Using Framing for More Effective Compositions

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From my experience, it’s true – photographers tend to see the world in a different way. If not from the beginning, eventually, and maybe subconsciously, your eye is trained to notice details differently. Perhaps it’s the way light falls off of, or wraps around an object, or when pleasing geometrical compositions fall into place. In extreme cases, you may even start to catch glimpses of your camera’s viewfinder layout when you blink (you might want to seek help for this).

Framing of a hidden Chinese garden.

Some opportunities to use framing in photographs are less subtle than others. Of all the images I shot in this Chinese garden, this one stood out, as it not only shows the hidden nature of the garden, but makes a perfect frame.

Often, an important step in the “Seeing like a Photographer” evolution is to begin recognizing, and implementing, framing elements into your images.

Although in photo lingo we talk about framing often, it is one of the strongest tools you have at your disposal to create strong compositions. Let’s be clear that when we talk about framing your photo, we may be referring to the actual border of the image itself – but in this article we are discussing other objects used to intentionally create some sort of border around the subject of the image.

However, clever framing is just one part of an equation that fits into an overarching photographic formula. In certain circumstances, the frame itself may be so ridiculously amazing and awe inspiring that it carries the image all by itself. In practice, you are likely to use framing in order to draw attention to, and strengthen, the subject of the photo.

Framing a photo of a pier

Framing can help highlight your subject, directing the viewer’s gaze where you want it.

Framing can be used to various degrees; while some framing elements may be subtle in one image, they can be quite obvious in others. This can be a product of your personal creativity or style, or simply a result of making do with what you have, as there aren’t always framing options for every photo you shoot.

Using framing to boost your photo’s appeal is generally a good tactic, and is a great approach to creating original images of over-photographed scenes or landmarks.

Framed shot of the space needle

A keen eye for framing can yield original images of well-photographed landmarks like the Space Needle in Seattle.

As a photographer you will become familiar with the feeling of walking up to a familiar scene, turning on your camera and raising the viewfinder to your eye, only to not push the shutter button. You’ve realized that you’ve seen the picture you were about take a million times, and you want your own unique shot.

For example, as I wander around a new city seeing the sights, I am always looking for environmental elements that I can use to add a sense of place, or implement as an element of a frame. Once you make a conscious effort to use framing techniques in your photography, you start to see all sorts architectural and natural elements that you can use.

Architectural element used for framing an image

After developing an eye for framing your subject, many opportunities will reveal themselves.

What can you use to frame your image? Some of the more common elements include foliage such as trees, branches, and leaves. Windows and mirrors in houses and cars are other popular framing options.

Framing a food photo with the chef's body

Framing elements come in many shapes and sizes – creative perspectives can pay off.

I like to look for interesting architectural features, or even use people as framing borders. Sometimes you may not necessarily even have a subject in mind for an image but see a good framing opportunity, so you then look for a compelling subject or wait for a person to pass through the scene inside the frame.

You can also use lighting as a powerful framing tool. As we are always working with various lighting in photography, what is included or excluded from the lighter areas of the image can help isolate the subject.

Although it’s best practice to develop an eye for framing while out shooting, other options may often present themselves while editing your photos. Cropping can be very useful for honing in on, or aligning, the framed area of the photo just right. Other tools such as the Graduated Filter or Radial Filter in Lightroom, can be used to lighter or darken specific areas of your image, to boost the intensity of your framing.

Have you made good use of framing techniques? Share your successes and images with everyone in the comments below.

This is the first in a week of articles about composition. Look for another tomorrow and over the next few days! 

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jeremie Schatz is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

  • jleighkelley

    Thought I would post this one as it afforded me a “natural” frame.

  • Melanie

    When I was in Israel a while back, I framed this landscape through a doorway of ruins of sheik’s tomb.

  • Melanie

    For some reason the picture didn’t go through. Let me try again:

  • Albert Buyo

    My try on framing.

  • Ryan

    Is that second picture the Oceanside pier in San Diego! Fabulous way to capture a new perspective on something that I normally wouldn’t consider especially photo-worthy. Thanks for sharing!

  • ColininOz

    The cemetery at Kanchanaburi where many prisoners of war who died on the Burma railway project in Thailand were interred during and after World War II. A very moving place.

  • Gabi

    My shot at it

  • Gabi

    Shot on Latvia’s shore near Cape Kolka

  • Jeremie

    I love it, cool pattern and very eye-catching but frames almost always benefit from having a subject to accentuate.

  • Jeremie

    Interesting, thanks for sharing. I spend much of my time in Thailand so will put this on my list of places to visit.

  • Jeremie

    Thanks and yes, that’s the Oceanside pier. I lived in Oceanside near that pier for a while.

  • One of the most fun events I ever had occasion to shoot and this “just happened”… with a little finessing.

  • And a travel pic (digitized film image from 2001)…

  • jleighkelley

    Thanks! I am glad you like it…it was an impulse shot 🙂

  • Leandro Lopez

    Great article Jeremy, thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge. I did it on purpose just this once, I’ll keep trying to get better results.

  • Leandro Lopez

    My shot at it.

  • Chris Jensen

    Richard – IMHO, if you cropped this photo to get rid of the peoples’ hats (imagine a frame around the dog & fence) this would be a more interesting shot. You have all the action, just eliminate the extraneous stuff around it.

  • Your reaction is certainly not what I intended. This image is exactly as I had taken it.

    The center of the frame clearly communicates the event and captures the dog’s jump at the apex. The DOF communicates that this action has the riveted attention of the two women in the audience, this being the secondary element of the composition. Without that, this picture would just be another dog clearing the hurdle.

    The finessing I did was to physically get into the crevice between the women to capture the jump as they watched it occur.

  • Perhaps this is more to your liking, but for composition, the red hats shot is my fave from the day.

  • Nicely done!

  • Great start – try making the frame less prominant in the image as it there to guide the viewers eye to the subject. Here the waterfall is the subject but is very small. The eye also goes to the red shirt, red cloth and water bottle.

  • Leandro Lopez

    Thanks, Darlene! I thought of cropping the image before posting it, but I really wanted whatever input the community could give me. Thanks again!

  • No worries.

  • David Blank

    An early attempt at framing. The Chinese Gardens at Darling Harbour, Sydney.

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