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Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Framing


BY Jim Zuckerman April 10, 2018 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to frame image elements to create compelling photographs in the third article of his sixteen-part series on composition.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.


Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.


A traditional way to direct attention to a subject is to frame it with something in the foreground. This is a compositional technique that is similar to framing a picture for your wall. It enhances the subject as well as focusing our concentration on what the photographer deems important. You can use many things for this, such as windows, doors, columns, tree branches, or a natural or man-made stone arch. A classic example is the architectural arch in image 3.1. that frames a garden in a bed-and-breakfast establishment in Mexico. Sometimes the element that frames the subject is blocking something else that would be distracting, and other times it’s simply an artistic embellishment that looks good.

Figure 3.1

Photo 3.2 illustrates a classic example of how I used a huge doorway in Venice, Italy to frame a costumed carnival participant. Note how classic and beautiful the architecture is. Frames like this add artistry and interest to a picture. However, not all windows have to be ornate or historical to make successful frames. I took image 3.3 while I was conducting a workshop in Missouri Town, a recreation of an 1855 pioneer settlement near Kansas City. I asked one of the costumed models to pose for my group in the window, and the weathered wood, the soft lighting, and the frame all made this work very nicely.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.3

Using this same concept, I hired dancers in Cambodia to pose for me among the ruins of Angkor Wat, and in 3.4 I used a stone doorway in one of the temples as a frame, but the huge roots of a banyan tree form a frame around the doorway. This is one of my favorite travel pictures. The graphic design of this composition is very strong, as is the texture, the shock of color. Notice that the lighting is soft and diffused, which was perfect for the shot.

Figure 3.4

I took image 3.5 in Washington D.C. during a snowstorm, and used the dramatic structure of the World War II memorial as a frame. Instead of settling for the huge expanse of white sky, I filled that area with the decorated arch. Sometimes a white sky is distracting, but in this case I like it. It looks like a clean studio backdrop.

Figure 3.5

I feel it is very important to make sure that both the foreground and the background elements are sharp. If the foreground isn’t sharp, it will look visually annoying and distracting. This usually requires the use of a tripod, because small lens apertures mean a reduction in light, and the camera compensates for this by adjusting the exposure by means of a slower shutter speed. Since you can’t hand-hold the camera with slow shutter speeds and still have sharp pictures, a tripod is needed.

Image 3.6 is an example of using branches to frame a subject. In this case, backlighting on the autumn foliage made a beautiful frame for the church.

Figure 3.6

One of my favorite types of frame is an arch. It provides a graceful way to focus attention on a subject or a background. Photo 3.7 is an example. This picture wasn’t serendipity. I set it up. I was working with three models at the time, in Venice, Italy, and I chose the location for the classic Venetian bridge architecture that I like very much. I took the picture while standing in the boat myself.

Figure 3.7

A natural stone arch (3.8) also makes a powerful compositional statement. An arch in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California framed the Eastern Sierras. Since it was important to have complete depth of field, I used f/32 to make sure the immediate foreground, the arch, and the distant landscape were all sharp. I digitally made the sky black and white for drama.

Figure 3.8


Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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