Composition – Framing your Picture

UK snow scene. The tree on the right hand side is a strong framing feature.

UK snow scene. The tree on the right hand side is a strong framing feature. It helps to keep the eye in the picture and tends to focus the eye to flow back along the horizon.
Click to see the full image.

In composition the term ‘framing’ refers to a number of ways particular elements can be used. One use to for an element or elements of a picture is to hold the eye in the image. By this I mean something that constitutes a frame element at the edge of a picture which acts as a psychological block to the eye moving out of the overall picture. Another way a framing element can be used is emphasize a subject by creating a constraining edge around it, or most of the way around it. This would quite literally be a frame in the traditional sense of the term. It may however, be implied. Framing objects are often used to obscure other less desirable objects so they do not appear in a picture. An ugly farm building could be excluded from the picture by moving a few feet to one side so a tree or other natural feature obscures the ugliness.

Using Compositional Frame Elements

In landscape photography frame elements are used a lot to build a sense of depth in the picture. A strong foreground feature builds a sense of depth because the mid-ground can be a different feature. And, the far distant features like a horizon, range of mountains or the sea act as a way of constraining the eye in the picture.

Side compositional elements are probably the most common framing elements. Trees are frequently used to build a real frame to the sides of the picture and to keep the eye in the frame created by the edges of the image. Trees are good for more than one dimension too. Often a branch crossing the top of the picture helps to frame the top edge. It provides a strong constraint to the top of the picture. Yet trees often also let you see the sky under such a branch which gives you access to plenty of light and opens the image up. The pleasing effect of a leafy frame around your image is often a great justification for using a frame in its own right. However, the real reason for doing so is to keep the eye in the frame and to draw the viewer into the depth of the shot.

The lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe, Plymouth, UK

The lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe, Plymouth, UK (Dec. 2011). The shot is processed in the vintage style. The vignettes (darkened or lightened corners) hold the viewers eye in the picture.
Click to see full size image.

Using any form of frame in a picture tends to be related to the elements of the picture itself. Of course some pictures lend themselves to graphic framing techniques. The classic use of the vignette, a slightly darkened area around the outside of the entire image, or slightly darkened corners, places a light psychological emphasis on the centre of the image space. Of course use of vignettes is often associated with retro-style photographic work. However, sometimes modern use of the vignette is a strong statement. Wedding photographers or those working in the romantic style use this method to bring out an emphasis in the shot – either with darkened or lightened vignettes.

Framing is most effective when there is a direct connection between the main subject of the photo and the framing element. So landscape shots could use rock features, trees, hedges, mountains… any landscape element that holds the side of the shot in, preventing the eye straying out. However, especially with landscape shots, you need to be careful to balance a framing feature. If your frame is too heavy it creates a distraction for the viewer. Any distraction can act to draw the eye away from the main subject. In so doing you lose the emphasis that the frame would otherwise create. So, as in the use of all compositional features, work hard to make sure you retain a balance. Work with the composition and have a light touch. Framing, like all composition, needs harmony, balance and good judgement in the use of elements.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

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