I had originally planned to write a single piece on borders and framing together, as they are very closely associated. However, given the submitted images, the limit of 18+1 images per subject and my inability to choose a subset across the two halves (or laziness; you decide), we end up instead with two articles: this one on borders and a separate one covering framing.

The reason I was originally planning on covering the subjects separately is that they are related. Where do borders end and framing begin? What is the difference between them?

What are borders?

For centuries, people have been displaying images within frames: mounts designed to focus the eye into the central area, where there is something to be seen. Sometimes, these frames were ornate (often, interestingly, when the bound image was considered to be of lesser quality). Othertimes, the frame was simple; a border to mark the difference between the subject of the image and the environ within which it was displayed.

Borders, when included within an image, play much the same role as the physical frame: they provide containment, drawing the viewer into the heart of the image.

Framing, on the other hand, is about movement. Yes, it does get confusing: the frame added to the image was a border, not framing in the compositional sense.

There are many ways borders can be achieved, and many people apply visual borders to (digital) images in post-processing, either through the addition of a solid colour bound, by adding textures, or through out-of-the-box manipulations. This article is not about those added bounds, but about composing an image with elements in the frame to create borders, that draw the eye into the scene.

The basics

As mentioned above, the base purpose of a border is to contain a scene, drawing the eye in to it, acting almost like a surrounding container of negative space. Generally speaking, borders will surround an image on all four sides. The simplest form of this border is one that is a part of the scene.

Cours Mirabeau 2 by guerriere

Cours Mirabeau 2
A classic example of a compositional border, the back window of the old vehicle leads us through, into its interior – where the steering wheel gives context – and into the street scene beyond. The use of a border here – especially one that is so integral to the subject of a street scene – emphasises the leisurely tone of the setting. It does not matter that the subject of the inner scene is moving away from the viewer, and we are only observing the tail end of the story: we are still a part of it.

The window frame

Another simple and fairly common border is the window frame. By composing a picture through a window frame, there is a clear sense of story added: this is what can be seen from inside this world, looking out. If done with a divided window frame – separate panes of glass – it creates an interaction between the individual elements, each bordered.

Million Dollar View by cormend

Million Dollar View
While the scene here is awe-inspiring in its own right, the act of shooting it from behind a window, thereby superimposing a silhouetted window frame – a multipart border – transforms the story. It is no longer just a stunning mountainscape: it is the contrast between worlds, it is safe, and the inner composition of three of the four frames creates an invitation to step out of sheltered comfort into the fierce wilds.

The window can act as a border in another way, without the inner division of individual panes. If the window is in a state of disrepair, with broken elements hanging off at angles, or incomplete shards of glass, this can be used to add framing to the bordered composition.

Rummaging for old Crap by ben.pearson.007

Rummaging for old Crap
The side of a dilapidated building, even with such russet textures – is not the most interesting of subjects in its own right. But placed in the context of being seen from inside another run-down structure, and then framed in a window that has seen better days creates a draw… into the scene, a need to investigate and look for details.

In both cases, there are two options. The window border can be a silhouette – plain negative space – or it can be sufficiently lit to provide its own foreground interest. There is no hard and fast rule about one being better than the other, though the complexity of a paned window does make it a more interesting option to use in silhouette.

Balanced containment (half the frame)

I mentioned above that frames will, for the most part, encapsulate an image completely. They are negative space that draws the eye in to the central subject. This principle can, of course, be applied only along a single axis, rather than all four sides of the image.

It’s Better To Be Lucky Than Good by andy_57

It's Better To Be Lucky Than Good
Sunset scenes have a natural draw to them – the colours are appealing to the human eye. This one would be a little on the bland side if it were not for the rocks on either side: a border pulling us through the scene, over the cresting waves and into the distant brightness, to fly alongside the gull.

The incomplete border

Taking the concept of balanced containment a step further, it is possible to implement a border on a single side only. To do this without it becoming framing requires the border to be balanced with something else. The obvious choice, given the way the border acts, is to oppose it with an alternate rendering of negative space.

Marcel by aftab.

When it comes to borders that defy the core principle that they need to be balanced, on opposing sides, this image demonstrates their negative-space nature and how an alternate compositional element – negative space in the more conventional sense – can be used to provide that balance. The little rubber duck is well nested between those two border elements; we are drawn in and through the scene. (And yes, the leading line of the ledge helps; I shan’t deny that.)

No one said they have to be straight

An immediate first approach to borders is to have them be “straight,” at least containing the subject evenly from all four sides. But there is no reason for this. Indeed, in order to draw the eye inwards to the primary subject, it can often help to tighten the corners, even to the point of a circular frame. This principle dominated much early portrait photography (though there were probably secondary reasons behind those elliptical frames).

Beyond…. by mensch7 (Dennis)

That the border here is unbalanced within the frame of the overall image does not change the way it directs the eye straight to the centre of the featured area: all edges of the border pull us through, into the tree that dominates the soothing garden..

Border within the frame

Another variation on the theme of borders available is the contraction of the border, so that it is within the frame of the image, allowing something else to spill out behind it. Of course, depending how this is done, where the background is allowed to interact and how the border touches the edge of the picture, this could easily become a case of framing.

Through John Ford’s Spyglass by cormend

Through John Ford's Spyglass
While this shot could very easily (and effectively) be rendered with a greater focal length, to provide a solid silhouette border, the use of a wider angle allowing the bounding arc to be seen beyond helps to emphasise the vast emptiness while still drawing the eye into the heart of the image: to the subject. It is, in a sense, a border around the border (which of course requires the outer to be very simple in appearance, so as not to distract from the primary focus.

Subject as border

There is another take on the border which many people are not aware of as a compositional principle: to invert the image; not in tone but subject. While the purpose of the border is to draw the eye into the heart of the image, the swapping of the two parts – such that the interest is found in the border and the centre is empty background – can create a harmonic balance, whereby the eye traces the outer area, then dips into a softer (or even empty) heart, to linger momentarily before coming back to the focused subject.

What’s Out There? by sannesu

What's Out There?
A simple border, that leads us through, into the expanse of soft tones. From there, our only choice is to return to the boundary, and flirt with the soft tones and slightly unbalanced angles: drawn in but returned to the surrounding subject.

Borders within borders

Given that the purpose of a border is to draw the eye through, into the inner area, what would happen if we were to repeat that process, recursion as deep as the eye can see? Then, we have depth, dimension into and through the image. A series of borders, set ever deeper, creates a situation of subject as border, for the outer is but a reflection of the inner, and so the outermost layer has the interest returned to it.

Doorway Recessional by cormend

Doorway Recessional
A classic example of the recurring border, each leading in to the next, and so turning an image from two dimensions into three, where the traverse of depth is the dominant force. And so the outer-most border becomes a subject, and we are invited to pass each threshold in turn; to go forward and back at the same time.

The inner scene

So far, the borders presented have been compositional tools, where the area of the border was, mostly, negative space within the scope of the entire image. This need not be the case. What if that negative space were filled with a scene of its own? What if the image consisted of two distinct scenes? The outer than becomes a border for the inner; negative space only insofar as its interaction with the inner subject, but actually a full scene in its own right.

View from the Loo .. by missnoma … 2006

View from the Loo  ..
This is an interesting composition. Not only is there framing on the lit sill bottom right, but within that scene of a porthole (it is itself a scene because there are two inner images) we find the wide expanse of sea within the border created by the porthole. A contrast to the more straightforward border, which invites us straight through into the main subject, here there is interest in the outer structures, though it pales beside the sunny outdoor scene.

Reflective borders

There is a second form of inner scene that does not play upon the distinction between the two parts in quite the same way, instead being a border within the frame and an alternate angle on the greater scene. The mirror is a powerful tool in the image creator’s arsenal.

DSC_1884-3 by ben.pearson.007

DSC_1884-3 copy
This is a strong image that combines both borders within borders and the inner scene; more impressive still in that the outer subject is as busy as the inner. It is the framing elements of the car door that direct the eye towards the mirror, and the inner scene there. The mount around the mirror provides just enough distinction between the two scenes, and the leading lines within that inner image (towards a golden ratio) help keep the eye pinned within that compact scene.

Broken borders

The borders I have covered so far have been complete, embracing all sides of the image (obvious exceptions notwithstanding). By breaking one side of the border, allowing elements from inside to interact with what is outside – whether directly or by echoing some inner aspect without – the sense of depth, distance into the heart of the image, is increased.

stained by mav_at

While most border compositions demand some degree of completeness, set-ups like this allow that base principle to be discarded without second thought. As the purpose of a border is to draw the eye in to the scene, the use of element mirroring between the foreground surround and the inner scene – in the shape of matching holes either side of the portal – provide additional direction into the depth of the scene, completing the invitation undone by the incomplete doorframe.

Borders and framing

As I mentioned in introducing this subject, I had originally intended to cover off both borders and framing in a single article, as they relate. And on that note, I bring us back to that intersection, where a border may be structured in such a way as to provide both the draw into the image, and the sense of direction within the inner scene.

Dinner for One by sannesu

Dinner for One - Version 4
While the border here – simply through being black and heavy – draws the eye into the inner scene where a man prepares for his meal, the non-uniformity thereof – in the form of the diagonal framing of the bough, adds a sense of sweeping direction across the entire scene; from the brightly lit corner to the opposite side, where it echoes back, inviting us again to enter.


As is now the standard within these articles, I will fill out the remainder of the 18 images chosen to represent this compositional topic in a gallery.

Modern Art Museum by Art Rock (Hennie)

Modern Art Museum
An excellent example of a border, drawing the viewer into the scene, with the added benefit of an inner structure to the edge of that border – a powerful sense of draw. There is the added bonus of the unbalanced tone of the border, which then creates a further sense of framing, providing a motion right to left across the inner scene.

Sun Trap by Steve Marvell

Sun Trap
On its own, this colourful subject against a confused background would not be a particularly interesting shot. But by placing it within an inner border, it is picked out, and the eye can more easily rest upon the element of interest.

transparence by jenny downing

A rather unusual border (I am still uncertain as to how it was achieved), the soft surround even comes with leading lines to direct the eye in to the primary subject. And try as we might to follow the expanding bulb of the wine glass upwards beyond the edge of the oval container, our perception always draws us back down…

Love is by aftab.

Love is
Clearly a bit of fun, but a well arranged shot that used its setting to create a subtle frame: the depth of the bowl provides an inwards sense of direction into the scene. A fine touch of detail that holds it all together far better than a plain background ever would.

Refreshing Restaurant View by missnoma

Refreshing Restaurant View
Straightforward, by the book border composition, that uses an alternate lower edge and soft leading lines within the inner scene to complete the pull through the outer bound into the main scene.

A special twist

Borders, as I have said, are about providing a negative space around an image, to draw one into it, to convey a sense of specialness to the inner subject, and also a sense of depth. Of course, occasionally, someone does something to turn that concept completely on its head…

untitled by elise*marie

While this may be manipulation and photomontage, there is no denying the presence of a border here. In the normal set of things, the border would draw the viewer in to the heart of the image. But in this case, because of the way that border interacts with the rest of the scene, it manages to direct the eye outwards, at that which surrounds it. A very impressive twist.

  1. I feel a little like Alice in Wonderland; totally bewildered but am sure I can concoct a list of rules to refer to during the Mad Hatters Tea Party.
    That is when I am out and about and totally confused as to how to compose a scene. I feel sure I may remember enough to tide me over after studying your writings. A brilliant effort to weave your way through and not miss out on an exception. A great teaching episode…

  1. April 27th, 2011

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