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Frames

Your image's frame has an effect on its composition.


Many subjects lend themselves to a particular frame format. Tall images seem to belong in a vertical frame. Wide images usually suit a horizontal frame. Square frames are suited to a range of subjects.
Many subjects lend themselves to a particular frame format. Tall images seem to belong in a vertical frame. Wide images usually suit a horizontal frame. Square frames are suited to a range of subjects.

NOTE: There are several definitions for "frame" besides the one principally discussed in this article. These include:

  • the boundaries or sides within which a picture is contained;
  • the visible boundaries of a camera’s viewfinder;
  • the area of a single exposure on a film;
  • an element in a scene, like a branch or doorway, that frames the subject; and
  • a decorative border surrounding a print or digital image.

    In this article, "frame" refers to the boundaries or sides within which a picture is contained. (Some photographers prefer to use the word "format" when referring to an image's frame.) Most cameras commonly use a rectangular frame for the images they produce, but some may use a square frame, while others may permit the photographer to select a square or rectangular frame, and pictures may be framed by a circle when a fisheye lens is attached to your camera.

    When you edit an image or print it, you can alter its frame so that it is bounded by just about any shape you can conceive. The sides of a frame can be sharply-defined or fuzzy; gradated so they gradually disappear; or bound by a thin or wide solid line of any color; or even bound by another image if the picture is contained inside that image. A panorama is by necessity enclosed within a very wide or very tall rectangular frame. All such changes made to a picture's frame are generally intended to present the image to the viewer at its best or its most appropriate use.

    Sometimes, a frame is intended to evoke an emotional or psychological reaction from the viewer with respect to the image. A jagged frame may suggest action, violence or even anarchy, but it could also be used as a suitable design element - for example, to enclose a picture of a swath of cloth used in making a garment. Soft frames are often used for baby pictures or portraits of women, suggesting gentleness or perhaps femininity. An oval frame can suggest formality for a portrait and is also associated with cameo portraits and silhouettes.


  • A RECTANGLE IS THE MOST COMMON SHAPE FOR A FRAME

    Why, you may wonder, is a rectangle the most popular shape for photographs?

    The most obvious answer is that most digital cameras have a rectangular sensor for capturing light and popular film cameras record pictures in a rectangular format. However, there is a reason why the rectangle was chosen in the first place. It is found in art history, where artists long ago realized that the Golden Ratio produced a frame that was pleasing and suited to many subjects, called the Golden Rectangle. Click here for information on the Golden Ratio and the Golden Rectangle.

    The sensor in most digital cameras is rectangular in shape, producing images that have rectangular frames. (Image courtesy of Nikon.)
    The sensor in most digital cameras is rectangular in shape, producing images that have rectangular frames. (Image courtesy of Nikon.)

    The photographer wanted a square frame but his camera took pictures in a rectangular frame. He took the picture anyway, knowing that he would have to crop the larger image later to get the desired framing.
    The photographer wanted a square frame but his camera took pictures in a rectangular frame. He took the picture anyway, knowing that he would have to crop the larger image later to get the desired framing.

    One of the effects of your camera's having a particular frame shape is that you, as a photographer, must compose your images within that frame. That may seem obvious, and of course it is, but it means that you always have in the back of your mind that you are creating a rectangular or a square image when you compose a picture in the viewframe.

    But what if your image would be much better composed if framed within a square, as illustrated by the images on the left? Or, if a picture taken with your square format camera would be better with a rectangular frame?

    Well, you have to change your thinking. You have to use your imagination to frame a square image within a rectangular viewframe or a rectangular image within a square viewframe, knowing that you will need to crop out the unnecessary portions later, either digitally on your computer or when deciding on the format of prints you make or order from a photo lab.

    This may perhaps sound new to you, but it is not. Photographers have known for years that many of the pictures they are taking will need to be cropped afterwards, and they use their imagination to shoot them to suit the end result.

    All of us realize that some photos we have taken should be cropped when we see them on the computer screen or in a negative, on a contact sheet or as a print. But, an awareness of cropping changes can be an advantage when you actually take a photograph, with the thought in mind that it will be framed differently when the final picture is produced. Such thinking allows you to compose your picture for the frame you have in mind, including elements that you know will be eliminated later on, but placing the others where they will do the most good for your composition.

    Besides, there is another very important reason to think about how you would crop an image you are photographing - print sizes.


    PRINT SIZES

    Standard photographic print sizes differ the world over. The most common size in North America is 4" X 6", followed by 5" X 7" and 8" X 10".

    The length/width ratios for these sizes are not the same. A 4" X 6" print has ratio of 2 to 3. (The long edge is 1.5 times as long as the short edge.) A 5" X 7" print has a ratio of 5 to 7, and an 8" X 10" print has a ratio of 4 to 5.

    If you go into a photo lab and order borderless prints of the same image in each of these three standard sizes, the image will have a different appearance in each print. This is because the different ratios require that some cropping of the image will have had to occur to fit it onto the print paper.

    Images that you plan to have printed as standard enlargements should be photographed with this knowledge in mind. Then, you can take the pictures allowing for the need to crop them to fit standard print sizes. If you are shooting a portrait, for example, you should ensure that there is sufficient space around the subject to allow for a variety of different cropping ratios.

    IF YOU DON'T CROP IT, YOUR PRINT MAKER WILL

    Usually, the lab does a pretty good job of cropping so that the essential elements of the image are printed. Sometimes, photo labs mess it up when cropping your image to fit a particular print size, but not too often. At other times you might have preferred to have had an enlargement cropped differently.

    You can avoid this problem by cropping your images yourself, before taking them to the photo lab, to fit the various print sizes. With a digital image, you can use your photo-editing software to crop and size an image to fit on any size of print. Then, save each properly-sized image file to bring with you to the lab. If you were shooting film, you can add cropping marks in the appropriate ratio to a contact sheet or test print to show how you want the final enlargements printed. You can also, of course, simply write out cropping instructions on your order form, indicating what to leave in and what to crop out.

    Different standard print sizes affect your picture's composition, requring some portions of the original image to be cropped out.
    Different standard print sizes affect your picture's composition, requring some portions of the original image to be cropped out.

    Image-editing software permits you to crop your images so they can have a variety of frame sizes to suit their content.
    Image-editing software permits you to crop your images so they can have a variety of frame sizes to suit their content.

    Further information...

    Film format

    Film sizes

    Shape and form
    Related topics...

    Framing

    Framing your prints

    Planes