Canvas Prints Buying Guide - 10 Factors to Consider05 Apr 2016
My name is Patrick Ryan and I’m the head honcho here at The Canvas Works. We’re based in the beautiful coastal town of Kinsale, in County Cork, Ireland. And it’s from this idyllic location in West Cork - the start point of the famous Wild Atlantic Way, that we make our world-renowned canvas prints, framed prints and series of vintage style travel posters.
I’ve been turning my customers’ photos into canvas prints and framed prints for over ten years now. I’m self taught. Before The Canvas Works, I worked in advertising agencies for a decade and prior to that I studied Law. I’d never have guessed I’d end up in Kinsale, making high quality canvas prints for customers all over the world - from Dublin to Dubai and Belfast to Boston.
But here’s the thing. After over ten years of printing, I realised this year that I’ve never sat at my computer and written properly about the process of printing on canvas and putting down on paper all the factors that I consider are essential to making a great canvas print.
I looked around online and I found that actually, no one else had done this either. And yet, every day, thousands of customers all around the world order canvas prints with one company or another. Whilst many of those images are great and many of the companies making the prints do top notch work, I think there are some fairly fundamental knowledge gaps in the buying public when it comes to the details of ordering canvas prints.
And that’s no surprise - it’s pretty technical after all. But I felt that if I could put together a fairly comprehensive buying guide to canvas prints and outline the 10 most important things to consider before you place your order, then I might just help someone out there create a print they can be proud of - regardless of who you ask to print it.
So this is it. Read on and you’ll be armed with the most essential information you need for ordering fantastic canvas prints, framed prints and more.
Why are Canvas Prints so Popular?
What’s the big deal with canvas prints anyway? Why are they so popular? You have to remember that 15 or 20 years ago, this sort of technology just didn’t exist. People bought 6x4 photos from their local chemist and if they ever had a framed photo print, odds are it was sold to them by a photographer following a formal sitting.
In the 1990’s wide format digital printing arrived and all of a sudden it was possible to print professional grade photos from a PC. Meanwhile, there was a trend for contemporary interiors, open plan living and a more casual style in our homes which tended to suit the look of a canvas print. The final piece in the jigsaw came with advances in digital camera technology - first point and click cameras, then digital SLRs (the big professional looking cameras with interchangeable lenses) and finally the incredible power and convenience of mobile phone cameras.
Canvas prints suited digital printing so well because they could be made relatively cheaply, they were easy to ship and if made correctly, canvas prints looked beautiful in the modern, contemporary home. I also think that the tactile nature of the canvas was a lovely change from the formal nature of framed prints behind glass - it’s lovely to be able to touch the canvas and feel the weave in the print.
With the rise of e-commerce, canvas prints were the ideal product to order online and ship anywhere (size and weight permitting) and we saw an explosion in companies offering customers more and more ways to print their photos.
Today the canvas prints space is extremely competitive and odds are you’ll find a wide range of companies offering them wherever you happen to be in the world. In the UK and Europe, Photobox and Snapfish dominate, whilst in the US, Walmart, Canvas Pop and Easy Canvas Prints are just a few of the names you’ll find. You’ll also find newer players like Social Print Studio doing great work.
Here in Ireland, The Canvas Works was probably one of the very first in the space. But Photobox are the big boys on the block - leveraging their huge scale and resources to make life difficult for the smaller guys like us!
So, that’s the basics of the industry and how we got here. Now, what to think about for your very own canvas print masterpiece?
1. Image Quality. Because great photos make great canvas prints.
Hands down, no arguments - this is, in my considered opinion, the single most important factor in determining whether you get a great canvas print - or any other type of print for that matter. And it’s hardly rocket science right? If your image is not of sufficient resolution - it really doesn’t matter how good the canvas print company is because it just can’t be printed.
But here’s the most important point. After over ten years of printing, I can categorically say that most people (and by most, I mean a significant majority) just don’t understand resolution sufficiently well to be sure they are using an image of sufficient quality to make a good canvas print.
Is that the customer’s fault? Absolutely not. We’re talking about normal people here - mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, young and old. Pixel dimensions, file sizes, dpi? Don’t even go there. What most people see is a file that looks good on a screen - tablet, mobile or desktop - so why won’t it look good on a canvas? Sure, you can try to educate and provide help but this stuff is complicated and way beyond most normal snappers.
The good companies will have systems and policies in place to deal with this. The bad ones - and there are many - will just go ahead and print your file and then blame you afterwards for supplying a poor quality print file.
I took the decision long ago that at The Canvas Works, we would not go down that road. It’s just lazy. We’d rather refund an order than print a poor quality image. And we do that all the time. But often we don’t have to cancel the order - we can just ask a ton of questions about how the customer took the photo or how it was sent to them and then we can locate the high resolution version of the file.
That requires an effort and level of service that some of the big companies won’t or can’t provide because they are so automated. We’re still small enough to care but big enough to be able to refund an order rather than just take the money!
When it comes to image quality and resolution, it is possible to draw up some general guidelines. For example, facebook photos are generally only suitable for very small canvas prints - or bigger canvas prints if they are part of a collage. Likewise, instagram photos suit smaller canvas prints - up to 50x50cm.
And if a photo is on your phone and you can e-mail it without being asked what size you want to send it, don’t try to make a canvas print out of it because it’s just too small! The safest route with a small image is to e-mail it to the company you want to make your canvas print and ask them straight out - “Can I print this photo and what size would you suggest?”.
By doing this, you get it in writing from the company and you can hold them to it afterwards if your print quality does not match your expectations. Works every time!
2. Image Subject Matter - Is this photo really worth printing?
Okay, home truths time. Not every photo should be printed - much less so as a canvas print. Now, I totally get that this is very subjective. One person’s masterpiece is another person’s fish and chip wrapper. And it’s certainly not our place at The Canvas Works to ask this question - if the photo quality is good enough, we’ll generally print it.
That’s because very often, there are personal reasons for wanting to print a photo which, at first glance, may not appear to be worthy of a canvas print.
But leaving those special circumstances apart - it is worth asking yourself why you want to print any particular photo on canvas? Is it in focus? Is there a lot of digital noise? Is the light just too poor? Are the kids looking at the camera? Are their eyes open? Is all that snot going to look good when it’s blown up to 60x40cm?
Canvas prints at their best need a good quality photo and a well taken photo. If the resolution is good but the actual photo is not great - we’d say think about whether you should print it. After all - this is going on your wall and is capable of lasting a life time. So if you can get a better shot of the kids, then take a better photo and don’t just print the one you think is “just okay”.
3. Composition - Has Your Photo got the right Composition for a Canvas?
I’ve separated out this factor from the point above because it’s just so crucial. So you have a high resolution image and it’s in focus and the light is good. Maybe it’s a photo of all the kids together. We know how hard that can be to get! But unfortunately - there’s a whole table of food, plates and half empty bottles and glasses in front of them. Or half their heads are missing. Or the person on the far left is only half in the shot.
Composition is not easy to get right. The other really big mistake we see with photos of kids and animals occurs when a tall person (by tall I mean adult) photographs a little person (by little I mean child). What do they do? Very often, they stay standing and point the camera down onto the child. Result? Poor photo that is not going to make a great canvas print - or any other sort of print.
Good composition will often mean just thinking about moving your feet or your height. Kneeling down, bending over, lying down, changing your perspective. And then thinking and looking at everything that is in the frame. Why is half the telly in the photo? Is that a person’s leg or arm? Who’s in the background?
If you can think about your composition and take a moment or two to compose yourself and your photo - you may well end up with an image that is worth printing on canvas. It’s easier than you think!
4. Canvas Print Styles - Single Image, Collage, Shape
Another vital factor in a great canvas print is the style of print you want to make. Let’s start at the very start - what are you options? Well, you can make a canvas print of a single image or you can group a bunch of photos together - like a collage. And that collage could be neatly orgnaised like a grid or it could be randomly organised in a custom style.
Likewise, think about the shape. There really are only four options - square, landscape, portrait or panoramic (like a letter box). Thinking carefully about your shape choice is a really easy way to go from average canvas print to awesome canvas print. If for example, it’s a close up shot of your baby or young child, then very often a square canvas print is a nice way to go. It fills the canvas and contrasts nicely with the round shape of the face.
If it’s a sunset or a seascape, panoramic shapes can be very effective and look great over a sofa. Sometimes a simple crop can turn a regular photo into something much more interesting. Be creative and think outside the box.
Collages are a great way to go for holiday photos or wedding photos and can be a clever way of compensating for photos that are a little on the low resolution side because each image is printed at a smaller size.
The bottom line is that if you think ahead of time about your photo and go for more unusual shapes or layouts, you’ll often end up with a canvas print that is admired more often.
5. Canvas & Print Quality
Okay, this is one for the company but don’t be afraid to ask or look for the information. What sort of technology are they using? Are they throwing around fancy terms like giclee? Is it printed on matt canvas or gloss canvas or somewhere in between? What sort of inks do they use? How heavy is the canvas? Is the print laminated and if so, what sort of process is employed?
At The Canvas Works, we print on a 410gsm satin canvas with a very white base. We use pigment inks over dye sub technology. Pigment inks will last longer but can be less vibrant. We laminate our prints using a HVLP spray system. Others will apply a heat sealed film to the canvas. The advantage of that approach is that the canvas is practically waterproof and very durable afterwards. The disadvantage is that it’s basically a piece of plastic on top of the canvas and it feels totally different.
Of all of these considerations, I think the sort of canvas is the one you should pay most attention to. If it’s a gloss canvas, think about how that will look on your walls under light. Many companies avoid gloss canvas for this reason so it’s worth asking the question.
6. The Frame Game - Stretcher Bars for Canvas Prints
This is another factor in a great canvas print that all too often gets overlooked. I think the reason for this is that it’s largely invisible. Out of sight, out of mind. But in reality, your canvas print will only last as long as the frame that it’s stretched over and the inks it’s printed with.
The bad news is that there are literally tons of different ways a canvas print can be stretched. And there are tons of different suppliers and manufacturers of stretcher bars. Here’s what you need to look out for:
First, what sort of wood are the bars made of? The most popular type of stretcher bar is made with pine. But for most popular, read worst. Pine is generally a knotty wood and the cheaper pine stretcher bars will feel lightweight, unsubstantial and will have quite a lot of big knots in the wood. They will be more likely to warp over time and will feel so light in the hand that you’ll just not be able to avoid the feeling of handling something cheap.
Most of these kind of stretcher bars come in from China or Eastern Europe. They may be okay for smaller prints but the bigger you go, the more problems these bars will cause.
The other common way you will see canvas prints made is with bars that are underpinned on the reverse instead of joined using tongue and groove. You’ll know a tongue and groove frame because it should come with little wedges that you can hammer into the frame. This pushes the stretcher bars away from each other and has the effect of tightening the canvas print. It’s ingenious and pretty vital when you think that your canvas print could be hanging up in a room for 50 years. Over that time, it’s very likely to lose a bit of tension but if your canvas print has those wedges, you’ll be able to fix it.
We use poplar or tulip wood for our stretcher bars. It’s generally far less knotty so it’s a higher grade of wood and easier to work with for bigger sizes. It’s also re-assuringly heavy and feels great in the hand. The profiles we use are generous - you know you’ve got something of quality. And crucially, our bars are hand milled by our local supplier. In fact, our bars are custom made to our designs so we have total control over every contour and aspect of their profile.
So remember, just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about them. Build quality and materials are old fashioned rules that still matter. Put the right stuff in and you get the best stuff out.
There are a few other minor details that can really influence the final score of your canvas print. We call them the finishing details - and they matter.
First and foremost - look to the corners of your prints. How are they finished? If it’s lumpy and badly folded, that’s a sign of an inexperienced finisher. Are the corners folded in at the top or the sides? If you can see the folds on the side of your print - it’s ground for returning it in my opinion. A well folded canvas print should be neat and tidy with very little bulk. It should be tightly stretched.
Likewise, how are the staples inserted? Does it appear uniform and consistent? The volume players will use machines for stretching but we’re still doing each and every one by hand and I think that still gives the best finish. What about tape - are the prints neatly taped off on the reverse so the staples are not exposed to the elements? Some big companies do not offer this finish as a standard and the prints can look awful.
Finally, how is the canvas print hung? Is the bracket provided and attached? If you’re giving the canvas print as a gift, it’s nice to know that all these details have been considered by your canvas print supplier and the person getting the canvas print won’t have to do their job for them by finishing it off properly.
8. Packing & Shipping of Your Canvas Print
How your canvas print is packed and shipped is another crucial factor in our list of the top 10 things to consider when buying a canvas print. Will it arrive in one piece and who will deliver it? Can I track it? Do I need to sign for it?
As part of our competition research, we’ve just ordered a canvas print from Social Print Studio based in San Francisco. For international orders, they say it can be up to 4 weeks which seems like a very long time. We’ll see if it’s worth the wait!
Another crucial factor is packaging. Canvas prints are pretty delicate and need good packaging. Again, from our competition analysis, we know that how the prints are packed varies greatly. The last set of prints we ordered was from LALALAB in France. They arrived packed in a way that I personally would never have allowed to leave The Canvas Works.
Packaging and presentation becomes even more important when you are gifting the canvas prints so it’s vital that you chose a company who places the proper importance on finishing details like this. Indeed, one can make the point that the best canvas print in the world is valueless if it arrives damaged.
9. Buying Canvas Prints as Gifts
This brings me to the penultimate point in our buying guide for canvas prints - gifting. Canvas prints make wonderful gifts. Unique, personal, thoughtful - a good canvas print really does tick all the boxes for a great gift.
So you have to make sure of a few details. I’ve covered off the packaging point above, but another factor to consider is the ability to add a nice note to your gift. At The Canvas Works, we do this part pretty neatly - with a choice of custom gift tags and the ability to add a message will is also printed and placed on a nice tag. We can also gift wrap on request.
At the end of the day, a gift is a little piece of drama. Unboxing and unwrapping is a vital part of that drama and excitement. So consider all this in your deliberations over who you ask to make your canvas print.
10. Canvas Print Delivery Times
So this is one area where the bigger players can have the edge. At The Canvas Works, our standard turnaround is 5-7 days. Some people may not want to wait that long and might therefore decide to order with one of the big guys like Photobox who can do a 3 day turnaround.
We offer an Express service for when you need your canvas print in a real hurry and it is a popular choice at very busy times of the year like Christmas. At quieter times of the year, our free delivery service is much quicker than 5-7 days so our advice is to find a supplier who sets out all these details clearly so your expectations are managed from the outset.
As I mentioned above, there are companies that I admire - like Social Print Studio who keep their international customers waiting for delivery for quite a long time. Most people are prepared to wait a week or ten days I think but anything longer than that seems a little excessive.
What’s crucial, as always is that the information is set out clearly in advance so that when you place your order for your canvas print, you have a clear expectation of when it should arrive. Good communication is essential.
So there you have it - my buying guide to ensuring you get yourself a canvas print that’s worth your hard earned money. The most important thing I can say to you is try not to believe that every canvas print is just like the next - they’re not! Sure, the canvas print space - like many other mass produced markets is becoming commoditised but there are differences in both the products and the companies who make them.
Thanks for reading this post and I’d love to hear from you if have a view on it. If you’ve found a canvas print company you think I’d be interested in, please let me know!
And if you’ve read this far, do me a favour and share this article on your social networks.
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