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Keeping it simple, Format, Viewpoint, Juxtaposition, Frame Dynamics,  and Cropping



Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem.


Framing - Keeping it Simple


Careful and thoughtful framing at the time the image is made is the central skill a photographer must develop (notwithstanding the possibility of  cropping during the editing stage) and it is just as important what is consciously excluded as what is included. Most unsatisfactory images do so because they include aspects that obstruct the central theme of an image by adding muddle – either visual or in terms of subject matter. Most effective images simplify and isolate.


'A great photograph is a distillation, a reduction of the chaos of our wider experience to a visually satisfying essence where what is excluded is as important as what is included.'   David Ward ,'Landscape Within'.


'If there is one common characteristic of great photographs, it is that the message is not weakened by many extraneous elements ... the majority of great photographs are downright simple.'  George Barr, 'Take Your Photography to the Next Level' p63


Angela Faris Belt similarly comments, ‘You place the camera in front of your eye, and the world, which has no boundaries, is suddenly confined to the square or rectangle of the camera format’s viewfinder.’ (Angela Faris Belt The Elements of Photography’, p7).


As Bill Smith (Designing a Photograph, p11) points out, ‘A photograph is a selective representation of reality, and it freezes the scene and the moment in time. It is an illusion, a visual communication of reality selectively seen’.

The choice of what is in – and what is out – of the frame is the essence of individual ‘vision’ and the determining  point for everything else – no amount of cropping, editing in Photoshop etc can create a powerful image from an original ‘take’ that lacks impact (see sections on Designing a Photograph and Photography and Personal Vision for fuller discussions).  ‘Seeing’ an image in any situation – whether a crowded market or a deserted beach - is a matter of experience, technique, study (of the work of accomplished photographers) and the development of a personal style.

The frame creates a boundary around the image and how a viewer visually  ‘enters’   through the boundary is an important consideration. For, example, in landscape images especially. ‘lead-in’ lines (for example a river/stream or wall/fence) are a common feature. It is also commonly  accepted that a viewer will generally ‘read’ an image from left to right and from top left downwards.   

An image should have only one principal idea, ‘message’ or topic  - it should be about something – it should have a point a purpose. This often (but certainly not always) means a single centre of interest to which the viewer's eyes are attracted. In this case, subordinate elements within the picture must support and focus attention on the principal feature so it alone is emphasised. This can be achieved through various camera and design techniques (focus, depth of field, the ‘rule of thirds’, contrast, line, shape etc – all discussed in other sections of this series).

Belt suggests some questions:


Does all the content in the frame contribute to the meaning of my image and lead the viewer to understand what I am trying to communicate about my subject?


Does any content in the frame distract from communicating about my subject or theme? If so, how can I eliminate it?


How can I organize the frame so that the appropriate content emphasizes the subject and all other content supports it?





The common format of an SLR or DSLR is a rectangle 3:2 in proportion (the aspect ratio). A horizontal (or ‘landscape’) format is most ‘natural’ in the sense that is nearest to the way the eye scans – so documentary as well as landscape images most commonly employ the horizontal. For the landscape image, broad vistas are facilitated by the horizontal format and documentary portraits often favour this  format as more context can be shown if the subject is placed over to one side.  


A vertical (or ‘portrait’) format is the natural format when filling the frame with a head-and-shoulders portrait – or a full length portrait.  As David Prakel comments (see ‘Composition’ p98 and following for his discussion of formats) the vertical format emphasizes any vertical line or planes, exaggerates foreground-to-background depth and makes for more dramatic diagonals. 


At one time, square format was a feature of high-end medium format cameras (like Hasselbad) but today a square format can only be produced by cropping from a rectangle and may be suitable for symmetrical images (such as flowers or architecture). More frequently used are ‘letterboxing’  (cropping narrow ‘strips’ either horizontal or vertical) and panoramas (most commonly created by ‘stitching’ separate images together. Both suit wide vistas of buildings or landscapes – most often horizontal but cityscapes (for example, of New York) can be dramatically captured by vertical letterboxing or panoramas.




While an eye-level viewpoint at 180 degrees to the subject may well produce effective images in most circumstances, it is often valuable to seek out alternatives – most particularly a low level viewpoint which can emphasise foreground and give depth to landscape images or looking up (perhaps with a wide angle lens too) which can create interesting distortions of lines. A top-down viewpoint can be great for emphasising shadows and shapes and has a general ‘detached’  effect – well used in reportage work.


Photographers should ‘walk and work’ the scene – a slight movement to left or right can create quite different compositions and juxtapositions and remove unwanted details.


The photographer also chooses the picture plane – that is, the angle of camera and subject. A parallel picture plane (for example, photographing graffiti on a wall) can have no sense of depth – it is flat and graphic – unless, of course, a sense of depth is created by using the camera’s ability to focus differentially (see section on focus). A diagonal picture plane creates a sense of receding space -  as the foreground objects are larger than the distant objects. Overlapping picture planes maximize the sense of depth from foreground to background as different ‘visual layers’  create an enhanced three-dimensional effect.


Another factor is the relationship the photographer wants to create between the viewer and the subject – a portrait may be so tight in that only the key features of the face are shown – or the composition may be head-and-shoulders with minimal and out-of-focus space as a background – or the subject may be shown with a complementary background context showing for example his house or occupation – or the figure may be small in relation to the overall image space giving an entirely different set of information and creating an entirely different emphasis. So ‘filling the frame’  is just one of many options. 



























 Frame Dynamics and Frames within the Frame


The lines made by the boundaries of the picture frame are important structures and, for example, the lines and shapes of the image can be made to interact with the horizontals and verticals of the frame – a device often used in architectural images.


Composition is concerned with effectively structuring an image so the separate pieces ‘fit’ and  help create the desired message of the picture. Man-made and natural features can greatly assist in this structuring process – windows, doors, columns, trees can all be used to good effect – although care has to be taken not to step over the line into cliché.



 Example: Girls on a Bus, Havana


This image of two teenage friends leaning out of the window of a bus in Havana, illustrates the use of natural framing -  the horizontal and vertical lines of the windows provide a balanced structure within which the focal point -  the girls - is placed. Crucially there is more space to the front of the girls - which they are looking into - than to the right. The position of the heads and arms of the two girls is also vital to the composition, mirroring one another.




 Example: Tobacco Farmer, Vinales, Cuba

I was in a small workshop in Vinales in the West of Cuba when this man opened a hatch to speak to his son. The hatch provides a natural frame and both the knarled hands ( on a print, the detail of the hands is an important part of the image) and the roughly white-washed hatch lead into the face.

See Digital Photography School website

One way of adding interest to an image and to draw attention to the main point of interest that you’re attempting to highlight is to incorporate an internal frame into your composition. Frames can take many forms - from an overhanging tree, a window or door, a bridge or arch.  

A frame serves numerous purposes:

it  gives the image depth and helps to give the perception to viewers of it that they’re looking at something that is more than two dimensions;

framing can draw the eye of the viewer of an interest to a particular part of the scene;

framing can bring a sense of organization or containment to an image

framing can add context to a shot.




As Michael Freeman in his excellent book, ‘A Photographic Eye’, tells us,  photography relies on relationships. The viewer assumes that if objects share the same space they are somehow connected. Through their framing photographs can draw a range of connections, humour, irony, paradox, tragedy, courage etc.


The concept of juxtaposition can be used in simple ways to draw connections – between people, between a person or people and a social or occupational context. More dramatically, it is often used by photographers to draw surprising and unusual connections or to make a point about social relationships. 






Cropping is ‘framing after the fact’. At one time, the issue of cropping was a controversial one in photography. This is because many well-known photographers (like Cartier-Bresson) argued that it was essential to get the framing correct at the time of shooting and that it was somehow unprincipled to crop. The practice arose of printing so as to reveal the black edges around the negative to indicate that the original framing had been retained. This is now rather a moribund debate, although it is of course still important to take as much care as possible at the time when the image is made.


There are many good reasons for cropping, at least in some forms of photography. In landscape or in still life or static subjects (like studio or location portraiture) there is less reason not to get the composition right at the time of shooting. But in many contemporary styles of photography, such as street photography, reportage, sports photography or documentary it is necessary to shoot quickly in dynamic – sometimes even dangerous – circumstances and the exact composition cannot always be achieved at the point of execution.


In addition, digital technology offers increasing opportunities to enhance an image by cropping. Even the dimensions of the frame can be easily changed with, for example, ‘letter-boxing’ being a common practice turning an original  3:2 or 4:3 rectangle into a panoramic shape or – less commonly, a square format.


Cropping is often a relatively minor tidying-up exercise, simplifying an image by removing unwanted distracting material from the edges of the frame. In this sense it is closely related to the general principle of simplifying a composition. It is also at the editing and cropping stages that the photographer has greatest opportunity to apply the basis principles of design and while the amount cropped from an image may be small, the impact on an image can be very dramatic.







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