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Ok, here’s the deal with this post. It is NOT a tutorial on how to make a perfect wall gallery. (There are already dozens of posts on that topic.) This is my very honest accounting of all the mistakes I made in my own wall gallery.
I’m sharing it for two reasons: 1.) I hope it will get you thinking through the details of your design before you start pounding holes in the wall 2.) I want you to know it’s okay to make mistakes, change your mind, and change your plans as needed.
I knew I wanted a family photog gallery, but I didn’t have a narrow focus when I started selecting images. So I spent days looking at images and chose over one-thousand favorites.
I wish I would have spent an hour or so thinking about the wall gallery before I ever looked at my photos. I would have realized I could NEVER make a wall with all of my favorite photos—it would fill the whole house. Instead I needed to choose a narrow focus for the gallery.
I decided to include only candid images of our family in our current home and each image had to tell or story or convey a strong emotion. This eliminated vacation photos, posed photos, extended family photos, and even big milestones like our sons’ newborn pictures and baptisms.
Those other photos would go into photo albums or on other walls of our house. I chose to put some playful images over the cubbies in our playroom and our sons’ birth announcements on their own wall together.
Recommendation: When planning your gallery, try to choose one central theme at the beginning. The theme can be narrow, like “Our wedding day” or something expansive like “Adventures we’ve taken together,” or “Moments I fell in love with you”. Once you have a title or unifying thought you will find it much easier to select your photos.
For my gallery, I used a mix of new frames from IKEA and thrifted frames from Goodwill and our basement. I wanted the gallery to have a slightly eclectic feeling rather than a perfect rigidity (and I also wanted to save some money). But I failed to consider how some of my $3 frames from Goodwill would end up needing $53 prints to fill them.
If you aren’t familiar with printing, you may not be aware that the cost of a print jumps dramatically when you order specialty finishes, mounting materials, extra large sizes, and custom crops.
I already knew my prints would be pricey since I was going to order them all in deep matte paper mounted on foam board. But I didn’t check the exact print prices at my lab. If I had, I would have seen that the printing price almost doubles for sizes over 16 x 20 inches.
I had two cheap frames that were larger than 16 x 20, and they were both nonstandard sizes so I would have to order custom crops too.
I was really excited to get these large frames so cheap, but they ended up costing me so much more time and money than I expected.
If you aren’t familiar with the standard options offered for prints, here are the most common sizes:
3.5 x 5″
4 x 4″
4 x 6″
5 x 5″
5 x 7″
8 x 10″
8 x 12″
11 x 14″
16 x 20″
To see more options with prices, visit my favorite consumer lab, mpix. Just be aware that each lab’s size and paper offerings may be slightly different, (for example, mpix does not offer deep matte paper–this is only available at their pro lab.)
Recommendation: Buy frames in standard ratios and sizes 16 x 20 inches or smaller. (Unless you find a really gorgeous frame that makes it worth the extra time and money, of course!)
Most frames come with a stock image inside. One of the easiest ways to visually plan your wall gallery is tape these papers up on the wall to plot out roughly where your frames will be. But when I started working prepping my frames, I threw out all of the artwork and the glass right away (I hate clutter).
Since I tossed the stock images, I ended up just laying out all of my frames on the floor in front of the wall and playing with the locations and spacing until it felt right. (It was a little bit trickier than I expected since I’d bought those nonstandard sizes and ratios.) Once I had the frames laid out the way I wanted them, I took lots of photos on my phone so I could reference them while hanging.
Recommendation: Keep the stock images and artwork that arrived in your frame—you can use them on the wall to plot out where your gallery will hang. If your frames are eclectic or if you already threw out the artwork, you can trace the outlines of the frames on paper instead (like this tutorial from momtastic.com).
If you are more of a measure-as-you-go person, you can lay your gallery out on the floor like I did. You’ll want to choose one “anchor”picture at the center of the group to hang first. This one should go in the center of the gallery at eye level. Make sure it’s straight since you will hang all the other pictures based on it’s position.
When I work on a project, I tend to get really excited by my vision and trust that I’ll figure out the details along the way. This was definitely the case with my framing hardware. I choose the IKEA Ribba frame because I liked it’s sleek modern design and low price point. If I’d done even one internet search about the frames, I would have seen that there are DOZENS of tutorials on how to hang them, because their hanging hardware simply doesn’t work with picture hangers.
I realized this just as I was about to start hanging my photos, and of course I wanted to solve my problem ASAP because I was so excited to get the pictures on the walls. If I’d taken a little time to think about it, I probably would have run to Target and bought some 3M velcro strips since all of my frames were relatively light.
Since I was in a hurry, I ran out to Home Depot and came home with a product called PicGenie. I liked this option because it looked easier to line up on the wall and it promised to keep my frames hanging straight.
The PicGenie requires you to screw two sawtooth hangers into the back of your frame. Each hanger has a small, removable spike where the nail hole will need to go.
To measure for the nail holes, you lift the picture up where you want it to hang on the wall, use a level to make sure it’s straight, and lightly press it into the wall. The little spike leaves indentation for the exact spot that your nails need to go. Then you hammer the nails in, remove the spikes from the hanger, and hang your photo.
I found the PicGenie worked fairly well, though the larger sizes of my Ribba frames tended to crack when I drilled into them. The smaller frames come wrapped on the backs, but the larger ones aren’t—probably for cost savings by IKEA. I was able to fix this problem by taping the back of the frames with some white art tape to reinforce them.
One thing I like about the PicGenie is that you can get photos lined up exactly on the wall no matter their size or existing hardware. Some of my large frames had wire hanging hardware and would have been nearly impossible to line up perfectly in my tight groupings.
Recommendation: Look closely at the hanging hardware that comes with your frames! Heavy frames often come with wire, which can be tricky to hang perfectly in a gallery. Some frames come with D-rings or sawtooth hangers that might not be installed correctly on the frame or in the same place from one frame to another. If you assume that things are straight and level, you will be so frustrated when it comes time to hang them.
If your frames are light enough, I recommend 3M Velcro Strips to hang them. I used these in both my boys’ rooms for large painted canvases, and they have stayed adhered for over two years so far. They work by using 3M adhesive strips to attach one piece of velcro to your frame and one piece to the wall. They are a little tricky to install with one person, but they allow you to remove and reattach your frame if you don’t get it perfectly level the first time. You can even rehang the pictures somewhere else using new 3M strips.
If your frames are heavier, the PicGenie system works well for measuring and hanging as you go. It allowed me to hang my whole gallery in one day with only a few small adjustments at the end.
I have this thing about glass in frames—I hate it. I don’t like the glare over my photos and I worry about frames getting knocked down and broken (and my kids getting cut by glass). So I developed a system for frames where I remove the glass and put in photos printed on foam board. It works for almost every frame, unless it’s got a very thin space for the photo.
Since I wanted this gallery to be safe and glare-free, I ordered all of my prints on deep matte paper mounted on foam board. But I didn’t realize that my IKEA Ribba frame was only designed for plain, old unmounted prints. There’s only space for a paper thin photograph between the mat and the backing. Oops.
I “solved” this problem by cramming my mounted prints into that tiny space and taping them onto the mat with artists tape and not caring too much about how it bent the mats out slightly. This solution will not work for an absolute perfectionist, but I am a “good enough” kind of perfectionist, so it works for me.
Recommendation: Disassemble all of your frames before ordering your prints. See how much space they have and plan for how you will mount the photos inside them. If your frames have a mat, you will probably need to use acid free tape of some kind to attach your photo to the mat. If you want to remove the glass (yay for you!), you will need to order mounted prints (just make sure the mounting is the right size for your frame!)
As you can see, it’s possible to make tons of mistakes along the way and still end up with a beautiful and inspiring wall gallery. I fully expect that you will make a handful of mistakes as you plan your own gallery, but I hope they’ll be less painful than mine (and you’ll see them as part of the creative process.)
If you’ve been daydreaming about a beautiful wall gallery, go ahead and get started by choosing your central idea or theme! Then make a plan for selecting frames, prints, and hanging hardware. Just remember that it’s part of the process to make some mistakes, changes, and discoveries along the way.