Framing is the technique of drawing attention to the subject of your image by blocking other parts of the image with something in the scene *
There’s an old writing technique that says that it is more effective for a writer to “show” rather than to simply “tell”. The same can be said for photography. While the nature of photography means that everything is more or less there in front of you to see, there actually is this element of holding back, of not quite showing your whole hand in order to tell a more impactful story.
One of the simplest ways to do this is through framing and composition. Framing, like the quote above says, is the act of drawing attention to something in your shot. Composition meanwhile, is all the individual elements that are in a photograph that help to draw the attention of the person looking at it. Things like rule of thirds, depth of field, colour, repetition and framing are all methods of composition.
When we take a photo, the particular framing of the photograph is one of the biggest things we think about. Framing is hugely influential in the way the photograph will look overall, even down to the emotion it will evoke. Not only is it an aesthetic decision, but it ultimately becomes a narrative decision – what are we choosing to put in, and almost just as important, what are we choosing to leave out?
Boiled down to the simplest choices – will we shoot a photograph in landscape or portrait? Will the main focus of the photograph be centre-framed, or framed at an extreme left or right side of frame? When I first started taking con photos, one of the first aesthetic choices I really felt comfortable making on my own was that I didn’t really like shooting centre-framed shots. I’m not sure why; I didn’t understand why I was doing it, it was just a personal stylistic choice that I made that has stayed with me ever since.
That’s not to say that I don’t centre frame at all – I do, and I do a lot more now. But I am still a huge advocate for negative space and the strength it can give an image. Negative Space is basically all the parts in a photograph that aren’t the subject of the photograph. So in the photo of Timothy Omundson above, the black above and around him is negative space. It’s an element that can be used as another way of telling a narrative through your image – is there lots of negative space because the subject is isolated emotionally and physically? Is it being used to denote space and vastness, like in a photo of a hot air balloon in the sky? For the photo above, I liked the way he was looking up into the space. The blackness added a sense of drama. It’s not necessarily telling a story, but to someone looking at it maybe it will.
I’ve been looking at the incredible photographs by Vivian Maier recently, and the photo below seemed like a really good example of the way negative space can denote a sense of the unknown. Who is this woman and where is she going? Towards that car? Does the act of us looking at her going towards the black negative space give us a sense of excitement because she’s obviously all dressed up to go somewhere? Or does it make us feel kind of uncomfortable because she is heading into the unknown?
Which is another one of the big motivators behind things like framing and composition, it’s not only something that we choose because we think it looks good. The way we choose to present photographs goes a long way to influence how people will feel looking at them. So what we choose to show – and leave out – plays a big part in that. I noticed that when I started going back and re-cropping some of my old convention photos I could add a different emphasis to a photograph just in the way I chose to frame it. I could more or less “make” the viewer focus on what I wanted them to.
Another one of Vivian Maier’s photographs highlighted this sense of emphasis for me.
This couple are obviously very close, but we don’t need the extra information that would come from having them fully in the photograph. We don’t need to see their eyes, or them looking at each other. We can get all the information we need from how close they are standing to one another and their hands being loosely intertwined. It shows comfort, stability and intimacy in a non-conventional way. There are few elements in the photograph but the ones that are there all work towards that one idea. We can formulate our own stories about what is happening beyond the boundaries of the frame of the photograph just by the very small window we are shown within it.
It’s one of the things I most love about photography; that it is a tiny piece of a much greater whole. I would often cut limbs and faces out of photographs because I wanted to show this idea of the dynamic – the people I photograph could not possibly be contained in a small frame, they belonged to a time and a space well outside it. I was only there capturing what small part I could.
I am by no means even anywhere near the league of people like Vivian Maier, but these same principles can be used in photography no matter what level you are. It helps you to focus on what you’re trying to do with a photo, and what kind of a story you want to tell. It’s ultimately the goal of all art – to tell a story. Just like writers have rules and tricks, so do photographers.
If you would like to check out more of Vivian Maier’s beautiful work and read the fascinating story of her life and how she was discovered, visit her site here
*This quote is from Digital Photography School Online and can be accessed here