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Photo Composition: Framing

Composition Techniques: Framing

compositional framing

The concept behind framing (within an image) is pretty obvious: by placing some sort of visual boundary around your subject, you can draw attention to it and set it apart from the image as a whole. In more abstract work, a framed area of contrasting color or brightness might be included in the image to add depth and interest, and often becomes the subject on the strength of the contrast alone. Framing can also be much more loosely defined; I’m sure that we have all seen photos or paintings of landscapes which are loosely “framed” by tree branches in the foreground. In this sense, “framing” can refer to any set of foreground elements that keep the viewers eye from drifting off the edge of the photo. At the same time, these frames can help create depth in an image by separating the different layers: the foreground from the middle-ground, or middle from the background.

Potential frames are all around us; all you have to do is keep an eye out for them and plan your image accordingly. Some are very obvious, such as doorways and windows, but can be made very striking if they frame a dramatic subject. Wedding and portrait photographers endlessly pose their couples in convenient doorways, and journalists never seem to tire of photographing shy natives peeking through windows. And why shouldn’t they? The photos still work very well.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1940. Lange created some of the most famous images of Americans following the Great Depression.

Finding other frames may take a little more attention to your surroundings. The circular, cast-iron pump cover framing the worker in Lewis Hine’s renown image from 1920 is a great example; not only does it emphasize the form of the worker, but it almost embraces him, visually emphasizing the relationship between the worker and the machine.

Photo by Lewis Hine, 1920.

Of course, framing can be combined with other compositional techniques as well. If the frame is a smaller element within the image, then it can be placed according to the rule of thirds, or the subject can be placed within the frame according to the rule of thirds, for example.

Have an Example of Framing?

When I began writing this post, I had several iconic images in mind, though only a couple of them are in the public domain and reproduced here, and my own examples don’t even begin to cover the different ways of using framing. If you have an example or two, just email me a copy and I’ll add it to the gallery below! The more examples, the better, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll add more as I browse through my archives, too.

And please comment!  Good composition cannot be defined by an algorithm or set of rules; I think that these posts should be viewed as a springboard for discussion rather than the definitive work on the subject.

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Here it is as embedded if you don’t want to go to another website.

Find Me When I’m Lost by James (cmcvs)


Matthew Gore

The “Framing” gallery has been updated again, this time with a photo by Shelly Sasse, of a lighthouse framed by trees and other plants.

Bill Minton

Is it better to frame w/the camera, or just capture it w/the camera and frame (crop) in post processing?

It makes a huge difference, and is something I’m trying to work on. I took the shot below, but the excellent framing work is courtesy of Matthew. Truth be told, his cropping turned it into a different (and much better) picture entirely.

Here are the before and after shots:

Lana Uncropped

Lana Cropped

Matthew Gore

Hey Bill,

I think that there are two correct answers here:

1. It’s always best to capture the images that you want at the right moment. If that means that you have to shoot it from too far away or with the wrong lens… it’s better to do that that miss the moment.

2. When it comes to image quality, the more of the frame you use, the better the quality. There are a couple reasons for that: first there’s just the matter of pixel loss. If you start with an 18 megapixel image and crop in only 10% from each edge, your final image would already be down in the 10-12 megapixel range. If you’re cropping out large chunks of the image, you lose resolution very quickly. The second reason is that using more of the frame makes better use of the lens’ resolution. The image projected by a lens is only so sharp… the more you magnify it, the fuzzier it gets… and cropping in on an image is, in essence, just magnifying it.

So, I guess the rule should be, crop in camera when you can, but don’t miss the shot because you can’t… you can always do it later, even if there’s going to be a quality loss.

I’m glad that you appreciated the cropped version of your Lana photo. I should mention, though, that it appears that you did some additional work on it yourself :) My own version of the composition placed the eyes on the top 3rd line, while you opted for something more centered.

For comparison: https://www.lightandmatter.org/images/photo1crop.jpg

Bill Minton

You’re right, I did, and as always, yours is probably better. :-) I had a copy of of it on my phone, but realized I didn’t necessarily have a full size copy of your crop. I pulled it up on the phone and got “close enough” to what you did to get the point across.

Matthew Gore

Of course, “better” is in the eye of the beholder :) I just wanted to give credit where it was due.


This gallery has been updated to include examples by members Alfred Lopez and Luna :) Thanks!

– Matthew