Why and How to Correctly Frame When Photographing

Not all moments are good for making a good photograph. The photographer Cartier-Bresson said, "There are decisive moments where you have to be ready".

When he said this, he was not talking about a dramatic moment, but a visual moment. He was talking about how the photo is made and not the atmosphere around it.

A pygmy seahorse framed with the rule of thirds.
A pygmy seahorse framed with the rule of thirds.

Framing is making the right choices

A painter can add as many items as he wants to his creations. A photographer chooses to exclude elements from his compositions, either with the viewfinder or with the computer, to make them harmonious. Nothing exists beyond the border of the frame, but a photographer can suggest emotions.

Choosing a framing and incorporating elements into a photo is important. The framing isolates the important elements and gives the photographer an opportunity to showcase them.

The framing can bring out relationships between elements that would not otherwise be apparent. The framing reinforces the message that the photographer wants to convey and juxtaposes the elements in the photo.

The framing is not just how the photographer integrates the elements of his photo in a framing. Indeed, choosing a good framing is very difficult because it can completely change the meaning of a picture. A photograph always lies, because of the choice of framing and the elements selected. A photographer never portrays reality.

A photographer’s job is to make choices. Framing forces us to make those choices. When framing a photo, always think of the audience and how the scene will be interpreted.

The decisive moment is when the action in a given scene coincides with all the other elements. This is when the photographer must choose the right framing.

The framing should highlight this decisive moment. Everything is a matter of composition and geometry. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment does not mean anything without framing. Important moments and well framed pictures create impact which resonates in the minds of the audience.

But what is the right time? It is impossible to say. It depends on the message that the photographer wants to convey. Only he can decide.

Each photographer sees things differently. Some will want simple pictures with large open spaces. Others will want more chaotic pictures. But all must have a good framing to convey their message.

Each photographer has his own framing style.

The different formats

Before discussing the various possible framings in photography, note that photographs can be presented in different formats:

  • The square format, where each side has the same length.
  • The rectangular format, where one side is longer than the other. This format provides a large number of variations.

Only the rectangular format allows a photographer to choose between vertical and horizontal orientation.

The square format

The square format is not a natural format. It brings out geometric shapes or centered subjects. It is also called a 1:1 or 1/1 ratio, because the ratio between the sides is equal to 1.

The square:

  • This is a geometric shape with a pure ratio. The length and width are the same.
  • Easily highlights geometric shapes.
  • Is equal and regular.
  • Does not have a playback direction: everything guides the viewer to the center of the image, which becomes the highlight of the photograph.
  • Also helps to bring out repeated geometric shapes.
  • The square provides a more balanced rule of thirds than a rectangle because it is divided into 9 equal small squares.
  • The square format is especially suited for centered scenes. If the main focus is shifted, the picture loses its symmetry and balance.

The square format is difficult to understand, because a person’s normal field of view is rectangular. It is not a natural format.

The square format favors the subject and does not bring out the environment. This is a very suitable format for those who want to focus on one element of a scene. It is good for portraits of people, wildlife photography, close-ups, and photos of objects or details.

To create a photo using the square format, a photographer can either use a special camera or crop the photo with software. But in any case, the photograph has to be planned for that format.

With a modern camera, which has a 3:2 ratio, it is a real headache to do this on the field, because the photographer has to imagine the final picture without a mark in the viewfinder.

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The square format eliminates questions about verticality and horizontality in the photograph. The setting is what it is, and the elements in the photo must be organized as well as possible.

In summary, the square format is best for centered subjects, geometric shapes, repeated shapes, and very symmetrical scenes. This is a format that allows the creation of original photos. But the square format is static and heavy.

This photograph of a red deer stag is well adapted to the square format.
This photograph of a red deer stag is well adapted to the square format.

The rectangular format

If the square format is the format of symmetry, the rectangular format is the format of asymmetry.

The rectangular format is also a more natural format because it corresponds to the way that people look from left to right in Western societies.

The rectangular shape allows for vertical or horizontal pictures.

The rectangular format has strong lines and strengths that drive the picture. It is in this format that we recommend using the rule of thirds for compositions.

With the rectangular format, the photographer has two possible orientations.

The different orientations


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