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Improve your photography by framing your subject

A twisted bristlecone pine frames other trees in the fog on Mt. Goliath, Colorado.
A twisted bristlecone pine frames other trees in the fog on Mt. Goliath, Colorado.© 2012 Randall K. Roberts

Serious amateur photographers often compare their pictures to the works of the masters, and ask the question "what makes those pictures better than mine?" There may be many answers — experience, timing, the quality of light — but there's one technique aspiring photographers can add to their creative toolbox to give their images more depth and interest: in-camera framing.

The window of an old pioneer cabin frames the Grand Tetons, Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming.
The window of an old pioneer cabin frames the Grand Tetons, Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming.© 2012 Randall K. Roberts

This means including an element in the foreground to surround or "frame" the main subject. Framing can take a photo from dull to dynamic, and is a key tool in creating effective images. Too often, amateurs see an interesting subject and shoot it in the most direct manner without exploring their surroundings to find more creative approaches to seeing their subject.

The best photographers aren't satisfied by making the most obvious image. They look for unique compositions, including unusual angles and framing, to make their interpretation of a scene stand out from others.

How to find framing possibilities:

  • For landscape photos, look for trees, rocks or other natural formations which can be included as a frame for your main subject.
  • Try using buildings, fences, or other man-made structures to look through and see your subject.
  • For portraits, look for hallways, doors or other natural or man-made objects to frame your subjects.

Camera techniques to use when framing:

  • Use a tripod and a small (larger number) aperture, such as f/16.
  • For scenes in which the frame is not close to the subject, wide-angle lenses often work best. They allow you to include the frame and the subject more easily in your viewfinder and can provide better depth of field. Avoid super wide-angle lenses which can distort the curvature of objects, unless that's the effect you're looking for.
  • You may need to experiment with your plane of focus. Focusing directly on the frame or the subject may throw too much else out of focus. Try some spots in between and the select the image with the best overall focus.
  • Be careful about getting too close to your frame. This may make it too difficult to get both the frame and your subject in focus, in one exposure. (See digital techniques below).

Digital techniques:

Try using using image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to blend several exposures into one, utra-sharp image.

Make several different exposures with your lens focused on different parts of the scene: focus on the nearest objects, then focus on the middle objects and so on. This is where using a tripod is critical. It's possible to achieve good results with only a couple of focus points, but the more focus points you include, the better the chance you have to get everything in the scene sharp.

Open your images in Photoshop or Lightroom and combine them. Here's a good tutorial from Adobe on how to do this.

Take the time to look for unique angles and framing opportunities. The extra effort will help you create more unique photos that stand out from the rest.

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