Frame Within a Frame: Natural Framing for Better Photo Compositions

Since the early days of photography, photographers have framed photos after making a print for display. Frames help focus the viewer’s attention on the subject of the photograph or the entire image itself.

This article is an introduction to the photographic tool known as natural framing (sometimes called sub-framing), or using a frame within a frame as a composition technique to enhance your photos.

Why use natural framing in photography?

The human eye has a natural field of view (FOV) of around 135 degrees, so we can see a large enough area even if we’re looking directly at something, but whatever we’re looking at directly is what appears to be in focus and everything around becomes seemingly blurry (even though they are in the same plane of focus). It’s our natural ability to notice or focus only on the important things.

As a photographer, the use of natural framing in the photograph itself takes advantage of our inherent tendency to focus on the subject and blur the rest of the image. It is among the most basic rules of photography and therefore can be applied to photos taken on a basic smartphone up to a high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera.

If you’re new to photography, you’ve probably heard of the composition tip of capturing a frame within a frame. The natural framing provides a visual funnel allowing the viewer to look through the subject. If used with complementary colors (i.e. having the frame in one color and the subject in its complementary color), it makes for a more visually appealing image. The technique can also be used to tone down distracting elements and subtly hide areas that might otherwise lack interest.

In summary, natural framing can be a useful compositional tool for:

  • Direct the viewer’s eyes to the main subject or region
  • Allow the viewer’s eyes to focus on the subject more easily
  • Do not emphasize less important or distracting elements or areas
  • Create an aesthetic structure to the composition
  • Create more depth in a photograph

See natural settings around the world

How do you use natural framing to “frame” the subject? All you have to do is search for frames in the world. Frames can range from man-made objects (things like windows or doors) to creative things found in nature (things like rock formations and trees).

If you’re at home, you don’t have to look far. Just look out of a window that has a good view of your neighborhood and you can see the natural framing in action. Most windows give the default rectangular framing that we are used to. Take a shot of anyone or anything outside the window and you’ve naturally framed the subject.

Sheep framed in a window. Photo by jjmusgrove and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Shooting a car window from the inside also creates a frame within a frame.

A landscape framed by both a car window and the rear view mirror. Photo by deldevries and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

This sample window also creates an alternate option. And if you place your center of interest in front of the window and drop the framing in the background? Well, that’s natural framing in action too and it’s up to you which one to use depending on the situation and condition – the frame does that not need to be between you and the subject.

A subject framed by a window behind her. Photo by Leonardo Aguiar and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Doors or door frames can also be perfectly used as a natural frame indoors, especially if you go for a full body portrait. Again, the subject can either be in front of the door or on the other side of the open door.

A framed person in front of a door. Photo by Patrik Nygren and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
A person framed by an open door. Photo by Boris Thaser and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Many wedding photographers also use mirrors as a natural setting when photographing the reflections of the bride and groom. And since these mirrors are decorated most of the time, they provide an aesthetically pleasing framing option. Making proper use of your surroundings to make a good shot will help your photos stand out from the crowd.

A bride framed by a mirror. Photo by Flashback Tunisia and licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Natural frames can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes

How you use objects in the environment is up to your artistic mind. Our natural tendency is to look for rectangular shapes to serve as a frame, but we should try to experiment with different shapes, especially visually strong ones like the triangle or the circle.

It is also not mandatory that the frame cover all four sides of the subject. Concave shapes usually span two to three sides, but still give a strong sense of natural framing in the photograph. The concave shapes available around you can be a bridge or an arch or even two people standing a few feet apart and holding hands with the subject in the center.

A tree framed by a dead tree. Photo by Pacheco and licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
A waterfall framed by trees. Photo of Big Ben in Japan and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
A solitary tree framed by foliage. Photo by Jereme Rauckman and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

When you’re walking down any street in the city, you can point your camera skyward and take a picture with perhaps the sun or an airplane as the subject and the tall buildings acting as a natural framing, attracting the eye. viewer’s attention to the sky. Since the buildings are linear in shape, they also add an element of leading lines guiding the viewer’s eyes skyward.

An airplane framed by tall buildings. Photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The natural frame does not have to fill or occupy the entire length and width of the image. For example, if you take a photo of an airplane or a bird through the hoop of an outdoor basketball court, the entire hoop and the subject inside may occupy only a small percentage of the entire photo, but it will still draw the viewer’s attention to the subject via the circular frame of the basketball hoop.

A plane framed by a basketball hoop in a photo composite. Images sourced from Depositphotos.

Get creative with unusual or subtle frames

In tourist spots, most photographers complain about crowds spoiling their shots. But if you compose your shot with the crowd or even a few people acting as natural frames for your focal point, you can actually take advantage of the crowd around you.

The busy Shibuya intersection in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson and licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco framed by heads of tourists. Photo by Paulina Spencer and licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

This type of framing can also be done at social gatherings such as weddings.

A wedding party loosely framed by the guests in the foreground. Photo by Edward Simpson and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It’s crucial to use natural framing effectively, as it could make your shots worse if not used wisely. A well-designed frame can be even more useful when its presence is not obvious to the viewer. The technique of framing your shots naturally works best when there is a common theme between the subject and the elements around it. For example, a stone arch framing a cobblestone street or a shipyard scene filmed through a porthole makes sense to paste.

A ruined amphitheater in Saintes, Poitou-Charentes used as the setting for the Basilica of St Eutrope de Saintes. Photo by Brian Smithson and licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The burnt-out vehicle in this photo not only provides a frame within a frame, but it also provides context for the scene showing two soldiers. US Army photo and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Natural framing is done to bring the subject of the photo into focus so that nothing else gets in the way outside the lines of the frame. The frame should ideally be dimmed in both brightness and color so that it does not compete with the actual subject in the image.

Natural framing with a fallen tree used to highlight the subject in a portrait. Photo by Carole Carey and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Blurring the natural frame during shooting or in post-production also helps distract the viewer’s attention from the frame itself, especially if it adds nothing to the photograph itself. If you are using a large sensor camera like a DSLR having enough distance between the subject and the frame and also a lower aperture number will give the frame a pretty good blur.

You can also get close to an object and walk through it to create your blurry images.

Photo by Aditya Aashish.

To get a little creative, you can even try focusing on the frame and blurring the scene behind it. But again, it depends on the type of subject being photographed.

A chicken framed by the body of another chicken. Photo by ammainda.

The use of contrast between the frame and the center of attention can also be applied. Typically the frame is kept at a lower exposure or completely black if possible and the subject is lit appropriately. This lends a helping hand to the natural framing technique and adds to the composition.

Sprinkle natural frames in your compositions

Natural framing, or using a frame within a frame, can be a powerful tool for improving your photo compositions and the readability of your images. If you’re standing in front of a “boring” scene, using a natural frame can be a great way to add depth and interest to your shot.

Remember though: a little salt makes food taste good, but too much can spoil the dish itself. Likewise, you need to be subtle with this technique and not overdo it.

Picture credits: Header photo by Alejandro Castro Mouzo

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