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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, March 1, 2021

The First Order of Composition - Frame

Classic use of objects within the frame to frame other objects, creating layers of frame-subject relationships
One of the defining characteristics of a photograph is that it is two dimensional. Being two two dimensional means that there has to be an edge to the picture as an object. This is very succinctly put by Stephen shore who wrote that “the photograph has edges, the world has not” (Stephen Shore -The Nature of Photographs: 1998). Part of the photographer’s goal is to delineate their experience of the world within a frame and so depict their ‘view’ of the world to a viewer in another time and place.

Of course saying this is easy whereas putting this into practice takes a little more skill. The problem is that as photographers start out they tend to be overly concerned with the content - as they should -and how much they can fit into the scene. As they grow more experienced the realization dawns that less is more and the concern shifts to how little should be included in the scene.

A frame does not have to be dark - lightness frames the darker center of the image, however a very slight vignette ensures that viewer interest doesn't complete leave the scene. 


The key word above is inclusion. Angela Farris Belt in her book, ‘The Elements of Photography’ explains that “even those photographers who know the basic rules of two-dimensional composition don’t necessarily understand how to apply those rules toward orchestrating content within a photographic frame” (6:2008). I dislike the use of the word ‘rules’, but essentially photographers end up ignoring one of the defining characteristics of the photograph, the fact that the image is an encapsulated reality within the boundaries of the photographic frame.

A visual pun utilizing a frame within a frame to frame the subject of the image...although the frame itself is subject as well.

The first order of framing is of course what we point the camera at. What gets included and excluded plays an enormous role in the meaning that is transmitted through the image. One of my favourite images to demonstrate this is Weegee’s “The Critic”. Taken in 1943, the image depicts a ‘bag-woman’ supposedly criticizing two overdressed socialites as they walk past her. The more commonly viewed image shows the crop of just the bag woman and the two socialites. In this crop the meaning is fairly obvious. However, the less frequently viewed original image shows other people on the left of the frame who the bag woman may actually be talking to (the man is possibly Weegee’s assistant who assisted in the staging of this image). What is included or excluded from the frame is critical to the reading of the image. There is an interesting side effect of the act of framing that John Szarkowski picks up on: “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft” (The Photographers Eye 70:1966). Kevin Carter’s iconic image of the Sudanese girl and vulture is a perfect example here. What we see through the image and what the reality is, are often two different things entirely!

“A visually literate viewer assumes that the entire content of the frame to be intended by the photographer” (Farris Belt 7:2008). The photographer needs to be consciously aware of what goes in and what stays out of frame. Cropping, is the post-capture act of refining the framing of the image, and as such helps the photographer eliminate the elements that serve to distract the viewer from the intended meaning of the image. Sometimes it helps to shoot loose and crop later (photographing sport and wildlife comes to mind immediately), but the awareness of a future crop should still be a part of the intended creation of the image.  This is particularly the case when we intend to change the final format of the captured image.

Our eyes view images within the context of the frame. This is an important consideration as the edges of the photograph are the first order of the design of the image (the composition). In this way our eyes automatically pan across a panoramic format image. We unconsciously look toward the centre of a square format frame and seem to subconsciously yearn for third or diagonal balance in 2:3 ratio frames. This brings us back to Farris Belt’s comment regarding the photographic frame. The edges of the photograph take on an active role in the way that the image is read. This is why some of the more prestigious photographic salons actually ask the photographer what colour matt (background) the image should be viewed on. The choice can determine how an image read by the viewer.

Click to view a larger screen size image for comparison

The images above are all slightly different. The image on the left has a very faint vignette to it, while the central image lacks the vignette. The right hand image is identical to the central image, but has a thin black border to it. The subtle differences play an active role in the reading of the image. In the left image, the vignette forces the eye into the frame so the viewer concentrates more on the elephants. The central image has no vignette and as a result the eye wanders outwards towards the bright edges of the image, giving the impression of a greater space - possibly similar to that depicted - outside of the actual image. The right image encapsulates the viewer’s eye within the black frame, precluding any thought of a world outside of the framed image. Personally, I find it difficult to decide between the first two images as to which works more effectively, but each certainly has a subtly different reading to that of the other.

The basic premise in action here is the difference between active and passive frames. An active frame is one which stops the viewer’s eye from wandering outside of the confines of the image space. A passive frame on the other hand tends to imply that there is space beyond the borders of the image.  These are simple post-production techniques which play a large part in the ultimate meaning of the image. Bearing these in mind while actively framing the image in camera could potentially change the way the photographer creates the image. 

The quite literal use of the image frame to create an active frame to the image. It is an effective technique to signal to the viewer notions of authenticity as well as centering of the image and the importance of the central subject. The frame encapsulates the view completely and does not hint at an outside world beyond the image.

Photographic composition can be greatly improved through recognition of the frame as an integral part of the design of the image. The camera is able to encapsulate the world in a single frame, but that frame does more than simply border the content of the image. The frame plays a didactic role in converting the content of the image into a meaningful subject. 


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