If you put a box around something, people will want to look inside; that is the core principle of framing in a nutshell. It is one of the fundamental rules of photography, although, like all rules of photography, one does not need to adhere to it strictly. It is like the law of gravity; you do not need to consciously think about it each time you go for a walk, although knowing it exists explains why your feet stay on the ground.
Frames lead your eye inside the image. They separate the subject from its surroundings and by doing so, give greater visual impact to what is displayed inside the frame. It provides a boundary for your eye and means people linger longer before having to jump outside the frame to the next image.
Frames can be created from almost anything; some typical framing elements are doors, passages, trees and foliage, buildings or posts. Anything that can sit on the edge of your frame and highlight the inside of your frame will do. They do not need to be all the way around; here I used the columns at the edge of the Alexandre III bridge in Paris as a frame to encapsulate the Bastille Day fireworks and give them context.
We always hope for the best weather when we travel, but often we can not afford the luxury of staying in the same place if the sky turns sour. In this image Giovanni Piliarvu, Aperture Tours' Tokyo based photographer, used the blossoming Sakura tree to make the flat sky around Mt. Fuji more dynamic. Its shape and form perfectly fit the mountain, and it creates layers in the image which add another dimension to the photograph.
While most frames you see will be at the edges of the images, there are a lot of opportunities to sink your frame deep inside your image. I was travelling with a troupe of vagabond musicians around France in a bus, and this image of one of the singers applying makeup struck me. The frame is quite small, and the exterior is minimal and sparse, but it still draws your eyes in. Similarly, Anna Volpi, Aperture Tours' Italian based photographer, shot this image in Venice of a man being pushed along the Grand Canal through a small covered street, just leaving the dark brickwork of the entrance of the passage on the edge of the shot. The result is a great use of layering as we get a frame inside a frame.
When I was shooting my photo essay of the Dragons in London, I wanted a shot of the Coat of Arms with their cute dragons. While the Coat of Arms is elegant in its self, it is still just a logo on a wall, and rather dull to photograph. I wanted to give context to the image, and give emphasis to my subject. I shot a number of different crests from various angles, but it was not until two of London's red double deckers stopped at the light did I find my shot.
Remember your depth of field when shooting through frames. Foliage shot with a shallow depth of field can create a dreamy mood. To achieve this effect, use a wide aperture (smaller number). On the other hand, if you want both your frame and your subject to be sharp, a narrow aperture (larger number) is required. I shot this image of Scotts Monument in Edinburgh quickly without thinking, and it was not until I got home that I realised that because of my wide ƒ/2.8 aperture, the street lamp, but not the monument, was in focus. The closer your frame to your camera, the smaller your aperture will need to be.
Your frame should be relevant to your subject. The only reason to use a trash can or a mesh fence to frame the Eiffel Tower would be if you were making a statement saying you thought it was garbage. Frames should add something to the overall aesthetic of the image. Here I have shot the Fort at Bahla, Oman, set inside a stone passage made from the same mud brick technique as used to construct the Fort itself. Simultaneously it provides you with an overview and a detail shot in one.
It took me a little bit of time to find the right spot where I could combine all of the elements to craft the perfect composition for the above shot taken in the Trianon Estate in Versailles. Firstly I used the trees at the top to cover out the bland sky. They bleed seamlessly into the hedges that flank the French pavilion, which also act as leading lines. The fountain in the pond at the foreground of the image would be lost if I had not found the right position to frame it with the reflection of the sky. Lastly, I kept a small slither of the box hedge at the bottom of the image to complete the frame. I shot everything at ƒ/14, so I could keep the entire image in focus.
When shooting tall buildings, churches or towers, they can often dominate a skyline. That usually leaves a lot of blank space in the sky next to the structure. Frames are used here to eliminate the dead space and create context, such as with these images of St Pauls and the Shard in London.
Using frames creates a sense of order by drawing your viewer's eye into the photo and emphasising the subject. It isolates distracting elements and separates your subject from what is around it. The eye loves order, and frames lock viewers into an image.
One of the key questions I ask myself when using frames is "Will this build up my subject? Will this enhance my image?". If it is adding clutter, it might make my picture feel cramped. If it distorts the context, it will diminish my intention. If it is too abstract, it might confuse my audience. On the other hand, a carefully selected frame can build up an image, create context, add visual power and turn an average shot, into an extraordinary one.
Author: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.