This technique is a very easy trick to learn. It is also one of those things that you cannot unlearn. Like the great Dutch footballer and philosopher Johan Cruyff once said: "You will only see it, once you get it". And once you do, there is no turning back, and you need to guard yourself from overusing it. The technique I am talking about is what is known as a 'frame in frame'. By finding borders within your frame, you can create a double framing which puts even more emphasis on your main subject. If you pick the border well, you can inject context without distracting the attention from the core of your composition.
I learned this more or less by accident. In my early days as a photography enthusiast, I would edit and sort my photos and decide on keepers, and I noticed that some of the keepers had a framing effect in them. I had only one photo book at the time and I tried to see if this is a composition effect, but the book provided no answers. YouTube was in its nascent stage, we are talking early 2000s here, so this was no help to me. Right now, YouTube is a goldmine for tips and techniques. But not then. It took a while before I learned this is one of the key composition techniques for photographers.
Let me show you some examples of how I have been using this technique. The first image is from the island of Santorini, well known for its white villages atop the cliffs. We were walking in a town on the middle of the island and I saw this old wall through which there was a view of one of the islands main towns, Oia. The frame in a frame technique is interesting as it automatically guides the eyes to what is within the frame. This might be the result of thousands of years of humans peering through windows.
I picked a long lens to take this shot as the town was pretty far away. I remember wanting to get some of the sea in the frame, but the angles wouldn't allow it. I still like the shot as the wall adds some flavor that is slightly different from a usual snapshot of Santorini. This island must be the most photographed place I have ever been to. This was pre-corona of course. Dozens and dozens of mobile phones and cameras pointing at everything. With very little respect for the towns themselves. I learned that the locals hire security guards to pull people off their houses. I have seen people climb on roofs for that ultimate Instagram pose. Crazy stuff. I was of course also taking photos there and thus adding to the tally of people with lenses in front of their faces. But I hope I behaved a bit more respectfully.
Back to the frame in frame. The next example is from Monument Valley National Park in Arizona in the United States. The isolated hills with very steep sides are called 'buttes' and they are mighty impressive. The sheer size takes your breath away. But because they are situated on these wide plains, I was struggling to get some dynamic in my framing. For this shot, I decided to use an old barn and I like how the color of the wood fits well. In retrospect, I might have framed it even tighter, to give more real estate to the butte. Nevertheless, the frame in a frame technique works here because your eye is drawn to the main topic immediately.
Let's switch gears and look at a much less obvious example. The scene is set in Amsterdam. The building is the former Shell head-office which has been transformed into a creative hub, mostly aimed at the dance music industry. I always liked the distinct shape of the building. The top part now functions as a rotating restaurant that offers great views of the city.
The bicycles serve as vertical framelines while the water's edge gives it a horizontal border. This is a 3/4 frame but the effect is the same, there is no question what the main object in this photo is. By using the bicycles, I am adding some more hints of the city the building is located in.
Let's stick with the less obvious frame in frame composition. The next image is from Berlin. I really like the color contrast of the yellow u-bahn trains and the green iron used to construct the frames (no pun intended) that allow the traintracks to be elevated above street level. Berlin is a feast for the senses and in the street where I took the photo, there was a lot going on. I had to find a way to direct the attention to the yellow train. I used some of the tree branches and the back of the heads of some of the pedestrians walking by to create the frame that directs the eye to the yellow train in the back of the photo. Frames can be found everywhere and made out of everything.
If you are not yet familiar with this technique, I recommend to play with some very obvious frames. Windows for example are fun to use. They will help train your brain to spot frames that are much less obvious like the one above in the photo from Berlin. A few examples below from Sevilla, Rotterdam and the south of Bavaria in Germany.
Frame in frame can be used with any kind of focal length. In this post there are photos taken with focal lengths ranging from 21mm to 135mm. The next example is shot with a 50mm focal length lens. It was taken lying on a daybed on an island off the coast of Mexico. As I mentioned in the opening of this post, once you see frames, you can't un-see them. I was lying on that Mexican beach, and I looked up and I noticed how the palm tree branches formed a frame that gave great color contrast to the blue sky. I had already noticed a big bird flying over us a couple times so I laid back with my camera in front of my eyes and tried to capture the bird flying through the frame.
Without the frame, the photo would have been a bit bland. Just a bird against the sky. But with the frame in frame technique, the image became a lot more exciting. It also adds locational context because the palm trees give away a hint of where the photo was taken. The next photo is also an example of how a frame within a frame can help aid the eye visually, but also provide extra information. The next image was taken in Berlin, in the building that was an ex spy station and is now a place for artists to work in. The place is colorful and gritty and located next to a big powerplant. I used the technique here to include quite a lot of the structure that serves as the frame in frame because it adds more information about the location.
The final example that I will discuss is once again a photo from Berlin. I guess this city has a lot of framing to offer. The photo is taken if the iconic Berlin Brandenburger Tor. And like in Santorini, when you want to capture something in a different way from the millions of photos that have already been taken of the object, you need to look for a different perspective. I found mine in the frame in frame technique. I wanted to capture the iconic horses on top of the Tor and while I was walking around, looking for a composition, I saw that the pillars and roofline of the building next to the Tor would provide a great frame.
This is part of a series on photographic principles I've learned over the years. From one amateur to another. Check out the blog for the full series (work in progress).
I will leave you with some more examples of this technique.