Using the Frame

John Paul Caponigro

The four most important lines of any image are the ones that are often least recognized consciously: the frame. Part of learning to make successful compositions is learning to become more conscious of the frame and how to use the forces it exerts on your images for desired effects.

Watch The Movement of the Eyes Within the Frame

Whether visible or invisible, every line first creates vectors of force that encourage the eyes first to move along it, and secondly, to bounce off it. The eyes search the frame in a consistent fashion, and these tendencies influence our experiences of all compositions, no matter how diverse. The general tendency is for the eyes to move within the frame from left to right and top to bottom and then to return and repeat this process. The eyes quickly scan the frame itself (determining the limits of what’s included and by extension what’s not) before they scan what’s within the frame. On their first pass, rather than scanning each line of the frame precisely, the eyes quickly average the competing forces of the four vectors in a single sweeping gesture. Afterward, given time for a more careful examination of an image, the eyes may trace and retrace each line of the frame more precisely, until their quest for information is better fulfilled by other paths.  

To make a composition stronger, frame it in a way that only important information touches the frame.                  

When it comes to motion, one must always consider momentum, gravity, and resistance. Motions such as falling (within the frame, think top to bottom and left to right) are easier to get started and harder to stop than others, such as climbing (within the frame, think bottom to top and right to left). Once a motion starts, it tends to persist until stronger forces modify it. Place one or more barriers in the path of motion and it will shift and sometimes even reverse. Individual compositions work with these tendencies, whether subtly or dramatically, reinforcing, modifying, or working against them.

Left: The motion of the eye within the frame. Right: Power points on and in the frame.
Consciously Scan the Frame

Always be conscious of the frame: scan it; consciously move your eyes around it. Anything that touches the frame exerts a stronger influence in a composition. (This is particularly true if it touches a power point, like a corner or the middle of a border.) If information that is not important touches the frame, it becomes even more distracting. To make a composition stronger, frame it in a way that only important information touches the frame

By emphasizing more important elements and deemphasizing less important elements (or eliminating them entirely), you make images stronger. Before exposure, you have an opportunity to make the composition stronger through reframing. After exposure, you have an opportunity to make a composition stronger through cropping (this eliminates other image information that may or may not be significant) and/or retouching (this includes the image information surrounding the flaws).

 Use Proximity to the Frame

Is the frame loose or tight? How you place elements relative to the border of the frame can have a profound impact on any composition.

Place elements far from the border to deemphasize them and to direct attention towards the spaces surrounding them.

Place elements mid-distance from the border to create a sense of graciousness; elements will be neither lost in space nor claustrophobically close.

Place elements close to the border to focus more attention on them and deemphasize the spaces around them; this tends to create denser more compact compositions, energizing them.

Place elements so that they touch the border to emphasize them and create strong visual entrances and exits into and out of compositions.

Use the frame to direct attention to the things and qualities you want to emphasize and away from the things and qualities you want to deemphasize.

Place elements so that they are cropped by the frame to focus the attention of the viewer to create an interesting new shape, to highlight a particular part of an object, and/or to more strongly suggest the presence of off frame elements and the larger world outside the frame. If elements are made incomplete and the pieces left behind within the composition don’t become interesting elements on their own, they become distracting.

Use the frame to direct attention to the things and qualities you want to emphasize and away from the things and qualities you want to deemphasize. Ultimately, your use of the frame promotes one kind of seeing over another.

Orientation of the Frame

Horizontal or vertical? This choice has a major impact on any composition. A horizontal frame encourages the eyes to move from side to side. A vertical frame encourages the eyes to move up and down. Certainly, these are not the only directions the eyes will move; nevertheless, the orientation of the frame creates a strong tendency for the eyes to move in that same direction.

Orientation of Elements Within The Frame

The frame determines the orientation of the elements within it. Is the line horizontal, diagonal, or vertical? Those terms are usually determined relative to the frame. If the image lacks a horizon line or another clear suggestion of orientation, orientation is determined first by the frame and second by the horizon line of the viewing environment. In rare exceptions, frames are rotated. If the image contains a horizon line or strong suggestion of orientation within the scene, a rotated presentation will create disorientation, which the viewer may try to reconcile by physically changing their orientation. The difference between stable and calm and unstable and dynamic is found in just a few degrees.

Proportion of the Frame

The proportion of the frame exerts a strong influence on any visual experience. While much is made of ideal proportions (such as using the golden mean: 1.618) and most widely used proportions (most DSLRs are 3:2), every proportion has its own unique qualities, which can be used to make significant contributions to images. A potentially infinite number of proportions can be grouped into three broader categories: regular (square), irregular (rectangular), and extended irregular (panoramic).

Proportion functions independently of scale; whether small or large, it has the same effects. However, orientation can have a modifying influence on the psychological effect of proportion.

Cropping and/or distortion can be used to modify the proportion of an image. The new proportions function similarly to the nearest standard but take on an additional quality (much like making a musical note sharp or flat). Standardize your frame proportion to reduce its influence; repetition will desensitize viewers. Vary your use of frame proportion to increase its influence; variety stimulates viewers. 

A matter of proportions: top left, vertical; top right, square; bottom, horizontal. 

Dividing the Frame

The frame can be divided into either complete or partial pieces. The effect of the division is felt more strongly as it grows and becomes more distinct, and vice versa. Dividing the frame creates new proportions within the proportion of the frame—a relationship of proportions. This creates multiple proportional relationships; the proportion of the frame (one side to another); the proportion of one unit to another; and the proportion of those units to the frame, both individually and combined.

Even when the elements in separate areas are extremely different, the frame creates a relationship between them.

The frame can even be divided more than once to create two, three, four, five, six or more distinct areas. Even when the elements in separate areas are extremely different, the frame creates a relationship between them, even though there’s plenty of opportunity for the creator to decide whether this relationship is one of similarity, contrast, or discontinuity. How important is dividing the frame? Consider the profound effects the placement of the horizon has on an image.

From left to right: Dividing the frame into high, medium, and low perspectives.

Use of the Frame Qualifies the Concerns of the Author

The influence of the frame can be strengthened or weakened to emphasize not only specific elements within it but also specific qualities of images. As the frame is emphasized, images tend to become more graphic, highlighting the structure of the image. When the frame is deemphasized, images become more strongly oriented towards the literal information they contain. You can create significantly different kinds of images simply by changing the way you use the frame. Consider these three fundamentally different ways of treating information within the frame:

1. Scientific Composition

Think forensics: focus is on significant detail, often isolated. It describes structure or state. Information comes first, graphic structure second (found in the structure of the subject rather than created by the composition). If information is emphasized, it's done primarily to make key aspects of an image clearer. These types of images attempt to be objective and more or less without style. It's just the facts.

2. Reportorial Composition

Think documentary: context is king, situating a subject in place and time and in relationship to other objects. Decisive moments or turning points are highly prized. It’s history. These types of images strive to present an informed point of view, representing their subjects without embellishment and suggesting the larger context. Some stylistic treatments are favoured over others and strong stylization is generally discouraged. It's an eyewitness testimonial.

3. Graphic Composition

Think fine art: the elements of the image itself are emphasized in an expressive way, often favouring design over the literal content of the image. Personal interpretation is encouraged. Stylistic enhancement is often favored. It's showing me your world the way you see it.

Consider the frame. When it comes to images, what four lines could be more important? If “all the world’s a stage,” the frame’s the stage upon which your visual stories are set.

John Paul is a regular contributor to PHOTOGRAPH magazine, and his column, "Creative Composition," appears in each issue. You may also like his recent article, "The Power of Abstraction," or find out what he had to say when we asked him about the importance of vision in any creative endeavour.

John Paul Caponigro is an internationally renowned fine artist and the author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution. His clients include Adobe, Apple, Canon, and Epson. Learn more by visiting his website and get hundreds of free lessons with a subscription to his newsletter, Insights.

Craft & Technique Creativity John Paul Caponigro

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