#390. Irregular Frames. Art or Gimmick?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Aug 14

Enter any photographic contest and, unless the rules explicitly forbid it, you will find a great many submissions displaying a bewildering variety of frames, from the humble white border to the most elaborate simile-woodwork monstrosity.

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The fact is that frames do a lot to boost a photograph. It seems sharper, more contrasty, more present. And this for several reasons.

First of all, a frame adds the finishing touch to the display. Students do pin photographs on their dorm walls and the result works just fine for them. But that’s either because those photographs are all about the content (their quality has very little importance) or because the wall itself becomes the frame when enough photographs accumulate. But the role of frames goes far beyond the simple finishing touch. Frames grab some viewer attention and play a large part in the actual composition.

A photograph of cacti and succulents without a frame. Would it look better with the frame ?One form of frame is the old vignetting or edge burning that Ansel Adams (among others) used to stop the observer’s eye from roaming out of the photograph. Above is a typical example of this. This grey composition works for 2 reasons, both related to tonal values:

  1. I made the small succulent at lower left lighter than in real life. It is small but the added attention from the lighter tones counter balance the much larger plant behind it. A peppering of smaller and slightly darker ones add variety at bottom right, but the main dialog is between the two contrasting shapes.
  2. I burned the edges to keep the viewer from seeking stuff away from that dialog. This means the eye returns to the shapes on the plants and keeps the viewer’s attention focused much longer.

Circular vignetting works in a similar way, particularly in a square composition. Here, the darkened sky and ground around the geode help us keep our interest on the glass structure rather than let it escape and lose focus.

La géode, in Paris, in a square composition

The added frame around this photograph of La Geode in Paris, adds to the effect of the vignetting. Frames within frames …

So frames play a very dynamic role in picture enhancement and art in general. The frame itself is a picture/an object. It radiates its own energy outwards into the room (if on a wall) and inwards, directing the view at right angle from its edges and with a force proportional to the strength of each edge.

Navajo Market selling jewelery near the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. Frames within frames.

Another frame within a frame in this Navajo roadside market near Grand Canyon. Here, an extreme case of edge burning, I guess 😉

In the Navajo market photograph above, there is no way you would try to look outside that opening in the wooden wall. Your attention is inevitably directed towards the tables and then on to the buildings and the colourful flag catches you from there to circulate and keep attention high.

So a perfectly square with even edges creates attention right in its middle, for instance. Hence, my question : what happens when you alter the relative strength or shape of the frame edges. I’ve experimented in the past, with little interesting stuff to report. But, as I used LightRoom’s panorama tool, more and more of these bonkers frames started appearing in uncropped versions.


Two things struck me. One, they’re a pain to crop as you often lose precious outlying details, as the right side of the red truck, above. So the real lesson is shoot really wider than you think (my original intention, here, was to have less room on the left and more on the right, for a 3-way shootout between the 3 trucks).

And two, the apparent random nature of the edges actually corresponds to the lens’ geometrical properties and the photographer’s position and movement during the panorama. Which often gives the whole picture an interestingly balanced composition that you can’t create easily on purpose.

Because the edges and corners of photographs can contain little details the photographer chose to put there, the jigsaw panorama frames tend to highlight them when you don’t allow for enough breathing room around them. When I realised this, I started creating more panoramas of simple scenes rather than using a wider lens.

And piling the whole lot in a single post is even more fun as the jagged edges play with one another, in between photographs.


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Beyond the fun aspect, you could probably use this effect as a form of comment on the content of the image. Just as portraits of officials are often presented inside luscious golden works of art, you could just as well present a social scene inside a disturbing shape to condemn it (see the bridge / gated community 2 pics above) or, on the opposite use a cuddly outer-shape to enhance the lovability of the subject (see the plump water-edge tree, 3 pics above).

I won’t go as far but do think that matching image borders with image content can add to the impact of the photograph as in this 1970’s style house inside it’s 1970’s style shape. Like the results or not, the idea is to add weight and make viewers think harder about the photograph.  It’s all part of make your travel photography more personal and creative. What say you ? DSC04697-Pano-2


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  • paulperton says:

    Irregular and fancy frames draw the viewer’s eye away from the photograph. Sounds pretty counter productive to me.

    • pascaljappy says:

      You think ? I suppose if it was a great idea, it would have been done already. I still want to explore the idea a bit 😉 Some people never learn.

  • Michael Demeyer says:

    Have a look at Jim Kasson’s series of hand-held IR panos for some thoughtful discussion on the topic of irregular framing.

    http://blog.kasson.com/?p=8871 for one post, but there is a thread on his blog.


  • Yeahhh says:

    A couple of months ago, a friend of mine made a super-wide panorama print with these irregular frames for his wall. It looked quite good. However I think it’s too much of an effect. One could use it for one series but then it wears out quickly. I also think it doesn’t work well with organic objects (nature, flowers, trees, street) but maybe better with abstract or minimal close-ups of architecture.

    (Btw. Something is wrong with you comment text field: I can’t use cursor arrow keys to navigate between characters and words.)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Yeahhh, the cursor issue was a big and has been fixed by the developer, thanks. Not sure why I’m receiving a batch of 6 month old comments today though … uh. Sorry about that.

      Yes, the interest can wear out quickly. The idea is interesting but only if it contributes meaningfully, which is difficult with a random process and no previsualisation. I’ll pick it up where I left it, some day 😉

  • Bumpy says:

    My reaction is bi-modal – the good ones, for instance the 3rd & 5th above are great, the frame shape accentuates the subject. In the 3rd depth is accentuated, in the 5th the tree is bursting its frame. Others such as 1st, red jeep, just look sloppy to me.

    Even my favorites above have flaws. I expect that getting a shape that really reinforces the subject composition is very hard even when you think you are leaving plenty of room for creative cropping.

    Irregular framing strikes me as a theme that is ripe for creative exploration. The making of physical things, like frames and cutting of prints, has become very precise – enabling a level of complexity that would have been extremely costly and time consuming 50 years ago. Combine that with digital imaging, esp. high resolutions and panorama, and you see conditions are good for new creative expressions that leverage these technical advances. Probably also some deep mathematics in the interaction of the panorama projection and the image edge shape.

    Thank you for adding one more dimension to the thought I will try to remember to bring to my compositions!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Bumpy. I realise this is highly personal and I agree with you that this could make an interesting subject for experimentation, on the phisycal object itself. This would allow deliberate cuttng rather than the random effect created by the pano assembler. Sorry about my late reply, I don’t know how your comment went unnoticed. Cheers, Pascal

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    My “view” of this idea is rooted in my personal aesthetics, Pascal. At heart, I am a minimalist – I adore taking photos of riotously overdecorated subjects, but my own home is “decorated” along the lines of the international modernists and the Bauhaus designers.

    That said – I can see the point of frames on some photos, but not on others. I don’t see a “golden rule” coming out of this idea.

    I think the frame improves the photo of La Geode, because nothing within the photo itself provides the sphere with a “frame” – the tonings are all too similar for that to occur within the picture itself. You refer to the vignetting in the corners – that doesn’t do it for me, the way your previous shot of the succulent did. The succulent gets all the “framing” it needs from the darker area within the photo, surrounding the flower – but the contrast that produces it is absent in the photo of La Geode, so I prefer that one with a light frame around the outside of the photo.

    I could continue, through the others, but I’d end up repeating that line of thought.

    • pascaljappy says:

      No golden rule, exactly. Frames contribute to the eye-brain scan of the image and can be very powerful if thought-out correctly. It would be interesting to create a series of photographs where the frame is specifically added to strengthen the meaning. Thanks, Pascal

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