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Framing

What if there was an easy, yet effective way for you to bring focus to your subject? A compositional technique that you could use anywhere, whether you are at home, in a studio, or outside. Well that my friends, is where framing comes into play...


What is framing in photography?

Framing in photography is a compositional technique used to bring focus to a subject by placing it within elements that help isolate the subject and draw the viewer’s eyes toward it.

As I’ll show you later, these elements can be anything, such as a hallway, a doorway, tree branches, a bridge, etc. For example, here's an image I took framing my subject between two palm trees:

Girl standing between two palm trees.
Subject standing between two palm trees
Girl standing with hands in air between two palm trees.
Subject framed between palm trees

Also, don’t confuse this technique with its close compositional cousin, frame within a frame, which is another photography composition technique that involves placing your subject within a literal “frame” within the scene.

Here's an example of a photo I took that demonstrates a frame within a frame. Notice how he is enclosed on all four sides:

Man reaching out to camera in between bars.
Subject before framing with bars
Man reaching out to camera in between bars.
Subject after framing with bars

While framing within a frame often entails enclosing your subject on all four sides with a literal frame, successful framing in photography doesn’t require enclosing your subject on all four sides. So, if a literal frame meant enclosing on all four sides – bottom, top, left, and right – you can achieve regular framing by enclosing one side, two sides, three sides, or all four sides.

Here's an easy way to think about it:

Every photo that uses a frame within a frame composition is also using a framing composition, but not every photo using a framing composition is necessarily using the frame within a frame composition.

So now that we know the definition and the difference between framing and frame within a frame let’s look at some different ideas you can try, as well as examples of photos I took using framing.


Examples of framing in photography

1. Trees

The first example of framing in photography is using trees. The beauty of trees is that they can be found pretty much anywhere—unless you live in the desert, of course.

But in all seriousness, trees are readily available in many environments, from urban to rural settings. They come in various sizes, shapes, and types that allow creative flexibility.

Trees create easy and effective framing elements due to their solid structure. They also have many lines, shapes, and textures that can help add some dynamism to your image and fill in blank areas.

You can place a tree on one side of your subject, or my go-to is to place my subject between two trees so they are on the left and right sides of my subject. Here are a few examples of me using trees to frame my subjects:

Girl framed between two palm trees hands in the air.
Subject framed between two palm trees
Man sitting on fence framed between palm trees.
Subject sitting on fence framed between trees

2. Leaves and branches

The second example of framing in photography is using leaves and branches.

I’ve found that if you’re going for close-up portraits of your subject, using the leaves or branches of a tree is a perfect framing element. The intricate shapes and patterns on the leaves and branches also add visual interest to your image, which is always good.

When using leaves or branches as your framing elements, there is no right or wrong way; you will just have to go with their natural layout. For example, a branch might be above your subject’s head that will act as a framing element from above.

In this example, you can see that leaves above and to the right of my subject acted as great framing elements.

Girl in front of fence being framed by leaves around her.
Framed in between the leaves

3. Poles

Poles are another great example of framing elements that you can use in your images. Similar to trees, poles create naturally strong, vertical lines that can act as framing elements.

They are geometrically simple and add structure and visual interest to your images. If done correctly, poles can act almost like a line through your image, helping divide your frame and drawing emphasis and focus to your subject. Here's a photo I took of my subject framed on the right side by flag poles:

Man standing with suit with a flag pole framing him to his left.
Framed with the flag pole

4. Fence

Another example of a great framing element is fences.

Fences can be easy framing devices while creating natural, strong lines and patterns. The linear structure of fences can guide your viewer’s eyes through the photo, adding a leading line while framing your subject.

Fences generally have a lot of texture, whether it’s weathered wood or metal bars, so this can also add a tactile element to your image, making it a bit more interesting. Here are a couple of examples of using the fence to frame my subjects:

Girl holding onto fence being framed by fence lines.
Subject framed between fence lines
Man sticking hand out in between fence bars.
Subject framed in between fence bars

5. Road

The fifth example of framing in photography is using roads.

Similar to fences, roads can act as both leading lines and framing elements within your scene. Roads are also easy to find, just be sure they aren’t being actively used by cars and always practice caution if you are near cars. The directional aspect and converging lines of roads are terrific at adding perspective and depth to your image, drawing the viewer into it.

By placing your subject in the middle of the road, you can also use them as framing elements. Here are a couple of examples of using the road to frame my subjects:

Girl standing in between the road looking at camera.
Female subject framed in between the road
Man standing in between a road looking at camera.
Male subject framed in between the road

6. Lights

Lights, whether artificial or natural, are another great tool for framing in photography. Lights can illuminate your subject while simultaneously drawing your viewer’s eyes to them.

By strategically placing your subject within two sources of light, you can emphasize the focal point in the middle. The interplay of light, shadow, and contrast created by this also does a great job of naturally drawing attention to the image while also adding depth.

Here's a photo I took where I framed my subject in between two strips of neon lights:

Female sitting between two neon light strips.
Framing in between two neon light strips

7. Hands

The final example of framing in photography is using the subject’s hands! Yes, you can use your subject’s own hands as framing elements.

You can do this by getting close and having your subject place their hands under their chin to act as a framing element from below. You can also have your subject place their hands on either side of their face to frame their face from the side.

As a portrait and headshot photographer, I love using hands as framing elements because they are very subtle and natural, and they can be used as a posing reference for your subject as well, so they have something to do with their hands!

Woman wearing boxing gloves resting her head on one.
Subject being framed by her hands
Girl resting her chin on hands framing her face.
Subject resting hands on chin to frame her face

So, I’ve covered common examples you can use when you want to use framing in photography, but what are the different types of framing in photography?


Types of framing in photography

Each example that I covered earlier can fall into one of three types of framing in photography.

1. Natural frames

The first type of framing in photography is natural frames. Natural frames are anything found in nature, such as trees, leaves, branches, dirt roads, etc.

2. Architectural frames

The second type of framing in photography is architectural frames. Architectural frames utilize man-made structures such as doors, bridges, streets, poles, fences, etc.

3. Body frames

The third type of framing in photography is body frames. Using your hands or other people as framing elements is an example of using body frames.


How to use framing in photography?

So, I’ve touched on the definition of framing, examples, and types, but how do you actually look for these framing elements and then use them effectively in your photos? Following three simple steps, you can use framing in your photography today.

1. Pick a subject

The first step in using framing is picking a subject. Your subject can be anything from a person to an inanimate object.

You can even do this exercise with me right now. Look around you and pick a subject; it could be a water bottle on your desk, the mouse on your desk, or a plant. I'm going to choose the water bottle on my desk for this example:

Water bottle on a desk.
Using water bottle as my subject

2. Find your framing element

Once you have picked your subject, the second step is to find your framing element. Consider the types of framing I mentioned earlier, such as natural frames, architectural frames, and body frames.

For example, let’s say you picked a water bottle to be your subject for this example. Look around you, what do you see that could act as framing elements. This could be anything from a doorway, other water bottles, a wall, etc.

You don’t have to move far away from where your subject originally is to find a framing element.

What I mean by this is that when I’m out on paid client portrait shoots, we usually take photos at a particular scene, and I just look for framing elements within that particular scene.

I don’t tell my subject to walk a long distance with me to a road or something just to use it as a framing element. I look around in our current scene and identify particular framing elements.

For example, if I see buildings behind my subject, I might place him or her between those buildings to frame them. Or, if there are trees and branches, I may have my subject stand under the branches near the tree to frame them.

My point is, if you are in a particular location, you can find framing elements in your current scene, and you don’t have to move far to find them. I mean, you can even use the horizon line as a framing element from above like I did in this example:

Man walking alongside waterline with horizon framing his head.
Using horizon as framing line

3. Place Subject Within Framing Element

The third step to using framing is to place your subject within or near the framing element.

Going back to the example of my water bottle, I will frame it with a framing element in my room.

So, these photos aren't winning any awards, but my goal is to show you how easy it is to frame your subject and that you can practice it right after this guide with everyday items lying around your house.

Framing on both sides

First, we have framing on both sides. So remember, you can place the subject in the middle of two framing elements to frame your subject on both sides. Here's what it looks like when I don't use framing and when I use the closet lines as framing elements:

Water bottle on a wooden stool not framed.
Not using framing
Water bottle on a wood stool being framed by closet lines behind it.
Using framing

Framing on one side

Second, we have framing on one side. You can get close to a framing element and then use that to frame your subject on one side. Here's what it looks like when I'm doing it incorrectly because I'm not close enough to my framing element on the right and then when I'm doing it correctly by getting closer to the framing element so the focus is on the water bottle:

Water bottle next to tissue box on a bed.
Incorrectly framing on one side
Water bottle next to tissue box with correct framing.
Correctly framing on one side

Framing on all sides

Third, we have framing on all sides. You can also use three or four sides to enclose your subject, creating a more literal frame.

Here, I frame my water bottle with a picture above it, the door to the right, the table on the bottom, and the guitar on the left. Here's what it looks like when I do it incorrectly, not putting it in the middle of all four and then when I do it correctly by putting it in the middle of all four framing elements to "enclose" it:

Water bottle on table.
Incorrectly framing on all sides
Water bottle resting on table.
Correctly framing on all sides

As mentioned, I'm definitely not winning any prizes with these photos, but my goal was to show you how easy it is to frame your photos so you can start practicing and how you can get a much cleaner-looking image by doing so.


Famous photos using framing

To finish up this guide, I think it will be good to look at some famous photos that used the framing composition technique. Here are examples of famous photographs that use framing techniques effectively:

1. "Afghan Girl" by Steve McCurry

This iconic portrait features a young Afghan girl with piercing green eyes framed by the vibrant red fabric of her headscarf. The scarf is a natural frame, drawing attention to her intense gaze.

Girl with green eyes with a red scarf.
Steve Mccurry – Afghan Girl, Pakistan, 1984 Using Framing

2. "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

In this powerful documentary photograph, the Migrant Mother, from the Great Depression era, the face of the distressed mother is framed by her children's heads as they huddle together. The composition emphasizes the hardship of the time.

Mother looking into distance with two kids holding her.
Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. March 1936 Using Framing

3. "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare" by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson, known for his mastery of the decisive moment, in his photo Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, captured a man mid-leap over a puddle in this photograph. The jumping figure is framed by the puddle's reflection and the surrounding urban elements.

Man jumping over a puddle.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare Using Framing

4. "Lunch atop a Skyscraper" by Charles C. Ebbets

This historic photograph, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, shows construction workers eating lunch on a beam high above New York City during the construction of the Rockefeller Center. The subjects are framed by the beam they are sitting on and the line of rope to the right:

Men sitting in a line eating lunch on a skyscraper.
Lunch atop a Skyscraper by Charles C. Ebbets

5. "The Steerage" by Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz's photograph, The Steerage, taken in 1907, captures passengers on a ship's steerage deck. The composition uses the railings and geometric elements to frame the various passengers, creating a striking and complex image.

An old photo of people on a boat.
The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz Using Framing

6. "Kiss by the Hotel de Ville" by Robert Doisneau

This romantic photograph, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, captures a spontaneous kiss between a couple on a Parisian street. The city's architecture and the bystanders form a natural frame around the intimate moment.

Man and woman kissing on street.
Kiss by the Hotel de Ville by Robert Doisneau

In conclusion, framing is an easy yet effective compositional technique that you can use to draw your viewer’s attention and focus to your subject.

As we saw, you can use framing anywhere and everywhere, and once you’re aware of the different types of framing and framing examples, you’ll start to see framing elements everywhere you go.

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