context.

I guess the main thing for me is that since I like to finish my images myself, neither of these methods is something I’m likely to work with.

Mounting and Framing Process

1. First I make a finished print, usually with a slightly textured paper like Epson Cold Press Natural. This is a matte paper that absorbs the pigment inks very well, and the texture, which is not really noticeable unless you look very closely, helps to further reduce reflections.

2. After the print has been allowed to dry overnight to “set” the inks, it is rolled with three coats of a water-based polymer called Eco Print Shield. This material is a marvel because it is environmentally friendly, dries clear, will not yellow or crack, provides UV light protection and can even be wiped with a damp cloth to remove dust or fingerprints. According to Wilhelm Imaging research, prints made with Epson archival inks and papers and coated with Eco Print Shield have permanence ratings similar to those protected with UV glass, all more than 100 years.

3. The coated prints are again left to dry overnight and then are laminated to very thin (1mm) sheets of polystyrene (an inert plastic) using an acid-free, permanent adhesive. I use either black or white polystyrene depending on the print and the frame color, the idea being to have the laminate layer be as invisible as possible while also giving the edge of the print more rigidity and protection against inadvertent bumps and dings. After the lamination is done, the print is trimmed to remove only the white border around the image.

4. Next, the laminated prints is mounted on a sheet of acid-free foam-core board that has been trimmed so that the print extends about ¼” beyond the edges of the board all the way around. The board I use is either black or white depending on the frame color. The prints are then set aside until the frames are ready.

5. I currently use XXX different molding finishes, all with the same dimensions. Here’s how they look when they’re cut:

alternate text

They are 1 5/8” deep with a 1/2” profile. The inside of the frame, the part below the print, is 1¼” wide so that so neither the inside edge of the frame nor the mounting hardware is visible behind the print.

What Does "Archival" Really Mean?

More blah blah about archival materials.