Thursday, November 4, 2010

Exploring with a Camera: Frame within a Frame

"Frame within a Frame" is a compositional technique that I've had on my mind to share here, but was waiting for the perfect "frame" shot to lead off with. I found it in this shot from Bologna, looking through a bridge window into the buildings and canal beyond. Now that I'm writing this post and reviewing my archives, however, I am seeing that I use this technique more than I thought!

Frame within a Frame works for a couple of reasons:

  • First, it serves to focus the eye of the viewer on a specific subject. When you look at a frame within a frame photograph, you are usually drawn directly to the frame and what is inside of it. Then you kind of visually take a step back and take in the whole of the image. In the photo above, you are immediately drawn to the jumble of windows and walls and the distant bridge within the frame. Then you back out and see that you are looking through a wall with graffiti.
  • Second, it provides context for the image. You are looking through one thing - the frame - into something else. You have a better feel for where you are, as the viewer. It places the viewer of the photograph into a slightly different role. Instead of just looking at the photograph, they are looking through the photograph, from the frame into what is beyond. They are immersed in the image more completely. 

The "frames" that are within photo don't have to be windows, although these are used to good effect. Basically you are looking  for anything that serves to contain or frame the subject. The nice thing about a frame within a frame is that it doesn't have to be a straight line! The edges of our photographs are typically straight lines, with rectangular or square shape. Compositional frames we can use within our photographs can be any shape, from natural or man made.

In this image the eye is immediately drawn to the subject framed in the "white" of the overexposed window, and from there you move into the room to get the context of the boy (my son) standing at this very large window.

In this image from Padova, the subject is the bookstore, but the context is provided by the frame of the store window at night. The person walking by serves to punctuate the fact that we are looking into the store from outside.

I find that I use arches all of the time in my photography to frame a subject. It helps that they are almost everywhere in Europe! An arch is a nice contrast to the rectangular shape of the photo, as shown in this image from Brescia.

And here is one from Marksburg Castle, in the Rhine River Valley of Germany. This arch frames both a near and far vista, looking down the Rhine. It shows the strategic view the castle had of the surrounding area.

Yet another, this time an arch internal to the building, at Casa Battlo, in Barcelona. This arch frames the beautiful lines of the staircase curving upward.

Don't ignore the good old, square doorway though! This doorway serves as a frame, giving more depth to the alley beyond and leading your eye right to the window at the end.

Natural elements make great frames. I think you can probably conjure up images you've seen or captured looking through trees at a distant object or vista - the trees are the frame. The palm tree in the image below from Split, Croatia serves to frame the subject of the lighted building while also giving the context of where the photo was taken from, the waterfront promenade. I have photos of this building without the palm tree, and they are not as interesting as this one.

This may be a familiar photo to you, as I've used it in Exploring with a Camera before. The branches of the trees arching over and hanging down to the water, along with the reflections completing the the arch below, serve to frame the path and draw your eye right along it to the water beyond.

Finally, here is a more literally frame within a frame from Bologna. Instead of looking through the frame, you are looking at what is inside the frame. It takes the random jumble of advertising, ties it together and gives it context. It becomes street art on it's own.

So, now that you've seen a few examples of frame within a frame, how can you use this compositional technique?

  1. The easiest place to start is to look for the obvious in our everyday lives - windows and doors. Look at these as frames. What do you see when you look through them? What do you see reflected in them? Consider the point of view from both sides of the frame - looking out and looking in.
  2. Expand beyond the obvious to look for other opportunities for frames in our everyday spaces - hallways, mirrors and furniture are a few places to start. What other ideas can you come up with?
  3. Look for frames in architecture. As with arches, architectural elements can make great frames for something beyond, as well as provide the context of where you are at when you take the picture.
  4. Look for frames in nature. Trees make great frames, what other natural elements can you use to highlight your subject?
  5. Try changing your focus point and exposure - focus on the frame as the subject, focus on the image beyond the frame as the subject. What works best? Why? For many of my Frame within a Frame images, I have done both and then picked the one that had the best feel.
Chances are you are already using this compositional principle without thought, as I was. Take a look at your photos, and see where you have used frame within a frame and what effect it had. Keep an eye out, notice how it is used in the images you see around you everyday on the web, in print, in TV and movies. Try to consciously use it this week if you can. Next week, you can come back and share your view here, I can't wait to see what you've captured!

P.S. I am no longer going to be using the Flickr group for sharing, it just hasn't gotten any traction, probably because I'm not loving it. We'll continue with linking in to the Share Your View follow up posts instead! If you have suggestions for other linking tools, please let me know. I'm looking at trying some different ones. Thanks for your participation!


  1. Oh I love this Kat. And Italy is the perfect place to look for those frames; windows with landscapes, narrow alleyways. I'm going to start looking around here too. Thanks. x

  2. This is such a beautiful and informative post Kat. There is just something about frame within a frame pictures. Each seems so wonderfully inviting, and I think it actually brings one into the scene. What I noticed about your shots here is not only the frame within a frame, but your use of leading lines. Together this is just perfection.

    Thank you so much for sharing this at The Creative Exchange this week. Truly an informative post!

    Have a wonderful day.

  3. Hey Kat, I think I linked in the wrong place. The Share Your View link hooked me up to Mr Linky's rain. Sorry. I just used this technique while shooting through the base of the Eiffel Tower. Love it when the opportunity presents itself!

  4. I love this style of photo, too. Must say the one with your son is truly stunning. It reminded me one of my favourite vogue photos by Norman Parkinson. xm

  5. I love that first image Kat. I found my eye went straight through the frame in the wall and then whizzed straight back out again to take in the graffiti. Then I looked more slowly through the frame to see what was in there. It was purely a natural reaction of my eye. And the colour of the wall perfectly complements the colours inside the frame. Perfect!

  6. Hey Kim, sorry on that - the link for Share Your View was just intended to show the linky I'm doing now instead of the Flickr group. The "Share Your View" for this post will be up next Thursday! ;)

  7. fabulous post Miss K!. The thing is once you see it, you will start looking for it and you will see things you never saw. Uber cool!

  8. What a great post & all of your images are amazing shots! Thanks for sharing all of the information you provided. :D

  9. I love it when you explain a technique and show lots of examples. I've been using the frame within a frame quite a bit really makes the image pop! Your photo of the castle is my favorite--I always go for stone walls.

  10. I love getting an idea like this in my head, and then waiting and looking for the right opportunity to try it. Thank you for the ideas, hopefully I'll have something to link back. :)

  11. Great post, Kat, and of course you're 100% right - I've used this technique way more often than I had thought. Very beautiful photos (as always) - I actually have a hard time to name a favorite, they are all wonderful shots!

  12. explore new boundaries ... beautiful!

  13. Fabulous post Kat! And, as always, superb photographs!

    Great ideas to refer back to on a regular basis! (Note to self - Must use my camera more!)

  14. Wonderful article!!! I actually use this technique quite often in my painting and just seemed to come naturally to put it into words for me and it was very interesting to read in black and white.
    What an inspiring blog you have with beautiful fotos!

  15. Kat, Enjoyed your discussion of framing, and as always, your brilliant shots showing the concept. Thank you!

  16. Your work is INCREDIBLE!!!!!!!!!!

  17. I love your frames within frames. Saw this on Shutter Sisters. I applaud you for finding your superpower, loving what you do and then taking that leap to share through teaching. It's a gift that shines.


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