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Take it to the limit: manipulate the edges of the frame to shape the meaning of your photo.

We have two chances to frame an image to help communicate an idea. First, and most important, is when we look into our viewfinder to make the picture itself. Where we choose to place the four edges of our flame will determine much of what we have to say. We also can strengthen our photographs by cropping them later, giving us a second chance to use the edges of our pictures as tools for expression.

When framing in the view-finder, I constantly watch the edges, making sure that what is out should be out and what is left in should be in. Manipulating the frame is like editing the image: We include or reject information according to what we intend to communicate. But framing images can be more than just a matter of what's in or out. We can use our edges to imply the presence of content beyond the frame. Framing can also offer a sense of scale, perspective and intimacy. We can even abstract our subjects by abruptly cutting into them with one or more of our edges.

In my first example (above, right) we see that there is barely enough room to read a newspaper in this Chinese shop, let alone get up and walk around. Working space in China is often at a premium, and this woman makes the most of every inch of it. I framed this image closely, intensifying the tension created by a human form squeezed tightly into such a small space. Later, I also cropped the image a bit more to get as much "squeeze" as I could into the shot. My tight framing makes this photograph work as much as the space limitations of the tiny shop itself.

In my second example I use the frame to make this Laotian woman, poised with her red ladle hovering over a streetside restaurant's serving table, seem timeless. I place her within a series of three frames simultaneously: the frame of the camera itself, the frame of the doorway, and the frame created by the awning overhead and the low wall in front of her restaurant. I felt as if I was looking at her through a tunnel back in time, and I wanted my viewers to have that same feeling. The haunting darkness of the central frame seems to push her even further into the past.

My third example (top) pictures the world's largest floating pedestrian bridge, connecting one side of Willemstad, Curacao, to another. The 700-foot-long bridge is now closed to cars and swings open 30 times each day to allow ships to enter the city's port. My photo stresses the flow of pedestrians that come and go all day and night. Some walk, others run, but the procession is continuous. To stress the horizontal flow of foot traffic on a long bridge, I cropped the picture itself into a long, wide horizontal shape. The shape of the frame, created by cropping this image after making it, becomes an important part of the message.

In my fourth and final example (left) I photographed an aged woman slowly walking past a row of houses in San Miguel, Mexico. A much younger person, wearing athletic shoes, emerged from one of those houses and began to descend the steps toward the woman with the cane. I use the top edge of my frame to abstract this younger person, including only the legs. In using my frame in this way, I create an abstract and incongruous symbol of youth and vigor. These symbolic young legs contrast to the infirm legs of the woman with the cane. By cropping into the top of the image with my frame, I also create tension by drawing attention to the minimal amount of space between the toe of the young person and the step. This use of abstract flaming implies a contrast between youth and age, and adds a sense of depth perception within this confined space.

take your best shot

Send photos for possible use in this column to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85028 USA.

about the author

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 35th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers his comprehensive six-person "Communicating with Pictures" workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona. For registration information, call +1 602.493.6709 or e-mail

You can view Douglis' multigallery cyberbook on expressive digital travel photography at
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Title Annotation:photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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