In a sense, every act of creating a photograph is an act of framing. We frame a scene with our camera and capture it with a photograph. The camera and lens determine the field of view and, through aiming, zooming, and positioning, we decide what to include or exclude from that field of view.
There are several places where the word “framing” appears in photography, from the act of framing an image in the viewfinder of a camera, to the act of putting your favorite print in a frame for display.
This article is about framing in composition.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
The Frame within the Frame
One way to emphasize your subject compositionally is to place the subject inside of some sort of frame inside your image—natural, artificial, or both. The world gives us a countless number of frames through which to photograph.
To start the discussion, let us look at the most basic scenario.
You are inside a room and the subject you want to photograph is outside and visible through a window. As a photographer, without leaving the room, you have two options. 1) You can get close to the window and photograph the subject alone or, 2) you can include the window frame in your image of that subject. This is framing.
Framing can either improve the focus on your subject, or unnecessarily detract from it. When it comes to internal framing, not all subjects need frames to contain the image and not all frames enhance the subject. As the photographer, it is up to you to decide when, where, and how to use the frames that surround you.
This article is designed to get you thinking about frames that can occur inside of your images.
Nature provides us with many frames in the “wild.” Hills, trees, branches, leaves, rocks, cliffs, riverbanks, the shoreline, and even the horizon can serve as frames inside of a photograph. Are you in a crowded room? People can be used to frame things and other people. Almost anything in nature can be used as a frame within a photograph.
Beyond the physical, light and shadow can also act as frames. Contrast and texture can serve as frames. An image in which the subject is captured with shallow depth of field can be a form of framing. This shallow depth of field might render the frame as out of focus, but it still functions as a frame for the image.
Specular out-of-focus regions of an image can create frames.
Your awareness of these artificial frames might depend on your living arrangement and location. Artificial frames can be incredibly abundant in urban environments.
Buildings, homes, fences, windows, doors, warehouses, lamp posts, signs, sidewalks, cracks in sidewalks, doorways, archways, overpasses, bridges, tunnels, cars, trucks—you name it—if man created it; you can use it as a frame inside a photograph. Architecture not only provides the world with structures in which to eat, sleep, shop, and exist, it gives the photographer innumerable framing opportunities for his or her images.
Frames are everywhere.
Surround, or Not
A frame need not surround your subject. In our example, the photograph through the window works well, and we often capture all four sides of the window frame to emphasize the subject, but not every frame needs to do this. A frame can create a floor, one wall, or a ceiling for your subject, or combination of the three. Frames can be curved as well.
The edges of the frames may be variable. The frame on one side of an image can be created by a building. A silhouetted man can frame the opposite side of the photograph. The lightly colored concrete curb might make up the bottom frame. A cloud might frame the top of the image. Or, maybe there is no frame on the top.
Framing can be fluid. Framing may be symmetrical, or it may not. Framing is whatever you make it to be with your composition.
A frame can help keep the viewer’s eye from traveling out of the image. Leading lines may terminate at the frame.
Depth, Layers, Context
Similar to the other tools of composition, framing can create depth in an image, but not always. The frame can be in the foreground, or behind the subject. Or it can be equidistant from the camera and the subject. In its ability to indicate depth, framing can be a great tool for giving your photograph additional layers. Layered photos sometimes contain a magical complexity, with independent subjects, or added context, in the foreground, middle ground, and background of an image.
Framing your subject can help give the image a sense of place and time. Beyond the physical, framing can also help add to the meaning of the photograph and/or provide an increased sense of place.
A good friend once attended a photo workshop where the instructor was all about frames. She then set off into the world looking for frames for every image she took. She was quickly over-thinking framing.
Framing is not a necessary ingredient for every photograph. In fact, there are many times where framing will do more harm than good to an image. Do not frame for the sake of framing.
Look for Frames
Like leading lines, the Rule of Thirds, and other compositional tools, framing is just that: a tool. Framing may, at times, help you add something to your image. Not every frame deserves a photograph, and not every photograph deserves (or needs) a frame inside the frame. Look for frames. Notice them. But do not force them into your images. Use them when it works.
The photos sure help me understand what you're communicating. To me those specific photos are perfect examples.
I love that I get the benefits of your graduate degree without actually having to pay you anything, though I do wish I could give you some crawfish or something.
Thanks for the kind words, lance! I am glad you are enjoying the articles.
I don't eat crawfish, but I know a bunch of people who do!