Using natural framing in your compositions
Partial framing with two different elements
I love the composition technique of natural framing, and although it doesn’t crop up that much in my images, when it is the right technique for the shot I think it makes for very simple and elegant composition.
I’m not really a fan of the very obvious forms of natural framing – unlike many of the other rules of composition it is something to be use sparingly – because it will very quickly make your photos look samey. But when the situation is right, then it makes beautiful photos.
In this post I am going to explain natural framing but I am also going to give you some ideas so you can adapt and use it in more sophisticated ways.
Natural framing is when you use a natural element to ‘frame’ your subject. What this does is draw your eye into the photo and to the actual subject of the photo. Your eye doesn’t absorb the image all at once, it moves around the photo and your job as a photographer is to use the elements within the frame to direct the viewer’s eye. It also gives a photograph an added layer to add some complexity to what could end up being too flat or boring a photograph.
I think – like any technique – it has to feel like an inherent part of the image, not something you overlay as an afterthought.
You can use many things for your frame – like door frames, tunnels, tree branches, windows, caves, bodies of water, lines, fences, weather systems, light – anything that can form a frame-like shape – or a partial-frame like shape.
And very importantly to remember – it doesn’t have to be a complete frame around your image – in fact I am not really a fan of that – partial-framing on two or three sides is usually more compelling and less obvious.
This is a very straightforward use of natural farming:
I often use natural framing to frame buildings, statues or objects where there is nothing else interesting that is surrounding the subject. And I use is most often to obscure boring sky. Like in the photo above. It can also help to reduce any negative space in a photo, when it starts to detract from the image.
It’s important when you are using natural elements like tree branches, that you keep a very clear separation with your subject, otherwise it can all meld together and look messy. I like it to be ordered, but with an element of wildness.
The biggest disadvantage of natural framing is it can almost be too simple, too obvious. And like most things that are simple, it takes practise to make something simple appear compelling and interesting.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann
One thing I really like to do in my photography is contrast very solid human-made structures with the beautiful, light parts of nature. This is a good example. So I have framed the incredible pink sky with those pretty clouds – which even though they are stunning you do need something else to contrast it to really show off their beauty. Like maybe how you can’t really appreciate the amazingness of life if you haven’t experienced the dark parts of life!
So this has the very heavy, dark grey and solemn building framing the light. This time the ‘frame’, the building, is taking up a massive amount of the photo – and that’s because it has very interesting colour, light and textures. I think if the building had been half the photo that would have looked too obvious and not as compelling. And if the building was less than half of the photo I don’t think you would have felt it’s heavy, almost oppressiveness – and therefore you wouldn’t have had the lovely feeling of the etherealness of the light.
When discussing my photos it may seem that they fall into several techniques – and really some of these photos I’ve used could fall into other composition categories – like rule of thirds, leading lines etc. But what I think is important here is that one of things that I think is the hardest part of composition for people is to break the world down that we see in 3D, into elements and to arrange them accordingly. And analysing and practising using any compositional technique is a really good way to train your eye into recognising the elements in the world around us that can be organised into interesting compositions.
You can use natural framing to create a vignette in the edges of the image. A vignette is when the corners get gradually darker, so that your eye is drawn towards the centre, or the lightest part of the frame.
This photo above was one I processed quite significantly, really creating a lot of contrast and adding a vignette in Lightroom, you can see how I did it here.
Sometimes you can even use a frame as, well, a frame! Funnily enough with this photo if you didn’t have the frame within the image it wouldn’t look like enough of a photo. It needed the structure of being pulled together by the window and door frames.
I should call this the window of life! It’s almost like you are framing the most mundane and ordinary part of life. An empty shop with bad lighting.
Now here is a very subtle use of natural framing. My subject is the three people and their physical expressions. What is framing them, and emphasising the subject is the shadow all around them. That darkness in the photo allows your eye to immediately be drawn to the contrast of the bright light and the expressive shadows of the people – which is my subject. The impact of the subject is emphaised by the rest of the photo being in shadow.
This photo was a funny one. I took it on one of my dawn wandering in Istanbul, and there was no-one around on the streets at all. Then all of a sudden I saw this shadow – what a photographers dream! And I noticed behind me, out of nowhere, someone behind me also taking this photo. I wonder if his photo is also floating around the web, albeit at a slightly different angle!
Framing can be made from two or more different elements framing your subject. This photo below isn’t a traditional use of the technique, but can you see how the Galata Tower is the main subject, and the buildings and road are leading the eye towards it? A simple straight forward shot of the Galata Tower, without anything surrounding it, wouldn’t have proved to be as interesting.
This is a nice example of how you can sometimes combine two elements that are not interesting on their own, but together they make a nice composition. And reflections are an amazing composition tool.
And how about multiple frames within an image? Is this still natural framing? Not sure but – I like ideas taking shape in all kinds of different ways – and it sure is fun!
Another cool way to use natural framing is to have the frame be out of focus – and that will help create depth.
And by using elements that aren’t very structured or clear, like trees, leaves, bushes and natural elements, you get interesting textures and depth in the photo.
So I hope I’ve given you some ideas of how to use natural framing in your photos. This compositional technique really helped me when I was starting out – and I encourage you to practise this technique and learn how to bring it into some of your images in a creative, but subtle, way.
I’d love to know what you think about natural framing – have you used this technique before? Please do comment below And of course if you know someone who likes taking photos – please share this with them.
Have a wonderful week and happy photographing!
Anthony and Diana