Filling the Frame

Frame adds energy to the composition

A unique characteristic of flat (2D) art is that it lives within a frame. That is mostly what I do right now – 2D art – so this interests me a lot. All 2D art is about how we choose to fill the frame. The process is very different between camera-based art and paint-based art


Composition is the art of filling the frame. This is one of the holy grail topics of art. Theories, opinions, and good and bad advice abounds everywhere you look.

It is easy to get inundated: rule of thirds, golden ratios, leading lines, diagonals, eye lines, visual flow through the image, contrasts, etc. All of these things are real; all are important; none make a great image. At least, not by themselves.

That is the thing, Composition “rules” are the basics that everyone needs to study, but they are not what actually makes art. Pick one for example: the golden ratio (or golden mean, or Fibonacci ratio). The principle was worked out by the ancient Greeks or earlier and is still taught today. It is still a valid principle to create pleasing constructions. An attempt to simplify it has led us to the famous and often abused “rule of thirds”. Most of us are aware of this guideline and think about it when composing a scene.

Composition rules are just a catalog of things discovered over the ages as ways to achieve good effects. They do not mean much in themselves. Following all the rules does not mean you have a good image and ”’breaking” the rules does not mean you have a bad image. I recommend you learn and follow the rules, unless you decide not to.

Regardless, the principles of composition are equally applicable to all forms of 2D art.

The frame

One of the less discussed elements of composition is the reality of the frame, the border, the edge of the image. Strange and wonderful things can happen as you create within this constraint.

I think we often just disregard it as just the fence we can’t go outside of; the crop rectangle that determines the aspect ratio of the image. While this is true, it can be more.

We need to be very aware and careful of things entering or leaving the frame. And we must consider how compositional elements like diagonals interact with the frame boundary. And extraneous bits of stuff along the edge can be very distracting. Making clever use of the frame can add energy and interest to an image.

I believe these things are more important in photography than in painting. But that’s just my opinion.

A blank canvas

We are to one of the most fundamental differences between painting and photography, which is what the artist starts with. In general, a painter selects every element for inclusion in his frame. A photographer consciously decides what to exclude from his frame.

The painter starts with a blank canvas. Nothing exists there unless he chooses to put it there. All aspects of the composition are completely controlled and deliberate. He is not constrained by the reality of the real scene, if there even was one. He has no excuse for distracting elements or poor composition.

A full canvas.

A photographer, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. When the shutter opens, everything within the field of view of the lens is immediately recorded by the sensor. The artist here has to do most of his work before recording the image.

Photography is the unique art of taking out what we don’t want. We do this by where we place ourselves, lens choice, shutter speed, and mostly, looking through the viewfinder to see what the image will look like and making adjustments. All the while tuning and enhancing the overall composition. This takes a lot of practice.

The great Jay Maisel said “You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in.”. We have to learn to really see what is in our frame and recognize and eliminate distracting parts. The natural tendency is to fix our attention on the subject and not see the bad bits. This awareness has to be learned.

It is true that we can do a lot of housekeeping in Photoshop, but a good craftsman only uses that as a last resort. It is much better to eliminate the problems up front if possible. Plus, capturing what you want saves a lot of post processing time. Just my opinion, but “no problem, I can fix that in Photoshop” is a lazy and sloppy attitude. I assume if you read this you don’t mind me expressing my opinion. 🙂

The artist selects

Filling the frame is a process of selection. Painters decide what they are putting in. Photographers decide what they are taking out. Either way, the artist must become skilled in being aware of the composition and how all the elements of the image work together to support it. This is design. It is what we do.

The frame gives an image space to live in. It can support the composition. It may enhance the drama or sense of space. All in all, the frame is a very important part of the creativity of image making. Never overlook it as you are planning your art.

The Magic of the Frame

The Frame. Almost all 2D art exists in it and benefits from its constraints. The frame is the reality where an image gets made.

The frame is just the edge: the edge of the canvas or the print or the sensor or the crop. It is the region within which the image is composed. Some have said that composition is simply placing elements in relation to the frame.

Why is this important? The frame defines the world. The whole world of the image exists within the frame. Nothing outside of the frame exists except in the imagination of the viewer.

This gets to one of the distinctions between painting and photography. If I am painting I start with a blank canvas and carefully place each element on it as a deliberate design decision. When I photograph I also start with a “blank canvas” in the sense that there is no information on the sensor or film until it is exposed to light. But when I expose an image everything the lens sees is immediately written on the medium. So one of the great challenges is to eliminate the unwanted. Photography is an exercise in keeping out the elements you don’t want. It is an understatement to say this can be tricky.

Photographic composition is based on the same design principles that have been knows for hundreds of years: proximity, repetition, alignment, balance, color, contrast, light, etc. These are not unique to photography, they come from the psychology of human visual perception. Photographers have the task of deciding how to frame their subject to create an interesting composition that includes only the elements necessary to support the intent. The points, lines, curves, shapes, and other elements in an image change their perceived relationships as they interact with each other and the frame.

Seeing a fine art photographer work can seem like a dance. They move, they get low, they get higher, they get nearer or farther from the subject, they circle the subject. All this to get the best balance of composition, light, and the elimination of distraction. It can seem random, but they are working the scene within the frame. They are incrementally improving the image, maybe through a series of many frames to explore variations until it is optimum.

The image evolves within the frame. The frame is always there to bound its world. It always defines the composition by the relationship of elements to and within the frame. The frame is a fundamental constraint on 2D artwork, and that makes it it a powerful design tool. Embrace the frame. Use it to make better art.