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.

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