An example of framing


What is this photograph about?

In one setting, this is a story about water. It even says so in the top left corner. In a post about water policy or aquifers in Kansas, you’d have no trouble appreciating this as an illustration.

That isn’t what I was thinking when I took the picture though. Framed and hanging on a gallery wall, this is a photograph about circles, and of circles within circles. If I were talking about interpreting art, or using the camera lens to frame the subject, this photograph is still a natural illustration.

The context of the presentation is a frame. You experience things differently depending on what mode your brain is operating in when you encounter it.

The framing extends from there. By framing the shot right, I was able to bring two things together that we don’t think about. Public water fountains are free water, but here you can see the meter, and that changes how you think about the fountain. Bringing the circular meter cover and the circular fountain with the circular spigot and a circular drain into the same shot makes you see those circles differently.

If I were giving a talk about the water cycle, the repetition of those circles would change how you think about water flow, because it would connect with the natural metaphor we use to represent cyclical flow of anything including water evaporating into the sky, forming clouds, raining down, and evaporating again.

My act of visual framing accentuated certain aspects of the scene and cut others out, letting me emphasize the part that I thought was important, and helping the audience see the scene the same way I did.

i-12fcdcd96b1954a9af81270ea24cc8f1-logoarrow.jpgHere’s another example of visual framing. Do you know where this came from? You’ve seen this arrow thousands of times, on trucks, on boxes, and in the movie Cast Away. Chances are, you never noticed how the rightward (forward) pointing arrow figures into this company’s logo before. Now that you’ve seen it, you’ll always notice it, and even without consciously seeing it, that arrow plays into your perceptions of this delivery company. The arrow itself is framed in the negative space between two letters, and by framing it precisely, it accentuates the story that the company wants to tell you with five little letters.

There’s nothing dishonest about that. Would the first photo be worse if the meter were partly cropped out of the shot? If there were more rectangular bricks confusing the visual story? Would it be more accurate? I think it would be less pleasing to the eye, less elegant in its flow, and less accurate as a description of the underlying engineering.

The trick to good public speaking, like the trick to good photography and good writing, is trimming away what isn’t necessary and helping the audience see the important parts. That requires framing.


  1. #1 Karl
    April 18, 2007

    Excellent examples. I would change the wording of your pentultimate sentence just slightly – to: …helping the audience see the parts that you consider important rather than what someone else does.

  2. #2 Nightmare
    April 19, 2007

    I was just caught up in how much the shadow in the drinking fountain, looks like the baby alien in those sci-fi movies.

  3. #3 Matt Platte
    April 19, 2007

    Nightmare: … and the negative space created by the baby alien’s mouth is an arrowhead!

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    April 19, 2007