In the Frame of Things: Using Natural Frames to Emphasize Your Subject

Snow-covered branches frame urban landscape of Central Park, New York, NY.

Snow-covered branches frame urban landscape of Central Park, New York, NY.

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Making a subject stand out is the primary goal of all photographers. There are a number of ways to accomplish this and your subject matter will usually dictate the best method. Common techniques may include special lighting, subject placement, extreme angles or contrasting colors. If you delve into the world of digital imaging, your choices will be virtually unlimited. But, if you prefer to keep your images looking as natural as possible, you may want to stick with the in-camera methods.

One of my favorite ways to highlight a subject is to place it within a natural frame. This might consist of leaves, flowers, bushes … just about anything nearby that you can find to encircle your subject. In the opening photo above, I used the snow-covered branches to frame the distant buildings in this Central Park winter scene. Besides serving as decorative foreground elements, they were a great way to cover up the dead space of a white, featureless sky.

With spring not too far away, it will soon be time to start thinking about shooting nature’s colorful little jewels. Because of their small sizes, flowers are very easy to frame. The two photos below illustrate a common way in which this can be done.

Yellow tulip surrounded by a double frame, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

Yellow tulip surrounded by a double frame, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

Chrysanthemums frame a specific bloom, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

Chrysanthemums frame a specific bloom, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

In both images, I used flowers to frame other flowers. The tulip garden presented many possibilities (and challenges). A large cluster of yellow tulips, with a few interspersed purple ones, immediately caught my eye. As I studied the various compositions, I noticed a solitary yellow tulip several feet away at the rear of the pack. There was only one clean line of sight to it, through a convoluted maze of flowers and leaves. It looked like a very busy and chaotic scene, but that all changed when I viewed it at 200mm and f/3.3. The limited depth of field simplified the scene – creating a tunnel-like effect, perfectly framing the tiny yellow tulip in a soft, yellow color wash. To my surprise, the purple tulips (located closer to the yellow tulip, thus, in sharper focus) formed a distinctive inner-frame within the larger, overall frame – something I absolutely could not see with my naked eye.

I used the same composition for the chrysanthemums. Instead of objects being a few feet apart, I was working within a range of a few inches. Even so, at 200mm and f/4, I was still able to isolate the center bloom, positioned just a few inches beneath its surrounding counterparts. Although I had sprayed the entire area with water to simulate dew drops, the shallow depth of field rendered them all invisible, except for the ones on the center bloom – further emphasizing the frame effect.

Unlike the yellow tulip, which was in direct sunlight, this chrysanthemum was nestled within the shady recesses of this tight cluster. I almost always use a flash for flower photography. Sometimes, it’s not 100% necessary, but I especially needed it here. To avoid casting too much light on the surrounding mums, I narrowed the beam of my flash (sometimes referred to as “tunneling”) by zooming its flash head to a higher focal length. This is a quick and easy way to add some creative lighting to your images. Most modern flashes have automatic flash heads that set the coverage of the light output to match the focal length of the lens. This is perfect for the vast majority of situations. However, if your subject comprises only a small portion of the frame, you can highlight it with a “spotlight.” If your flash has the capability, manually set the flash head to a higher focal length than the lens you’re using, or the focal length to which your zoom lens is set. Of course, unless your subject is right in the center of the frame (as it was in the case of the chrysanthemums) you will have to handhold the flash off-camera via a remote cord and point it directly at the subject.

A frame doesn’t always have to completely encircle a subject. A partial frame can just as easily direct a viewer’s attention to a specific point. In the chrysanthemum image below, I used other mums to fill in the space beneath it. For the cherry blossoms, I flanked them on the left and right with other nearby blossoms. In both photos, I used the same flash tunneling technique to avoid lighting up the frames.

Chrysanthemum framed from below, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

Chrysanthemum framed from below, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

Cherry blossoms framed on the left and right, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Brooklyn, NY.

Cherry blossoms framed on the left and right, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Brooklyn, NY.

I illustrated in the opening image how a frame can be used to cover up dead space. But it can also be used to minimize distracting elements. I noticed a small cluster of azaleas rising slightly above the larger group in the photo below. I wanted them to be the main focus of the image. An aperture setting of f/4 created a shallow depth of field to sufficiently offset them from the busy background, but they still weren’t standing out as much as I had hoped. The problem was that the larger group below them was on the same plain – nullifying the effects of a reduced depth of field. A simple change in composition proved fruitful. I positioned myself behind a closer cluster of flowers and searched for an opening that perfectly provided the highlighting effect I had intended.

Framing elements used to minimize distractions, New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY.

Framing elements used to minimize distractions, New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY.

All of the framing examples I used in this article were relatively the same exposure as the subjects they framed. In some cases, it may not have been immediately evident that a framing technique was even used. If you want a more obvious frame, you could surround your subject with a silhouette, i.e., shooting out the opening from the inside of a dark tunnel or cave. This will certainly create a much more dramatic frame; however, you may need to spot meter the subject in order to obtain the proper exposure.

The use of frames is a great way to add depth, aesthetic elements and a sense of place to a subject. But, it’s very important that a frame be recognized as such, and not simply the product of a careless composition. Controlling your depth of field and ensuring that your frame doesn’t cover up important parts of your subject should make your intentions crystal clear.