Friday, January 25, 2013

The Art of the Frame

By Glenn Campbell

An essential problem of art is where your work should begin and end. If you are taking a photo, what should you include in the frame and what should you leave out? If you are editing a movie scene, how long should it be? If you are writing a piece of music, how long should each passage be and how many times should it be repeated? If you are writing a book or essay, at what point have made your point and are now beating it to death?

Many works fail not because the raw material is inadequate but because it is framed wrong. We all have all set through movies that have some good parts but just goes on and on and on. The good parts are eventually drowned out by the rest of the movie and we walk away exhausted. The artist might be including too much or too little in the frame or perhaps he is ignorant of framing altogether. You could say that framing is half the job of art. It is not just what you produce but how you edit and present what you produce.

I could probably write a whole book on the subject of framing, but the core idea is pretty simple: Every work needs a human focus, a single point of reference within it that he automatically identifies with. Once you know what that human focus is, framing will be dictated by it.

To illustrate this concept, I will use photography, but similar analogies apply to almost any art.

Grand Canyon Landscape

Imagine the Grand Canyon. You have seen countless photos of it. If you go there, you are probably going to take your own photo, but it will be probably be no different than the thousand you can pull up on the internet right now. A photo that shows only the Grand Canyon is almost meaningless, because you have no perspective. You can't even tell how big it is! If you have an expensive camera and some fancy editing software, you can probably make it look dramatic, but even then the viewer's eyes glaze over very quickly. Beautiful but boring!

Now imagine a photo of the Grand Canyon with a single person in it. He or she is a tiny figure in the lower corner of the frame, looking out on the vastness of the canyon. Suddenly, the Grand Canyon means something! The tiny person is someone the viewer can identify with. The viewers is thinking, "That could be me!" Now the canyon is not just mindless erosion anymore. We can now measure it, get lost in it, be frightened of it, be in awe of it.. The simple addition of a tiny figure makes us capable of processing it.

Here is a simple rule for better photos: No matter what you are taking a photo of, make sure there is a human or human-like presence in it. Furthermore, there should be only one human focus, even if you are taking a photo of a crowd. The viewer's attention should be drawn to one specific part of the photo, and the whole rest of the photo is judged by that reference point.

The human reference does not always have to be an actual human. It can be an animal that looks human, like a dog or cat, or it can be an animal that humans hate like a spider. It can be a lone tree on a cliff, because that has a human feel to it. It can be something that implies a human presence like a tiny cabin in the woods. There are all sorts of things that can serve as stand-ins for humans—a car, a sign a cactus, an empty road—but the human center always has to be there. You can call anything "art", but I contend you don't have memorable and emotionally compelling art without a human in the picture.

Once you have a single human in your Grand Canyon photo, how do you know where to crop it? In this case it is pretty easy: You want to show as much of the canyon as you can while still allowing the viewer to quickly identify the human figure. (The photo above is a little weak because the humans are the same color as the background.) Obviously, if you show too much canyon and too small a figure, viewers are not going to see the figure. If you show too little canyon, then you've wasted all that canyon. The message of a photo like this is, "Look how big it is!" so you want to show as much of that bigness as you can while still preserving the human reference point.

Your cropping will also be dictated by practical real-world considerations, like the size of the final print. If you are preparing a wall-size mural, you are going to crop the photo differently than if you are displaying the photo on Facebook. With more attention space at your disposal, you are probably going to make the human figure smaller, just to maximize the apparent size of the canyon.

You are also constrained by your raw materials. You can't crop the photo any wider than the photo you originally took, and not all of the frame may be usable. Maybe there is a distraction on one side of the original frame that you would like to keep out—like some tourist picking his nose. You are going to crop him out, even though you would have liked more canyon.

Real world photography (and all art) is filled with these practical constraints—working with what you've got and keeping distractions out of the frame. Thanks to the magic of editing, the viewer is never going to know about that tourist picking his nose. You may have lost some of your spacious canyon but you probably haven't lost much in overall impact.

Why do you want your human subject in the lower corner of the photo rather than the center. Simple: You want the biggest canyon possible within the constraints of your frame. A reference point in the center sometimes works, but in this case you would be splitting the canyon into two smaller areas and it might not feel as big.

Grand Canyon Portrait

Aside from shooting the Grand Canyon without reference points, what other framing mistakes to tourists make? Here's one thing you see all the time: They take pictures of each other in front of the canyon, with the canyon in the background and themselves in the middle foreground where we can see them almost from head to toe. We can hardly make out their faces, but they are apparently smiling and obviously saying to the folks back home, "Ha, we made it to the Grand Canyon and you didn't!" (BTW: None of these Grand Canyon photos are mine. All swiped from the web.)

What is wrong with this picture? It is the same bland photo every tourist takes at every tourist attraction. While there is certainly a human reference point in the photo—the tourist being photographed—it is not being used to the best effect.

There are two ways you can use a human subject. The subject can give perspective to the background, as in our Grand Canyon landscape photo, or the background can be used to give perspective to the subject. Let's be honest, that shot of you at the canyon isn't about the canyon; it's about you, so let's frame it that way. Bring the camera to within two feet of the subject, the same way you would shoot a a close-up portrait with no canyon out there. The Grand Canyon will appear blurred in the background and will be almost unidentifiable.

"Almost" unidentifiable is the key. You going to frame it in such as way that just enough of the Grand Canyon appears in the background that it is identifiable and authentic. The intended effect is to understate your presence at the Grand Canyon, which paradoxically heightens its value. You are no longer a rube tourist from Iowa. You are a seasoned world traveler who just happened to be at the Grand Canyon when this portrait was taken. See the difference?

You see this in fashion photography: models cavorting at base the Eiffel Tower where you don't actually see the whole tower, maybe only a bit of the base, just enough to reveal subtly to the viewer where we are. The message is that we just happen to be in Paris. It's no big thing. The more you understate a visual asset like this, the more you imply to the viewer a whole big world beyond the frame—much bigger than reality!

Framing in Film

There are similar analogies in film (apart from the obvious ones of deciding how to photographically frame the shot). For example: When something disastrous happens or an evil character does something outrageous, you have to have a sympathetic human in the scene to give that action perspective. There is no point in Darth Vader using the Death Star to destroy Alderaan if Princess Leia isn't present to witness it. Leia is our human reference point. We are going to see what she sees, and the scene will end when the emotional impact has been made on her, not us.

In film, things shouldn't just happen, with an omniscient camera recording them. Most significant actions need to be witnessed by somebody. The audience is sees the story through that person's eyes (even if that "person" is R2D2). The scene is presented from their perspective, even if it isn't shot from their literal point of view. That is the reason Darth Vader has sympathetic human commanders under him. Even though they are his henchmen, we see the horror of what he does through their eyes. A crew of mindless droids would not serve the same purpose.

Natural Boundaries

In photography, here is another framing issue: Every original scene has natural boundaries where it can be most easily be cropped. Even if you are shooting a random forest, there are always gaps in the trees where it feels right to crop. Once you decide the general boundaries dictated by character focus, you can look for natural places in the frame you will make the actual incision.

For example, note the golden frame in the main illustration at the top of this blog entry. (This is my own photo taken yesterday in Puerto Rico. Album) Notice that I placed the frame just above the palm trees, so there was a little bit of blue sky above them. In general, you want to crop out any useless empty space, like too much blue sky above the palm trees. When you have useful information available, you keep it. When you run out of information, you crop it out. (You can see how I actually cropped the photo here.)

However, sometimes you do NOT want to crop at natural boundaries. Sometimes you want the opposite: you want details to bleed off the edge of the frame. This takes advantage of a powerful human illusion: Whatever you see bleeding off the edge of the frame is assumed to continue indefinitely. Look at the still of Princess Leia above. Notice the simple fact that the background continues off the frame. This leads the viewer to believe there is a whole Imperial Star Cruiser beyond the frame. In fact, the set may end six inches beyond the camera's view, but because we don't see it end we assume it goes on forever.

If you are shooting the Grand Canyon, you want to give the impression that it goes on forever, so you let it bleed off the edges of the frame. This also how a filmmaker can make a group of 20 extras seem like a mob of 10,000. They cut people off at the edges so you have only half a person on either side. This is not the natural way to crop, but it is the way you do it to imply infinity.

This is one of the ways photos can lie. They imply an infinity beyond the frame which may not be real. Even reputable photojournalists will show you a close up of 10 protesters, making you think there are 1000. I am unashamed about using this illusion myself. What I do is art, not journalism. While I rarely use Photoshop to change details, the impression created by a photo almost never matches the original reality. That's just the way art works. You can't let reality get in the way.

The framing concepts of photography also apply in analogous ways to other arts like writing, music and public speaking. You have to have an emotional focus—some person you are playing to. You're not just stringing words or notes together because they sound good. You working within an emotional frame of reference that was established by sticking a human in there someplace.

Only humans have meaning. Without them, all you have is erosion.