Framing in Photography: Techniques to Get You Started

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Quick summary

Today’s guide serves as a quick exercise in framing in photography – what it is, how it is distinct from the more general idea of compositional theory, and finally an overview of a handful of techniques that any photographer can use to employ some creative framing in their work.

Beyond knowing your camera settings and choosing your subjects, light, and lens for the job, framing is one of the most important aspects of photography worth mastering.

Good framing composition techniques can make the difference between a masterful shot and something that fails to capture the viewer’s eye. But how do you succeed in employing photography framing the right way?

This problem is what we are going to address in today’s guide. We will not only cover the basics of what framing is (and what it is not). We will also take some time to devote ourselves to the very best techniques and experiments you can use to perfect your photography framing skills!

What is Framing, Really?

Many beginners use the term ‘framing’ as a shorthand for compositional technique, but the two don’t really mean the same thing.

Black-and-white cityscape shot of a lone pedestrian on a bridge. Atmospheric photography showcasing composition and framing.
The ornamental features on this bridge, coupled with the faded skyline in the background, make for some atmospheric framing elements in this shot.

Whereas composition deals with the question of how to arrange subjects within your shot in the most pleasing and meaningful manner, framing in photography is more concerned with what’s beyond.

Photography framing is all about the very edges of your picture and how they contribute to the aesthetics you are aiming for. Even without realizing it, the four corners where your scene ends contribute just as much to its overall impression as what’s within those boundaries. Some would even argue that framing in photography is more important than any other single technique or element!

Since it’s impossible to shoot a boundless photograph, i.e. one without borders or edges, every photographer engages in framing every time they trip the shutter.

The question, then, is not how to employ framing. Rather, it is how different kinds of framing can engender different emotions in the viewer’s eyes. Let’s try to unravel that a bit in the following few sections.

What is a Framing Element?

Two men ascend a staircase on a large footbridge. Black-and-white photograph.
This candid shot not only exhibits some tactfully embedded leading lines but also uses the architectural features of this bridge as very expressive framing elements.

Talking about framing techniques, I am going to make heavy use of the term ‘framing elements’. You might have already come across this expression before in discussions on photographic theory.

But just what is a framing element?

In short, a framing element is any object or even the outline or shape of an object that you utilize to ‘create a frame’ for your photo.

Some framing elements are rather obvious and lend themselves to their task very easily. For instance, a busy road is excellently framed by the inner walls of a large tunnel.

When thinking about framing in photography, you should naturally also spend some time thinking about what your framing elements could be. The vast majority of the time, it is better to give this some consideration and not leave the frame of your photographs up to chance.

Doing that could run you the risk of framing a perfectly fine picture with random objects that only serve as distracting elements rather than complementing the composition!

Artificial and Natural Elements in Photography Framing

A young couple on a leisurely walk by the riverside. Flowers in foreground.
This street photo carefully employs both artificial and natural framing elements. Namely, the low wall to the right edge (also a leading line) and the flowers on the left edge, respectively.

When talking about elements of framing in photography in general, there is another distinction we can make.

Artificial photography framing elements are those that are man-made objects. Bridges, tunnels, facades, and other architectural elements are perfect examples of this in urban photography.

Meanwhile, natural frames are those that are entirely a feature of the landscape around you. Many beginners find these the trickier type of element to use. How, for example, do you create a frame out of a rolling hill such that your subjects stand in perfect harmony with it?

The harsh silhouettes and right angles of architectural elements and other artificial structures often make this compositional process feel easier, but a pro photographer knows how to intelligently make use of either as circumstances require.

How to Gain Confidence in Using Framing in Your Photography

A Dutch bicycle standing in a grassy field. Sunset photography invoking relaxation and pleasure.
Sometimes, framing in photography can be quite simple. The tree to the left, the weeds in the foreground, and the bright evening sun are all that is necessary for a compelling frame in this image.

If you have never before spent much time and attention on considering your choices of framing, then you likely wish to be able to use this technique in the same way that you are already intuitively familiar with concepts such as composition techniques, focus, and depth of field.

To become a confident and intuitive user of framing in photography takes time and practice. It’s definitely not something you can learn and adopt overnight.

But with the help of some of the following techniques, you can definitely achieve this goal and add some spice to your portfolio with creative framing!

For Reference, Remember the Rule of Thirds

Cutaway view of a multi-storey building sectioned into rooms of thirds. A visual exercise in the 'rule of thirds' in photography.
It’s not a daily sight, but sometimes we’re lucky enough to spot geometric features in architecture that can literally illustrate compositional rules.

You likely encountered the rule of thirds for the first time in some of your earliest basic composition classes. Despite the name, the Rule of Thirds is by no means a universally applicable law of photography.

Still, it can prove very useful for framing purposes. The Rule can help you identify leading lines and map out where the viewer’s eye is most likely to travel throughout the frame.

In framing composition, there’s probably no better ‘quick fix’ than applying the Rule of Thirds and dissecting your shot geometrically to find the best possible angles and compositional arrangements.

Leading Lines

Monochrome cityscape photography showcasing use of leading lines in an urban setting. Black-and-white street photography.
Note how the lampposts in this image literally lead the viewer’s eye towards the otherwise fairly hidden main subject, the lady standing on the promenade close to the right edge of the frame. Also, see how the facades of nearby buildings, as well as the river itself, serve as framing elements.

I already mentioned leading lines earlier in this guide, such as when talking about the usefulness of the Rule of Thirds. While also a widely taught concept in photography composition classes, I find it useful to underline their applications for framing techniques as well.

Leading lines are geometric shapes, physical or implied through composition techniques, that guide your viewer’s attention toward certain parts of the frame. Usually, photographers use them to guide the viewer’s eye towards the main subject.

Sometimes, the opposite happens: when the main subject alone takes up a lot of space already, leading lines can help prevent the composition from becoming unbalanced by diverting and distracting from the foreground elements and shifting focus to the background instead.

You can use this approach with your framing in photography, too. Environmental elements can also lead and accentuate the literal frame of your picture. Try lending a three-dimensional feel to your image with the use of leading lines close to all four corners to draw the viewer in.

This is a fantastic way to combine creative composition techniques while also expanding your understanding of framing in photography.

Frame Subjects Within Doorways

Close-up portrait of a young child by a doorway. Color photography, portrait of children.
Choosing to shoot by a doorway lends this portrait a lot of mostly negative space to either side. This kind of framing draws extreme focus to the subject and makes for an intimate, evocative scene.

Especially in portrait photography, there are few frame elements that are more convenient and easy to use than a doorframe.

Bring your main subject into focus within the doorway and watch as the restrictive nature of the frame element completely reinvents your composition. The sudden change in negative space will undoubtedly bring focus to your subject whilst cutting out other elements that may have otherwise distracted from it.

Use this to your advantage by playing with posing, focal length, and depth to get the best composition you can afford. Let this simple exercise train you to understand just how much difference even a simple frame can make!

Add More Depth Without Losing Out on Valuable Space

Sometimes, you may want an interesting frame to your image to draw attention, but without obscuring too much of the scene. In that case, you’ll have to think outside of the box and consider alternative elements for framing, both natural and artificial.

Again with the example of portraits, think of shooting your subject through car windows. The interesting light play of reflections from the glass is sure to contribute to a sense of scale and draw attention.

It is up to you whether to make the window frames a part of the literal frame of your shot or to have the glass extend outwards boundlessly. Both are options for adding depth and making the viewer feel more involved in the scene, though of course every creative choice has an effect on the aesthetic qualities of your image.

Using a Natural Frame to Tell a Story

Single woman camping by fire in the forest. Starry sky with milky way visible at night. Tent in background.
Every element present in this shot, from the trees to the campfire to the bright starry sky, not only aids in telling the story behind the scenes, but all of them also directly contribute to framing the picture at the same time!

Frame photography goes hand-in-hand with storytelling techniques very easily because clever framing can give your pictures the feel of fragments of larger stories.

Each scene has the potential to tell a whole story in isolation. The trick is to make the viewer understand your intention and to stimulate their imagination with interesting imagery.

For mastering the framing techniques for storytelling, I highly suggest taking a leaf out of the cinematographer’s playbook and studying a bit of film composition. The way directors of photography take pictures for moving scenes makes heavy use of cleverly placed natural frames.

Using Light and Shadow as a Natural Frame

Figure of a dancer against bright white backdrop. Stonewall tunnel as a framing element. Black-and-white photography.
Observe how light and dark were very carefully applied and balanced in this shot to create an excellent frame for the central subject.

Contrasts are always a handy tool in photography composition, and that’s no different in the context of framing.

You can make use of light and shadow in your photographs to create a frame naturally and lend your picture some stunning foreground views. For example, you can complement an indoor shot with harsh light falling in from windows on one side to create an artificial frame that separates part of the scene from the rest. This is also an excellent technique to keep in mind for storytelling use!

Light sources themselves can be frame elements, too!

Well-placed streetlights are not only perfect examples of leading lines, but they can also cordon off your photo very smartly. Shoot from a low angle and let the light wash over the far edges of the photo – be prepared for some awesome shots!

Don’t forget about the second half of the phrase, ‘light and shadow’! You’d be foolish to treat shadows as mere negative space in your frame.

In landscape photography, shadows can generate beautiful photos by serving as a window into the background, for example. Rather than limiting detail, shadows can aid in creating additional context and depth, helping your frames become more interesting to the viewer.

Use Foreground Elements Smartly to Frame With Depth

Woodland nature photography. Mushrooms sprouting from soil. Shallow depth of field.
Though it might be hard to notice at first glance, the glare and intentional blur in the foreground coupled with the defocused ‘bokeh’ background in this frame really help bring out the main subject, the fungi in the middleground.

If you are the kind of photographer who likes to toy with varying degrees of depth, this is definitely one way to experiment with framing in photography that you are going to enjoy.

A blurred foreground combined with a shallow depth of field can act as a natural frame all by itself. This is hugely useful when your main subject occupies the backdrop of your photo.

In general, using out-of-focus elements as a frame is a technique often worth trying. Anything that makes the subject just a tad tricky to identify at first glance is sure to arouse the viewer’s attention. Just be sure to not blur the whole frame too excessively. You don’t want to end up creating a sense of total confusion (unless that serves the ideas behind your photo, of course)!

In such cases as when working with deliberate foreground-background blur, remember that it is not the frame you are trying to build. Rather, the whole picture is the object of the composition – the framing is merely an aspect of it.

The reason why I would especially like to stress this point here is that blur inherently obscures detail and softens harsh edges.

This makes it hard to create a frame in the literal sense. Geometric shapes complementing the right angles that form the boundary of your photograph are one way to make a frame, but they clash with the emotions that blur generates. Try to keep the two separate in your head while you compose.

Exploring the World of Creative Framing in Photography

You can’t just use framing as a vehicle to tell certain stories. Some, like the creator of this surrealist shot, use frames as both an aesthetic and a philosophical theme in their work, in addition to aiding in composition.

Building your framing photography skills is a long journey that will surely contain plenty of ups and downs. But if you seek to supercharge your creative juices and create stunning images that let your subject shine in a new light, it’s an essential discipline to master.

Whether you dabble in architecture or landscapes, portrait photography or documentary features, I want you to try and consciously employ some framing techniques in your next couple of images.

Make sure to set clear targets for what you want to achieve with your framing composition. Don’t make these goals too far-reaching – even masterful framing can’t carry a whole photo all by itself!

Rather, jot down some ideas for intelligent framing of your subject first. Expand on these creatively during the compositional process, and try to mind all four sides of the frame as you do so. Strict awareness and sharp mental focus go a long way here!

Take Away

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.

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  1. Thanks Jonathan for this insightful article.
    Framing is a often undervalued concept, yet so important in landscape and portraits alike.
    I think the best photographers have an innate capability of seeing the frame in their mind before shooting, putting their subjects in the perfect composition spot to enhance the final image.

    In my opinion, the framing somehow helps to achieve that concept that Roland Barthes called “punctum” in his fundamental 1980 book “Camera Lucida”.
    Somehow the framing is easily read/seen/perceived from the spectator point of view, thus helping the eye to reach its punctum, as denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.

    What do you think about it?

    1. Hi Federica, thanks for commenting!

      I agree that framing is one of those skills where having a sharp mind’s eye really comes in handy. I actually know plenty of photographers with rather poor eyesight who rarely rely on their camera’s viewfinder very thoroughly for composition – they frame entirely in their head, maybe making slight adjustments only through cropping in post-processing if at all. I can attest to the quality of the images that can result from that process. It’s truly impressive what imagination can do!

      And regarding Barthes: I think punctum can stem from many aspects of a photograph, it depends both on what the viewer wants to quantify and on how the photographer wishes to execute their ideas. But I agree that more often than not, framing is one of those things that is often most easily processed by even a casual viewer without an understanding of photography, yet without diminishing its emotional impact. This is something that I think a truly talented photographer is always capable of exploiting: using the subconscious consciously to evoke something deep and far-reaching within their audience.

      This is also where photography and cinematography can overlap very strongly. In filmmaking, it’s an established technique to use the limitations of the frame to “draw the viewer in” and make them feel part of the emotional spectrum that’s experienced by the characters in the screenplay. I think as photographers, we still haven’t fully embraced this universal notion of photography as a means to tell stories – at least not in the traditional, straightforward sense is there is in cinema and theater. That’s perhaps why I can see framing being used in many more, often abstract and hard to spot ways. But a photographer with a very good natural command of framing is definitely capable of telling stories just as deep, meaningful, and relatable as any director. I don’t think the number of frames – whether the 130,000 of an average 90-minute film or just a single photo – really makes a difference in the end, it’s all about how it is utilized.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful read, Johnathan! I loved the insights in this and can certainly find areas in it that I can apply to my own photography. I have a few thoughts that are more footnotes than comments, really, but I think that some of the community may find them useful.

    This whole article ties in beautifully with the article “15 Types of Camera Shots and Angles in Photography” by our very own Perrin Adams!
    The angle you use may allow you to discover a different way to frame. Take the time to look at the shot and try to press that shutter button when you see the image you want in it’s entirety in your viewfinder.

    Honestly, a good way to practice this is with a smartphone as you get immediate results. Another way to practice this is to look at your own images. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t. Can you crop the image for better framing? Start training your eye on the images you like to take. Go back and really take the images in this article in and apply it to your work. A mistake is only a mistake if we refuse to correct it.

    A couple of ready examples are a recent shot by the talented @valentina-waterworth, in the macro photography group, of a butterfly. It has a beautiful buttery foreground and the veins in the wings of the butterfly have gorgeous leading lines to the middle of the image. Cropping out a large portion of the wing was a risk that paid off in the image. As did leaving room to breathe on the left side of the shot. Go find this image!

    As well, in the portraits group, @federica Nardese is a genius at framing! Seriously, it borders on mystical. Take a look at her stuff and keep an eye out for one series where she shows the BTS of where the shot was taken. It will blow your mind! In that case, it was the environment itself that partially dictated what the framing would be.

    It definitely informed MY work as I shoot in a small home studio space. Seriously, she works magic, so no excuses! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Again, a wonderful read.

    That is my two cents in case anyone is listening. ๐Ÿ™‚

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