Frame within frame photography is a bit unconventional, but it can give you stunning, eye-catching results.
So how do you do frame within frame photography? And how do you get the best possible images using the frame within frame approach?
In this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about the frame within frame technique.
And by the time you’re done, you’ll be a frame within frame photo expert.
So let’s dive right in.
What Is Frame Within Frame Photography?
First things first:
The “frame within frame” label can be a bit confusing, so it’s important to understand what exactly folks mean when they say “frame within frame photography.”
Now, whenever you take a photo, the image naturally has a frame–the area where the photo cuts off, the area that contains the photo.
This is a first, non-negotiable frame.
But when you go to compose an image, you can include a second frame:
A frame within that first frame.
Do you see how the composition includes a normal frame, as well as a frame within that frame (the flowers)?
That’s how you get frame within frame photos.
And that’s what photographers are doing when they talk about framing the subject with other compositional elements.
Now, as I mentioned above, frame within frame photography isn’t very conventional. First, it can be difficult to find frames within frames, especially if you’re photographing, say, a wide open ocean.
Second, many photographers don’t use the frame within a frame technique, because it’s just not how photographers are taught to think.
That’s why including a second frame can be your “secret weapon” of sorts. By making sure you have this second frame within the first, you’ll be able to achieve powerful compositions that really draw in the viewer.
And speaking of powerful compositions…
…what’s the actual benefit of frame within frame photography, aside from being unique? Why should you include frames within frames in your photos?
That’s what this next section is all about:
Why Should You Use Frame Within Frames?
Frames within frames serve a number of compositional purposes.
In other words:
They can do a lot for your photos!
Now, I’m not advocating that you use a frame within a frame for every composition you create.
But don’t be afraid to incorporate frames within frames, especially if you hope to achieve any of the effects I’ve detailed below.
To Emphasize the Main Subject
This is one of the primary reasons you might want to use a frame within a frame composition:
If you have a single subject that you want to really pop.
Because frames direct the eye, pushing the viewer into the photo and toward the area within it.
For instance, if you’re photographing an interesting building, you might frame it with an archway–so that viewers move through the archway and straight toward your main subject (the interesting building!).
Note that you can also use a frame to emphasize your main subject among a sea of other, distracting elements. If you’re standing before a field of flowers, you might find a frame that contains a single flower; that way, the viewer isn’t distracted by the other flowers, but instead looks straight toward your main subject.
Of course, there is a downside to this frame within frame method:
If your subject already stands well on its own and is surrounded by other pleasing items, a frame within a frame will actually detract from the image. This is because it will cut off key compositional elements that complement the subject.
After all, while simplicity is generally good, it isn’t always the best way to approach your compositions.
So before you use a frame within a frame to emphasize your main subject, ask yourself:
Does my subject already stand out? Or could it use a bit of a boost?
Are there elements around my main subject that complement it and should be included? Or am I okay with excluding the surrounding elements?
Based on your answers to these questions, you can proceed with the frame within a frame technique!
To Lead the Eye
This is a frame within a frame technique that most photographers fail to take into account.
But here’s the thing:
Any lines in your photos–including edges!–will lead the eye.
And since frames include edges, they’ll lead the eye, too, moving it around the photo.
Now, when you use the technique discussed above (i.e., the frame within a frame to emphasize your main subject), the eye naturally moves into the frame, especially if you place your subject smack-dab within it.
But if you position your subject off to the side, so that it intersects with one of the frame lines…
…the eye will often run along the frame until it reaches your subject, which is just generally good, and will keep the viewer engaged.
So while you can use a frame within a frame to emphasize the main subject by pushing the eye in, you can also use it to lead the eye around, until it eventually reaches your main subject. This is a slower, more dynamic method of using frames within frames, so it’s definitely one worth trying out.
And by the way:
If you want to create especially compelling frame-with-a-frame leading lines, try tilting your frame so that it includes some diagonals.
Because diagonals are very compelling–and are great at drawing in the eye! Just make sure that you point the diagonals toward your main subject. Otherwise, the eye will move along the diagonals in a direction away from the subject, which generally makes for a bad photo.
To Add Depth
Here’s a third way you might want to use a frame within a frame method:
To add depth to your images.
You see, the best photos often include a nice amount of depth, or three dimensionality, which carries the viewer into the scene and keeps them moving farther and farther along.
Landscape photographers, in particular, strive to achieve depth in their photos–but even portrait photographers, who are often photographing a single subject on a non-distracting background, seek to achieve depth (via techniques such as bokeh-filled backdrop or strong rim lighting).
So if you can create depth, then it’s often worth pursuing.
That’s where frames come in.
You see, by including a frame around the main subject of your image, you force the viewer to acknowledge the distance between the subject and the frame. There is generally a clear separation between the frame and the subject, which then creates the illusion of depth.
Note, however, that you will need to make sure your main subject is positioned far away from the frame; you won’t achieve any sense of depth if your subject is, say, standing directly within an archway.
(Though you will still do a good job of emphasizing the subject, as discussed above!).
To Add Context
Frames aren’t just another abstract compositional element.
They come from somewhere, which means that they can tell a story.
Confused? Let me explain further.
You see, the type of frame you use indicates something about the scene. And this will, in turn, influence the mood and story of the final image. If you frame a mountain using green trees, you’ll end up with a springtime-type shot; if you frame a mountain using bare branches, you’ll get a moodier, darker photo.
So by changing the type of frame you use, you can evoke different feelings.
To Add Intensity
Here’s the final reason why you might want to include a frame within a frame:
To make images more intense.
You see, by closing off an image and making the edges inaccessible, frames within frames limit the viewer, and even create a sense of claustrophobia.
Of course, this isn’t ideal in images that are meant to feel expansive and free.
But if you’re photographing a subject and you want to really give your photo that touch of severity, then go for a frame within a frame. And try to contain the main subject as much as possible.
What Types of Frames Can You Use?
I’ve talked all about when you might want to use frames, and why.
But it’s also worth covering the variety of frames you have at your disposal–so that you can easily find a frame whenever you’re out shooting!
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of frames. After all, there are hundreds of possible frames available to the enterprising photographer.
But these are a few of the most common ones:
The Architectural Frame
Cities often include archways, balconies, railings, and more, which all can be used to create interesting frames.
You can use an architectural frame indoors or outdoors. And you can use architectural frames to emphasize subjects of all types, from natural subjects such as trees to artificial subjects such as other buildings.
The Window or Doorway Frame
This one’s a classic, because we’re so used to seeing windows as frames. You simply shoot through a window, while keeping the window frame as part of your composition.
For a nice window frame, make sure that you keep the subject well-exposed; given how the inside portion of the window is often poorly lit, you’ll want to make sure you focus bracket to retain detail, or use a camera with an exceptionally high dynamic range.
The “Cramming” Frame
Simply position a foreground element between your lens and your main subject, then make sure you use a wide aperture to create a beautiful wash. I’d recommend trying to get the foreground wash to surround your main subject and intersect with it as little as possible, but you’re free to experiment with different techniques!
Frames Plus Leading Lines
While it’s true that frames can act as leading lines on their own…
…you can also try this technique, where you frame your subject–and then use leading lines that move through the frame, or from behind the frame, toward your subject.
This type of frame is hard to find, but when you can find it it’s wickedly effective, so it’s definitely worth a try.
Frames don’t always have to be composed of solid elements.
Sometimes frames can be composed of pure light or shadow.
For instance, you can use a lens flare effect to frame your main subject.
Or you can put your subject within light-based bokeh.
Or you can make sure that your subject is positioned in the light, while the areas around the subject are dark.
(That last one is a sort of shadow frame, and it can look really, really cool!)
Frame Within Frame Photography: The Next Step
Frames within frame photography may not seem easy, but it can get you great results if you give it the chance.
So experiment with some frames. See what you can come up with.
My guess is that you’ll love the results!
Frame within frame photography involves putting a frame around your subject. For instance, you might compose a shot so that you’re shooting an archway–and you have a subject within the archway. Or you might shoot a building, but include tree leaves all around the edges of the foreground. Note that frame within frame photography isn’t very common, but it is a powerful way to isolate your subject, guide the viewer, and add depth to your images, among other things.
Frames are everywhere! There are architectural frames, such as archways, windows, open doors, and bridges. There are also natural frames, such as leaves and flowers that surround the main subject of the composition. Really, the key is to find a main subject that you want to emphasize, then go around looking for a frame; you’ll probably find one as long as you’re patient enough.
Frame within frame photography isn’t especially common. But it’s most frequently used by portrait photographers, who position subjects within a frame to push the viewer’s attention in the desired direction. You can also find frame within frame photography used by travel photographers, who use the frame within a frame technique to guide the viewer toward a more distant subject (while using an architectural feature, such as an archway, to frame the subject). And wildlife photographers, as well as macro photographers, will work with natural frame within frames to isolate the main subject (such as with a nice foreground wash of color).
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.