Creating a Basic Mat for DPC (Image Competition)

I know this looks complicated but it’s fairly simple. I am being explicit for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the process and the tools. In reality, the procedure takes me well less than an easy 2 minutes per image. – John Grusd

Why do we need mats?

Like it or not, there is a gamesmanship about image competitions at PPA and its affiliates. Those groups include the national organization (PPA), the state (PPC in our case) and the local affiliates (PPLAC in our case). Judges are trained to consider the mats. If you want to play this image comp game within the PPA world, always use a mat.

You can make the argument that there is a practical side to this. Like any frame, the mat isolates the image from the clutter surrounding it (like the monitor, the room, lights etc.) and lets the judge’s concentration settle directly to the image without distractions.

Remember this is for print competition at PPA and its affiliates. This is probably not how you would sell an image or frame it for a wall hanging. Don’t over think it! Just do it.


Basic Theory:

You want to create a mat that doesn’t detract from your image. Don’t make it brighter or more colorful than your image. Its effect should be subliminal.

My Basic Mat as described below is how I’ve submitted almost every single image in a pretty successful history in competitions. I don’t over think it either! About the only comment I’ve gotten about my mats is when a judge points to it and says, “That’s the way to do a mat.”

That said, I’m giving you the basic formula. You are free to make any changes you want. If you don’t want to over think it, these instructions will work perfectly for you.


Basic Math:

Usually in competition rules, we are given a dimension for the longest side of the image. Remember that includes the mat! My thinking is that the mat should be a “comfortable” thickness without making the image itself too small. Our rules state that the long dimension should be 4000 pixels so that will be the size of the outside of the mat. (on the long side)

The Basic Mat will be a uniform thickness all the way around the image. I think a 2 inch thick mat on a submission that is 20 inches across on the long side (including the mat) works very well. Remember that there are 2 inches on the left and two inches on the right. That’s 4 inches overall in each dimension.

If your final submitted image is 20 inches on the long side means that your photograph will be 16 inches on the long side. OK? Then we will add 2 inches of mat on both ends of the long side to equal 20 inches. This will be the same on the long side for every single image you do!

The short side dimensions can vary but the theory is the same. We will add a total of 4 inches there too.


Basic Ingredients:

The first inside third of the thickness of the mat measured from the edge of your photo will be black.

Then there will be a thin stroke line (a colored line). More on this later.

And then the outer two thirds beyond the stroke line will also be black.

We will add those 3 elements to your photograph in that order. That’s all there is to it!


Basic Procedure in Photoshop:

Save your image to the requirements stated in the rules. In the case of PPLAC, that is sRGB or Adobe1998 color space and in a JPG file format.

Resize your image to 16 inches on the long side and at 200ppi. (Steps 1 and 2 can be done at the same time when exporting from Lightroom, for example)

Open the file in Photoshop (if it isn’t already).


To create the first third of the mat in black (Remember we are in Photoshop):

Click on “Image” and then “Canvas Size” in the pull-down menu.

The long side should show 16 inches. The short side will vary according to your crop.

Add 1.33 inches to both dimensions. The long side will always be increased to 17.33 inches. Write down the short side length for later and add 1.33 inches to that one too.

Make sure the “Canvas Extension Color” is black and click “OK”.

A uniformly wide black band should appear around your image.

To create the stroke line: The theory here is a line that is in the color family of your photographic subject will subliminally guide the observer (or judge) to that subject. This is actually true. The stroke line also has the perceived effect of giving the mat a “finished” look. This “perception” is debatable but remember that we are playing the game.

Before you create the stroke line, right click on the gray workspace background and click on black as the new background color. This will allow you to see the stroke line color more easily.

Because the “Background” layer is a locked layer the effect we need to access cannot be used. To unlock the layer you can create a duplicate layer. Do this by clicking on the layer and dragging down to the icon next to the trash can. (Second icon from right) This new unlocked layer allows us to use the “fx” button at the bottom of the layers menu.(Two other ways to unlock the Background layer: #1. Double click on the Background layer and rename to Layer 0. #2. Right click on the Background layer and Convert to a Smart Object.)

Click on the “fx” button and then on “Stroke…” in the pull-down menu.

This will bring up the Stroke Layer Style Panel. Make sure “Preview” is checked. Note the settings in the “Structure” box:

Size = 3px

Position = Inside

Blend = Normal

Opacity = 100%









Click on the “Color” box which brings up the “Select Stroke Color” box and turns your cursor into a color picker. Pick a color in your subject.

Adjust the stroke color by dragging the circle around the colored area. Usually I will mute the color so it is more subdued and not as bright as the subject. (Also, you don’t want it so dark you can’t see it within the black mat color.) When you get a color you like, pick “OK” which closes the box.

Then click “OK” in the Layer Style panel to create the stroke line. (Remember that if you decide you want to redo the line, all you need to do is go back a couple of steps in your History panel and redo the procedure.)

To create the outer two thirds of the mat:

Right click on the black background and select gray again to go back to your usual background. (which always should be a neutral gray, by the way)

Flatten the image by clicking on “Layers” at the top and then “Flatten Image” at the bottom of the pull-down menu.

Create the rest of the mat by clicking on “Image” and then “Canvas Size” in the pull-down menu. (Note: You will need to flatten the image to again use the canvas size tool if you converted your layer into an “0” or smart layer.)

Make the long side 20 inches. Remember that the image was 16 inches and we will have added a total of 4 inches. (two inches all the way around)

On the short side, remember the short side dimension of the image that I had you write down? Simply add 4 inches to that and enter that number for the short side. (In the case of the example, the short side of my image was 8.16 inches. Adding 4 inches makes this final dimension 12.16 inches.)

Click on “OK” and you are done.



Save your image. This is a basic formula that has served me well. Yes, you can change anything you want but remember you are selling your image and not the mat. If the mat is distracting then the mat is a problem.



If your image is very dark on the outside edge, the black mat will not contrast enough to be seen and your image edges will be confusing. In this case, simply create your stroke line at the edge of the image. Then in “Canvas Size”, add 4 inches of black to both the width and height and you are done.












In black and white images, make your stroke line gray and not a color.












Some successful variants:

Non-Centered placement










A different color mat than black











Using the image or a texture in the mat rather than a solid color