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Square format digital photo frame project
Tutorial by Graham Jupp - 17th March 2009

Introduction | Parts | Tools | Construction | Limitations | Hints & Tips | Viewer Submissions

Square digital photo frame

Introduction

Despite the fact that digital photo frames sales have been increasing rapidly over the last few years there remains several hurdles to overcome before they are more widely accepted as the preferred method for displaying our treasured photos.

The first hurdle lies in the fact that the appearance of most digital frames is downright tacky and whilst they may receive a few days use when they are first unwrapped at Christmas, they are quickly relegated to a drawer or perhaps doomed to be displayed on a mantelpiece sporting a perpetual black screen. No matter how nice a frame may look, if they are not ever powered on they may as well be a brick. Hopefully the image above of my modified digital frame is enough to whet your appetite to read on.

When purchasing a digital frame you usually have a choice between a cheap looking faux timber outer frame or perhaps a glossy futuristic product emblazoned with the manufacturer's logo and costing an arm and a leg, for some reason the remote IR sensor also seems to feature prominently on the majority of frames, something which I find detracts even further from their appearance.

For my own needs, I wanted a frame that had a reasonable screen size and resolution (4:3, 8 inches, and at least 800x600 res). I also wanted it to have an elegant outer frame that matched the decor of my house and wouldn't feel too out of place if I decided to wall mount it. The final requirement was that it needed to be affordable, under AUD$150 if possible. Eventually I found a frame that met the technical requirements and price that I was after, unfortunately it lacked a little in the looks department and so the idea was born that I would modify it to suit my own needs.

By chance I happened upon a bargain 8 inch/800x600 frame in 4:3 format at my local Big W store, the brand was one I hadn't heard of before, "Digital Decor" and the product itself simply has a product number in the manual stating FFN503 (There was no product number on the box itself). The sale price was a very affordable $98 and amongst its technical specs it had an interesting feature that caught my eye. The device came with 2 removable frames, one black and one brown. I had been thinking of modding a digital frame into a traditional frame of my own choice and this product seemed to tick all the boxes as the removable frame feature would make it easier when undertaking the modification.

The traditional frame I had chosen to pair with the digital product was readily available from IKEA and also had a feature which is not something you would normally associate with digital frames. The IKEA frame was SQUARE format. Yes I had decided to insert a 4:3 frame into a SQUARE frame and document the process for the benefit of square format image lovers the world over. Square format photos have a wonderful feel and its often easy to crop photos to this format without cutting out too much detail.

So set yourself aside an hour or two and let's get started on the project.


Parts required

Digital Photo Frame
Digital Decor 8" 4:3 frame (Product No: FFN503) 800x600. Try Big W or Target if within Australia. If you cannot find this particular frame in your area then look for something of similar size and with removable frames if possible, ideally it should also have a "step" around the outer edge of the LCD section if possible, remove any existing outer frame to check this. This digital frame is 20cm x 16cm when the outer frame is removed, anything larger may cause problems. Approx retail cost AUD$150 however I picked it up as a "managers special" for AUD$98.

Storage Card
I'm currently using a 1GB SD card for storing my photos. Once photos are reduced to 800x600 the card fits around 5000 images. Cost approx AUD$10

Picture Frame
"Ribba", available IKEA stores AUD$12.95
Solid birch, Clear lacquer
Front protection: Glass
Passe-partout (Matteboard): Paper
Back panel: Fibreboard

Width: 25 cm
Height: 25 cm
Picture, width: 23 cm
Picture, height: 23 cm
Passepartout inside meas. W: 12 cm
Passepartout inside meas. H: 12 cm

Depth: 34mm (not mentioned on IKEA website)

Silicone Tube
I've used a generic brand silicone purchased from a discount store for around AUD$3. Colour choice is optional but I have used black in this tutorial.

Varnish (Optional)
Use for sealing backboard after cutting to prevent flaking and fibre dust.


Tools required

Electric Jigsaw (coping saw or mini hacksaw will suffice).
Drill and bits
Sandpaper
Ruler
Pen or Pencil
2 metre Length of lightweight string/cotton or fishing line with small weight attached to one end
(a screw will do).


Construction Procedure

Before starting, be sure to read the entire procedure just in case you have any problems. It is better to pre-empt problems before they occur rather than at the final step. Before purchasing the Digital Decor frame used in this tutorial I suggest you read the "limitations" topic towards the bottom of this page. In general it is a good product but does have a few bugbears which may or may not receive an update fix.

Step 1

Here's how our trusty frame started life. It came with 2 removable frames made from craftwood, one stained brown and the other black (note that these removable frames are 4:3 aspect NOT square although it may appear so in the image above). Notice the IR receiver eye visible at the bottom of the frame (a pet hate of mine and visible on most digital frames I've seen). I think we can do better. In this tutorial we are using a Digital Decor 8" 4:3 frame (Product No: FFN503) purchased at Big W in NSW Australia (Full retail price approx AUD$150).


Step 2

I've chosen a digital frame with a removable frame surround which is ideal for this modification. We start simply by removing the existing frame.


Step 3

This frame has a "step" around the outside which will prove helpful when it comes to fixing it to a new frame. The green dotted line shows the size of the hole we will need to cut into the backboard of the new frame in order to slot it in. The lower step will be the area that is eventually glued to the backboard with silicone. The step also ensures that we can fit the LCD panel close to the matteboard so that there is very little gap between the matteboard and the LCD surface (approx 2mm).

Note the IR Remote Receiver at the bottom of the screen, this will be covered by the matteboard but should still work with a reduced range (but a nicer appearance). Its an interesting side note that the IR remote will work through 2mm of cardboard.


Step 4

Here we see the new frame or "Ribba" as those Swedes prefer to say, purchased from Ikea and generally available at Ikea stores worldwide. I've chosen this frame as it has a solid wooden frame with deep edges (35mm deep) to contain most of the LCD panel without sticking out too far from the wall when mounted. The matteboard cutout section is exactly 120mm x 120mm and fits the LCD display area with only about 1mm to spare so its important that your measurements are fairly exact when undertaking this modification.

Since the cutout is square and our LCD panel is rectangular (4:3 aspect) part of the left and right hand sides of the screen will be covered by the matteboard and therefore not visible. Using this 800x600 panel as an example, we are left with 600x600 pixels viewable. However, what we lose in horizontal screen size we make up for in originality and appearance. When was the last time your saw a square format digital frame for sale in a store?


Step 5

Turn the frame over and lift the metal lugs to remove the backboard. Here I've placed the LCD panel into the frame to test the overall fit and approximate position. Turn the frame over whilst holding the LCD in place to get an idea how your LCD looks in relation to matteboard. If you are using the exact same 8 inch "Digital Decor" frame as this one it should fit just nicely, however if you are using another model you may need to have a new matteboard cut to size if the cutout isn't quite small enough.

If you are choosing a different digital frame, ensure that the vertical height of the LCD screen is no less than 120mm otherwise you will need a custom matteboard to be cut. Additionally, you don't really want the height to be much more than 120mm or else you will be wasting vertical pixels and the unit itself may not fit the new frame. Remember that you will still need to be able to insert at least some form of storage card and power cable into the unit so ensure that everything fits before going to far with this modification.


Step 6

Remove the matteboard from the frame and place it down directly over the top of the frame's backboard. Ensure that the backboard is smooth side up. The matteboard should sit as flush as possible with the backboard on all sides.


Step 7

Using a pen or pencil, mark the location of the 4 corners of the cutout onto the backboard as indicated by the arrows. Try to be as accurate as possible but take care not to mark the matteboard itself.


Step 8

Remove the matteboard and use a ruler and pen to connect the 4 marks you made in the previous step. You should be left with a square 120mm x 120mm. If you are using a digital frame other than the one mentioned here you can then use this square as a starting point for measuring out the section you will need to cut. Since its not possible for me to be aware of the exact frame you will be using, you will need to use your own method for deciding where to cut in this case. You will however need to measure the edges of the digital frame itself and decide the distance to extend the cut from the square section and mark those measurements on the backboard ready for cutting.


Step 9

For those of you using the exact same digital frame as in this tutorial I have included the measurements required to cut the backboard. The outer green rectangle denotes the area to be cut and removed. I strongly suggest you double check these measurements against those of your own digital frame in the likely event that the sizing is somewhat different. Keep in mind that there may also be some small variations in the production of the Ikea frame itself which may lead to the backboard and/or frame being not quite square. Note the placement of the small notch to be cut so the IR remote signal can be detected by the receiver. Whilst the signal will go through cardboard, it wont go through the backboard itself without the hole.


Step 10

Drill a pilot hole in each corner of the outer cut guides. The hole should be large enough to fit the jigsaw or coping saw blade. The backboard material is fairly flimsy and will flake easily on the opposite side but this can be removed later with a light sanding. You may also wish to use a larger drill bit to cut out the hole for the IR receiver, or you can simply use your saw.


Step 11

Working on the edge of a bench, insert your electric jigsaw or coping saw into the pilot hole and proceed to cut out the marked area. This image shows only one pilot hole, but its best to have a hole at each corner to make it easier.


Step 12

Give the inner edges of the cutout a sand to remove any rough edges. The board splinters very easily but only takes a light sand to smooth. You may wish to give the backboard a vacuum or perhaps even seal the rough side with varnish as the dust from the board can end up inside the completed frame quite easily.


Step 13

Here's the completed backboard ready to be inserted back into the frame. I suggest giving the smooth side a light sand around the inner perimeter to ensure a better bond with the silicone when applied in the next step. Insert the digital frame into the cutout to make sure it lines up correctly and that the IR hole is correctly positioned. You may also wish to check that the matteboard lines up correctly with the digital frame positioned in the backboard. Now is the time to fine tune the cutout if its not quite right. There is a little room for adjustment once completed but its best to ensure that you get things right here.


Step 14

Remove the LCD panel and insert the matteboard and modified backboard back into the frame and lock the board in place with the metal lugs. Then run a bead of silicone around the perimeter of the cutout, leaving a break at the IR remote hole. The digital frame used in this tutorial has a stepped edged that is about twice as deep as the thickness of the backboard, so in this case I used a double height bead of silicone, applying first one layer and then another layer on top of the first bead (don't let either bead set). This ensures that the silicone makes a good contact with the digital frame once it is inserted into the cutout hole. The overhang of this particular digital frame is less than 10mm so be careful not to apply the silicone too far from the inner edge.


Step 15

Almost finished. After applying the silicone beading, insert the digital frame into the cutout section taking care to line it up carefully before pushing down with a slight pressure. Be careful not to get any silicone on the actual LCD panel itself. Remember that you are pushing onto glass so don't press too hard. You may wish to turn the frame over at this stage whilst holding the unit in place just to check that everything has lined up correctly.The silicone beading should push out a little from the edges of the digital frame if its making good contact. If this is not the case you may need to remove the the unit and apply some extra silicone.


Step 16

Gently place a heavy book onto the back of the digital frame to apply a little extra pressure whilst the silicone is setting. Remember, nothing too heavy as you don't want to accidentally crack the glass. Leave the silicone to set for about 24 hours (check the recommended curing time on the tube).


Square Digital Photo Frame

Step 17

Once your frame is complete you will likely want to mount it on a wall rather than storing it in a drawer. You can see from the angled image above that the modified frame does not extend much more from the wall than it usually would if it had a still image inside. If you are wall mounting the frame you may also want to hide the unsightly power cable from view. If you have a timber framed home with a cavity in the walls the cable can be hidden within in the wall cavity with the aid of an electrician who should be able to advise you as to the best and safest method to do this. I would very much like to describe the technique here as the procedure is quite easy however due to dangerous voltages being involved I think its best if you contact an expert rather than have this tutorial subjected to legal issues.

DO NOT ATTEMPT ELECTRICAL WORK YOURSELF IF NOT QUALIFIED
TOUCHING LIVE WIRES MAY CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH.

I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and I look forward to receiving your emails regarding your own projects. If you have used the tutorial to re frame your own Digital photo frame then I would love to hear from you. I will feature some of the best user submitted creations on this page. Email graham@fontgod.com

 


Digital Decor frame limitations

Whilst I'm generally very pleased with the display quality of the screen there are a few annoyances with this particular model. There is a facility to upgrade the firmware/software on the frame which could potentially fix some of these issues however I'm not holding my breath for a fix any time soon even though I have made the supplier aware of the issues. Perhaps if a large number of purchasers contact the supplier we may see an update.

  1. Cannot view images by folder. All images are lumped into one big folder even if you have separated them on the storage device.
  2. Auto Power on/off feature bug. If you set the screen to power down during a PM hour and then set it to restart at an AM hour it will restart immediately upon shutting down. A workaround is to incorrectly set your clock so that AM is actually PM. Alternatively, set your screen to auto shutdown just after midnight and then restart when you wake up.
  3. No auto resume of last task upon auto restart. Whilst you can set your screen to turn off and wake up at a certain hour, it will default to the main menu upon restarting. It would have been much handier if it could have started the slideshow automatically once it restarted, thus making it a "set and forget" appliance. As it is now I have to manually start the slideshow each morning with a push of a remote button.
  4. No way to turn screen on or off via remote control. Whilst you can set the timer to do this for you (if it worked properly) I have no idea why the remote design doesn't include a power button.
  5. Don't lose the remote. Should you misplace the remote or if it should suddenly die, it is not possible to adjust all setup options via the buttons on the frame (there are no up and down buttons needed to navigate the setup screen). So treat that remote nicely.
  6. No battery backup for internal clock. Whilst the screen will retain its settings if you pull the mains plug the clock will actually stop at the time it loses power and restart again once connected. This means if you unplug the unit or suffer a power outage for an hour then the clock will be one hour behind.

Hints and Tips

Resize your images:
To save space and for best image results its usually best to resize your images to the native resolution of the screen. In this particular tutorial and product selection that will mean 800x600. At first I made the mistake of resizing my images to 600x600 as this is roughly the visible area through the matteboard cutout. However this resulted in the screen stretching the images horizontally for me which was not the result I desired. I decided to crop all my images to 620 wide by 600 high and then add some black space to the left and right of the image as filler taking the actual image size back to 800x600. I used 620 as I wanted a 10pixel buffer either side under the matteboard.

USB drive wont fit:
Depending on which screen you decide to use, you may find that your USB drive or longer memory cards such as Memory Stick may not fit correctly or may be visible outside the frame area. I suggest using an SD card as they are both cheap and compact. If you don't have an SD card reader/writer in your PC remember that you can connect the screen to your computer using a USB cable and use it to write directly to the card (this is the case with the Digital Decor frame, please check to make sure this is possible with the frame you choose). If you really cant do without the USB facility, perhaps buy a short USB extension cable and reposition the USB drive somewhere behind the screen. Miniature USB drives are also available which may fit.

Increasing Remote Control range:
Whilst the remote control will likely work straight through the matteboard of the frame (surprisingly) you may find that the range decreases substantially particularly if the remote battery has a low charge. To increase the range, you may wish to carve out a small depression on the reverse side of the matteboard immediately in front of the IR receiver. Start by using a very sharp scalpel blade (hobby knife) to cut a small square into the matteboard about 5mm x 5mm. However do NOT cut right through the board, the idea is to not see the hole from the front side. Once you have cut the square, proceed to peel off the top layer of the cardboard in the area of the square, if you are careful you should be able to dig out a depression allowing a better range for the remote control.

Poor LCD viewing angle when mounted high on a wall:
Most LCD panels perform poorly when viewed from an angle below the level of the screen. Manufacturers assume that you will more likely to be looking down on a screen rather than looking up from below. This is particularly noticeable when you are close to the screen. If you intend to wall mount the frame well above the height of the average person you may find that the screen appears very dark. One possible way around this is to rotate the frame 180 degree as the viewing angle will increase. You will need to attach the supplied wire to the frame in this case, rather than using the inbuilt hanging notch on the back of the screen itself. YOu will also need to rotate all your images before uploading to the screen. Another alternative is to ensure that the frame leans out from the wall slightly when you mount it. This provides a little more viewing angle, particularly for people who may be height challenged. :)

Dust inside the frame:
The backboard is prone to shed fibres and dust especially once cut. Give the board and frame a good vacuum before assembling. You may also wish to seal the board itself with a varnish as this will help keep the dust contained.

Edges of digital frame are visible within the matteboard cutout:
This tutorial requires that your measurements are fairly accurate as there is not much room for error. However if you find your frame is not correctly centred you have several options. The easiest option is to move the matteboard and or backboard slightly until you have a good fit and then lock the board into place with the lugs, generally you have a few mm to work with if it doesn't line up initially. If this fails, cut a new backboard and repeat the process or have a framing shop cut a new matteboard with a slightly smaller cutout section to cover the error. because you are using silicone rather than glue, removing the old backboard and silicone should not be too hard if you don't get it right first time around.

Changing the colour of the outer frame:
Whilst the Birch timber frame may be nice for most uses, it may not suit the decor of your home. Ikea do sell a similar version of the frame in several colours including black and white, however you could easily apply a coat of spraypaint to the wooden frame yourself if you wanted to add some extra colour such as bright red or green for instance, keep in mind that neutral colours will likely work best as the images in your frame will likely be of different colours and may not match your frame colour choice. A rough whitewash might also be an interesting idea. If you wish to stain the timber a darker colour, you would first need to give the frame a light sanding to remove the coat of varnish before applying a stain of your choice.

Embellishing the frame:
You may wish to add some extra life to the outer frame by gluing different materials or objects to the timber. Stones, shells, sticks, beetles, sand, cloth, buttons, metal offcuts, fake fur etc will all add to the individuality of your new digital frame. Alternatively you could try your hand at decoupage and apply photos and magazine cutouts to the out frame and then seal with varnish. Because the outer frame itself is reasonably cheap you could purchase several and create different frames to suit your moods, simply swap out the modified digital frame and backboard and place it in the new frame.

Using the frame as a "stage":
Digital frames all have one thing in common. When turned off and you are left with a very boring black screen. What if we could create a frame that will also hold interest in its off state. We can do this by placing objects in front of the LCD screen itself but behind the matteboard, perhaps a dried fern leaf, a collection of woolen threads of varying colours, a paper cutout of a scene (tall birds, trees, snowman, bull rushes) etc. These will of course obscure the image somewhat when the screen is turned on but some interesting effects can be achieved depending on what images you decide to show in the background. For instance you might show a collection of rainforest images if you were using a real fern leaf in the foreground.

if you wish to add even more effect to the idea of using the frame as a stage, perhaps consider installing the screen into a deeper frame whereby the LCD is set back a few cm from the matteboard. This will allow you to place thicker objects in the space between the LCD and the matteboard. You could then create a colourful scene of perhaps a "twig" forest (perhaps painted yellow or white for contrast against the black LCD when it is off. Your display images might be a collection of sunset photos or perhaps rainbow skies thus creating an interesting ever changing backdrop for your creation. Another interesting idea is to use florist wire to mount small shells or a starfish in front of the LCD and display beach or coral reef scenes in the background.

Using the frame as a light box:
By printing or painting a design or image onto quality tracing paper and placing them immediately in front of the LCD panel its possible to create a light box effect when the screen is turned on, and still have a nice image displayed when the screen is off. The images you choose to display on the LCD screen could simply be solid bright white to backlight the tracing paper image, or you can strategically place large dots of white behind sections of the paper image that you wish to light. having several of these images running looping in quick succession results in a "twinkling" effect which can be quite useful. Some ideas might be to print a front on photo of an old hotrod car and place an image of two white dots on the LCD panel behind where the headlights are. This gives the effect of the lights turning on and off. Another suggestion which I have tried is to print a photo of a pinball playfield and place coloured light spots in the digital image behind. When you play several varying "backlight" images in succession the effect is very nice particularly in a darkened room.

Cool ideas for square format images:
There is plenty of subject matter that looks fantastic when cropped to square format although of course there are some exceptions. For instance, a photo of a large group of people standing side by side at a wedding is not usually a good candidate for cropping unless the photo was originally taken with this in mind and framed accordingly.You will need to leave substantial space at the sides of group shots if you want to include it in a square frame.

I personally have a strong interest in Pinball, and the square format frame is perfect for displaying the backglass art of a pinball table. The art is usually square to start with and hence lends itself perfectly to being displayed on a square format digital photo frame.

Other good subject matter includes close up plant and flower photography, rocks, sunsets, buildings, textures, faces... with some creative cropping and some forethought when taking the picture you will come up with some fantastic candidates for inclusion on your new frame.

Creative Matteboard cutting:
Why not purchase some blank matteboard and cut out your own creative shapes though which your images will shine through. The images you display on the screen might be just a series of alternating solid colours (invader changes from green to blue to red etc), or perhaps colour gradients, textures or actual photo images. Here's some mockup ideas to get you started. With the first invader image you will need to stick the eye squares on to either the inside of the glass or perhaps to the LCD directly using an easy to remove glue (try a small area first to make sure it can be easily removed). You could also create the eyes on the actual digital image itself and have them move around or blink. Dont forget that you can also display video on most frames so this could be an interesting project. Two or three of these frames in a series side by side or vertical would look very cool.

An X-Acto Econo Swivel Knife or similar product should make the cutting of curves somewhat easier.


User Submissions

Submit your creations:
Hopefully I have encouraged you to try your own frame modification. I would love to hear how you went with your project, the type and brand of frame you used etc. This will enable me to build up a list of suitable frames to use. Send me an image of your completed frame and I'll post some of the best ones here (keep the images under 500kb).
Email Graham


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