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 framing and a separate one covering borders.

What is framing

It would be an obvious conceptual jump to say that framing has to do with a frame: something that surrounds an image. But that, it happens, is actually the subject covered within the compositional principle of borders. Borders, being a surrounding element, invite the viewer into an image, to immerse himself. Framing is a very different concept, though it has distinct similarities (framing elements will generally be positioned on the edge of an image).

The purpose of framing is not to create viewer motion into the image. It is not about creating a perceptual dimension perpendicular to the surface of the rendered scene. Framing serves to create a flow – a sense of direction or motion – through the surface of the image. It provides dimension. In doing so, it is also closely related to the principle of anchoring.

The basics

Framing, in essence, is the use of one or more elements in an image, usually positioned in corners, that change the dynamic of the overall picture by creating virtual lines: often but not always between the framing element and the main subject. These connections may point towards the subject, they may create a sense of motion, or simply define the space of visual interest. Framing elements are, by their very nature, versatile and as such quite difficult to completely categorise.

Hi-contrast Cameron by Jeff Presnail

Hi-contrast Cameron
Starting with very simple framing, two sides around one corner push our eyes across the canvas. The direction is right to left; were Cameron not turned to go with the flow, it would not work. Any vertical motion (after all, the framing is based in a corner) is arrested by the feline’s downwards gaze.

Into the Fiery Furnace by maclobster

Into the Fiery Furnace
There is a powerful natural framing in this shot. In this case, it does not so much push down and right, as might be expected given the solid boundary across the top and left sides. Instead, it acts to arrest the powerful motion in the opposite direction, leaving the whole nowhere to go but deep into the plane of the image. If you think that it is the light that is creating the sense of depth, consider how this would work inverted: still there would be a sense of depth.


The concept of flow is actually one of the more complex ones where framing is involved. In its basic guise, it is achieved through a pairing of relatively large framing elements, but both being angles slightly. This in effect causes a funnel from one corner of the scene to another. Additional compositional elements within the scene then give meaning to the sense of directed motion through the space created.

Sculptor’s workshop, Carrara. by annemmu

Sculptor's workshop, Carrara.
Initially, I was hard pressed to decide whether this image represented borders or framing, as it is very near the merging of the two. But eventually, I settled on framing. The containment from opposing corners, not pointing directly towards each other but hinting at an arrowhead pointing to the top right, in combination with the swathe of light from that side provides a channel along which the eye can flow comfortably while exploring this scene: from brightness into detail.


When framing elements are employed as pointers, they act very much like borders: as negative space that tells the viewer “go look over there.” This may be achieved with a single element, or with pairs.

Cynsuality by andy_57

Two adjacent corners triangled off, each nudging the viewer away, and thereby towards the subject. It does not matter that those framing elements are the model’s own arm (though it certainly does not hurt). They eye cannot remain long on the arm when it is pointing to the face.

Reversal pointers

In some cases, framing elements used as pointers are no good on their own; they are inert. But where the image provides its own sense of direction, these framing elements arrest that sense of movement, reflecting it back at the subject which created the initial sense of direction.

filament by jenny downing

This is a rather unusual use of framing. Were the subject something else, the top-edge boundary created by the out-of-focus branches would not have a significant compositional effect. But with the primary subject having a directed thrust, establishing motion through the scene, that framing element comes into play, acting as a cushion against which the motion cannot contend, thereby softly returning us to the subject and its upwards force.

Leading lines

The sense of direction implied from all the examples so far have been outward from the framing element(s) – or, in the case of flow, as implied by the interference between the slightly angles offset of the two elements. But if we have framing elements that themselves include directional texture, they can point along their line at a subject rather than outwards (depending, of course, on the location of the subject).

Happy Soaking up the Sun, Edwards Garden by Pavel M

Happy Soaking up the Sun, Edwards Garden
The flower here provides its own framing elements – across a corner and an edge, directing the eye towards the open side. But the curvature of those frames, and the lines within their structure also pull one’s attention towards the heart of the blossom. This provides attention for both the cornered subject and its opposing negative space: a whole-frame dynamic enhanced by the enveloping petals.

Extent of the canvas

Another use for framing elements – especially in sets of four – is to work as multiple anchors; similar to the way vignetting can emphasise the entire inner area of an image. This effect is the result of each element, albeit relatively small, pointing into the image; similar to the effect of a border, but without dominating all the edges. That direction into the frame pushes through the middle of the image, and out the other side.

A view from Kasperk Castle, Sumava by Pavel M

A view from Kasperk Castle, Sumava, June 2010
Unlike many of the examples so far, where the framing comes from one or two sides, the forest in each corner of this image provides framing, sending the eye on a scattered journey though the full expanse of this image, to seek out each nook and cranny. Remove those guideposts, and the expanse would be overwhelming, losing the subject. But with them, we are directed ever back into the heart, and the interest.

Harmonic framing

As mentioned above, framing points the way into a scene. But if there is a second element appropriately positioned opposite it, acting as a reversal pointer, this creates a harmonic balance between the two elements; indeed, the frames may become the subject.

with each sunrise….. by jenny downing

with each sunrise.....
This image is interesting, in that it includes three elements, two of which each provide framing for the other, while the third offers a focal point around which our attention can orbit. The sun is too harsh to be the subject, yet each of the stalks of grass provides framing for the other, sending the eye back and forth across the image, ever circling the sun.

The Porter by cormend

The Porter
Two anchoring elements are at work here: the bank of earth on one side and the receding tree trunk on the other. Between them, given their relative sizes and the partial leading lines of foreground and the subject’s steps, our attention is bounced across the scene (right to left), then over the ridge and into the great expanse that lies on the far side…

Inner framing

All the framing elements described so far have been at the edge of the image, most often in corners. But it is quite possible to pull the framing elements into the image; indeed, they can quite easily dominate the picture.

Splash by sannesu

The framing in this image is not provided by the outer elements of the corners, but by the sweep of shattered wave: a looping arc that brings the viewer’s attention around and down to the subject, assisted by the rippling lines in the spray which also point us back towards the subject: an active background spread that behaves in a way similar to a ruffled collar, each part bringing us back to the subject in the centre.


The concept of inner framing can quite easily become recursive, where the subject is a spiral. It may be a cheat to play on this concept, but there is no denying its effectiveness.

Helix2 by Auribins

An unusual, but not so uncommon, example of framing, the lower potion of the balustrade (right edge) directs our attention towards the heart of the spiral. Yet if the image were re-cropped to eliminate that sweep, still the next portion would do the same. And so the model repeats, both pointing in to the heart of the matter and drawing us around it, inevitably.


There are many compositional principles that allow for or facilitate a sense of direction. When these are combined with a framing element, it can completely invert the dynamic of the image…

in your eyes by mav_at

in your eyes
While the framing element in this image would imply a sense of direction up towards the right corner, the repetition of curves creates a powerful flow in the opposite direction, across the lines, effectively picking out the bright-eyed subject.


We wrap up again with a series of further images that demonstrate effective framing in use, to bring us up to the total of 18 examples used.

Simple pleasures by aftab.

Simple pleasures
A simple still life; subject and counter-point. But it is the arc of metallic russet table framing the scene that holds it together.

Sydney Skyline” by D80bert

Sydney Skyline
While the foreground silhouette holds the scene up here, it is the elements on the left and right flanks that frame it, giving the eye surfaces to bounce off as it traverses the skyline. Simple containment.

Another Almere sunset by Art Rock (Hennie)

Another Almere sunset
A delicate sunset scene, given a painted effect through processing, but it is the framing provided by the foreground tree and grasses that allow the eye to settle so easily on the subject of sun and silhouette.

SunFish by ben.pearson.007

While the subject in this image is looking from left to right, it is the overarching tree (and its foreground masking) that provide the sense of flow across the scene. The framing element provides an anchor: somewhere to discover the detail from.

super-sunset (HDR) by Joshua R. Ives

super-sunset (HDR)
While the hot colours of the sky and the silvery tones on the water may get all the attention, it is the foreground arc of dried grasses that acts as a frame, holding the image together.

Typical by Jeff Presnail

Textbook one-side framing, the treeline provides a counterpoint to what would otherwise be dominating – scene-stealing – negative space. This allows the backlit, dried flower to hold on to the glory. A simple, unobtrusive pointer.

A special twist

With many compositional tools, when they are used in opposition, one will win out over another. Though there is no hard and fast rule (as demonstrated once above), it is interesting to see just how dominant framing can be as part of the compositional arsenal. It can resist even the most glaring attempt to counteract it.

Unfortunately, the picture selected for here has been deleted by the owner.

  1. Another fabulous, in-depth tutorial with *framing* being explained in a totally new concept for me.
    May sound somewhat ‘double dutch’ but can sum it up by saying “mind boggling and an eye-opener at the same time.”
    So grateful for all the work involved in putting this together and imparting such knowledge. Thank you…

  1. April 27th, 2011

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