digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Create Strong Photographic Composition Using Framing

Photography is a combination of many skills. You have to learn the technical (exposure, white balance, etc), the aesthetic (how it looks, is the image visually interesting), and about post-processing. In a past article “3 Tips to Help you Compose Photos That Don't Suck” we looked at a few basic ways to start taking your photos from snapshot to art. In this article we're going to look at another compositional element used by photographers and artists alike – that is “framing”.

Kodak-house-framing
In this image of Eastman Kodak House (the home of the founder of Kodak, George Eastman), the trees arching overhead make a frame around the house drawing the viewer's attention inward.

What is framing?

Framing is exactly as it implies, seeing your image through something that frames it such as; a doorway, a window, through leaves of a tree, etc.

Framing your subject within a another is a strong, graphical composition. The ideal is to use the frame portion to complement and highlight the subject.

natural-frame-tree

Tips for using framing

  • Look for ways to shoot through natural frames to highlight your subject. Trees, doorways and windows work well.
  • If you find an interesting subject, photograph it as you normally would first. Then look behind you to see if there is anything that can be used as a frame. Sometimes simply backing up and shooting through the doorway behind you does the trick.
  • Focus on the subject, NOT the foreground element which is the frame. The viewer's eye will go to the sharpest area of the image and you want that to be the subject. You don't want the frame drawing attention, it should support the subject, not take away from it.
  • Make sure the element being used as a frame isn't overly bright. Like sharp focus, brightness also draws the viewer's attention. If you're shooting into a building and using the doorway as a frame – but the outside of the doorway is in sunlight and the inside where you subject is location is much darker – it will not be as effective because the door will stand out more. In such a situation I would suggest just going inside and not including the bright doorway.
  • You must frame SOMETHING INTERESTING! Just because you have a frame in your image doesn't mean it will be a winner. You have to have something worth framing on the other side. You must still have a center of interest – a subject. Framing an empty parking lot with a lovely tree – is still an empty parking lot. Consider if the photo of the subject being framed would be interesting enough on its own first. If it is, then go ahead and frame it. If not – adding a frame will NOT make it more interesting. This is the biggest mistake I see beginners make when attempting to use framing.
natural-framing-leaves
Having the tree or branches framing the bride gives the image an element of mystery. Like we're peeking in on something.

Geometric frames

Using strong shapes to frame is graphically interesting. Shapes like squares (doors, windows), circles (could be a window), or archways make great framing material.

window-framingarch-framing

arch-framing-02

arch-framing-03

Natural frames

These would include the obvious tree branches, leaves, flowers, etc.

natural-framing-trees

In the image above I used a few other compositional elements. The pathway is a leading line – draws your attention toward the temple. Complementary colors – the green trees and blue sky help the red temple stand out even more. But the large trees on both sides provide a solid feel to the image, a stability if you will, and they help to keep your eye in the center of the image on the temple. I took a few shots from closer up, as I stood in front of the trees. As I walked away from the temple, I simply turned back to have a look and saw this scene – which to me is a far superior image.

framing-other-02
I found these little clothes pegs on the line on Koh Samui, Thaliand. Then I noticed the funny pattern the leaves on the tree directly in front of me made and how they oddly mimicked the clothes pegs. It's one of my favorite images. It's so simple – but it all works together.

Think outside the box

There are many other ways you can use framing. Have a look around right now – what do you see in your current location that could be used as a frame?

  • eyeglasses or sunglasses
  • a car window
  • people
  • chair or table legs
  • how about people legs or dog's legs? Get down low!
window-framing-02
I know this is a window but it's in a car junk yard in an old mine. This fellow was our model for one of my workshops and the light was just right in between two cars. I took some of him straight on then moved around behind one of the cars to get this shot.
framing-other-04
Notice how the old car's windshield is the frame here (or partial frame). I think it adds to a sense of time and interest in the image – with the word “Automobile” on the window and the gentlemen's period costume (they are actors at a museum).

framing-other-03

I love the layers and depth in this image (above). If you've ever been to New Orleans you know exactly where this was taken! Cafe du Monde – you can see the people having coffee in the foreground and they have actually become the frame here. Then our sax player is the subject. In the background you see the art for sale in the square across the street and some people browsing as they pass by. For me is sums up this coffee shop and the area in one image.

Action plan

Now it's your turn. Have you used framing in your images before? If not now is the time to try it. Give it a go and share your images in the comments below. Remember this is not an easy one to get right off so practice, practice, practice. If you're doing the use your camera daily challenge here's something you can integrate.

If you want more help with composition you might want to check out our online course – 4 Weeks to Better Photography where I cover framing and quite a few other elements of composition in more detail.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Rob H

    Thanks for the great article, Darlene. On the image with two men walking under the arches, did you meter on one of the men’s faces? What settings did you use?

    • For that one I had actually taken a shot without them and checked exposure – then they walked in and I took another and liked it even better. No I metered the entire scene and used exposure compensation in Aperture priority to place the exposure where I wanted.

  • Lynda Olsen

    super tips and the examples you have shown are wonderful to illustrate the concepts! thank you

  • Great article. Refreshing to see this concept taken to the level shown in these examples. I had started to shy away from using this technique based on some comments I had seen but I will now use it more often. Again, well done and great insight.

    • Thanks Ron. Someone told you framing as a compositional element was bad?

      • Not that it was bad but the general thought was that it was as positive a point and not as big of a deal as some other techniques that could be used with images. I personally like the technique now more than ever after seeing such excellent examples.

  • Mike Vincent

    Great topic, framing gives a great image context. Something I am enjoying a lot more of.

    • abrianna

      Very nice.

      • Mike Vincent

        Thank you Abrianna.

    • Julie

      Very nice capture Mike! To make it an even stronger shot crop it vertically. Thank you for sharing. :). I need to hit these picture icons often.

      • Mike Vincent

        Thank you July. Would you believe I took his image two years ago when I had no idea what I was doing with my camera – D90? When I saw this view, it felt…just “right”. Your comment about vertical makes perfect sense, no distraction of the bin on the right. Cheers.Mike

        • Hi Mike – Yes nice frame. I agree with Julie also that if you crop is vertical (taking out the extra on both sides and losing the trash can) it would be even stronger. Good job.

          • Mike Vincent

            Thanks Darlene.
            I am going through my images to find the original so that I can follow your coaching and share later. Appreciate your feedback.

        • Mike Vincent

          Thanks Darlene – excellent advice. This is a perfect example of getting the shot right in camera. Anyway, here is my adjustment. Thank you, great coaching. Mike

  • losschwabos

    Nice article, and very timely for me, since I just shot this the day before yesterday. Do you think the framing in te bottom part works? It would seem to contradict the point about the frame being darker, but I personally think it does work since the background is dark and my main subject, the church, is bright anyway.

    • Leyden

      I’m not sold on the right bank being a frame, but it is EXCELLENT composition anyway….

      • losschwabos

        Thanks a lot Leyden! That’s good enough for me:)

    • I’m sorta of with Leyden on that, not sure I’d call it framing but it works. If there were a big white fluffy cloud to balance the snow then perhaps we can call it a frame as it would enclose the castle a bit more. But either way good shot.

      • losschwabos

        Thanks for the feedback Darlene! Looking at it with some distance I can definitely see what you mean, I think I was still so mentally involved with the photo, since I’d just shot it the day before. I remember spending quite a bit of time looking for the right spot and composition that evening, so I’m glad it seems to have paid off, frame or no frame.

  • abrianna

    This is one of my favorites for framing and leading lines. I liked the shadow patterns here as well.

    • Allan Jones

      I love this image Abrianna! The metaphor of those solid raw timber posts standing proud as the rebirth of the trees in the woods behind really jumps out at me. Very nice!

      • abrianna

        Thank you.

    • Great idea. Consider what is being framed in the middle of the arch – would you photograph those trees just like that without the frame? Does the frame add to the story? Shadows are one of my favorite things too!

  • Allan Jones

    As usual, another great artical Darlene. Another form of framing is night and using the darkness around a lit up area. A little while back I was on an interstate assignment photographing the essence & colture of Melbourne (one of Australia’s capital cities) and one night walking the city I observed this guy arranging leaves on a wall using the walls wet surface as a sticking board. The temptation is always to get up close and into the light, but as you point out in your article, stepping back and framing makes for a better and more powerful image. It is also a neat way to disregard the rule of thirds and still achieve amazing composition. Please find the image I refer to above attached, its nothing special at all but is an example of framing in this manner.

  • Rolly Monsura

    Great topic! Thanks!

    • Julie

      Very nice! I like how you caught the repeated arches! :).

      • Rolly Monsura

        Many thanks, Julie! Have always enjoyed DSP articles.

        • Thanks Rolly. Just so you are aware – this isn’t dPS this is my own site. I’m the editor over at dPS but the content here is mine (mostly with except of a few guest writers and interviews).

          • Rolly Monsura

            Didn’t notice the difference right away, Darlene, Now I know. Had been enjoying reading and learning a lot from both. Thanks for the heads up!

          • No worries.

  • Thomas Curry

    Darlene,
    I’m having problems loading pictures to this site because they are too big (5Mp). How do I downsize my image so it will be accepted by your site?

    • Leyden

      Use your favorite photo edit software [Irfan is free and very capable for this purpose ] to trim the longest/widest side to not more than 700 [720?] px. it should then load perfectly -or- upload to a web site [cloud?] that is purpose built for sharing pix [ Picasa?] and just post a link here….good luck.

      P.S. If you go the web route you have to mark your pic as “public” access or something similar

    • You need to resize them – do you have any type of photo editing software? If not there are many good free ones including Picasa, Pic Monkey, Etc.

      http://www.picmonkey.com/
      http://picasa.google.com/

      Give those a try.

  • Leyden

    A ‘reverse” frame?

  • Ruth

    Took this a couple of years ago after reading an article on framing…I haven’t got around to editing it yet.

  • Mike Vincent

    I am enjoying this conversation, here is another from a recent walk in London. Cheers all, Mike.

  • Shooting through the framing rocks from in a rocking boat full of us tourists a few years ago.

    thanks for the great article. I love the clothes pins and leaves!

  • Very nice tips made easy to understand and remember for a beginner like me. 🙂 Though I have taken the shots with my Nikon Coolpix P500 before I read the article but I would like to share it here to get your valuable comments.

  • akail dabriel

    Great article. Totally revamped my interest in photography.

  • GreenMountainGirl

    I took the first picture a while back, and try to duplicate it during different seasons every time I go to this spot. This one is my favorite, with the fall colors adding to the impact. Also acting as part of the framing of the mountains.
    The second picture uses vignetting to frame the picture – paddock scenes at Saratoga Races tend to be very busy. The canopy over the edge of the paddock helps frame the upper portion. The third picture was taken in a preserve. The trees form the frame. Last is the covered bridge framed by trees and sky and water.
    The most interesting thing, is I learned I have NOT been using the framing technique very often. And it is often an after-thought, like in the paddock scene. Or accidental like in the preserve. Guess I will have to look for more opportunities to get framed!
    Susan

  • Fausto

    I took this picture in 1959 with a Voiglander camera silver film of course. That was Madagascar’s Capital Town Hall which was burn during a riot in 1972

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