A great frame takes the world around you and brings it to life. It provide structure, perspective, and personality. It also works as a powerful tool for communication.
In fact, the artful use of framing has been responsible for some of the most influential photographs (and films) in history.
So what is the art of framing?
This lesson aims to teach you just that. To truly understand framing, however, we have to expand our scope. Focusing solely on photography will limit our grasp of the subject.
It’s for this reason that we begin with the most basic – neutral – place of all.
While reality is a somewhat foreign topic to photography, you’ll soon see how this easily connects with the process of framing. In fact, you’ll soon see how framing is much more than composition.
Reality is Always Framed
Framing happens more than just when we take a picture. In fact, it goes on each and every moment of our lives.
For example, we are told we need formal education to be a success. This is a frame. It controls our activities when we are young.
Is it a fact?
Not necessarily. Some people grow up to be successful despite a lack of formal education.
Bring up that fact, however, and the frame of ‘school = success’ will begin to crumble. In fact, another frame will come to clear view – that of success. What is success? Who defines it?
While I personally am a big supporter for education, the key point I’m trying to make is that frames show a part of something at the exclusion of others.
The more you try to be inclusive of every point of view, the weaker your frame.
Strong frames have strong character. And great characters – whether it’s the hero in an action movie or a moody ray of sun falling on an abandoned rusty chair – all have strong features that make them unique.
Reality can be seen in an infinite number of different frames.
There is no right or wrong. There just is.
And this is what gives us photographers and artists true creative power.
We choose to frame our vision how we want it.
We can choose to over-interpret or under interpret certain aspects of reality.
As an example, look at this water. In one shot, the water is framed to show an excess of water. In the other, it is diminished.
We could call the above a handful of composition techniques (spacing, use of lines and perspective, etc…) but it all comes down to one thing – the frame.
The frame controls your output as an artist.
Whether you know it or not, your views and ideas that guide your life influence the way you frame your shots. I’ll cover more on this concept (and how to give yourself more creative fuel) later in this post.
Before that, let’s return to the idea of the frame as controlling what others see – often to the exclusion of other facts or details.
In the example from earlier, for the frame ‘school = success’ to work, we have to minimize those few examples of people that succeeded without school. If we bring up those examples, the importance of school will be weakened.
So to make school appear more vital to success, we bring up those professions, statistics, and other tidbits to make it appear stronger.
The same process of selection and exclusion happens when we frame an image.
Take pictures of things everyone is already familiar with and show them in a familiar way. What will happen? Likely viewers will pay little, if any, attention to them.
Familiar views just aren’t that interesting.
The reason is that these frames are already in line with the frames that viewers already have. You’re showing them something they already experience. And the content of this frame (familiar objects/sights they don’t really care for) do little, if anything, to elicit emotion.
Interesting frames are those that are different.
This is where the power of framing comes in. Framing allows us to show familiar (or exotic) things in interesting, unique ways.
The first way we do this is by determining exactly what we want to share. Then, being exact and simple with the way we share it.
To illustrate, imagine what a typical new camera owner does when they see a beautiful sunset. They point their camera at the sunset and take the picture.
Little, if any, thought goes into the framing of this sunset.
As a result, these images usually end up showing everything. And they’re quite boring.
What motivates us to snap a shot is not a simple thing.
There was something that caught our eye.
Diving into our minds to find this hidden answer will greatly help with framing.
“No object is perceived as unique or isolated. Seeing something involves assigning it a place in the whole: a location in space, a score on the scale of size or brightness or distance.”
Rudolf Arnheim, Art and VIsual Perception
Use the Frame to Focus Attention
The easiest way to make frames more powerful is by taking great pains to focus the viewer’s attention.The more simple a frame, the more inviting it is for viewers to linger.
When you’ve found what caught your eye, compose your image to bring out those elements.
Make them simple. Make them powerful.
Make the viewer only able to see those things at the exclusion of everything else. Take note of the colors within the frame. Are you using too many colors? Too few?
Do the strongest, brightest colors occur on objects you want viewers to see? Or are they bringing out background objects of no real importance?
The more you share with viewers, the more opportunity for confusion.
Refine your vision.
Be Aware of Space
Every photo you take has both positive and negative space. Positive space is defined as the area where your primary subject or area of interest is. Negative space is the area surrounding this positive space.
The way you frame your image will determine the amount of space both these areas take up.
Do you want your subject to appear strong and large or meek and small?
Large amounts of positive space would work for the former, making your subject appear larger and more important.
Conversely, little positive space would give your subject less prominence, calling more attention to the surrounding negative space.
“The awareness of the quality of space that is in our photos is akin to our awareness of the very air in our photos, the atmosphere that pervades every square inch of our image and yet is often invisible to the photographer.”
If you aren’t sure which part of your image is positive and which is negative, you may have a more serious composition issue at hand.
Unless your photo aims to depict a certain atmosphere or mood, your composition may be lacking in clarity.
Take a step to the left or right. Crouch down or get on your toes. Do whatever is needed to isolate your subject.
Isolation, of course, can be used in many ways. You can use isolation to get rid of background excess (colors, lines, objects) and make your main subject more clear to viewers.
You can also isolate in a way that adds more negative space around your subject.
Frames Build Upon Instinctual Reactions
What you put within your frame is just as important as how you frame it. Look at some of the most iconic photographs from the past hundred years and you’ll find several poorly composed images.
The reason these photographs are still regarded as works of art has not so much to do with the composition (the form) as the content.
The content defined the frame.
Sometimes great content is all you need for a great photo.
Naturally, people are instinctively drawn to some things more than others.
- Historic events
- Novelty or unseen sights (three headed lizards, a super tornado, etc)
- Infants (studies show our pupils dilate when we see babies)
- Dangerous things (cliffs, snakes, and spiders)
- Objects and activities with psychological conditioning (seeing a photo of your favorite food or childhood home)
When you are taking a photograph of a subject with an instinctual reaction built into it, people will feel that gut level response. Your frame, then, should serve to make the emotional response as dramatic (or whatever meaning you’re trying to elicit) as possible.
What about scenes or shoots without that instinctual reaction built into them?
It’s during these everyday occasions when framing is even more important. It’s what makes the difference from someone seeing your photo and saying ‘nice tree’ and someone saying ‘look at those textures, that’s beautiful!’
Build Up a Trance (or Break It)
When you frame several objects with similar characteristics (a similar brightness, color, size, shape, or movement), viewers will tend to merge these different objects into a cohesive whole.
A shot of a single zebra on a lone desert landscape, for example, makes the zebra’s stripes strong and eye-catching.
Several zebras huddled together, however, makes the stripes of a single zebra less visible. The herd becomes more of the focus.
You can use this effect in many ways.
Repetition of color, light, subject, shapes, etc could create a feeling of monotony, cohesiveness, and tranquility.
Think of impressionistic images with similar color tones and low contrast throughout.
You could also use similarity and repetition as a set-up. You build a visual rhythm viewers become accustomed to, only to break it.
Pars Pro Toto
Framing does not mean you have to capture your entire subject or scene. Often times, less is more.
The latin figure of speech pars pro toto encapsulates this sentiment.
Latin for ‘a part taken for the whole,’ pars pro toto describes using a portion of an object, place or idea to represent its entirety.
When you see a splendid sunset, don’t feel compelled to capture the entire horizon from foreground to background.
Instead, think of framing only the part of the scene that’s most representative of the entire view.
George Lakoff gives a clear everyday example of this in ‘Metaphors We Live By’:
“If you ask me to show you a picture of my son and I show you a picture of his face, you will be satisfied. You will consider yourself to have seen a picture of him. But if i show you a picture of his body without his face, you will consider it strange and will not be satisfied. You might even ask, ‘But what does he look like?’”
George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By
Concepts Govern How You Frame What’s Around You
The concept of ‘face as person’ allows you to take a picture of a face and have everyone accept it as a representation of the person.
This is one of many concepts we have naturally accepted and allowed to control how we frame the world around us.
“Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.”
George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By
If you think you know what good landscape photos look like, if you’ve seen dozens of images of wide angle shots, if you’ve devoured hundreds of night photographs, here’s what happens.
You will take the concepts and framing approaches others have used and apply them on your own.
Whether you know it or not, a majority of what you do will be duplication.
This is why I always recommend trying something new.
Start a new hobby. Watch a weird documentary you’d never actually want to watch. Visit a new city or country with different traditions.
This will force you to learn new concepts.
Concepts that can then shape how you frame your next photographs.
“…What a person sees in a picture, or, even more, gleans from an utterance or a text, is a function of their previous experience, their mindset, their culture, etc.”
Alfred Gell, Art and Agency
Use the Frame to Influence Visual Perception
Which should come first, framing or efforts to influence perception (aka composition)? And is there any difference from the two?
The fact is, there are dozens (if not hundreds), of techniques for affecting visual perception.
- Use a telephoto lens to reduce perspective and a wide angle lense to increase it.
- Use high contrast mixes of dark and bright, simple and complex to add more perspective
- Use similar color hues to weaken perspective
- Include or accentuate diagonal lines to strengthen depth
The reason I bring up these various techniques is to show how many ways we can influence perspective.
If we don’t know the why for influencing perspective, however, we’ll be fishing around photographing this, that, and everything else.
Your frame controls the why. It’s more than just composition.
It’s a combination of what you want to convey and the structure to convey it.
“…the frame is the stage on which the image evolves.“
The Photographer’s Eye, Michael Freeman The Photographer’s Eye
You Frame What You Bring to the Table
Your skills of seeing, digesting, and creating compelling compositions will be based primarily on what you know. If you have a strong background in seeing patterns, you’ll likely take many pictures with patterns.
If you are an architect or civil engineer, you’ll likely have a strong tendency to compose images with strong lines and curves.
What’s more, all of these skills will be driven by the ideas and concepts that run your mind.
If you obsess with shadows and isolation, you’ll likely gravitate towards darker, higher contrast images.
When you bring new experiences and ideas into the equation, however, everything changes.
Photography, like all arts, serves as a means of expression.
Whether we like it or not, our art is always giving clear indications of who we are as individuals.
Developing our style and use of the photographic frame, then, becomes a way for us to develop ourselves as humans too.
If you struggle taking good pictures and have years of experience, maybe all you need is a simple look within.
What really drives you? What compels you to do what you do, think what you think, and be who you are?
Although you may never know the precise answer, starting the search could very well be the ignition to better, more meaningful photography.