How to Show More with Your Photographs by Thinking Outside the Frame

How to Show More with Your Photographs by Thinking Outside the Frame

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In its simplest form, a photograph is a representation of a very limited part of space at a very limited point in time. This article is about choosing which tiny bit of reality to represent and how that choice can make a photograph into much more than just a record of time.

01 photography tips thinking outside the frame

The most obvious elements of any photograph are the subject, the foreground, and the background. The light and the time it takes to create the photo are equally essential. In this article, I’ll be focusing on an ingredient which may be less obvious, sometimes even overlooked, but never absent: the frame.

What is the frame?

By frame, I don’t mean a picture frame, but the edges of the photo.

02 photography tips thinking outside the frame

Take a look at the photo above. What’s going on? There’s the subject (a cat) the foreground, a bench, the background (a pink wall) and a branch of some kind. So what does the frame have to do with all this?

The frame of a photograph is what separates the obvious from the inferred. It’s part of why a good photograph means different things to different people because that which is inferred is subjective.

Consider the photograph of the cat again. The cat is about to pounce, which means that there’s something going on outside the frame. Maybe another cat is walking by, or maybe there’s a delicious-looking bird on the ground.

What’s outside the frame is just as important

03 photography tips thinking outside the frame

What is left outside the frame can tell a story of its own or be an essential part of the subject of the photo? By creating tension between the obvious and the inferred you wield a powerful tool to make even better photographs. Every image has a relation to the rest of the world, even though the immediate surroundings aren’t obvious or don’t seem to add anything.

04 photography tips thinking outside the frame

So how do you start thinking outside the frame?

I will show you a few examples so you get the idea.

1 – Make it obvious

The obvious way is to make it clear that there is something outside the frame that isn’t being shown. The easiest way to do this is to capture an interesting gaze or photograph a detail.

05 photography tips thinking outside the frame

In the image above, the groom is not looking at the camera, but towards something more interesting outside the frame. For those who recognize the setting, it may be obvious that he is looking towards the church door, which will soon reveal the bride; for others, the interpretation could be different.

06 photography tips thinking outside the frame

These photos show a part of something larger. The hands suggest a person, and might even reveal something about that person. The spiraling tree creates a looping line that continues outside the frame.

2 – Tie the subject to the setting

The scene inside the frame can be tied to a larger setting without the subject directly or indirectly touching the frame. This can make the subject seem large or small, create an open or claustrophobic feeling, or give the surroundings a sense of continuity.

07 photography tips thinking outside the frame

Take a look at the photo above. By surrounding a tiny subject with a single, strong color, that color almost always feels like it continues on and on. In this picture, does it give you a sense of comfort or claustrophobia?

08 photography tips thinking outside the frame

The idea with the photo above is somewhat similar, but the feeling of it is quite different. Here is a playful animal in its seemingly limitless element, suggesting unlimited enjoyment. Or do you see something quite different?

3 – Use pattern or rhythm

By using a pattern or rhythm in the photo, you can create an effect that allows the viewer to imagine infinity. The idea is the same as in the example above, but the execution and effect are different. Here, the pattern or rhythm itself can be the subject, and it’s that subject that leads the viewer outside the frame.

09 photography tips thinking outside the frame

The pattern of cracked sea ice works like a block of color. But since it’s more interesting than just a single color, it can stand by itself and let the eye wander through the details in the photo and the mind continue beyond.

10 photography tips thinking outside the frame

A seascape like the one in the image above can suggest an infinitely large ocean just by showing an unbroken horizon. The ocean doesn’t only continue into the photo, though, it also continues sideways and beyond the edges of the photo. The rhythm of the clouds emphasizes this illusion.

4 – Reflections

Reflections are also an effective way of suggesting a wider world outside the constraints of the photograph. It’s a more direct way of pointing to the wider context.

11 photography tips thinking outside the frame

Concrete walls can suggest many things, but thanks to the reflection in the window it becomes quite clear that the photo is not taken in a concrete jungle, but in a verdant and sunny place. Reading the expression on the subject’s face becomes quite different thanks to the wider context.

Conclusion

Photography is always about choices, conscious or not. The more photography you do, the more deliberate your choices will become. Being aware of this gives you more control over your creative process. The creative decisions you can make based on those choices is what makes photography art.

How you frame your photographs is just one of the things to keep in mind when you photograph.

Do you pay attention to what you leave out when you take a photo? Do you have any examples or thoughts you’d like to share about how you’ve used the frame and what’s beyond as an element in your photography? I’d love to hear about it and see your photos in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk photographs weddings professionally and nature passionately. Based in Finland and Morocco, they love going on adventures, learning, teaching, reading, science, and finding new perspectives. Hannele's photos can be found on their wedding website, blog and Facebook page.

  • John Finch

    Nice, this’ll make me think a little differently about my photographs. Thanks for posting this.

  • Born Yet Again Photos Andy Col

    Very interesting read. It actually makes me want to try this in some of my portrait shots. I tend to always have my subjects look at the camera. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips!

  • Really glad to hear that, thank you! 🙂

  • Brilliant, I’m glad you got something out of the article! Thanks a lot for your comment.

  • Nice article! The title caught me, I thought we were trying to think “outside the box”, but this is a nice twist! Appreciate it!!

  • Thank you, I’m glad the word play caught your eye! 🙂

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for the article.
    Finally took the opportunity to register an account 🙂

    I always watch out on what is in the frame and where it is. Sometimes I can’t avoid it and have stuff in there that I personally don’t like.
    Here is my take from yesterday evening while playing with my cat:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/99cb3cccdf2ff851a53fc6825246f6d39b83b7434abd48b2242b427abd22810b.jpg

    Any feedback is appreciated. Tried to grab a moment where something is happening outside the frame. Sadly, I could not avoid to have the doorframe in the background. Is that bothersome to anyone or is that just my nitpicky side shining through?

    Appreciate any feedback and of course – nice article. Thanks.

  • JR

    Excellent thoughts/techniques. I will put these to use. Thank you Hannele.

  • That’s great to hear, thank you!

  • The open door doesn’t bother me, the look on the cat’s face is so intense and the background blurry enough that the door doesn’t really grab my attention. Thanks a lot for your contribution and comment!

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for the kind feedback. Appreciate that. I’m always learning something new so feedback is always appreciated.

    Have a great weekend,

  • pete guaron

    Absorbing – creative – stimulating. What a great article. You are a top-class teacher! Thanks for sharing this one.

  • Shutterbug

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/22a0f19d2ca7d6b785efade2bd91a74dff0596a8433ccf7dbd393c7375a6edb9.jpg

    I took this several years ago along a local creek, and loved the ominous feeling the photo gave. The fawn was fine, mom wasn’t far off, but they were separated enough to let me capture this photo.

  • This is such a perfect example! The fact that the direction the fawn is looking at is dark really gives this, as you say, an ominous feel. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Thanks a lot, Pete! I’m really glad you liked the article. 🙂

  • I hope you have a great weekend too!

  • Marc Thibault

    good tutorial…..t.y.v.m

  • Thank you! 🙂

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