When a photo gets posted on Flickr, you will often see a comment along the lines of “good see…”. I’ll be honest, it annoyed me at first. I’m of the belief that photos are created, not taken, and so the comment seemed a little offensive. But my grumpy old self has softened a bit, in part due to the culture surrounding digital photography, and I realize that I wasn’t really getting the point. Photography is ultimately a result of seeing something that others do not. More specifically, it’s seeing the potential in a real-world scene so that you can create a photograph for others to see through your eyes. The problem that many beginning photographers have is not the technical aspects of photography. It’s seeing the potential shot without your camera. You need to teach yourself to see through a frame.
Preface: Why Not Through The Lens?
Many photography educators, myself included, try to teach you to visualize the world through your lens – understanding the relationship between your focal distance and the finished product. This is still an important skill to have, and I still condone such practice with your lenses. Even with your zoom lenses, you should learn your favorite focal lengths for different scenarios. You should learn how the background will appear at different lengths, and how the focal length affects your angle of view. But that’s only one aspect of the finished product and I have to be blunt: The end user doesn’t care about that. What they care about is what is presented as a finished product. As such, the focal length – the lens – doesn’t matter to them. What they care about is what’s in the frame.
Lesson 1: The Frame Is A Boundary
If you think of your photo is a view into another world and your audience can only look at that world through your photograph, it’s boundaries – it’s frame – is literally the edge of your world. It is the boundary within which everything important to the story must fall. Remember that you will not be able to explain to everyone the context of the photo. Without a clear intent, your photo has no meaning. So you best make sure everything makes it inside the frame.
Everything outside of the frame does not matter and cannot be considered as part of your context.
This is of course something important to consider when you’re composing your shot before you click the shutter. You need to make sure all necessarily elements will be in view in the finished product. You should account for any cropping or editing you plan to do in post. The big details aren’t hard to forget. A portrait of a little girl certainly requires the girl to be in the shot. If she’s frolicking in a meadow, you need that context as well. But don’t forget about the subtle details. Her eyes – where are they focused? Are they looking at the camera or are they looking at something in the shot? If they’re looking at something outside the frame, continuity is lost (unless that is your intent…but that’s a discussion for another day). Where are her hands or her feet? Are they important to your shot?
Such considerations are also important when editing down your photo shoot as well. Anything that breaks context or continuity should be tossed. If you didn’t frame up right in-camera, there’s nothing you can do in post. Even a crop can’t fix a missing hand or a misdirected eye. All the more reason to fill your card when you’re in the field. Make sure you get the shots that you want.
Lesson 2: Frame Before Focal Length
You should have a clear understanding of what your goal is before you frame up the shot. I need to have a mental list (if not a physical one) of every element you want in the shot. Only then will you be able to pick an appropriate focal length. Your fancy zoom lens is not a shortcut to framing the photo properly. Remember, focal length affects more than what fits. It affects context, it affects the interaction between your subjects and most of all it affects your background. If your goal is to obscure the background – because it’s not relevant of course – you may wish to use a longer focal length. Can’t get everything in the shot? Don’t be lazy. Move.
I advise you to have an imaginary boundary in mind when framing up a shot. This boundary should be relative to the subjects and components important to your photograph. If the background isn’t relevant, don’t establish a boundary based on that. If you want your subject to have a lot of space to the right side, make sure you have that. Remember, focal length will play tricks on you, so be aware of that.
Whatever you do, don’t plan for a crop to fix your problems. There is a school of thought that you can always go wide and crop in post. Unless you’re planning for a different aspect ratio, I feel that’s a bad habit to get into. First of all, it will slow you down by adding unnecessary steps to your post processing agenda. Second of all, you will sacrifice some image quality if you end up reducing the overall dimensions of the photo (that’s essentially what a crop is). Even if you’re planning for a different aspect ratio, you should be able to hold at least two of the sides exactly where you want them for the finished product. If you don’t plan on cropping – don’t plan on cropping. Simple as that (good habits start early).
Lesson 3: See The Frame Without Your Camera
You can wander about the world trying to peer through your camera lens, but you will find yourself falling short with your photographic works. Not only will you miss a number of opportunities because you’re locking yourself into a single focal length, but you develop a bad habit of only capturing what you see through that lens. Again, I must reiterate that it is important to know your lenses and how they react at different focal lengths. But that should not be the starting point for the framing of any photo.
We work in a 3D world and we create art in a 2D context. That is first and foremost our biggest challenge as well as Photography’s greatest asset. What you will need to practice doing is seeing the photo before you create it. This is much easier to do with things that you have ultimate control over. For this reason, I don’t recommend practicing with a genre like street photography. You should be able to control each of your subjects, or at least be able to move around your subject in a way that you have ultimate control. I recommend doing photo walks of your town. Shoot architecture, details or even macro shots. Maybe borrow a few friends (you’d be surprised what people will do for a few beers) and direct them as you see fit. Whatever you do, work in a context where you will have time to do some trial-and-error until you grow more efficient.
Try to view any potential subject with a frame around it. Visualize the finished product, and work – work hard – to create a photo in that image. Move around, move forward and back and consider every angle, focal length and subject placement. Consider changing the position or orientation of the frame – it doesn’t always have to align with the horizon. With patience, you will find it’s much easier to do than you might expect.
Everyone has different philosophies. We are of course open to hear where your own philosophies differ (or agree). If you have more advice on learning to see through a frame, please share it here. One is never too old of a dog to learn new tricks.