Capture: Framing the Image – Improving your Composition

‘What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.’

William Albert Allard, a National Geographic photographer.

An essential skill of framing is to view the subject in relation to its background. This relationship between subject and background is often referred to as ‘figure and ground’. Many photographers stand too far away from the subject. In a desire to include the entire subject, their photographs become busy, unstructured and cluttered with unwanted background detail. This extra detail can distract from the primary subject matter. If a photographer moves closer, or chooses an alternative vantage point from which to take the image, distracting background can be reduced or eliminated. With fewer visual elements to be arranged the photographer has more control over composition. If background detail does not relate to the subject the photographer should consider removing it from the frame. Unless the photograph is to act as a factual record the need to include everything is unnecessary.

The Dance of Photography

When we are first attracted to an interesting subject to photograph, the next step to composing our shot should be to consider the background. Our position or ‘vantage point’ in relation to the subject can radically change the background content and this, in turn, can have an enormous impact on the composition of our image. If we consider that there are three main elements at play (not two), figure, background and the photographer (our own position in relation to the other two), we can quickly understand the primary influence our own position can can have on the process of designing our image. I call the task of finding the optimum vantage point to capture the image the ‘dance of photography’. There are numerous techniques we can employ to simplify our background and remove unwanted distractions or content that does not relate to our primary subject matter. I have outlined some of these below. They include choosing a:

  • High vantage point
  • Low vantage point
  • Camera tilt
  • Wide Aperture
  • Telephoto Lens
  • Slow shutter speed
  • Zoom or closer vantage point
  • Repositioning your subject
  • Background with fewer colour or tonal differences
  • Post-production crop
  • Clone Stamp or Spot Removal Tool
High vantage point: Choosing a high vantage point can remove unwanted clutter.
Low vantage point: This image was captured with my knees slightly bent. This serves to position the horizon line lower in the frame (rather than passing through the neck or head of the subject). This compositional technique also serves to place the horizon line in line with the Golden Ratio and incorporate more ‘negative space’ into the image. More negative space = less visual clutter.
Camera Tilt: Tilting the camera up or down is something a lot of photographers do instinctively – but why? Do all landscapes need skies? This framing technique creates an image sometimes referred to as a ‘Closed Landscape’. Is the communication stronger because there is no sky? Fewer visual elements often leads to a stronger communication.
Choosing a low vantage point (not difficult in this instance) may remove background clutter.
Choosing a very wide aperture on a short telephoto lens to blur the distracting background, e.g. f/1.8 is a popular technique when we have limited options to change the background.
Shooting with a long focal length lens (telephoto) to blur the background, e.g. 200mm. The vantage point chosen for this image also places the horizon line outside of the frame. You may only have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 but you can still effectively blur the background if you choose a longer focal length.
Choosing a long shutter speed to blur detail, e.g. shutter speeds longer than 1 second will blur distracting detail in water.
Choosing a long shutter speed to blur detail, e.g. shutter speeds longer than 1 second will blur distracting detail in water.
Zooming or moving closer to remove additional subject matter from the frame.
Zooming or moving closer to remove additional subject matter from the frame.
Moving your subject to a place where the background will not be distracting. I often move my subjects in front of an open door. The background will then blur and be significantly darker than the subject.
Moving your subject to a place where the background will not be distracting. I often move my subjects in front of an open door. The background will then blur and be significantly darker than the subject.
Seek out backgrounds that have few differences in colour and/or tone.
Although this image is captured with a wide angle lens there are few visual elements for the viewer to move between. This serves to strengthen the composition and communication because the image can be quickly read. Street photographers often prioritise the space over the people.
Although this image is captured with a wide angle lens there are few visual elements for the viewer to move between. This serves to strengthen the composition and communication because the image can be quickly read. Street photographers often prioritise the space over the people.
Before and After: If you are unable to perfect the framing in camera there is always the option to refine the framing in post production.
Before and After: I will always look at what lies on the edge of my frame (top right) and crop out distracting elements if they do not serve to strengthen the primary communication. The viewer's eye will be drawn (unnecessarily) to look at these distracting details so a small crop may be all that is required.
Before and After: I will always look at what lies on the edge of my frame (top right) and crop out distracting elements if they do not serve to strengthen the primary communication. The viewer’s eye will be drawn (unnecessarily) to look at these distracting details so a small crop may be all that is required.
Do the bags of rubbish strengthen or weaken the communication? This would be a subjective decision but I decided to remove it so the communication is all about waiting.
Do the bags of rubbish strengthen or weaken the communication? This would be a subjective decision but I decided to remove it so the communication is all about waiting.

Cropping in Lightroom

It is not always possible to create the perfect composition in camera. Sometimes we need to shoot in haste or prioritise focus over framing. An essential design tool is the Crop Overlay in Lightroom.

Following the Rules

There are some rules of design that photographers often like to observe, such as the ‘Rule of Thirds’ or ‘Golden Ratio’. Although I am aware of these rules when I am framing an image, or cropping the image in post, I personally do not like to restrict myself to the confines of these ‘rules’. Rules, I believe, were sometimes meant to be broken. I think it is enough to invite many photographers, who are looking to create a good composition, to consider why they are placing the focal point of the image in the centre of the frame. The viewer’s eye will then be invited to move around the image if the focal point is place off-centre, and this usually makes for a more dynamic viewing experience.

Rule of Thirds: When cropping in Lightroom you can repeatedly press the letter O for overlay to cycle through some of the compositional tools or go to Tools > Crop Guide Overlay. In this crop I am removing some of the negative space from a Street image that was captured slightly too wide.
Golden Ratio
Golden Ratio: Using the Rule of Thirds will often place the eyes too far away from the centre of the image. I often find myself instinctively aligning myself to the Golden Ratio when shooting tight head and shoulder portraits in the horizontal format.
Symmetry: When the photographer is looking to create a symmetrical design in their photograph, however, the focal point needs to be placed precisely in the centre of the image.
Symmetry: When the photographer is looking to create a symmetrical design in their photograph, however, the focal point needs to be placed precisely in the centre of the image.
Rule of Thirds: When cropping in Lightroom you can repeatedly press the letter O for overlay to cycle through some of the compositional tools or go to Tools > Crop Guide Overlay. In this crop I am removing some of the negative space from a Street image that was captured slightly too wide.
Rule of Thirds: When cropping in Lightroom you can repeatedly press the letter O for overlay to cycle through some of the compositional tools or go to Tools > Crop Guide Overlay. In this crop I am removing some of the negative space from a Street image that was captured slightly too wide.

The way we choose to frame our images often defines who we are as photographers. We can choose our subject matter and also what we want to say about them. Out choice of framing changes not only the design, but also the communication, and this is an essential tool in the construction of visual narratives. There are, of course, lots of additional techniques that we can employ when designing our images that I have not had time to address in this blog post, e.g. the image above, titled ‘The Struggle’ employs a limited colour palette, careful control of light and shade and leading lines to take our eye to the focal point of the image. When faced with a lone tree on a windswept high pass, my challenge is to highlight what I want the viewer to focus their attention on when viewing my image. My vantage point, what I choose to include and exclude are my primary tools that I have at my disposal to ensure that my communication is effective. My primary advice for someone looking to create stronger compositions, however, is to ‘Simplify’. Exclude clutter that does not support your chosen communication. In this way I believe your images will communicate more effectively.

Mark is a Global Imaging Ambassador for Sony, an experienced educator and an Imaging Ambassador for Adobe. As well as public speaking he offers training in the form of creative workshops and one-on-one training.