Think Inside the Frame With This Smart Composition Trick - Enlight Leak
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Think Inside the Frame With This Smart Composition Trick

March 17, 2016
Subframing | Enlight Leak

The ability to create a great composition remains a vital skill that has become much easier and quicker to master in the era of mobile photography. The use of sub-frames—pictures within pictures—is a fantastic composition technique to capture stronger images.


What are sub-frames?

Sub-frames are pictures-within-pictures that draw the viewer’s eyes into the subject thereby creating extra interest in the image. Sub-frames can be created by natural or man-made elements, they may take multiple shapes or forms and may either dominate an image or constitute a small component in a wider composition. Used extensively by several of the 20th Centuries leading photographers like Robert Frank and Saul Leiter, this composition technique is highly effective. Given a little imagination and patience, it’s also relatively simple to implement.

By their very nature, natural sub-frames lack the uniformity of man-made structures but add significantly to the overall composition. Take a look at the images below, they’re excellent examples: the first captured through a rock formation, the second through a sequoia tree.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Jerry Nordstrum


Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Lindsay Oyler

Using Sub-frames to Add Depth

Sub-frames can be used effectively to add depth to an image as the viewer’s eyes are guided from the foreground to the background by the sub-frame. The following airport window and desolate barn images demonstrate how far it’s possible to push a two dimensional image into appearing almost 3D.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Jeanette Hall


Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Soheil Ramazani

Urban and Street Sub-frames

Urban landscapes in general and street scenes in particular offer countless opportunities to use sub-frames to add depth and interest to what would be otherwise somewhat average shots.

In the image below, the sub-frame not only to adds depth but forms a central part of the overall composition by contrasting the two circular bicycle wheels with the perfect square of the back sub-frame.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Carlos Centeno

Sub-frames in Portraiture

Sub-frames can provide interest and focus within portraiture shots where the composition seeks to include the wider environment rather than only capturing details of the individual subject.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Alicja Farner

The image above of two friends back-to-back cleverly uses the doorway to focus the viewer on both the subjects and the relationship between them.
 

Creative Compositions

Sub-frames need not necessarily be created by fixed physical elements but may also be created on-the-fly. Each of the three examples below include a framing element specifically placed (and actually created in the case of the framed flower image) to create and capture the desired effect.

The brilliant image of birds below appears to capture the main subject releasing birds from the confines of the picture frame. Once again, the sub-frame here assumes a central role in the image’s overall story.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Thales Willian

While the example uses contrast, color and a clear sub-frame to identify the central element of the composition. The image would be flat without the white cut-out cardboard against the red background.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Inge Hauser

Finally, the use of the inflatable tube below makes for a nice overall image. What makes it all the more special is the main subject’s brother appearing to look through the tube in the top left hand corner. The tube adds depth to the image while at the same time placing one of the subjects right at the edge of the composition adds additional interest.

Subframing | Enlight Leak

Image by Suzana Lightman

Whether you’re prepared to be patient and wait for that elusive ‘decisive moment’, just happen to wandering around the city or set out to create your entire image inside your warm lounge on a cold winter day try incorporating sub-frames to add interest, depth and content to your images.

Want more helpful composition tips and tricks? Check out A Rule of Thirds Article That Won’t Put You to Sleep or How Leading Lines Add Power to Mobile Photos.

 
 

Written by: Mike Jacobs. You can see Mike’s own images on his website.

Cover image: Alicja Farner. Additional images: Jerry Nordstrum, Carrlos Centeno, Suzana Lightman, Soheil Ramazani, Inge Hauser, Thales Willian, Jeanette Hall, and Lindsay Oyler.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

Mike’s interest in photography is both artistic and technical. He holds multiple patents in mobile photography relating to image manipulation & social media. Mike's photography is largely self-taught, focusing on natural and urban landscapes. Check out his website at www.mikejacobs.photography.

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