To help you compose more exciting and beautiful photographs, there are certain key composition techniques that you can use. Natural framing is one that is widely known, but needs careful and thoughtful application. Using framing can create extremely impressive and elegant images when done right. Here are some tips to help you.
Natural framing is when you use an element within your image to frame the subject. This draws the eye into the photo and highlights the actual subject.
This internal frame can be constructed using a multitude of things you’ll find anywhere – branches, archways, tunnels, door frames etc., as well as things that aren’t solid like light, shadows, rain, fog, etc. – it doesn’t matter what you use.
Framing is a technique to use sparingly – but when it’s totally right, it looks natural. So few people use it well that if you can master it, you can create some fantastic shots.
Why you should use natural framing:
- It easily draws your viewer’s eye into the photo and emphasizes the subject.
- It isolates and separates your subject from what’s around it.
- It brings a sense of order and structure to a photo – and the eye loves order.
When to use natural framing
- To obscure boring sky (my favourite).
- To add depth to an image – especially when the item acting as the frame is not in focus.
- To bring contrasting elements into the photo without detracting from the subject.
- To create structure.
- To create a feeling of a self-contained image, particularly if you are photographing something quite ordinary and simple, a frame will help give depth to the subject.
Traditionally the frame should be distinctly separate from the subject, so that it’s not confusing to the eye. But I will also show you where I haven’t done that, and the photo still works. I will show you both how to use this technique as well as where else you can take it – how to let it inspire you to develop your images.
Rules are made to followed, bent and broken
Like anything that is considered a technique or rule, people can feel very passionately for or against their use.
“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.” Edward Weston
But for me, it comes down to not using any of the rules so much, that your photos end up all looking the same. Don’t let rules keep you stuck in a box. They are a great springboard for your photography, or a way to help refresh your vision, so that you start composing in a different way.
When I was starting out, I worked hard to get really familiar with the key compositional techniques, but then after a while, once I’d embedded them, I started to develop my own way of using these techniques, my own style.
I also encourage you to think of all these techniques and rules as opportunities to see and learn to organise the elements within your photos differently. In my workshops I’ve noticed that one of hardest things for people is to break the world down into elements, and then learn how to organise these elements to create striking compositions.
Natural framing isn’t an add-on
Natural framing is one of the harder rules to pull off well. I think many people use it to make a boring landscape or scene more interesting. But to me, if your subject is boring, no technique is going to liven it up. Framing should be used as an additional interesting element – not as an overlay to a mundane scene (just search: “natural framing” on Google images and you’ll see what I mean).
I find natural framing is most interesting when used in the loosest possible interpretation. It has to be employed in a way that enhances the photo, and feels like it is a natural part of the composition.
“There is no better time to crop a bad composition than just before you press the shutter release.” Bryan Peterson
With those caveats – now it’s time to relax, have fun, and play with it!
Creating your frame
You don’t need to have a frame around all four sides of your photo for it to work – in fact I’d encourage you not to do that. I think more often than not, it looks more natural and pleasing to the eye for the frame to take up just two or three sides of the image. But like every recommendation – use your own personal judgement.
The photo above of Battersea Power station is probably one of my most traditional interpretations of natural framing. I have framed the building with the branches and leaves at the top, and the outline of a fence at the bottom. Two important things to point out in this photo:
- When the frame is out of focus it create a sense of depth to the image.
- The frame can be made from different elements: I’ve used two different elements but their colour is the same, and they are both interesting shapes – so they have some common qualities.
Obscuring boring sky
In the photo above, I wanted to capture the shiny dome and the rising sun. But that wasn’t enough to make an interesting photo. There was some pretty endless sky, so I added a silhouette of the bare branches above. I seem to use a lot of tree branches in my natural framing compositions. In this case, I love how they create this beautiful, wild, chaotic pattern, above the very clean and shiny dome. Then I’ve added this little almost tuft of leaves below, which balances the photo out.
I love using framing elements that have great texture – again they add depth. Just remember to keep it well organized and clear so people can see what you are trying to do. This photo is really about the simple contrasting shapes – and by using natural framing it creates a nicely ordered photo, constructed from the available elements.
So once you’ve got a grasp of the concept you can start using the technique in other ways – have fun!
You are in control of how the viewer sees the image
Naturally framing is a very good way to remember that you are in control of how the viewer’s eye will go around the image. It doesn’t matter how big the photo is, the eye won’t see the complete image all at once. The eye will be drawn to one part and then move around the image depending on where the elements are placed. Your job as a photographer is to direct the eye.
Here the subject is St Paul’s Cathedral, bang in the centre of the image. But all around it there are buildings, streets, cars, etc. When you first see the image, all of that other detail bleeds into one, creating a natural frame for the cathedral. But then gradually you start to see the details, so the image becomes something quite different.
This photo is a good example of how you can use framing to create order to a very busy scene, and give the viewer a way into the photo. It’s also a good example of how your eye moves around an image.
The one-sided frame
It is possible to do a one-sided frame, and it works! Below, even though the foliage is only running along the bottom, it creates a great grounding effect, and pushes the eye up toward the moon and the Statue of Liberty. Therefore, in my book, it adheres to the principal of drawing your eye towards the real subject of the photo. This isn’t even a strong line that’s creating the framing element – it’s simply the power of suggestion.
In the photo below you’ll see some framing which is going across the corner of the photo. So it’s still drawing your eye to the subject – which is the rising sun and Tower Bridge – but it’s quite subtle. I would perhaps suggest that the bottom elements are creating a second framing element, grounding the photo, and framing the sun. What do you think?
When I am shooting photos with big sky – which is favourite subject of mine – what I often do is shoot when small objects appear in the sky, like above. If you look closely you can see a very small plane. Or sometimes a tiny bird appears, or some other random object. People often ask me why I don’t Photoshop it out because it can look like a piece of dust or a mistake, but I love these little surprising elements. It’s great if there can be tiny details that create layers of interest in your shots, so your viewers don’t see everything all at once. (Or as Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.”)
Here is another photo that is truly on the edge of being framing. But I think it shows how you can play with the idea (and there is nothing more fun than playing with all these different concepts and ideas, and making them your own).
I looked at this photo and thought – wow, I’ve framed the image of the shadows of the people with the surrounding dark shadow. It is doing what natural framing tells us to – which is use a frame to draw attention to the real subject of the photo, so I think it fits.
Use multiple frames within one image
I am a little bit obsessed with photographing things I find on the street. I love photographing very ordinary things – like chewing gum or lines on the road, disconnecting them from their wider context, and just playing with their shapes. This is also another way to help train you to practice breaking the world down into elements, so that you can then start to organize them in a more constructive way.
You can go further still by making the frame within your image just a part of the image, and not the whole thing. It could even be just a suggestion of a frame, like I did here.
I love using very simple backgrounds with strong colours for my portraits. This is because firstly, I want the background to not distract from subject, so a simple background is usually best. The camera can’t easily recreate the layers that we see with our awesome 3D eyes. So if, for example, you put a subject in front of a crowd, you will get a flat image without depth.
Plus, I like to have the colour and texture of the background really fit with the subject – maybe with their clothes, their posture, their expression, etc. This photo is a good example of my philosophy on this point.
Now back to framing! One key reason the photo above works is the added dimension of some framing. Yes, again not a totally traditional use of it, but you can see that the yellow arch shape and the blue strips either side are adding some great structure and form to the image. You’ve also got a sense of them confining the subject, which gives a nice balance to his strong, proud posture. That feeling of being confined is something you can do well with natural framing, and adds a curious feeling to the photo (since the posture of the subject is so proud and strong, you can’t imagine him being confined, right?).
Everything within your frame has a message
As the photographer, you need to make sure that everything you put in the frame is saying something that you want it to – that the elements are all working together to form the idea and feeling that you seek. If you don’t know what that’s supposed to be – just ask yourself:
- What am I feeling here?
- What is interesting to me in this scene?
- Why is this important?
It’s these feelings that you will be communicating through your images, if you’ve done it well and created a strong photograph.
In the image below I framed the Shard, with buildings on the side and a fence along the bottom. There is a risk that it could all have blended in together, but that bright blue sky has created a natural space around the subject.
If this is all feeling like a bit too much, don’t worry, as it all becomes instinctive after a while. As a final note, I like this thought from Henri Cartier-Bresson:
“You just have to live and life will give you pictures.”
It’s a great way to live.
I’d love to know what you think of natural framing – do you use this technique? What do you think of the examples I’ve given here? Have you been inspired to try this out if you’ve never used it before? If you have any photos you’d like to post here I’d love to see them.