Framing in Photographic Composition
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 FrameOne 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.
This article is designed to get you thinking about frames that can occur inside of your images.
Natural FramesNature 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.
Artificial FramesYour awareness of these artificial frames might depend on your living arrangement and location. Artificial frames can be incredibly abundant in urban environments.
Frames are everywhere.
Surround, or NotA 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.
A frame can help keep the viewer’s eye from traveling out of the image. Leading lines may terminate at the frame.
Depth, Layers, ContextSimilar 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.
Forced FramingA 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.