Ant Smith


Border Control

Tuesday 6th March 2007 4:02pm

Arches at Riveaux Abbey

The above image of Arches at Rievaulx Abbey is printed at 16"x8" on 16"x12" paper. The wide left and right borders, and the lack of borders at top and bottom, greatly emphasise the tall slim format of the image. This arrangement reinforces the image subject. Any other border arrangement considerably weakens the impact of the image. The arrangement of the image on the printing paper is a key concern in the image management stage of the printing process.

Fixed-border easels are cheap and convenient, but the regularity they introduce to the finished work is quickly tiresome. Also, some images require cropping in order that the visualised shape of the image can be achieved given the shape of the negative that the camera produces. A bladed easel provides an important degree of artistic freedom.

In a darkroom it is natural to start the printing process by selecting the image size, crop, and bordering. The boundaries of the image on the paper have to be set before any other printing activities are executed. In a digital workflow the opposite is often true. Images are cropped on-screen in a space that is anonymous with regards their ultimate hard-copy use; if there ever will be hard-copy produced.

In the darkroom, a rough crop is established. The borders are then balanced, and the fine crop selected. When balancing the borders the image shape may be adjusted, so that the border widths are not arbitrary. In the digital workflow selecting the fine crop is the first step, with little regard to the relationship between the shape of the image and the shape of the paper

In the darkroom, the first crop is determined by the internal composition of the image and the fine crop is determined by the shape of the image on the paper. In the digital workflow, the crop is determined by the internal composition of the image only

In fact, the very first crop occurs in-camera, and there are some schools of thought that say this should be the only crop required. That viewpoint, though, is somewhat restrictive for medium and small format photography. Certainly the starting point should be to achieve full-frame crop in-camera - but circumstances may not permit this. For example, the photographer may choose to include more foreground than is desired in the end-image in order to prevent the need to tilt the camera.

In most cases the image management process in the darkroom is a matter of finding best fit between the image shape as set by the negative format and the shape of the chosen paper. The shape of an area (such as the negative, the image, or the paper areas) is described as the ratio of the area's longest side to its shortest side. The shape (ratio) of popular negative formats is given in Table 1.

(click or tap any table row to enlarge)

4.6"3.5"1.3Polaroid 55

Table 1. Popular Negative Shapes

Below, table 2 shows how well each negative format fits popular paper sizes. Where the shapes are the same the table indicates 'Fit'. Otherwise the table shows by how much the image is over-sized in one dimension when the enlargement is set to fill the other.As an example consider figures 1 and 2:

35mm versus 10"x8", oversized image

Figure 1. 35mm versus 10"x8", oversized image

35mm versus 10"x8", oversized paper

Figure 2. 35mm versus 10"x8", oversized paper

Figure 1 shows the resulting image area when a 35mm negative is enlarged so that the full height of the image fills the height of the paper. Some portion of the image then doesn't fit the paper, in this case 1" left and 1" right - 20% of the image area.

Figure 2 shows the resulting image area when a 35mm negative is enlarged so that the full width of the image fills the width of the paper. Some portion of the paper then doesn't fit the image, in this case 2/3" top and 2/3" bottom - 17% of the paper area.

WidthHeightRatio6x6 cm7x6 cm5"x4" 10"x8"6x4.5cm7"x5"9x6cm 35mm

Table 2. Negative versus Paper shape

The green elements in table 2 indicates paper sizes that it is reasonable to use for a given negative format, in most cases.

Essentially, if the paper and negative shapes require less than 10% of the image to be cropped to achieve a fit then the combination will be workable in the main. It is possible to allow for up to a 10% darkroom fine-crop when shooting - considering most SLR viewfinders do not give 100% coverage.

The foregoing may seem overly prescriptive, but the point isn't to define the 'right' shape of paper. Rather, the point is to understand the relationship between the negative and paper shapes. To ensure that enough allowance is made in-camera for darkroom cropping. This is not just a question of providing enough space around the subject. The in-camera composition is impacted by the shape of the desired end-image. There is little point arranging elements at the thirds of a 35mm negative (ratio=1.5) if the end print is to be cropped to fit 10"x8" paper (ratio=1.25) as those elements will no longer be at the thirds when the end-image crop is applied.

The act of producing an end image should follow a technical process that is comprised of methods and materials that support the artistic process. When choosing paper shapes this means minimizing the variance between shapes that are used for a given negative format, so that the amount of in-darkroom crop will be roughly the same irrespective of the actual size of print wanted. A negative crop that works on 10"x8" paper will not work at 16"x12". In the least the borders will be balanced differently between the small and large print, and that can be enough to change the impact of the print. In the worse case, the borders will be kept relatively identical but the image shape, and thus crop, will vary. The likelihood of finding two different satisfactory crops from a single negative is low when the image exhibits high compositional cohesion; although this is more likely for loosely composed or abstract subjects.

For a preferred printing size of 16"x12" it is more useful to produce smaller working prints at 9.5"x7" than at 10"x8". The scale-up will be easier as the ratios are closer. Similarly for a preferred print size of 30"x20" a working print size of 11.75"x8.25" would scale up most easily. If the preferred print size is 20"x16" then 10"x8" working prints are ideal, 20% leeway in one dimension will be required of the in-camera crop.

All of the foregoing disappears as a concern if paper is available in an infinite range of sizes, or rather if oversized paper is cut to the required size.

There are several disadvantages with such an approach:

  • Paper sizes are not arbitrary. They have developed over time, some shapes have become familiar. Familiarity is an emotive force; to evoke familiarity (or its counterpart) is an artistic choice. The paper can not then simply be cut to the size of the image, an appropriate paper shape should be selected.

  • Within a portfolio images belong together as a set. They need, at some level, to express coherency. Arbitrary changes in print shape can work against this.

  • Additional handling is required to crop the print, which gives further opportunity for flaws.

  • Cropping the paper in order to maintain image ratio when scaling up or down does not resolve the issue. At some point the images may be mounted or framed in a consistent manner, at which point the relationship between the image and its mount or frame becomes the concern.

A bespoke paper size can be the right decision in some cases, but generally is not.

There are six basic means of laying an image onto a surface, as per figure 3.

Basic Border Types

Figure 3. Basic Border Types

The simple border

The simple border type provides a symmetric, equally spaced border on each side. The bordering does not interact with the subject, it serves only to constrain the image. This macro example suits a simple border as we are deliberately cutting out the rest of the word in order to concentrate on the flower cluster (this is shown also by the sharply cut flower heads at the top-left and right-hand sides).

The weighted border

If one of the borders is unequal, and this would usually occur along the bottom edge, then the bordering has 'weight'. This can complement subjects that are weighted, such as a landscapes.

The balanced border

If the borders are arranged in a bilaterally symmetrical" fashion then the borders do not only constrain the image, they also add a sense of balance. In the example on the right a sense of balance in the borders helps to prevent any sense that the statue will fall over.

The partial border

Partial borders constrain the image on two sides only. This arrangement emphasises height or width. In the example on the right the long sweep of the cove is not constrained left or right, which allows the image of the cove to have a sense of 'continuance'.


A borderless print is constrained by the edges of the paper, but the lack of a formal border gives a sense of expansiveness - the story within the picture continues beyond the edge of the picture, and by inference, the moment of exposure. In the example on the right the sense of expansiveness relates to time and the age of the subject.

Offset border

An offset print will likely have two adjacent borders of equal size, the other two borders being of a different, but equal, size. This arrangement can complement the image's arrangement of passive and active space. For example if the image in figure 3f were to show a cyclist heading down a steep hill, the hill running from top left to bottom right, then the bordering effectively gives some space into which the action in the picture can extend. In the example on the left the offset is in the opposite direction. The tombstone is heavily constrained by its thin adjacent borders, whereas the tree has space into which it can grow, or reach.

Of course an arbitrary arrangement where all four borders are of different widths is also possible. This however can probably not be generalised about and must be considered on a case by case basis.

The basic border types can be created with the use of an easel. Masks of various types can be used for more intricate borders. One example being the vignette, which is currently seen as out-of-date. However it is still useful in just the right conditions. The vignette gives a sense of removal from space, time, or reality; it truly allows a subject to stand on its own, as opposed to standing as a reference to some greater thing or idea. There are no rules of thumb in photography that must not be broken. If the vignette is right, then use it.

The vignette as border

The final word must be, to experiment. There are many more options for bordering prints, black borders, double borders, masks. Borders are not the inconvenience of inappropriate paper versus negative shapes. They are a key control in the story that the image tells.