Framing – A Case Against Glass

Photographic prints are usually made of paper and ink. Neither of which stand all that well against the environment. Humidity, temperature, pollution, light, and even the air itself will destroy a print if given enough time. On top of that, you’ve got acidic papers, dust, spider poop, and skin oils to contend with. The list goes on and on.

These are your memories and your artwork, falling prey to pretty much everything around them. The paper will tear and crumble. The ink will fade and discolor. Fortunately, there are ways to protect against much of what’s out there to extend the life of your prints. Glass is usually on the first line of defense. Many of us never give it any thought. We use the glass that came with a picture frame, simply because it came with the frame. You’re supposed to use the glass, as it is a part of the frame. It’s what people do.

Glass serves a vital role in keeping your memories safe though. It prevents dust, smoke, and other crud from getting on the print. It prevents scratches and fingerprints. Glass reduces the amount of smoke and other pollutants from getting to the print. Unlike your print, the glass is relatively easy to clean safely. Most glass even provides some degree of protection against harmful UV rays, which fade your picture over time. Specially coated glass will block even more. But as important as glass is, I’d like to take a few moments to argue the case against using it.

I could remind you that glass shatters and is a literal pain to clean up. And you should know that if framed improperly, glass can trap in moisture, causing fungus to grow on your prints. But I don’t want to look at the what-if scenarios that assume you did something wrong. Let’s instead imagine everything is done right. Even when glass is doing its job properly, there is still a case against it.

Print of Grand Prismatic Spring behind glass. Reflections and glare from poor lighting hinder the view of the print.
Self-portrait in the reflection of the glass on this print.

In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, there is a sweet cherry red Ferrari. It’s about 20 years old and has a grand total of 126 miles on it. That’s just over six miles per year. The car is stored in a large garage where it is always protected. It just sits there. It’s more an ornament than a car. Cars get driven. Cars move. If a car is never on the open road taking you to some amazing destination, is it still truly a car? What’s the point of having a Ferrari if you’re never going to let it out of the garage? If you’re never going to actually enjoy it for what it is?

Behind a pane of glass, you do protect your prints, but why do you want to protect them in the first place? If the print holds a priceless memory or if you consider it to be an irreplaceable work of art you mean to eventually pass to your children, their children, and even your children’s children’s children… If that’s the case, then protecting it is clearly your priority and you should do so to the fullest extent possible. However, if you want to actually enjoy the image, glass may not be your best option.

Consider the following:

  1. Glass shatters. But if there is no glass, it can’t shatter.
  2. Glass protects from humidity, unless moisture finds its way inside the frame. At that point, the glass traps the moisture in with your picture.
  3. Glass is shiny. Depending on where you hang the picture and how the lighting in your home is, you’re most likely going to be looking at your print through reflections and glare. Because of this, the picture will have reduced contrast and less color saturation. It’ll be the same image, but without the same WOW factor. You’ll be protecting the image, but may not as easily be able to enjoy it.
    True, you can purchase museum glass to minimize reflections, but at $45 for a 16×20, most people will just stick with the glass that came with the frame. Anti-reflective acrylic scratches way too easily. You can also cover windows with curtains, change lighting, or hang the picture in a different spot. But you may like the broad expanse of a window and think the best place for a picture is right over the fireplace. Don’t hang your family portrait in the bathroom. Removing the glass gets rid of the reflection with hardly any fuss.
  4. If you’re using picture frame glass (ie- the glass that came with your frame), it doesn’t provide any more protection from UV than your house windows. Think about that for a moment. As far as protecting your picture from fading, it has two implications. First, if you’re not buying higher quality glass, the glass isn’t being as protective as it could be anyway. Second, your picture is already behind the window. If you’re using LED lighting in your house, UV isn’t an issue anyway, as those lights have such a low transmission of UV.
    Even with the filtering of a window, prints left in direct sunlight will still eventually fade, so avoid doing that. I would recommend not hanging prints in the sun, but if you absolutely have to, purchase higher quality glass that is better at filtering UV. Or…
  5. …realize that glass is not the only option.
Framed print of Grand Prismatic Spring without glass. Saturation and Contrast are both appear better due to reduced glare.
No glass. No glare. The colors pop and the contrast is much improved.

Recently I have began using an archival spray on my prints. I consider them to be glass-in-a-can. When you consider how many prints you can spray with a single can, it really is reasonably priced. What these sprays do:

  1. It seals your print in a matte or gloss finish. If crud ends up on your print, it is actually getting on the the finish, not the print itself. You can safely wipe away the crud without worrying as much about damaging the print. If you wear away the sealant, you can reapply.
  2. It is moisture resistant. I wouldn’t recommend submerging your prints, though I wouldn’t recommend that if you were using glass either. But the spray does protect the print from normal amounts of moisture and humidity.
  3. It filters out UV light to keep your pictures from fading.
  4. Prevents fingerprints and oils while handling the print. Also (and I know this is purely subjective), the texture it adds to the print feels durable. It feels professional (despite the lack of glass).
  5. It smells. No. Let’s be honest. It stinks. Not permanently. As long as you don’t drench your print with the stuff, it won’t get too bad. A fine misting is all it really needs anyway.

So the sprays basically do the same thing as glass, minus the added weight or risk of breaking. Of course, if you move your print and it gets bumped by, say the edge of a piece of furniture, the spray isn’t going to protect against being punctured the way glass would. If you’ve got kids playing ball in the house and a football hits the picture dead on, it’s going to get dented, though you won’t have glass shattering. From the non-violent aspects of the environment though, the spray should protect against the same things as the glass.

Comparison of an inset of an image of Grand Prismatic Spring. The left side is protect by glass but has contrast-cutting glare. The right side is protected only by an archival spray, not glass. Colors and contrast appear better without the reflection on the print.
Side-by-side comparison of Glass and No Glass.

Even as I write this, I haven’t come to any definitive conclusion. Plenty of questions arise though. How does the UV protection of the spray compare that of the glass? How often, if at all, will I need to reapply the spray? Do my prints get extra protection if I spray them and put them behind glass? How long will the prints last with only the spray, as compared to with only the glass?

Some of these questions I hope to answer in a future post. For now though, I plan to keep using sprays and freeing some of my prints from their glass prisons (poetic, no?). Even though I’m not 100% sure how the spray protection will measure up against the glass, I do know that I love the way my prints look when I can actually see the colors pop. With depth in the shadows. The way they were meant to be viewed. Unrestricted.

SPOILER ALERT: Actually, no. No spoiler alert. The movie is 30 years old. If the ending is ruined for you, it’s your own fault at this point. For the sake of full disclosure, I feel I should point out that after taking the Ferrari out of the garage, it does get totally destroyed. Then again, that doesn’t happen until they put it back into the garage and Cameron starts repeatedly kicking the thing, so… Yeah. Don’t kick your prints.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *