The Magic of the Frame – 2

All 2 dimensional art exists within a frame. It is a constraint imposed on us. It can also be beneficial, because it requires choices. This is the magic of the frame. This article is an expansion on a discussion of the frame I did several years ago.


I do 2 dimensional art. Most paintings or photographs are. But besides being flat, 2 dimensional works are also bounded. They cannot extend to infinity, although they may capture images of near infinity.

So a print may be 20×30 inches, or maybe 6×9 feet, but there is a limit. A print of a landscape scene is not the size of the original scene.

And because the print is bounded, there are edges. The edges create the frame, or more precisely the bounding rectangle of the image. I am assuming rectangular prints for the discussion. So in simple physical terms, the frame is the box that encloses the print.

Why rectangular?

Most paintings and photographs, and therefore their frames, are traditionally rectangular. Have you wondered why? And why and how a round lens makes a rectangular image?

I have looked into this and have found technical reasons and pragmatic reasons, but no real answer. Lenses are round for a good reason – they are easier to make and making them rectangular would introduce lots of distortion. The lens throws a circular image on the focal plane of the camera. The the light that falls outside of the sensor is cropped. We never see those parts.

Sensors are rectangular for technical and pragmatic reasons. Sensors are very large silicon chips made by normal semiconductor processes. Rectangular chips pack efficiently on a wafer. If they were, say, round, there would be lots of wasted space between chips. Since they are very expensive to make, the manufacturers are anxious to minimize costs. Also, digital cameras mimicked film cameras which exposed rectangular patches on film. Again for efficiency to maximize the film use.

And finally we expect prints and images to be rectangular. It is the convention developed over centuries of painting. And it is less expensive to make and frame rectangular prints and canvases.

So rectangular prints are conventional and the path of least resistance.

A window

The frame, though, is much more than the constraint of the shape of the sensor or print. Something magical happens when we look through the viewfinder or crop our image in our processing software.

What we see through the viewfinder becomes our window onto the world. This window in where we pour much of our creativity. As we move and zoom and continue to examine our subject through this window we decide how we want to present it. What is important to bring out. What should be excluded.

We may realize the interest is not the whole scene, but only certain parts of it., and they should be presented from a certain point of view. So we adjust our window and keep searching for the magic.

After all, if we are an artist we want to bring something to our viewers that is more than just what anyone would have shot if they walked up on the scene. We bring our own interpretation. Part of this is what we chose to have in our window.


Over the centuries many “rules” of composition have been formed. I put it in quotes because there are no real rules. The “rules” are observations of patterns that have been found to be generally pleasing to viewers.

It was very interesting to me to realize that most of these “rules” are relative to the frame. Let’s take a look at a few.

The rule of thirds helps to increase dynamic tension by placing the subject along the intersection points of dividing the window into 3 groups horizontally and 3 groups vertically. This is totally relative to the frame.

Along with that is the oft quoted “do not put the subject in the center” – of the frame.

The horizon should be level – relative to the frame.

Diagonals can add a lot of interest to many compositions. The diagonals exist because of their relation to the frame.

Leading lines are often recommended. They help encourage the viewer’s eye to lead from the frame to the subject and keep them exploring.

We need to be careful to not have distracting elements at the edges of the frame.

Unless it is really your intent, we must be careful to not cut the subject off at the edge of the frame.

This could go on a long time. Go examine your favorite composition rules and see if they are not mostly describing relationships to the frame.

Artist’s judgement

So really, at one level, the work of an artist is to arrange the elements within the frame in the most pleasing or impactful way. This is the magic of the frame. It is the canvas where we compose. It is the crucible where our creativity is tested.

Since the camera sensor captures everything in the frame, it is not only critical to arrange the elements as we wish, but it may be as important to know what to exclude. That is one of the tricks of photography. What is in view of the sensor will be in our image unless we consciously figure out how to eliminate it.

I think Henri Cartier-Bresson had great insight when he said “A photograph is neither taken nor seized by force. It offers itself up.” There are amazing scenes all around us. We have to see them then be able to compose them to create a great image.

Much of the artistry is in working the frame: figuring out what is significant and how to present it within the frame. It is the stage where we work our magic. The frame is more important in our work than we usually express. This is what, to me, is the magic of the frame.

This image

This illustrates framing. The diagonals and leading lines make it much more dynamic. I was intentional about what to include and exclude and how to frame it. At least, as much as I could on a tossing sailboat in a strong wind.

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