There are numerous names for techniques used by photographers to create more attractive compositions and to draw their viewers’ eyes down a particular path—the rule of thirds, leading lines, s-curves, and so on—but the thing they all have in common is that they’re reducible to geometric manipulation.
As wild and crazy as the sensibilities of the most artistic among us can be, our brains are still hardwired to see the “bones” of a scene as well as the dressing, and those underlying patterns are the key to viscerally guiding attention.
One of the simplest ways is also one of the most effective, when used correctly. Framing your subject is not much different than drawing a big circle and arrow to highlight it (though quite a bit more subtle). This is why we physically frame prints meant for thoughtful consideration—to make sure they’re set off from their environment as a self-sufficient subject.
Now, I’m as big of a fan of our limitlessly-expressive custom framing services as you’re likely to find, but this week I am challenging you to, instead, create a photo with its own, natural frame built-in.
The most common ways to do this are to utilize overhanging trees, windows, or doorways to border whatever the true subject is. You couldn’t add them to every image, but as the shots above demonstrate, these frames are common because they can be very effective. (Thanks to Colorado DM, Todd, for these examples!) Ruins happen to be a particular favorite subject of mine when using this technique—the frame can be just as interesting as the subject!
Keeping the natural frame in shadow can enhance the effect, but as long as there is sufficient contrast between the frame and subject and the frame is not too distracting, the silhouetting is not necessary.
The frame also doesn’t necessarily have to take up all four sides, or may be composed of more than one element (see below). Sometimes a very fat frame can really make a small subject pop, or add a sense of place to a photo without distracting excessively from the true subject.
A few more items to bear in mind:
- Most natural frames are closer to you than your subject, but they don’t all have to be. Try using bright light or deep shadows behind your subject to create a frame.
- Whether before or behind your subject, adding a natural frame also usually means adding depth to your composition. This can help your image but also means that attention to your depth of field is key. If you want both layers in focus, you will need a narrow aperture (higher f/* number). If you don’t mind a little blur on your framing element, just make sure you’re doing it on purpose rather than finding disapointing results on the big screen when you’re reviewing.
- As with any scenario in which you’re managing multiple layers, you may need to go manual to make sure the exposure and focus are exactly where you want them. Don’t be afraid!
Bonus challenge: Find an artificial frame
Shooting built-in frames of your own construction can be a hoot, too. You can use actual frames with the back removed, your fingers in a squared position, or even (as below) a pair of glasses. I enjoy using glasses because, as additional lenses themselves, they are another layer of light manipulation and, therefore, enable visually interesting distortion or focusing effects.
Have fun out there, and (as always) I hope to see some of your results. Please share on our Facebook page or on Instagram tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework!