Living with Photography: Frame in Mind

By Norman Chan

Do you frame a photo in camera or crop it after the fact? That's the subject of today's conversation, in which Norm shares his methods for framing a subject using some practiced mental guidelines.

Today's topic is a subjective one. And that's actually true for many aspects of photography. Aside from the technical know-how that you can learn about operating a camera, accessories, and software, there really aren't many "rules" to taking a photo. The appeal of a photo is entirely up to eye of the beholder, and certain techniques better fit specific needs of the target viewer (eg. composing a commercial photograph vs. one for photojournalism). There are, however, guidelines that have proven to be effective in getting a point across to the viewer. That's where the "rules" of lighting and composition come in, which photographers actually adopted from classical paintings.

So keeping that in mind, I wanted to talk about the framing and composition of a photo, and how I specifically go about doing it when putting a camera between my eye and a subject. Everyone has different methods and thought processes that works for them--these are the things that work for me.

When I talk about framing, I mean the positioning of the camera and adjustment of the focal length to decide what part of a scene in captured in a photograph. In the history of photography, it wasn't until fairly recently that we had the opportunity to see exactly what the camera will capture when pressing a shutter button. Digital sensors in cameras, coupled with electronic viewfinders, let us see almost exactly what the sensor sees and what image will be saved. Even on DSLRs, which have digital sensors, the optical viewfinder doesn't always give a perfect representation of what's being framed. That's why DSLR viewfinders have a percentage rating spec to indicate how much of the sensored is covered by the optical mirror. On my 6D, for example, coverage is rated at 97%, which means that what I see in the optical viewfinder omits a bit of the image around the border. DPreview's review of the 6D gives a good approximation of how much image is left out.

Photo credit: Flickr user b-love via Creative Commons.

Framing is important to me because I use it as my primary crop of a scene. Some people--as discussed in our forums--make the choice of not worrying about framing when taking a photo, because you can always crop and rotate afterwards in software. And given that 16+ MP of detail is more than you'd ever need for web publishing, software cropping is a very valid approach to photography, which lets you worry about other settings like exposure and focus while on location. For me, I insist on framing as best as I can in-camera, and don't like to crop after the fact if it can be avoided. It is a matter of preference, but one way I think about it is that the original framing of a photo is actually just another crop--but a crop of real life using the camera and viewfinder instead of Photoshop.

Let's take a look at a few sample photos I've taken recently and how they exemplify my framing methodology.

This first photo was taken at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) on a recent trip to Portland. It was taken with my 6D and a 50mm lens, and the JPEG here was not corrected for lens distortion in Lightroom or cropped after the fact--this is how it was saved to my camera. There are a few things I know I thought about when taking this photo--not because I remember that moment specifically, but because I can see the effects of that thinking in the resulting photo.

First is the use of the rule of thirds. That's the practice of mentally splitting up the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and putting your subjects off center. By doing so, you draw the viewer's eye toward that subject, and create separate points of focus in the photo that give it some depth and complexity. Photographers have many theories as to why this works, but it is a good and simple guideline for taking effective photographs. (It's admittedly a very complicated topic in which I'm still exploring, so I promise a deeper dive into the rule of thirds at a future date.) In my photo, the skull is placed at the intersection of two third-lines, which is also where I put the camera in focus.

Next is the use of straight lines in the photo. In almost every photo I take, I try to be keenly aware of lines that show up in the scene. These can be actual lines, like the vertical edge of a building or the horizon in the distance, or implied lines, like the horizontal line created by eyes on a face. Lines are powerful tools in image composition, especially the angles at which they intersect. In my experience, people are more receptive to the presence of a perfectly vertical or horizontal line in a photo, which can then be cut with diagonal lines for added drama. In this photo, I put the emphasis on the pole holding the skeleton up, trying to keep that as perfectly straight as possible (I can tell it's not perfectly straight, in retrospect).

Finally, and this is the most relevant part of framing, is the balance and use of empty space around the subject. This is something that I constantly think about the moment I put my eyes up to a viewfinder. Having a subject in focus and composed is the start, but then I decide very carefully how much space I want to leave between the subject and the edge of the frame, and how that empty space lines up around all four sides of the image. In the photo of the skeleton, you can see that I'm trying to keep roughly the same amount of empty space between the top and left edges of the photo and the skull. In my mind, it's kind of like adding an imaginary mat to pad the subject--or the indented space between a block of text on a page and the edge of the paper. Additionally, I wanted to keep the label "The Dire Wolf" just barely in frame, intentionally cutting off piece of the text to signal that it's not a focal point of the photo.

The next two photos show those mental guidelines put into effect in other situations. In the photo of the game console, the rule of thirds is used to draw eyes to both the controller and Sony logo. The vertical line can also be seen on the edge of the console right next to the Sony logo. And padded spacing is also used to give the out-of-focus PS2 logo in the top right some breathing room to remain an important part of the photo. And funny enough, I treated the "PlayStation 2" display label at the bottom of the photo the same way I did the "Dire Wolf" logo, keeping it as part of the framing but only as an ancillary focal point.

This last photo below of a delicious corned beef sandwich is also a striking comparison because it has almost the exact compositional attributes as the PlayStation photo above--the sandwich taking the placement of the console and the pile of mashed potatoes taking the place of the game controller. Even the angles are very similar. But the big difference here is that the mashed potatoes (along with that part of the plate) are slightly cut out of frame. This has the reverse effect of the padding I put in the photos above--by cutting in and framing something out, the implication is that that part of the photo is not as important as the other parts. And once again, I'm careful to leave the subject (the sandwich) entirely in frame of the photo, with sufficient padding on the top and left sides to let it "breathe."

Framing in-camera is the mental philosophy of getting the image as close to what I hope the final image will look like without having to butcher it in post-production. That doesn't mean I'm adverse to cropping and straightening photos up in post--I do it all the time for photos on Tested. What framing in-camera does is always keep me aware of the entirety of the image during composition. It's part of a persistent mental checklist to ask myself if I'm covering all my bases when taking a photo, which I believe is good practice whether standing behind a camera or sitting in an editing room. The lessons I learn from framing in-camera apply to post-processing work, and frankly, it's just a bit more fun!

On to the weekly photography challenge. Last time, I asked you to take photos down a street around the golden hour--the first and last hours of sunlight during the day. As always, you did some really fine work in your submissions. My favorite, from user John Stengord, was actually of an old train track, as seen below. I like the sun peeking through the trees on the left, the way the light bounces off the brick wall, and how the traintrack curves slightly, but trails off into grass. Great work, John! Phil Fisch's submission was a close second--golden hour light really looks great across bright green grass, and layers of foliage accomodate the shallow depth of field.

My own submission to the challenge is below, taken last week during a time-lapse test in downtown San Francisco. I'm not 100% happy with the shot, and wish I had gotten one without the car in the middle of the intersection so you could look all the way down Market Street. The photo was processed in Lightroom, where I bumped up the vibrancy a little and brought up detail from the shadows. One thing to notice here, related to what I've said above about framing, is how my decision not to frame-in the sidewalk on the bottom left and right of the photo. The sidewalk corners are very much there, but just left out of frame on purpose to give the illusion that the street pavement is more expansive than it really is. This is another example of how selective framing (and in this case, framing things out) contributes to the feel of a photo.

For this next week, the photo challenge comes from a user suggestion over Twitter. I posted a photo of Adam's tabletop knolling while he was in the office for a podcast, and one of you suggested sharing knolling photos. It's a wonderful idea, and there's a lot of room for creativity. Plus, I think it'll be a little easier than getting up early in the morning to take a photo at sunrise. Have at it!

If you have your own ideas for photo challenges you want to see the community tackle, suggest them in this Flickr thread. I love your feedback and will be pulling challenges from this list in the future. As always, you're encouraged to keep submitting photos to the Flickr group, especially if you want to share a project you're working on or a new photography technique you're testing. See you next week!