Monday, August 13, 2007

In Praise of the Four Square Collage

More often than not, when it comes to picture framing, people purchase single frames for single pictures. But there are other options, particularly when it comes to smaller photographic prints.

For example, one can purchase "collage frames" which are basically frames in which multiple window openings have been cut into the "overmat", thereby enabling one to display multiple photos or prints within a single frame.

Collage frames can be particularly nice as a means of presenting small prints (such as the 4x6 prints typically made for very low prices at numerous photo labs) in a unified manner which makes a much nicer impression than a scattered collection of framed individual small prints. It's a lot easier to hang a single collage frame featuring sixteen small prints than it would be to hang sixteen small prints in their own individual frames!

(Click here to see some particularly nice collage frames from The Pottery Barn.)

As nice as collage frames can be, I can attest to the fact that it can be time-consuming and difficult to attach the individual prints to the undermat in such a way that they align perfectly with the window openings cut out of the overmat. A lot of precise measuring is necessary.

These days, digital imaging offers a superior alternative. That alternative is to digitally place multiple images in a precise arrangement on a single large background, and then send the file to a company which is capable of making a very large print from that file.

One advantage is that cutting the overmat is a lot easier. The overmat need not feature multiple window openings. A single window opening capable of showing the entire digital collage will suffice.

It's also much easier to mount a single print onto the backing board or undermat.

A third advantage is that one is not limited to printing on paper. One can just as easily send the digital file to one of the numerous companies which will now print one's image file onto canvas.

A fourth advantage, when it comes to a digital collage arrangement, is that the amount of space between each individual image doesn't need to be as large as it would need to be if one were cutting multiple window openings out of a single overmat. A thin line between each image would offer adequate separation, and such separation between images is not absolutely essential.

A fifth advantage is that the physical overmat does not actually cover the edges of any of the individual images in a digital collage. The images are not "cropped" by the overmat. This can be particularly important in cases where even the slightest image loss compromises a particular image.

The ideal, when creating a digital collage arrangement, is to create a reusable digital template which can be used again and again for similar projects, in order to aid in positioning the individual elements in the digital collage.

In Photoshop, each of the individual "placeholders" can be placed on a separate layer, and one can then use the alignment features in Photoshop in order to align each of the individual photos or artistic images with the placeholders to which they correspond. What do I mean by "placeholders"? Simply this: A "placeholder" would be a shape, with a solid color such as black, which was the exact same dimensions as the image one intended to put into its place. (Once the placeholder from the template has been replaced or covered by the actual image, the placeholder can be deleted.)

The question then arises as to what the best possible arrangement might be. There are infinite possibilities, including arrangements in which the individual images overlap one another or even blend with one another. But I prefer an arrangement which meets the following criteria:

  1. The collage arrangement features an equal number of horizontal (landscape mode) images and vertical (portrait mode) images, so that the arrangement itself is independent of the particular images displayed in that arrangement.
  2. The collage arrangement is well balanced in terms of the size of the exterior borders between the images and the edge of the paper or canvas, and in terms of the amount of spaces which separate the individual images from each other.
  3. The arrangement is not perfectly symmetrical. Perfect symmetry tends to lend a static feel to any composition, so a collage arrangement which looks like a perfect grid tends to be a bit boring, even if the images themselves are quite nice.

With those criteria in mind, I came up with what I like to describe as a "four square collage arrangement". Essentially, it amounts to four images, all of the same size, which are placed together in order to form a perfect square. In order to achieve that goal, two of the images must be horizontal and two must be vertical. Placement in this manner always leaves a small square in the center, and that square can be used for a considerably smaller square image if desired. The aspect ratio of the four images doesn't much matter, as long as the aspect ratio of all four images is the same. The narrower the four images are, the larger the inner square will be. With four perfectly square images, there will be no inner square at all; and of course, that kind of arrangement will be perfectly symmetrical, unlike an arrangement featuring four rectangular images.

Now, it logically follows that a four square collage looks best when printed on a square sheet of paper or canvas. But that isn't always an option, since not all photo labs and printing companies offer square prints.

One option in such a situation is to have top, left and right borders which are all the same size, and then have a "weighted bottom" which has a considerable amount of open space.

Another option (which works well for posters) is to fill out the remaining part of the print with text. Or one can place simple abstract shapes or symbols in the remaining space.

Another option is to fill out the remaining space at the bottom of the presentation with additional images, so that the overall presentation looks perfectly balanced even though it's not perfectly symmetrical. That's what I've done with the arrangement shown at the top of this blog post. It's essentially a four square collage enhanced with a small fifth image in the middle of the four square collage, plus two large images of equal size at the bottom. The two images at the bottom are not perfect squares, but they're close enough to a 1:1 aspect ratio that they don't strongly favor the "portrait mode" the way they would if they had the 3:2 aspect ratios typical of 4x6 prints.

The above layout was designed to enable me to present multiple images on 20x30 paper or 24x36 paper, since those are standard print sizes often offered by digital photo labs.

20x30 is a good print size if one plans to mount and mat one's print on a standard piece of mat board measuring 30x40-inches, because it means that one's borders will be 5 inches on all four sides. (20 + 5 + 5 = 30. 30 + 5 + 5 =40.) Hence, the need to do any cutting on such a piece of mat board will be limited to the need to cut out the single window opening in the overmat, making it very easy for any halfway competent frame shop to do the job. (I tend to prefer the look of double mats myself, but they are not absolutely necessary.)

In general, any type of collage arrangement of images tends to look best when all of the images share some coherent theme. For example, one could create a collage arrangement featuring images of one's family, or a collage arrangement featuring images of sailboats, or a collage of images which all share a predominant color scheme.

In my case, I plan to create a number of collage arrangements featuring multiple photos of flowers and gardens.

One nice aspect of that approach is that I need not know the names of all of the plants in my photos in order to give the collages appropriate titles. If I present a photo which only features tulips, the title probably ought to contain some reference to the fact that they're tulips. That's no problem when it comes to tulips, since I recognize tulips when I see them, but I'm not such a botanical expert that I can easily identify all of the flowers in my photos. With a collage approach, that's unimportant. I can just give my pieces pieces names such as "Floral Collage #1", "Floral Collage #2", etc.

Another nice thing about collage arrangements is that they enable one to create really large framed pieces even though the resolution of the individual images may not be sufficient for pieces that large. For instance, a six megapixel image, when printed at 200 pixels per inch, would measure 10 inches by 15 inches, since it would typically have 2000 pixels by 3000 pixels (or something very close to those measurements). That's only 1/4 the number of pixels needed for a print measuring 20 inches by 30 inches. But it's more than large enough for one of the images in a digital collage which would be printed on a piece of paper or canvas measuring 20 inches by 30 inches.

If one assumes that the image at the top of this blog post represents a 20x30 print, then each of the four images in the "four square collage" at the top of the design would measure 7 inches by 10.5 inches, with a 1/2-inch space between the images, thereby creating a four square collage with overall dimensions of 18 inches by 18 inches. Add the 1-inch borders on each side, and you have a space measuring 20 inches by 20 inches.

In such a scenario, the two almost-square images at the bottom of the layout measure 9.5 inches high by 8.75 inches wide. I could have made both of those images perfectly square, but then there would have been a little bit of extra space between those two images and the four square collage above them, or else there would have been a little bit of extra space at the bottom of the print (or divided evenly between the top of the print and the bottom of the print).

One nice thing about collage arrangements such as the one shown here is that one can present far more images while still offering a fairly limited number of products. If each collage features 7 images, then one could present 49 images using just seven collage arrangements. (Of course, seven of those 49 images would consist of small images measuring just 3 inches by 3 inches.) This is particularly advantageous in terms of making the most of a limited amount of space on the walls of an art gallery, and equally advantageous in terms of making the most of a low-cost e-commerce solution which limits the amount of products one can sell at any given time. (For example, the Economy Edition of the Quick Shopping Cart e-commerce package offered by limits one to 20 products. But if each one of those products featured six or seven photos, one could present quite a few photos without exceeding that limitation.)

Conversely, one could create multiple distinctive products using a limited number of photos, simply by varying the placement of photos within each collage. In other words, there's no reason why any given image can only be used in one collage arrangement.

Changing the background is yet another way to create additional variations on a design. For instance, the background color could be changed from black in one design to white in another design which featured the exact same layout and the exact same images.

I find, when looking at some of my photos, that there are individual images which are only marginally interesting when viewed by themselves. In a collage arrangement featuring multiple images, the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts. That's another reason why presenting one's images in the form of a digital collage can sometimes be a great idea.

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