Joel Sartore’s Great Course “Fundamentals of Photography”: Lecture 11 – Composition III – Framing and Layering

01 Title Shot

This post is a precis of Lecture 11 from the The Great Courses “Fundamentals of Photography,” presented by Joel Sartore, an award winning photographer for National Geographic.  You can find out more about this course and others here.

At the Bridge Lake Photo Group meeting of November 7, 2013, those present watched the next lecture in Joel Sartore’s “Fundamentals of Photography.”  Although the title says the lecture was about Framing and Layering, in fact it covered much more.  In retrospect, the title probably should have indicated that is was going to address mechanisms or techniques which could be used to attract or draw the viewer’s eye into a photograph, amongst which are framing and layering.

Let’s begin by defining what is meant by layering.  The camera maps a three dimensional scene in two dimensions – it removes one of the dimensions, typically depth.  The photographer’s challenge is to ensure that the scene includes elements which will trick the viewer’s eye into recreating the lost dimension.  Because seeing in three dimensions is normal for us (each eye sees a slightly different two dimensional image – actually a film strip – and our brain automatically combines the continuous images into three dimensional ones), our brains will add the depth provided it is implied by visual clues.  As photographers, we have to recognize potential clues and include those which make sense within the context of the image, the goal being to draw the viewers eye deeper into the composition.

Of course painters have been doing this for 2000 years or more, so there are some tricks which can be borrowed from their craft.  There are a number of techniques.  First, we look at framing.  If the subject is framed in a photograph, using doors, windows, arches or other boundary elements, this constrains the viewer’s eye, forcing it into the frame, dissuading it from wandering away outside of the photograph.  Joel offered up some examples:

Framing - Elk through fence grid

Framing – Elk through fence grid

Here the fence grid is the frame.  But it is obviously in the foreground, so it also introduces layering.  Your eye automatically is drawn to the square containing the elk, and the presence of the framing grid causes your brain to provide the depth.

Framing - Arches National Park, Utah

Framing – Arches National Park, Utah

Framing - Car windshield - Atacama Desert, Chile

Framing – Car windshield – Atacama Desert, Chile

As you can see, the frame causes your eye to be drawn towards the subjects, which themselves are positioned at different depths in the composition, as implied by their relative sizes- the large front figure, the lesser figure on the left, the truck, the curve and narrowing of the road implying distance, the flatness of the landscape and the blurry hills in the background (notice the Rule of Thirds).  We use these visual clues to recreate the depth.

Another technique to draw the viewer’s attention into the composition is to use leading lines, such as roads, train tracks, flowing water, cracks, chalk lines, crests of waves or sand dunes, surface wrinkles etc.  The lines can be broad or narrow, curved or straight, anything, so long as they lead the eye and point to the emotional center of the photograph.

Leading Lines - Train Tracks

Leading Lines – Train Tracks

Leading Lines - Curved Arena

Leading Lines – Curved Arena

In the above, the arena floor is framed by the white boundary wall, which also acts as an inner frame for the image.  The curving lines of the cattle lead the viewer’s eyes around the scene, drawing their focus to finally rest at the upper center grouping of people and animals.

Leading Lines - Chalk

Leading Lines – Chalk

Notice where your eye enters the image and where it comes to rest.

Here’s another example of a frame, but one which includes lines to divide up the scene.

Framing - Doorways

Framing – Doorways

Another example of frames (one primary but many secondary ones) and leading lines is:

Framing and Leading Lines - Doorway and other lines

Framing and Leading Lines – Doorway and other lines

A frame for the subject can be constructed from natural features: horizon, nearness to the camera, focus, implied texture.   For example, look at how the subject is framed here:

Framing - Atacama Desert Overlook

Framing – Atacama Desert Overlook

The foreground subject is sharply focused and well lit.  The background is much softer and much darker.  So even though the “frame” takes up more than two thirds of the photo, it still constrains the eye to look first at the subject and then to place the subject in context, at which point one realizes how precariously posed he is.

The frame doesn’t have to be made up of straight lines.  In the following, the “frame” is the branches of a tree.  The layering is constructed by having the foreground in sharp focus and the subject – the paddler – less well-focused in the background.  Note the use of the Rule of Thirds.  And also note that a slower exposure was used so the presence of the kayaker’s paddle ends is merely implied by their blurred image.

Framing - Tree Branches and Rule of Thirds

Framing – Tree Branches and Rule of Thirds

In the following two photos a window is used as the frame.

Framing - Window

Framing – Window

Framing - Window

Framing – Window

Here then is a Tip:

16 Tip - Framing

I’m going to use the term Leader to identify the element or elements which capture the viewer’s attention and lead their eyes into the composition.

One of the most powerful Leaders are eyes.  Whether they be animals or people, we are drawn to look at or into the eyes of any subject in which they are shown.  So it is important that, if the subject’s eye(s) are visible, they/it should (must) be in focus, because the viewer is going to look straight at them.

Leader - Bird's Eye

Leader – Bird’s Eye

Notice how your attention is drawn first to the bird’s eye.

Leader - Eyes - Cheetah

Leader – Eyes – Cheetah

Pretty cute face, eh?

Leader - Eyes - Drill

Leader – Eyes – Drill

“Oooh, did I actually say that?”

We don’t have to see the eyes directly, however.  For example, you can figure out everything about the following scene even though the eyes are not looking directly towards us:

Leader - Eyes - Boy Scouts and Bear

Leader – Eyes – Boy Scouts and Bear

Here’s another example, where of the three subjects, only one is looking at the camera:

Leader - Eyes - Atacama Desert

Leader – Eyes – Atacama Desert

The man on the left is looking at the interpreter, the woman in the middle is looking at the man, and only the woman in the lower right is looking at the camera.  In this scene the light is provided by a reflection off the red dirt in the threshold of the house so, since the background is much dimmer than the foreground, the layering is actually created by different lighting levels.

In the following image, no one is looking at the camera; their attention is focused on the girl whose blurred face is only partially visible.  Nevertheless, clearly the boys are hanging on her every word (so they should as she is telling them how much they are going to be paid for the hot day’s work they’ve just completed).

Leader - Eyes - Indirect

Leader – Eyes – Indirect

When the subject shows no eyes, the result can be quite sinister:

Leader - Eyes - Intentional Omission

Leader – Eyes – Intentional Omission

And here is an example of where the subject directly engages with the camera, but does not become the focus of the photograph. (By the way, there is a lot of layering going on in this image; from front to back we have butterfly, eyes, face, shoulders, background.)

Leader - Eyes - Direct Contact

Leader – Eyes – Direct Contact

So, any time you start to compose your image, consider the opportunities for layering: what’s in front and what’s behind.

Layering - Street Scene Layering

Layering – Street Scene Layering

This street scene is made three dimensional and yet the main subject is directly in the foreground.  The photographer has waited, until there are related elements in the background, at varying distances from the camera, before making the shot.

Layering and Framing

Layering and Framing

Here the framing is created by the doors, the foreground one enclosing the composition and the background one framing the most distant subject.  The subjects are layered  at different distances from the camera.

Layer - Stoplight -Salmon, Idaho

Layer – Stoplight -Salmon, Idaho

The intention when taking the above downtown shot of Salmon, Idaho, was to show the town’s isolation.  The stoplight pictured is the only one in town and the only one for at least a hundred miles.  While the foreground is dominated by the stoplight, the various levels in the frame place the town in its landscape and show the type of western architecture that locates it in its place.  The street leads the eye deeper into the photograph, eventually to the hills at the back.

Layer - Atacama Desert Town

Layer – Atacama Desert Town

To get this image, just as the light was fading and the streetlights came on, Joel set up his camera and tripod and then simply watched as the moveable elements in the scene came and went, until finally – the horse and its rider, the disappearing little girl on her bike, the men unloading the truck, the passersby – all came into position for a great shot.  The fixed elements – the blue door, the red poster on the upper right, the street disappearing into the center distance – were there already, because of the care Joel took in finding his setup position.

Now the assignment for this lecture:

Layer and frame a subject in 3 photos.  You may not use doors or windows for the framing.  If your subject has eyes make sure they are treated correctly.


We have now completed the basics and are ready to put it all into practice.  Before we do, however, we need to bring back to mind all the things which must be considered when setting up a photograph.  And we need to also promise to ourselves that we will not take the photograph unless we’ve worked through at least the following:

1.  Leave your camera in the bag

  • Is the subject interesting? (If not, why are we even considering taking the picture?)
  • What should be our perspective?
  • Where’s the horizon?  Is it in the right place?
  • Where are we going to place the subject in the image?
  • Are there framing elements we can use?  Should we?
  • Are there leading lines or other attractors that we can employ?
  • What’s in the background?  Is it simple?  Is it “too busy”?  Can it be made better by moving around?
  • What’s in the foreground?
  • Are there any colours in the composition which we want to emphasize?
  • Is the light right? Level? Direction? Time of day?  Illumination of the subject? Natural versus artificial? Is this the best time for the light?

2.  Decide what to take out of the bag

  • What lens should we use?
  • What filters, if any, should we use?  Polarizer?  Neutral Density?

3.  Position and set up

  • Where should tripod be situated (answers determined by conclusions from #1 above)?
  • What should be in focus and what not?
  • What should the depth of field be?
  • What shutter speed will work best?
  • Is the ISO right for the exposure, aperture and depth of field we want?
  • Double check the view finder (or LiveView) and each of the settings.
  • Take the photo, and examine the histogram.
  • Are you satisfied or do some things need to be changed?

Plus whatever you want to add to the list.

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