Taking It to the Edge

Photographers always have a love-hate relationship with the image frame.  It at once orders our universe and constrains us; we have to work within its bounds but have a great deal of power in the arrangement of visual elements within the image frame.  While we can always alter the proportions of an image’s dimensions, a picture necessarily has an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’:  we can only fit so much into the image frame.

Some of us don’t play nicely when contained.  We were the types who threw sand out of the sandbox or cried from our playpens because we wanted to be out exploring the kitchen floor.  We like to flirt with danger by ‘pushing’ at the edges of a photograph.  We splice a physical object in two, drawing attention to the revealed part while consigning the other half to visual oblivion.  Or we face an object tight to the edge, daring our viewers to look despite a vague sense of discomfort.  Sometimes, the result of putting our metaphoric shoulder to the walls around our images creates an exciting and dramatic composition.  In others, our exertion leads only to failure.

I’ve found I’m the sand-throwing type when it comes to photography.  Despite my best efforts at peaceful harmony, my images often have a slightly off-kilter yen to them.  I’ve learned that the best way to push the edge of the image frame is to do it with a finely tuned awareness of the rest of the image-space.  For example, in the photo of the haybale below, the interruption of the bale just looks accidental.  The bale looks like it walked into my prairie sunset and is just about to excuse itself for poking its head into my picture.

Two other attempts work better.  In the image immediately below, the bale is definitely supposed to be there and is the centre of attention here.  But the second image below is a more exciting and difficult image because, while the bale is still the main subject matter, it has been divided by the image frame so that the elongated, ovular shape of the face of the bale is the story.  This image ‘works’ because the middle of the circle falls along the right third within the image space which is a pleasing line in compositional terms.

Those were early attempts, so pardon the processing and less-than-perfect compositions.  A few hundred images later, I again used the image frame to specific effect.  In the first image below, the focal point of the picture are the yellow chairs.  But by getting in tighter with my wide-angle lens, the lines of the chairs became more diagonal driving attention to the point where the chair arms almost meet.  This was only possible by sacrificing part of the chairs to the void outside the image frame.

Here are a few further examples where I used the image frame to divide an object and thus reinforce the viewer’s attention on a particular detail or details within the part of the object included within the image space.

Another technique is to use the finality of the image border to create tension.  Humans are visually attracted to look at things we perceive as having tension.  As you know, if you stood with your face only inches away from a wall, it would feel strange and probably not comfortable.  Why else would we send children to the corner when they are bad!  The same effect occurs when we put an image near the ‘wall’ of an image frame.  Even if the object is not ‘facing’ the edge, an implied connection or tightness of space results when objects are arranged near the edge of the image space.  To avoid an extremely uncomfortable or weird feeling in viewers, use dynamic tension to tie the image together.  This works best when an element positioned near a border has some other element in the picture to counter-balance the outward leaning force of the first element.

So, for example, the large red tractor is lightly balanced by the small, dark dot of a building in the opposite direction.  Only a small dot is needed, but it has to be near the edge of the frame to have enough visual weight to pull against the tractor.

In the example of the tree trunks below, the short, repetitive line of tree trunks are kept from moving out of the top of the frame because they are anchored by the longer trunk moving downward.  You can see then that are many ways to create dynamic tension, but the two forces have to be roughly equal to keep all the parts within the image frame.  Equal, opposing forces can be created by a small point far away from a larger shape, or by opposite vectors of movement.

Here are some more variations on using the edge of the image frame as a compositional aid.  If you like to push the edge, post a comment!


~ by Samantha on May 27, 2010.

4 Responses to “Taking It to the Edge”

  1. Amazing images!!! You have an amazing eye!!!

  2. Good post with good examples to illustrate, Sam. The edge of the frame is not just where the edge of the sensor (or film) was, or where the picture runs out. 🙂 It can be an active part of the composition, and can be used deliberately to enhance the view it contains. You’ve shown that it’s good to think about different ways to apply the boundary. I think this is an excellent way to be intentional about composing the scene…

  3. Sam, thanks for the great explanation. I like to throw a little sand now and then! Your images are wonderful

  4. Hey Sam,
    With a new computer, I lost all my RSS feeds. Sadly yours was one of them!
    Great post on composition. There is definitely an art to it and I like how you walked though some great examples!


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