Street Photography Composition Lesson #6: Framing

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© Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

All photos included in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

For today’s street photography lesson, I want to talk about framing. Framing itself is a pretty basic compositional technique, something I am sure we all learned when we first started. But let us delve deeper into framing. Let us see examples from the masters– and how they framed their images to retain focus, energy, and depth in their images.

Defining Framing

To start off, what is “framing“?

According to Google, a frame is:

A rigid structure that surrounds or encloses something such as a door or window.

In photography, every image we capture is a frame. We decide what to include in the frame and what not to include in the frame. We are selective in terms of what gets include and what doesn’t get included.

For example, whenever taking a photograph of a subject, we have several choices to tell different stories or narratives.

Let me start off with an example of this photograph I took of an old man who looks quite lonely in a train by himself for my “Suits” project:

Netherlands, 2012
Frame #1: It looks like the man is by himself

So if you look at the photograph, the viewer might assume the man is by himself with no-one around him– as that is how he is framed.

However if we look at the contact sheet of the series of images I took– you will see that is not the case:

Contact sheet of all the photos I took of this man.
Contact sheet of all the photos I took of this man.

In reality when I saw this man on the train (sitting across from me) — I saw him with his wife. But I wanted to make a fictional story of this man being alone in the world. In reality, he was sitting next to his wife:

Frame #3- the man sitting next to his wife
Frame #3- the man sitting next to his wife

When I took the first photograph (Frame #1) I purposefully decided not to include (what I presume to be) his wife.

Having Frame #1 without his wife tells a “lie” in terms of the “truth” of the situation. But no photography is objective. It is all subjective. I made the conscious choice of a photographer to not include his wife in the shot. And this interpretation of the scene is far more interesting to me. Not telling the full story invites the viewer to make up their own little story of their own.

So remember when you frame a scene, you need to make a decision of what to include and what not to include.

Framing in composition

When it comes to framing a scene, you can also add a compositional technique of adding a frame inside your frame. Having a frame inside your frame adds more focus to your scene– and tells your viewer what to focus on. Let us show some examples of how photographers have done this:

© Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

In this great photo by Alex Webb, you can see how he saw a man surfing in a river– with what looks like a sniper scope over him:

Figure 1: Note the frame of his "bulls-eye"
Figure 1: Note the frame of his “bulls-eye”

The frame (of the bulls-eye) gives focus to the photograph. It forces the viewer to look at the surfer in the frame (instead of the biker on the left). And it also gives the uneasy feeling that the surfer is being watched by a sniper — about to shoot him.

After seeing this image– I got inspired to take a similar photo, this time in Manila earlier this year:

Manila, 2013
Manila, 2013

So if you see in this frame, I took Webb’s similar idea and framed the man’s head inside of these bars (which also looked like a sniper scope):

Figure 1: The frame inside the frame
Figure 1: The frame inside the frame

When I saw this scene, I purposefully tried to position myself so the frame of the hole in the wall looked like it was over his head. I love his menacing look — and the juxtaposition of the handsome male haircuts in the middle-right of the frame.

Another great example of framing is from Christopher Anderson, from his “Capitolio” project:

Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos
© Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos

This is quite possibly one of the most compelling photographs in the book. First of all, visually it is interesting with all of the geometric squares and rectangles in the photograph:

Figure 1: Note all the  squares/rectangles in the shot
Figure 1: Note all the squares/rectangles in the shot

Also note the fascinating cage effect of the buildings in the background. It makes it feel like the man (in the reflection) is caged into the photograph.

Figure 2: It looks like a cage is around this man
Figure 2: It looks like a cage is around this man

Perhaps if you take this metaphor further– it looks as if the man is trapped inside of his own mind.

Of course the most compelling part of this photograph is how there is a reflection of the man in his own head:

Figure 3: It looks as if the man is trapped inside his own mind
Figure 3: It looks as if the man is trapped inside his own mind

Whenever I look at the photo–it is visually confusing. As a photographer, I would expect to see a reflection of Anderson taking the photograph in the mirror. I am still not 100% sure how the photograph was taken– but my understanding is that Anderson was taking a photograph of a man (inside the building) while Anderson was pointing out. Then behind the man is a mirror (inside the building).

Regardless of how the photograph was technically shot, it almost feels like an “inception” shot (think about the movie). The photograph looks into the mind of the subject in the frame– and it seems as if the reflection will repeat itself forever into the man’s mind.

So you can see in this example, the frame was created via a reflection.

We will look at another great example (earlier on in history) by Lee Friedlander– who loved to take self portraits of himself (while framing himself into the scene):

© Lee Friedlander

What I love about this shot is the filling of the frame with all of the great geometric shapes in the shot The building in the background, the doors on the far right, and of course the cool man with the Mustang (with suit and hat). Then the self-portrait of Friedlander in the center of the frame:

Figure 1: Note all of these elements fill the frame
Figure 1: Note all of these elements fill the frame

But what makes the shot really great for me is the tiny self-portrait of Friedlander– in a tiny little box. I think the window he is shooting into has a little mirror off in the distance– which reflected him into the scene:

Figure 2: The great self-portrait of Friedlander in the shot

You can note because it is another square (with lots of great white contrast in the shot)– it causes Friedlander to pop out of the shot. Another great example of a “frame in a frame.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

One of HCB’s most compelling images is of this man looking through a bull-pen. The man in the far right of the frame is quite the character: he has a official-looking hat, an amazing mustache, and the gleam of the reflection in his left eye is phenomenal. And of course, the circular shape of his glasses (with the reflection) mirrors that of the half-circle in the middle of the frame:

Figure 1: Not the repeating circular forms in the shot
Figure 1: Not the repeating circular forms in the shot

And of course the “frame in the frame” of the man in the right-side of the frame, with the rectangle around him:

Figure 2: Note the “frame in the frame” in the right of the frame

Also as a nice touch, the rectangles repeat themselves (and create balance in the frame) in the far left of the frame:

Figure 3: Note the repeating rectangles in the shot

Overall you can see how the “frame in the frame” gives focus to the man on the right of the frame. All of your attention is brought to him.

And of course after that, you see the man in the middle left of the frame who adds another layer of interest in the frame.

In terms of content in the frame– the photograph is fascinating. To me, the man on the right of the frame looks like a “big brother” — who is always watching you with his one sinister eye. His epic mustache reminds me of Stalin– whom gives you a menacing and totalitarian presence:

The man reminds me of Stalin
The man’s mustache reminds me of Stalin

Also the direction of the gaze of the man with the mustache– it appears he is looking straight at the man in the left of the frame who is trying to squeeze through the door:

Figure 4: Note how the man with the mustache is looking left– which brings attention to the man on the middle-left of the frame

So to sum up, I think this photograph by HCB is a masterpiece in terms of the uneasy feeling of the content in the frame (big brother) and in terms of the form of the photo (the frame in the frame, the repeating rectangles and circles).

Another of my favorite examples of framing is from my good friend Charlie Kirk, from his “Japanese Women are Beautiful” series:

Charlie Kirk
© Charlie Kirk, from his “Japanese Women are Beautiful” series.

First of all which is captivating is the beautiful woman in the center of the frame– gazing at her reflection in the escalator. Her gaze is inquisitive yet pensive, and the way she is holding the handrail looks a bit uneasy. The geometric shapes all around her also are quite edgy and frame her inside the frame:

Figure 1: All of the strong geometric shapes inside the frame
Figure 1: All of the strong geometric shapes inside the frame

But the main “frame” that holds her inside of the frame is illustrated below:

Figure 2: The main frame holding the woman inside the frame

Charlie told me the story behind the shot– in how he would always go up and down this elevator in a mall in Tokyo, and imagine getting a shot here. And one day, he saw this moment– and captured it perfectly.

Also what I feel is the “cherry on top” — the special ingredient that makes the shot amazing is the woman’s hand on the bottom left of the frame:

Figure 2: The woman's
Figure 3: The woman’s hand in the bottom left of the frame

So you can see from Charlie’s photo that a frame doesn’t necessarily have to be rectangular– it can be much more edgy, and have many different edges and angles.


There are several ways you can incorporate frames into your street photography, as were illustrated with examples earlier:

1. Deciding who to include in your frame and who not to include in your frame:

Netherlands, 2012
Netherlands, 2012

2. Having your frame be like a crosshair — pointing straight to your subject:

Figure 1: The frame inside the frame
Manila, 2013

3. Having your framing be inside of a self-portrait (or reflection):

© Lee Friedlander

4. Having your frame be more “edgy” — it doesn’t always have to be a rectangle (but sometimes a more complex geometric shape):

© Charlie Kirk

So go out–and always consider your frame when shooting. Bring focus to your subject – and never let the fundamental of framing escape you.