Understanding the Frame

TAKE A PIECE of paper and a pen. Any type, any kind. Draw a frame on your paper. In that frame draw a picture. Here I'll go first.


My drawing certainly won't win any prizes. Fortunately, that's not the point. The point is to think about your thought process as you made your drawing. What were your thoughts? Try not to analyse too much. This is just a simple exercise to draw attention to how you see how you understand the frame of an image; how you might use that frame in making your photographs.

For example, when I made my drawing, I made a quick assessment of scale and proportion. I thought about where I wanted to focus my attention. The frame I drew made me look more carefully at the scene before me. I made some momentary decisions about what it was I wanted to show. Moving my body to my right and turning my head to my left would have changed my angle of view. In fact, I would now see a different house.


So now you have a drawing inside a frame. What does that frame do? Or in art parlance, what is its function? When I think about the word 'frame' I come up with all sorts of different things: a picture frame, a bicycle frame, a climbing frame, spectacle frames, a window frame, someone's physical frame. What is the purpose of all these frames? They give strength, support and form. A frame can also be a container.

With this in mind, let's think, for a moment, about the physical form of the frame in relation to the camera. This is easier to see within the mechanics of a film camera rather than digital. But the thinking is the same. Below is the film holder for my Kodak Brownie Reflex 20. A frame within a frame. It's easy to see where the film winds around the structure enclosing the loading mechanism, a small square window in the middle laying the film bare and vulnerable to light exposure when the time is right.

The internal frame from my Kodak Brownie Reflex 20

The internal frame from my Kodak Brownie Reflex 20

The frame is generally of a fixed proportion; square or rectangular. When we look through our viewfinder or at the screen of our digital camera, we can be consciously or unconsciously aware of the framework surrounding the image we are selecting. The frame needs to be a window too, to allow the light through the lens aperture framing our chosen image onto the film or sensor. We may also have a degree of awareness of what sits outside the frame within our peripheral vision.


So we’ve made our photograph. We’ve used the viewfinder or screen to find the edges of our picture. The camera has framed that picture onto film or pixels. And now we have a number of different ways to view our photograph.

With a phone camera, the screen is simultaneously the viewfinder and the frame of your photograph. You can hold your digital photograph in your hands. Its digital image seems ephemeral taking its place in the cloud yet within your device, it has a definite weight, a physical form. The edges of your phone become the frame of your photograph. The corners are rounded, the weight and shape ergonomically tested to feel good in your hand. On screen, you can change the proportion of your photo from a small square thumbnail in a gallery to a full-screen rectangular image.

By contrast, the individually printed photograph is thinner and paper light. The corners of the print mimic the corners of the photographic frame; they are sharp and angular. Try picking up a pile of prints that are in a messy heap. The corners jab under your fingernails, a surprisingly sharp pain.


Being aware of your frame is an important thing to consider when trying to make better photographs. Returning to my drawing analogy, say I decide I want to make a drawing of my husband. I get a piece of paper and a pencil and begin. I pay no attention to the edges of my paper and slowly over the course of my study I become aware that I can’t fit all of his body on the paper. If I want to fit the whole figure on my piece of paper I need to make an assessment of the edges of my paper and how my husband’s portrait relates to that frame.

Similarly, its easy to forget about the frame in a photograph and accidentally crop out a body part or a complete person by mistake. Interestingly though, being aware of this ‘error’ means it can be used consciously to create dynamic images. A case of once you know the rules, you know how to break them.

The frame of the photograph also sets up a relationship between its edge and its subject. It can contain and hold an image and by composition gather the objects and create subject matter. Without the frame, there can be no composition. The lines of reference become meaningless. There is no cohesive image. The success of this relationship between frame and subject leads to the success of the image. That success of the image made with the skill of the photographer may make us as a viewer feel awkward, confused, angry, ambivalent or joyful.

Another way to think about how the frame relates to the content of the photograph is defined by Stephen Shore in his book The Nature of Photographs. Shore describes how the frame functions in an active or passive way.

Rather than showing the examples that Shore uses, I’ve decided to try to find an example for each from my own archive. As an objective exercise, it was fascinating to realise how much I use the frame in a passive way. It makes me think about how many times people have commented on the quiet and still quality of my photography. I wonder how much of this response is due to the way I’ve used the frame.


The creek behind our house, North Vancouver 2017

The creek behind our house, North Vancouver 2017

“For some pictures, the frame acts passively. It is where the picture ends. The structure of the picture begins within the image and works its way out to the frame.”
— p.60, The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

In the image above your eye is immediately drawn to the figure in the picture. It could be because she’s a person and as a species, we’re often curious about our fellow human beings. Or it could be because she is walking just at that elusive ‘golden rectangle’ of the composition. We dive straight into the image and then begin to work our way out towards the frame taking in the details of the landscape along the way.


Vancouver, 2017

Vancouver, 2017

“For some pictures the frame is active. The structure of the picture begins with the frame and works inward.”
— p.62, The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore

I found it much harder to find an example of a photograph that used an active frame. I think this is one. The way the graphic lines of the picture draw us into the picture where we see the building, the hand-painted signage, the red traffic lights and the red leaves on the autumnal tree. The light grey gloomy sky a contrast to the darker grey damp road.


It’s taken me awhile to get to grips with this concept of the active and passive frame. I just couldn’t quite understand it until I started looking at my own photographs asking myself the question: active or passive? Passive or active?

Many years ago when I was studying for my degree in Fine Art Photography, we had to do a module on colour photography. Most of us had come to photography loving the process of black and white (this was 1994, pre-digital) and were a bit reluctant to try colour. I put a couple of rolls of film in my camera, shot them, processed them and printed the contact sheets. I hadn’t consciously paid much attention to the frame; I played a little with the angle of the camera on my tripod, taking photographs in the flat where I lived at the time. One of the pictures I took was this one.

Ironing Board, Glasgow 1994

Ironing Board, Glasgow 1994

Here I was paying attention to the frame. The bottom edge crops out half the radiator and ironing board. By angling the camera I’ve created an awkward composition that somehow seems to draw attention to the tear in the wallpaper.  There’s a story here that’s unresolved. This is the photograph where I learned about the importance of the frame. How it can select and gather. How it can create relationships between people and objects; the viewer and objects. How it can yield a feeling of awkwardness, love, hate and compassion. How paying attention to your frame might surprise you.


All images © Tanya Clarke