in Photography

Framed! Tips on Using Frames in Your Photos

Compositional, Digital, Material

When some people think of “framed”,  they think of being set up for a crime they didn’t commit. However, when most people think of “framed”, they usually get a picture in their head of the heavy and dark, very ornately carved wooden frame around the old daguerreotype of Tia Consuela’s first husband that is hanging in her gloomy hallway. Those are typical responses.

Frames can be incorporated into photographed images themselves by developing an eye for photo-composition – an appreciation for form, light, colour, and even empty space. (Personal attributes are at play also.)

Interesting, sometimes wacky, digital frames can be added using various photo-manipulation software available, as in Photoshop, or from framing websites found on the Web. (Many of them offer free digital borders.)

And then there are the frames as used with Tia Consuela’s old photo. They aren’t all heavy wooden frames – they can be made of stuff such as aluminium, papier-mache, or even braided plant branches. (Humans are so inventive.)

Photo Caption:

Freedom Framed: Photographer Peter Leibing captured a photograph of this escape to freedom on film. It may not be beautifully framed, but the barbed wire, the “section” sign, and the grey people in the background lend so much poignancy to the image. Just a shot of the guard’s body without those frames would have been so much less meaningful. Even the space at the top and left gives a sense of being lifted to free air. With the help of these frames, this is a time-honoured and iconic image of the human spirit’s need for liberty.

Watchful, Emotional, Curious

True photographic artistry comes from having a watchful, emotional, and curious eye behind the viewfinder – not frames added later. Sometimes it may seem that the really great photographs come about through serendipity or just plain, raw luck. That may be true about twenty percent of the time. The rest of the really great shots come from attentive eyes with an appreciation for composition.

Providence has supplied us with a beautiful lamp for our night     time skies. However, a globe of light in a stark, dark sky just doesn’t celebrate the image, the feeling, of that lovely light. Why     not wait for some clouds to roll around it, or frame it with some dark tree branches you’ve noticed nearby?

Two lovers holding hands is nice. But why not back off and get them walking down a pathway with framing trees, or down a sidewalk with glowing streetlights framed around them? These may show that     perhaps they have chosen to travel life’s journeys together.

Long time ago, a photographer was sitting and watching the Berlin Wall. He had no idea what was going to happen. He was just curiously watching a Soviet-Russian guard patrol the line between freedom and tyranny. The patrolling soldier suddenly jumped the barbed wire to freedom. The frames made the photo real. (See accompanying photo.)

Photo-Composition Isn’t Trite

The three examples given above are probably trite. But they at least give some guidance regarding watchfulness, emotion, and curiosity. Aside from developing those personal attributes as a photographer, it is important to regard some concrete concepts regarding photo-composition and the power and emotion that frames can impart to your images – power and emotion that is far from trite.

Image Power and Emotion from Compositional Framing
How can compositional framing bring power and emotion to your photography? Well, it can add dimension. It can help focus a viewer’s eye. It can help organise a photo. It can add context. It can extract wonder and beauty.

– Context.
Context and dimension are at play for the top of this list. Often, you can’t have one without the other. Frames lend context, an anchor. A plain     moon in a barren sky, no matter how beautiful at the time to the photographer, offers little to a viewer. A moon haloed with clouds can lend an eerie feeling. A moon photographed through night-blooming flowers can offer romanticism. A old man alone is just that. A man framed with grape vines suddenly becomes a kindly     though grizzled vineyard owner and winemaker. Frames can add so much meaning to the story behind your photography.

– Dimension.
Ultimately it will happen, but right now three-dimensional images rendered from two-dimensional surfaces are just not very well realised. But artful framing can add depth, a feeling of here and there, or even a middle ground, to your photos. For instance, a picture of two women standing in a street is just that. Photographing them through a nearby window adds a “here” dimension. If there is a cart if tomatoes under the window, you have a middle ground. And the women on the street are in a “there” dimension. Suddenly, you have a three-dimensional photo pulled off with just a little thought. Your viewer has a sense of depth, and even more significant, a sense of worldly realness.

– Focus.
This is very important when it comes to portraiture. Orange blossoms around a bride provide a focus on her, even if things are happening in the foreground or background. A strong frame can point to a small point of interest that may otherwise be overlooked. A parched bush could frame and point to a tiny, skinny horse and an empty silo on a broad, sun-bleached horizon. Frames can be used to guide the eye in     all sorts of visually meaningful ways. Frames that focus don’t have to be perfect frames. Sometimes they can just be effective pointers, as a twinkling, tiny star might be pointed out by a church spire, or found in the upper corner of an otherwise empty church window.

– Organization.
Life is so busy. The moon may be beautifully full in the sky. You may be standing next to a beautiful bridge. A broad river may be flowing     below you. Far off a city skyline may be twinkling with lights and moving traffic. How do you capture all that so that your viewer     knows how overwhelmed you are with the beautiful magnificence of the whole scene. Well, you use frames. You use the deck of the bridge to frame the far off city skyline. You use the piers of the bridge to frame the river. You use the spires and cables of the bridge to capture the moonlit sky. Doing so, you have organized or framed the picture into three sectors, each with its own attractions, yet they are wonderfully fused. The viewer gets a sense of the immensity of the scene along with a great appreciation for the wonderful detail of all that has unfolded before you and your camera in those separate sectors.

Because they add context, dimension, focus, and organization, frames can add     wonder and beauty to your photography. When you are overwhelmed with     beauty and poignancy, think how best you can incorporate the objects around you, objects that aren’t important themselves, but that help your viewer feel the same awe or importance or emotion. You may not realise it, but those same insignificant things helped your mood too.

Frames Can Have Many Aspects
Look for architecture, an interesting tree, a doorway or window, even hands or human limbs, to frame your subjects. Frames can be used in the foreground or the background. Frames can come in many forms, they don’t have to be just material stuff alone. A wall is a wall. A yellow wall can help tell a story. A steel beam says something much different than a flower stem. Don’t forget irony. A grim, battle-weary soldier framed by a flower hedge, or a beautiful woman framed by the rubble of a ruined house, both have their messages.

– Form.
Forceful stuff, like clay pipes or hard rocks or harsh architecture, can impart strength, even fear, into your photography. Soft stuff – the opposite.

– Colour.
Simple     bees identify flower colours as food. We complex humans identify emotions with colour. Frame a femme fatale in red silk. Frame a sad clown in a blue, carnival tent flap.

– Light.
Light, or sometimes the lack thereof, can frame your subject. Play with what you can find naturally. Having time, space, or equipment, create your own light or dark frames.

– Space.
Use nothing to frame an object or a person. Picture a woman sitting on a chair. Around her is nothing but huge expanses of blue sky and green grass.

– Blur.
A blurred background or foreground can be a fuzzy way to frame, or focus on, an individual or an object.

You Won’t Need Digital or Material Frames – Maybe Thumbs and Fingers
Again, some of the examples mentioned above are rather simplistic, but they are offered to simply show that frames are probably the most important tool a wise photographer can use to make his or her photos beautiful, wonderful, and meaningful, even if the subject is quite grim.

When you have become skilled at framing through photo-composition, you won’t have to rely on wacky digital frames or fancy material frames to impart meaning and beauty to your photography. Having read this, now consider yourself “framed” for the crime of wanting to commit good photography. By the way, you do know why movie directors and photographers sometimes look at scenes through both their extended thumbs and forefingers touching each opposite, don’t you?

Author bio
Ferina Santos is part of the team behind Open Colleges, Australia’s provider of photography courses. A feisty nerd at heart with an obsession for media and vanity, she captures all her random musings with daily photographs in her blog, A Pink Banana.


Bogdan is the founder of Top Design Magazine. You can find him in Bucharest-Romania so next time you want to drink a beer there and talk about web and stuff, give him a message.