Outside the Frame

You are directed out of the frame to complete the story.

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.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.

Conclusion

To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?

Beautiful Chaos

Mountain stream, s-curve, texture

I am thinking about some words by William Neill in his book Light on the Landscape, combined with an old country song by Diamond Rio named Beautiful Mess. I’m referring to the visual chaos of the normal world around us. Managing this chaos is one of the great challenges and rewards of outdoor photography.

Visual chaos

Alas, the world outside is a chaotic place visually. Things just aren’t naturally arranged to make it convenient for us poor outdoor photographers. Plants are in the way. Trees aren’t in the right place for the best design. Rivers bend the wrong way. Clouds are too much or not enough or arranged wrong. Weather doesn’t cooperate. Sigh.

I say that facetiously, of course. That chaos and the difficulty of making something pleasing out of a cluttered scene is one of the unique and challenging parts of photography. If it was too easy it would be difficult to create outstanding images.

Bringing order

I love this challenge. The inner designer in me rises to it. It is a very satisfying mental exercise to try to mold a chaotic scene into a clean and appealing image. This is one of the defining characteristics of photography. Painters start with a blank canvas and selectively add only the elements they want for their scene. But photographers must start with an existing, disordered scene and simplify it.

We have many techniques to apply to do this. Lens selection will widen or narrow our field of view. We can change our point of view to include significant parts or exclude distracting elements. Selective focus can emphasize the areas of attention. Exposure can be used to darken or blow out parts of the frame where you don’t want any detail. Long exposure can change moving elements into a different graphical design. These and other techniques give us great control over the arrangements of the parts.

But above all, it is a design challenge. We have to decide what is key to the scene and how to emphasize that and minimize distractions. Is it the S curve of a river or the graphical arrangement of branches? Is it the forms or the leading lines that draw the eye a certain way? Most scenes can be arranged to bring an interesting view. Some more than others, but most can be improved.

Refine

Following on from a previous post, we need to very consciously work to refine our design after we set it up. This is a weakness of mine that I plan to improve. I have long training in composition. When I walk up to a scene I tend to do a tremendous amount of subconscious evaluation to select a composition. My natural tendency is to set up and shoot what I visualized as I came on the scene and stop without taking it further.

But I know that many designs can be enhanced by exploring variations. I will try to discipline myself to do this more diligently. Move – left, right, up, down – look for improvements in the composition with slight shifts. Look closely at the entire frame to make sure there are no distracting elements that could be eliminated by in-camera techniques. Walk more to see if a more dramatic change of viewpoint could help.

Most of all, I need to make sure I look and think. What I have is good, but can I make it better?

Don’t over analyze

A caution, though. Don’t over analyze the situation. Design and creation should be an act of joy. When you are learning new techniques it is normal to have to concentrate a lot on what you are doing. But try to get to the point where it flows naturally. To where you move with it and follow your instincts. Trust your instincts.

Shooting in the outdoors should be energizing. We should feel excited about what we are seeing and capturing. Don’t let the joy get sucked out for you. Creativity is exciting and invigorating. Most of us aren’t going to get rich at this. We should at least have fun and feel satisfied.

This is a journey of discovery. Enjoy the journey and have fun!

Note on the image

The image in this article is personally satisfying to me. It is a location that brings me joy and that i return to as often as possible. Despite wading through mud, swatting mosquitoes and trying not to slip in and get swept downstream, I loved the scene. I did follow my advice in 2 significant ways: I worked it until I got to a composition I loved, and I had a great time.

I hope you will find scenes that bring you such joy.

Move

Carefully composed plains shot

No, I am not suggesting you should uproot and relocate. Or join the great resignation and quit your job. These can be beneficial at times, but it’s not what I am talking about. I’m simply saying that art is a physical process. We need to move freely when we are are exploring for images.

Taking root

Certain of the images I shoot require a tripod for rock solid sharpness. I actually like this, because it brings a discipline to the process. There is a trap many of us fall into, though.

When we set the tripod down it’s like it takes root. We’ve gone to the trouble of setting it up, leveling it, composing a shot, and we tend to not move it. It creates inertia. But perhaps that first place we put it was not the optimum location. We need to tell ourselves there is a better placement and we need to find it.

Use your feet

When finding the right angle for a shot…’Move your ass’.” – Jay Maisel

Photography is a physical activity. At least for the type of outdoor photography I do. I walk. I stop and frame up a scene and take a picture. At this point, though, do I go on or explore options? Either answer is right depending on the situation. But are you confident enough in your compositional prowess that you know you got the best shot of the scene?

I have learned the hard way that many scenes can be improved by “working” them some. Take some more time. Move. Try another angle. Get higher or lower. Take a few steps to the side to eliminate a distracting background. Wait a minute for the light to improve.

In other words, once I have the shot, I need to look for ways to improve it. Most often, this involves moving, walking, squatting, thinking. One of the great technical advancements of digital photography is that we can see our image immediately. We can examine it and critique it to see how it could be improved. Do it if you have the time and opportunity.

I tend to quote the great Jay Maisel a lot. He is very quotable. Here is one that elaborates some on this idea:

“You find that you have to do many things, more than just lift up the camera and shoot, and so you get involved in it in a very physical way. You may find that the picture you want to do can only be made from a certain place, and you’re not there, so you have to physically go there. And that participation may spur you on to work harder on the thing, . . . because in the physical change of position you start seeing a whole different relationship.” – Jay Maisel

Try variations

A great scene often has the opportunity to explore variations. Change the crop. Go in for closer detail. Vary the exposure. Look for an angle that shows better shape or lighting or gets rid of distractions. Moving even a step or 2 can make a large change. Out constant attitude should be, “yes, that’s good; how can I make it better?”.

Again, an advantage we have with digital imaging is that shooting these variations costs us almost nothing. Yes, we have to edit them, but the reality is, that is an embarrassment of riches. We might end up with 10 great images of the scene to choose from. It can be hard to pick the best.

Moving is an attitude

This sounds weird. Moving is an attitude? What I mean is that we should always be ready to explore chances of improvement of a shot. Don’t let our tripod get rooted. Have the flexibility to let ourselves try a different angle. That often involves physical movement.

I believe I have missed many great opportunities by shooting the first composition I saw. I now try to make myself explore variations and be willing to move. One of the great influences in framing a scene is the position you shoot from. And as Jay said, moving and trying new ideas gives us a new perspective on the scene.

Is It Interesting?

Layers and layers

I find myself pondering this question a lot these days. More and more I believe the answer to “is it interesting?” overrides many considerations of composition and technique. This is a personal judgment, of course. as is the question of what is interesting.

Learning

Art is almost as much about our training as it is about our natural creativity. We all start somewhere, whether we have formal training or we are self taught. When we are learning a skill or an art we concentrate on the mechanics first.

The tendency is to focus our attention on what we are trying to master. This is natural. What we should recognize, though, is that we may not really be making art in the process. Yes, it is art in the sense that we create it as art, but it is not a mature and well rounded style yet.

Technique

Photography is possibly the most technical of the normal arts. We have to master many layers of technology to get skilled at the craft. There is the camera with its hundreds of settings and controls, each of which may help us make a great image or a terrible one. Then there is the computer system required to store and process the image. And the software we choose to use for managing and editing the image. If you are taking it all the way to the end of the chain, there is the whole printing process to learn.

Each of these areas is a huge field that could require years of study to master.

If this is where you are, plow into it. Work through the learning process. Get to the point where the camera is a comfortable tool that you can use with little thought. Ideally you should be able to adjust all the major setting in the dark, just by feel.

The image processing software is probably an even bigger challenge. Photoshop is one of the deepest tools I have ever used, and that is from the point of view of a long career in very complex software development. There are only a few people in the world I know of who totally “know” Photoshop. Julianne Kost comes to mind, but then she is the chief Photoshop evangelist for Adobe. It is her full time job to be able to train people on any aspect of it. Others at about that level are Ben Willmore and Dave Cross. I study and use Photoshop hours a week but I will never get to their level.

But the good thing is, I don’t have to be a Ben Willmore. As long as I know enough to realize my artistic vision, I’m OK. I know of excellent and successful photographers who I consider to have only a rudimentary knowledge of the tools. They know enough to do what they want to do. I personally can’t be happy unless I feel I have mastered my tools enough to comfortably use them as an extension of my creativity. So I study a lot. But that is just my own burden.

It should be about creating interesting art, not our ability to use the tools.

Composition

The next major pillar of image making is composition. It is another thing that can become a lifelong study in itself. We can burrow into art history, visual theory, Gestalt psychology, and all manner of ideas and opinions.

We start with only an intuitive feel for good composition, based on art we have seen and our inherent notions of what we like. Probably we cannot express in words what good composition is. As we study and practice we get to where we have a more formal view of it. We can critique our own or other images in terms of their design. Eventually, we can compose our images intuitively, without much conscious thought. We can repeatedly produce compositions that please us.

Keep in mind that most of this time, we are producing images that are now technically “correct” and have “good” composition. But maybe nobody wants to look at them yet.

Is it interesting?

This idea was clarified for me in a book about poetry. (Writing Poems, Robert Wallace. The link is for a later edition of the book) Weird, huh? It is a book about writing poetry rather than a regular book of poems. I find hints and ideas to improve and better understand my art from all sorts of diverse sources.

The author made the statement that if the poem is not interesting, what good is it? It can have wonderful form, metaphor, irony, symbolism, etc., but if it is not interesting, no one will read it.

I believe there is something here to apply to our art.

I have seen, and made, too many technically perfect, classically composed images of … nothing memorable. While I value sharp, well executed images, and pleasing compositions with flow and leading lines and great light, I have come to realize that is not enough by itself to really be art. This is, of course, just my personal opinion. But then all art is a personal opinion. 🙂

When you have mastered the basics I suggest you first visualize something that will make a memorable image. Then use your acquired skill to capture it perfectly. Don’t just work on technique. You’re better than that.