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Using The Frame

Your best images come when you see the photograph as a whole

Rain Forest Digital  “Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.”
—John Szarkowski,
On Photography
by Susan Sontag

Creating a strong composition with a camera means framing, with the camera’s viewfinder, a section of the environment in which the photographer stands. The possible options for composing any given subject are vast and include choices such as camera position or lens focal length. One error many beginning photographers make is to photograph at the first place they stop. They simply see a subject, click the camera and move on. This approach is rarely successful.

To fully explore the possibilities of any worthy situation, one should really work the scene and experiment with the many options. This is one of the most exciting aspects of photography—the arrangement of objects within the rectangle. By carefully observing the relationships of lines and forms, foreground and background, and the balance of tones, you can take the extra time to refine the image design.

Work the scene by moving your feet. A step to the left or a step backward can make a huge difference in the image’s design. Try changing lenses to help find a different perspective. With digital capture, there’s no more worry about film and processing expenses, so don’t be too timid with your experimentation.

The entire frame becomes your subject, and your attention in all parts of it is critical. As you’ve probably heard many times, distractions around the edge of the frame can ruin an otherwise good photograph. A bright piece of sky, on the edge of a darkly lit image, will pull the viewer’s eye out of the frame. An out-of-focus branch, in an otherwise sharp image, will do the same.

One of my favorite compositional techniques is to fill the frame with a textural pattern. When an even pattern is filled across the frame, it isolates the subject from any distracting elements. Sometimes the image can give the effect of fabric or wallpaper. In the forest image shown here, for example, the branches and blossoms spread throughout the frame. No sky or distracting bright areas are included, nor is any foreground. This gives the composition a flatness of scale that heightens the textural effect.

Using The Frame

In creating this forest scene in the Great Smoky Mountains, I used a 300mm lens on my 4×5 camera, which is like a 100mm on 35mm format. The longer focal lengths are useful for isolating a pattern from the larger view. Looking for some balance of color and form, I found an angle where the dogwood and redbud blossoms moved diagonally across the frame. Without the benefit of a zoom lens for my 4×5, I moved myself into the best position to fill the frame. This is often a process of trial and error—of setting up the tripod, looking through the viewfinder, moving again until all elements come together. Strong composition means great footwork!

On the same trip to the Smokies, I visited a famous overlook in the national park. Along the back end of the parking lot, there was an exposed section of wonderful rock forms. While others photographed the grand scene from the designated overlook, I hunched over my 4×5, looking for the perfect design using the rock’s color and cracks, moving in close to isolate the strongest combination of these elements. As with the forest image, I filled the frame from edge to edge, moving the tripod until the frame included only what I felt to be essential.

I think of the process of composing an image as a combination of exploration and refinement. Explore with your heart, and refine with your mind!


William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.