Photography/History Vocabulary: Definition of Frame

Welcome to Photography/Photo History Vocabulary, a section dedicated to the understand of the verbal communication of photography. Some words and their meanings can be hart to decipher from one another or theoretical words can be hard to grasp all together. This section will help readers understand each word in an easy manner.

Definition of Frame

  •  The four edges of a photograph.

As stated above, the frame is the edges of a photograph in its most basic sense. However, the frame is important because it defines the edges of what the photographer chooses to show to his/her audience. The photographer decides what will be shown from the scene in front of them and what will be left out, creating their own truth of the point in time being captured. Thus, the mechanical nature of photography is not left to technology, but the photographer.

Decisions around framing include basic actions like whether the photograph is horizontal or vertical. Photographers either have a specific way they like to shoot or they choose the stance that best frames what is in the photograph (or they do not have to consider it at all because they are shooting square format).  Often, photographing a vertical subject is best framed vertically, that is if it is being taken from a fairly close vantage point. Furthermore, photographing a more horizontal subject is most often framed horizontally if it is being taken from a short distance. Though, if the photographer is further away from the subject it could be framed in a compelling way both vertically or horizontally.

Two views of Qutab Minar, one framed horizonally the other framed vertically

Qutab Minar, horizontal framing and Qutab Minar, vertical framing, 2013

Two views of the Taj Mahal, one framed horizontally, one framed vertically

Taj Mahal, horizontal framing and Taj Mahal vertical framing, 2016

Where the subject is located in the photograph is also a function of the frame. Many times, a subject is framed in the center of a photograph, while this leaves no room for interpretation on what is the subject of a photograph is it is not always the most compelling way to frame a subject (though at times it is perfect). To change up the position of a subject in the frame, photographers often use the rule of thirds. A shot can be divided into three equal parts either vertically, horizontally or both and the subject placed on one of the imaginary lines or on the point of intersection of two lines. Generally, a photographer puts the horizon line on the third line when slicing the photograph horizontally. Placing the subject on one of these lines or intersections can create a more dynamic composition and hold the viewers’ attention longer. I would suggest if you are photographing a person or animal and they are not looking directly at the camera that you place their face so that their gaze is into the frame. For example, if you are photographing a a person and their head is turned to the the right of the frame, I would place them to the left of the frame so that they are facing into the center of the photograph instead of looking out of the frame. It is human nature to look where ever we see others looking, so our eyes will follow the gaze of the eyes in a photograph. Having the subject look into the frame instead of outside of it ensure your viewer will stay engaged in the photograph longer (usually). The same would apply to arrows and other leading lines, any line the eye will follow.

Shore Temple centered in the photographic frame, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, centered, 2017

Shore Temple centered in the left third of the picture frame, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, on left vertical 1/3 line, 2017

right weighted photograph, Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, on right vertical 1/3 line, 2017

Shore Temple on centered horizon line, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, centered horizon line, 2017

The Shore Temple, example of placing horizon line at top of photograph

Shore Temple, horizon line on top 1/3 line, 2017

Example of low horizon line in photo, Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, horizon on the bottom 1/3 line, 2017

Another device photographers use to direct attention inside the frame is to use a frame within the frame of the photograph. This means photographing the subject in a door frame or mirror. This double framing will intensify the importance of the subject. Furthermore, the frame with in a frame can be used to frame multiple subjects within the frame giving them equal importance. This can be taken literally as I have explained it here or it can be used in more creative ways. Below are multiple examples of a frame with in a frame. The first example is a simple frame inside of a frame from the project The Edge of Faith by Prabuddha Dasgupta. This photograph is of a mirror hanging on the wall reflecting the objects of an empty room which includes a chandelier in the foreground of the mirror and plush chairs lining the wall. Thus, the initial frame is that of the photograph and the second is that of the frame of the mirror. Through this framing of the mirror we know the objects being reflected in the mirror are the main subjects of the photograph. I read it as a look back at a now empty, opulent past.

The second photograph below is by Subrata Biswas and his project, Elephant in the Room. This photograph contain two frames within the frame. The most obvious frame is the use of a door frame to forefront a young woman on the right side of the photograph. The second frame within the frame is created with several elements in the frame. The broken wall frames another young woman on her right side and beneath her feet while a post creates the edge on her left side and power lines cap the frame above her head. These two frames highlight both women and let you know they are of equal importance to the reading of the photograph.

Bankaj Dutta’s photograph from the project The Vanishing Island is the third photograph below. This photograph uses a non-traditional and inventive framing device. The photograph shows a man in the foreground on a boat and holding a long stick, which he uses to guide the boat. The stick cuts across the frame diagonally with the top pointing towards the center of the photograph. This pole is the first side in a triangle shaped frame. In the distance is another flat boat with five men on it. The man on the right side of the frame is holding another stick oriented diagonally with the high end to the left side of the photograph. This pole creates the second side of the triangle. The two a fore mentioned pole create the top tip of the triangle. The flat surface of the boat in the background is the last line of the triangle frame. This triangle frames the men in the background which appear smaller than the man in the foreground. However, the photographer wants you to notice and spend time with the men in the background as you do with the man in the foreground. Furthermore, two other men in the background hold sticks which are oriented in the same direction as the pole in the foreground which double frames the two men in the middle of the boat in the background.

The last photograph below is another photograph from Dasgupta from the same series as his other image shown here. This photograph shows a frame within a frame within a frame. Once again Dasgupta has photographed a mirror on the wall. Like the earlier photograph, the first frame is created by the edges of the photograph, the second frame is created by the frame of the picture. The third frame is in the mirrors reflection and it is a doorway. In the doorway stands a figure. Ultimately, Dasgupta wants the viewer to look through the vast space contained in the photograph to see the figure in the doorway.

Prabuddha Dasgupta, using mirror to create a frrame within the photographic frame

Prabuddha Dasgupta, The Edge of Faith project, a simple frame within a frame

Subrata Biswas using two frames within a frame

Subrata Biswas, Elephant in the Room project, two frames within a frame

Pankaj Dutta, example of framing

Pankaj Dutta, The Vanishing Island project, a non-traditional frame within a frame

photo by Prabuddha Dasgupta, reflection in a mirror

Prabuddha Dasgupta, The Edge of Faith project, a frame within a frame within a frame

Lastly, a photographer can use elements within the frame to partially frame a subject. Occasionally photographers will frame something in the photograph partially with foliage or other objects. This is one of my favorite ways to use framing in a photograph. Below are several examples across time.

If you have any questions about frame or you want me to look at the way you are framing and using different framing techniques in your photographs feel free to send them to me at

Bibi Ka Makbara framed by plants, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

Bibi Ka Maqbara, framed by foliage, 2009

The Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Shore Temple, framed by foliage, 2017

Taj Mahal framed by tree, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Taj Mahal, framed by foliage, 2016

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By |2018-10-10T13:02:06-05:00June 20th, 2017|photo/photo history vocabulary|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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