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Framing the image (04/18/2007)
By Tom Hirsch

A photograph is a snippet of reality, a small representation of the world. The borders of a picture delineate that portion of reality that we wish to emphasize. But we also want to give a feeling of completeness to our pictures; the impression that we have selected the most interesting aspects of the scene.

Framing is one way of implying completeness in a photograph. This is the technique of using some element of the scene, or a prop, to highlight the center of interest.

This doesn't mean that the subject should be encircled by the framing device. A tree branch, for example, can make an effective frame if it protrudes into the top of a scene without obscuring the center of interest.

Framing devices come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Visualize, for example, a person leaning against the inside of a doorway, a boy sticking his head through the rungs of a ladder, a tree on each side of a panoramic landscape, a herd of cattle framed by the rails of a wooden fence, a girl standing behind the fork of a tree, or a student at a desk with a stack of books on each side of him or her.

Besides the feeling of completeness, a framing device can serve several functions. It can add to depth perspective, direct the viewer's eye to the center of interest, provide a sense of location, furnish relief from the familiar rectangular format of a photograph, and fill in empty space such as a dull, cloudless sky.

In order to be effective, a frame ought to be related to the subject and should be an integral part of the entire composition. It need not extend around the whole picture, but could appear in only part of it, depending upon the purpose and relationship to the subject.

When using a frame, make sure that the center of interest is sharp. Because most framing devices are in the foreground, and since an autofocus camera will focus on whatever is within its focus "eye," it's important to be aware of what part of the scene the camera is focusing on. If it focuses on the framing device, the subject may be out of focus.

If you think the camera is focusing on the frame instead of the subject, you can turn the camera away from the intended scene and focus on something that is about the same distance and of the same brightness as the subject. Lock in the focus, then recompose the scene and shoot.

Sometimes it's appropriate to have an in-focus frame, showing all the detail. Other times it's better to throw the frame out-of-focus so that the frame doesn't complete with the subject. This is a personal choice. In most cases, a sharply focused frame will require the use of a small aperture such as f/11 or f/16 with film camera. For an out-of-focus frame, use a large aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4. Because of the optics in a digital camera, the framing device might be sharp regardless of the aperture used.

With any camera, though, you can control the sharpness of the frame. For an out-of-focus frame, get as close to the frame as possible and focus on the subject. To get a sharp frame and sharp subject, it's best if they're on or near the same plane. If they're not, focus between them. A point approximately halfway between would be about right.

One more thing, a framing device must frame something. A frame without a focal point or something of interest within its borders is meaningless. If you find a perfect frame but nothing for it to highlight, it might just be a matter of waiting until something or someone moves into the empty area.

Framing is an appropriate technique anytime. It's just a matter of matching the subject with a suitable frame. 


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