Framing in photography is often used to direct the viewer's eye towards the subject of an image. Here's what it is and how to best use it.

How we frame a shot in photography usually refers to how we set the shot up in our viewfinder or LCD screen, yet there’s a different kind of framing that’s set up in the scene itself. “Framing” in this context refers to using elements in the scene to surround some parts of the image in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the subject. For example, you might shoot through an arch, a doorway, or pulled back curtains to create a frame effect. Similarly, you might use branches or hedges to cover up space around the subject, drawing the viewer’s eye right to where you want it to be.

Types of Framing

In general, there are four different types elements you can use to create a frame within your shot: architectural, natural, geometric shapes, and light/shadow.

1. Architectural: Using buildings or building elements.

The architecture provides some of the easiest elements for photo framing. Doorways, arches, and windows create instantaneous openings through which we can focus. In the photo below, the photographer used a hole in the wall to bring focus to the cemetery beyond.

Photo Credit: Teryani Riggs

2. Natural: Using elements from the natural environment.

Nature provides many interesting possibilities for framing: the branches of trees, flowers l, canyon walls, sandstone formations. All of these can be used to direct the eye. You can even use weather elements like rain or fog. In the photo below, the trees and ground form a triangular frame around the subject, directing the eye towards the center and then off towards the mountains above.

Photo Credit: Haziq Tumaran

3. Geometric Shapes

Shapes of any type can be used to create a frame. Circles, squares, and rectangles are the most obvious, but rarely the most interesting. In the photo below, photographer Claudel Rheault uses a spiral to bring attention to the subject up in the right hand corner.

Photo Credit: Claudel Rheault

4. Light/Shadow Frames

Both light and shadow can be used to create forms for framing. Sometimes they’re as simple as an actual shape formed around the scene (like photographing a subject inside a window frame shadow). Other times they can function much like a vignette. Take the photo below, for instance. Although it’s not a recognizable shape, the darkness around the band makes a frame around the lit area, making sure they’re the center of focus.

Photo Credit: Diego Sulivan

When to Use Framing

Framing isn’t a technique that’s easy to do well. In fact, it’s so often poorly done, the standard wisdom is to use it sparingly. That being said, there are certainly times when framing can greatly enhance a photo.

Some of the best times to use framing include:

  • When you’d like to obscure boring subject matter that surrounds your subject (like a sky without any clouds or color);
  • When you’d like to add depth to the image;
  • When a natural frame already exists and has an interesting shape;
  • When you’d like to place context around your subject;
  • When it’s clear that the framing will enhance the photo, not merely clutter it up.

Photo Credit: Teryani Riggs

Tips and Tricks

  • Frames don’t need to go all the way around the subject. Some of the best, most natural-looking shots only have one or two sides framed.
  • Ask yourself, “Will this clutter or cramp my image?” Poorly used, framing just adds clutter to a shot, making it feel cramped and/or poorly cropped.
  • Experiment with having the framing elements in focus and out of focus. Each choice leads to a very different effect and can make the difference between the frame being merely annoying and really working for your shot.

In all reality, framing is a difficult technique to do well. Learning to do it in a way that truly enhances your images will take a fair amount of vision and creativity (unless the frame is already naturally occurring). So, in general, it’s best not overused. Still, if you can master the technique, you’ll likely create some rather extraordinary shots.