“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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Look for frames in nature. Trees make great frames, what other natural elements can you use to highlight your subject?
- 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.