Stories with pictures and sometimes the other way around.
If you wanted to take a picture highlighting the Empire State Building’s rich archways, would you take an entire shot of the building? No, you’d need to zoom in a little. If you wanted to show the vastness of the Grand Canyon, would you take a headshot of your best friend standing in front of the canyon, making the rest of the landscape smaller? No, you’d tell your friend to step the hell away so you could take a wide shot!
The advice sounds like common sense but all of these points form the backbone of what we call framing and intent.
Framing is staging your shot in a way that the content your photo conveys is clear, stylish, and succinct. At its simplest level, framing is understanding what should and shouldn’t be part of your photo. Should I include this tree in the portrait? Is the picture too crowded? What is being highlighted? These are all questions you should consider before even looking through the camera’s viewfinder.
Let’s take a look at this picture by Carlos Hugo Vaca.
Are you crying yet? Good.
Much of this photo’s tragic impact is made possible by a well-selected, tightly knit frame. We can’t see the animal’s face. We don’t even know what the animal is. But we do know that captivity is the prevailing theme. The absence of the cub’s body denotes a sense of helplessness. Whatever is locked up is young and probably too small to take care of itself. No claws demanding vengeance—just a paw begging for freedom. Or just food.
Think about how differently the photo would be perceived had Vaca chosen to convey a larger space, like the cub’s body, the entire cage or even an image of its captors. Those elements would arguably lessen the degree of tragedy. Including the sight of an angry zookeeper or a rifle toting warlord appends a more violent undertone and changes the message drastically.
Now take a look at this image by Michael Loccisano.
This image sharply portrays the hectic preparation of a high-end fashion function. Multiple make-up artists work multiple tasks, all in a wild entanglement around a model who has surrendered her body to this incredibly complex tailoring. Sounds crazy? Well, most productions are.
Now think about the last photo and its presentation. Had Loccisano focused on one pair of hands and the model’s face alone, what would happen? The activity would be lost. You’d get an intimate vignette of the model and someone’s mysterious hands, but that’s it. The choice to include so many other elements conveys a chaos and frenzy that a close-up could not have captured.
Of course the topic is a very complex one and demands a holistic consideration of elements like color, negative space, and scale. No single approach of framing is technically “right" or "wrong.” With regards to intent, there are only varying degrees of effectiveness.
As a starting point (and probably the most important aspect of a shoot), good framing simply means asking yourself two critical questions. 1) What do I wish to explain in this picture and 2) How do I go about conveying that point? All that follows is execution.
The next time you shoot, try walking around with an imaginary window in front of your eyes. That window is your future artwork and the space you will be telling your story in. If you need to block out your surroundings, use your fingers to simulate a frame. As you shoot more and more often, try to visualize the picture before you even look through your lens. It’ll save you loads of time and stress.
Practicing this skill will help you to see the world through eyes of a photo. Images are infinite in possibilities but finite in space. Don’t use a hundred words when one will do. First understand what you wish to convey, then shoot it!
Good luck and happy shooting.
A recap of my fall photos series! Special thanks to the lovely models and leaves that added warmth to this year’s Autumn.