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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.