10 examples of using the environment to frame subjects

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Environmental framing and lines are perhaps the two most important aspects to effective photography composition. The closely related techniques both guide the viewer’s eye toward specific places in the scene and highlight the subject. Frames are created by environmental elements, used to highlight subjects in unique ways and provide additional information.

While framing and lines are used in obvious ways, they are employed in a virtually infinite number of approaches, many of which are subtle but important. Understanding the concept teaches the foundational importance of placement, which is a fundamental skill for capturing effective photographs.

Foreground provides easy environmental framing

Scene of downtown Minneapolis with green space in the foreground. A blurred foreground provides framing for the field and skyline behind it.
Boom Island Park in Minneapolis contains an open field use to create frame with a low perspective. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

The easiest frames to find are smaller objects like benches, shrubs and tree trunks. Lowering the camera’s height to the ground and using a shallow depth of field proves equally as effective. Blurred elements reduce the eye’s focus and explains that it should be looking somewhere else in the scene first.

While the composition above focuses on the skyline, focusing a subject placed into the middle ground sandwiches them between two distinct features further separated by a shallow depth of field. The foreground and background creates an isolated box that creates a sense of depth.

Polulu Valley Lookout in Hawaii offers picturesque views but not including elements in the foreground might result in lackluster photographs. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Polulu Valley Lookout on the Big Island in Hawaii is breathtaking to the eye viewed at any angle. The mechanical camera does not possess a brain that takes liberties in translating visual information and does not agree with the human perception. Without the bits of shrubbery in the foreground, the view of these valleys from half-way down the trail is less visually exciting in a still image than it does in personal experience.

While the composition does not explain the greater environment, it still provides a sense of distance missing if it were only cliffs, valleys and ocean.

Observe the background to find lines that frame

Ben takes a break by taking a self-portrait that uses the storm door to frame the action of smoking a cigarette. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

No one underestimates the power of a clean background but knowing how to leverage complex elements in busy environments into an advantage is a necessary skill to possess in order to stand apart from millions of photographers. Photography opportunities sometimes come at a moment’s notice and photographers cannot rely on neat and tidy backgrounds. Sometimes, lucky images take personal action and deliberate choice.

Placing a subject in front of a door or window is an obvious approach to background framing but most locations have plenty of lines available. Prior to pressing the shutter, take a moment to consider if any of them distract from the main subject or are usable to create frames.

A transgender couple kiss for a portrait on the Wabasha Bridge in St. Paul Minnesota.
Daisa and Joan pose for a couple portrait between ornamental structures on the Wabasha Bridge in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Framing is ubiquitous technique for portrait photographers because the urban environment provides many venues with opportunities to create images that their clients love. Lines create frames at any distance and are easy to locate outdoors because they are literally everywhere. Clients hire photographers who know how to manipulate the environment to make them look their best. Using lines to frame subjects brings attention to faces and brings intimacy to candid moments.

Create mystery and intrigue with distance framing

Framing the masked figure with the tree trucks adds to the image’s intrigue. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Filling the frame with the subject is not always the most effective compositional skill to employ. Instead of avoiding photographing distant objects because they are not accessible, take the photograph but use frames to adjust focus. In some cases, using frames to confer distance creates a sense of mystery and including the surrounding environment provides them with clues.

Why is there a masked figure lingering in the trees over there? Thoughtfully incorporated environmental elements in wider shots generally provides more interesting information than close-ups.

Framing of tourists and guide at the Guthrie Theater's amber room.
Lighting at the amber room in the Guthrie Theatre is odd but it provides contrasted lines that frame tourists. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Indoor architectural designs provide opportunities to create frames with intersecting and leading lines. Lines created by door and window frames place these guide and tourists into a neat box while the floor, walls and shadows demarcate the rest of the space.

Framing realizes complicated spatial comparisons

World's largest buffalo statue in Jamestown, North Dakota.
A simplistic compositional approach frames the “buffalo” with negative space but the monument’s markers provide a subtle a sense of scale. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Using minor elements to create small frames creates additional context and a spatial sense of the environment. The ‘World’s Largest Buffalo’ sign and rock are approximately at the same distance. Including them gives viewers a side-by-side comparison that helps determine the statue’s size.

The solid background created by a dreary grey sky also serves as a background frame. Uniform backgrounds and patterns create negative space that highlights subjects located in front of them.

Riverplace commercial center is nestled behind a water fountain, bricked sidewalks and rows of trees. Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Employing multiple frames in the same image provides a great sense of depth. Layers of trees and buildings on each side already create multiple layers of frames around Riverplace. The water fountain and shade add two more to the already complex layers of overlapping frames.

More than three is perhaps taking frames to the extreme. However, it is important to realize that every object plays a role. There are also multiple ways to manipulate them into creating compelling images. When compositions are messy, it is usually a result of not realizing the complexity of a scene.

A photographer’s job is to make sense of complicated information and work visually organize it through the viewfinder automatically.

Environmental framing easy but technique complicated

Green space and urban decorations at Target Field Station creates effective frames to highlight Ford Center in the background. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Frames are both easy and complicated but understanding the role they play in composition is key to improving the skill. While remembering the rule of thirds helps to learn basic framing technique, creating balance and intrigue is critical to creating images that effectively communicate intended messages. Specific areas of photography, like landscape, depend on understanding the shape of the environment.

Interesting images provide environmental context, which gives viewers the information necessary to understand a photograph. Including environmental elements is critical to effective photography. Becoming proficient in frames leads to rich images with great compositional detail.

It takes lots of skill to operate automatically, but practice makes perfect. If you’re looking for some support, share and discuss your latest work in the community.

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