Outside the Frame

The frame is one of the most important aspects of our images. I’m referring to the edge, the border, not what may or may not surround the outside of a print as it hangs on a wall. Sometimes part of the storytelling is to suggest our viewers think about what is happening outside the frame.

The frame

The frame or border around our image is a powerful component of our design. An image is created within a frame. The frame defines the extent and what is included. The frame also defines what is excluded.

This is one of the unique and beautiful things about photography. A painter starts with a blank canvas and is free to include anything he wants for his image. No limits. And if he doesn’t want something, just don’t put it in. The photographer knows that everything in the field of view of the lens is recorded in his image when the shutter opens.

So a photograph is constructed by deliberately deciding what is included and what is excluded and what the viewpoint on them is. Unless you are constructing a still life or compositing images together. My focus here is on natural scenes.

It’s a dance with the frame. It’s a succession of tradeoffs and optimizations. The result is the artist’s unique viewpoint.

The edges

Magic happens at the edges. Most of the standard “rules” of composition are relative to the frame. For instance, the famous “rule of thirds” is relative to the frame edges. Leading lines come in from the edge. Diagonals are diagonal because of their relationship to the frame.

And how often has someone advised you to look carefully for things poking in from the edge of the frame. They tend to be distracting, because things near the edge of the frame are powerful. As you become experienced it is an automatic action to scan the edges to check for these elements.

The famous Jay Maisel rightly said: “You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in.” This seems especially true around the edges of the frame.

It’s kind of a paradox. Small elements at the edge are distracting. But large features projecting well into the frame are strong design elements.

A window on the world

So then our frame is our window on the world. The image is the projection within the frame. We are trained to compose carefully within the frame. To make sure the image is self-contained. Anything outside the frame is unknown. It doesn’t exist.

Or does it?

Imagining the unseen

Have you ever considered using things outside the frame as a design element? Is that even possible?

Think of a repeating pattern within the frame. If it is not stopped before the edge, we assume it continues. This brings up questions, like does it actually continue? How far does it go?

Or perhaps you consciously include a shadow coming in the edge of the frame. It can raise questions about what is the thing, is it about to come in, what will happen when it does?

Have you ever intentionally had someone or something leaving the frame? It can raise questions about why, where is it going? What will happen outside? Why is this composed this way?

Ever shoot an image with the subject looking out of the frame? It raises lots of questions with the viewer. We try to analyze the person’s expression and figure out if they are looking at something amazing, or startled, or apprehensive. Is something scary coming? We want to know.

Another example is shooting a tight section of something and leaving the rest to your imagination. We probably know what the overall thing looks like and we start filling is the rest in our mind.

Today’s image

You want to know who he is talking to. It seems to be a happy moment. We wonder what the conversation is. You want to join in the moment, so you make up your own story about what is going on. All because we are directed out of the frame to complete the scene.

The frame is a strong component of the composition of our images. We are very careful to arrange things within the frame. But it does not have to fully constrain our world. Sometimes leaving the outside of the frame as a suggestion to tweak the viewer’s imagination can be powerful.

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