Working the Edges in Photographic Composition


Conversations about the rules of composition tend to annoy me. Perhaps it’s just my disposition about rules in general, but try talking to your favorite photographer about composition rules and the technical details of their greatest photo and you may be ignored, or worse. Let’s face it—nobody ever liked a photograph because it adhered to a rule. Perhaps the best you can say about any rule of composition is that it’s good to know so you’ll know how to break it, and while I feel that good composition is important and often underlies the emotion produced by a photo, the importance is relative to the scene being composed and is often the product of an experienced eye. Many photographers have a sense of composition that did not come from learning rules, but from a natural talent “to see,” or simply from years of experience. It can be interesting and beneficial to go back and look at your photographs to note how and if they did adhere to the various rules often discussed, but my feeling is that if you are thinking about rules when you compose a photo, you will miss your moment of inspiration or miss the action entirely.

My task in this piece is to talk about the edges of a composition and how they can be incorporated into making a stronger image. It seems that this is a thornier issue than other aspects of composition, like leading lines, frames within a frame, and the Rule of Thirds, but I happen to like to play with the edges of a frame. Perhaps it’s an easy idea to play with because there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how to use the edges—if anything, the edges are often ignored, even denigrated as a compositional element. Reading a recent article on composition, I came across this quote: “Surveying your edges improves your compositions by reminding you to reduce or eliminate distracting details missed when you concentrate on your subject.” It often seems that the edges of a photo are only considered in relationship to the principal (presumably centered) subject. Do you include a secondary subject or crop it out? Do you trim the top of the frame?  Do you remove “excess” space?” These are all questions asked when relegating the edges of a photograph to secondary status.

Unless otherwise noted, photographs by John R. Harris

More than a representation of a scene or subject, a photograph is first and foremost a frame, an often strictly defined window that includes a scene but almost as importantly, excludes everything else. The edges of this frame need to be “dealt with,” need to be given meaning just as much as anything else within the frame. The edges should not just be the beginning of the nothingness that supposedly exists beyond the moment captured in the frame. And more than just eliminating what is distracting to the central image or superfluous to the story, the edges should be part of your overall composition and create a relationship with what is unseen, beyond the frame.

Two great examples of working the edges that I admire come from photographers as diverse as Garry Winogrand and Osamu Kanemura. Winogrand’s incredible Hand Feeding Elephant Trunk, Zoo shows a human hand entering from out of the frame on the right and an elephant’s trunk reaching straight across the frame from the left to meet in the center-right of the frame.  While this image does capture the decisive moment of the food leaving the hand and dropping into the elephant’s trunk, what is most impressive is the composition—the straight line made by trunk and forearm dissecting the frame and the fact that the edges cut off almost all of the elephant and human subjects, leaving us with few clues as to who is actually in the photo, yet still supplying us with the meaning that the photographer wanted this image to offer.

Garry WinograndThe Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The photographs of Kanemura are typified by the chaos of urban life. Lines, often light poles or electric and telephone wires crisscross and exit the frame or lead the eye into a maze of bustling activity. While many composition rules (leading lines, frames within frames) are in “hyper-play” within these images, what strikes me is that the edges, while certainly carefully considered, feel randomly selected, as if the photographer took a cookie cutter to his vista and just stamped out square frames that tell as much about what is outside the frame as what is in.

Osamu Kanemura, Come to Life Again, 2014Osamu Kanemura


When I started shooting cityscapes, I quickly grew bored of placing the primary building in the center of the frame or even carefully off-center and decided that I preferred to use a wide-angle lens and have several buildings entering the frame from the edge, with the center being cloudless sky. My goal was to get building entering the frame from all four edges. I doubt that this made a shot of the Empire State Building any more grand or imposing, but it did provide a challenge, a new perspective and a way to see the buildings in relation to others around it. It had much more to do with creating a framed composition then representing a subject.

Playing with the edges or composing from the outside-in became something I liked to do as I developed my skills. And as I gradually transitioned to shooting documentary, street, and news photography, this idea of “working the edges” has stuck with me. Often what is jutting in from the edge of a street scene is just as important now as the main subject. At times, a sidelong glance from a face leaving the frame will direct the viewer’s eye to a subject or part of the scene and thus become a co-conspirator in a stolen moment, or a tattle-tale pointing out what we should have seen immediately.

Another example that I have since used when shooting events, weddings, or even sports is to have an arm enter from outside the frame, sometimes with glass being raised in celebration or a hand gesture that offers meaning. The body and face attached to this hand are not as important as the supplemental meaning the hand is lending the composition as a whole. We are also now noting a popular style in wedding photography that emphasizes negative space, placing the bride and groom on the edges of the frame with urban or natural space taking up most of the image. While I like this idea in general, it seems more applicable to street photography where the idea of alienation, loneliness, and individuality is more germane than at a wedding, but hey, who am I to criticize what’s trending?

I also appreciate the idea of placing the main subject on the edge of a frame to disrupt the expectations of the viewer. The reason can be playful, something unexpected that forces the viewer to look twice and ask why or simply to impart a feeling of emptiness that aligns with the subject’s emotional or physical state.

Aspects of the image on the edge of the frame can also add dynamism and meaning to a photograph. Think about lines that run parallel to the edge of a frame and how they could create a feeling of movement or lines that cross perpendicular or diagonally out of the frame and how they can “carry” you into the image or force your eye onto a primary subject. I also like the idea of “balancing” a photo with something small but important on the edge of the frame and a large empty space filling or less “heavy” subjects taking up the rest of the frame. There is also the effect of vignetting, which can be created by lens choice, modifiers or in post process, to give your image a desired feel and/or focus attention onto a specific subject. But again, here we are speaking of the edges in relation to the center. I suppose it’s hard to get away from this idea, and understandably so.

Indeed, most discussions on the edges of a photograph’s composition tend to deal with them as a problem needing to be resolved, but if you really want to push the boundaries of your imaging, I suggest you think about what you can add at the edges instead of what you should take away.



I have read numerous articles on composition over the years. This is definetly one of the best and most original. Having struggled with composition (mostly intuitive, or worse imitative), I appreciate this fresh view of the subject. Hopefully it will find its way into my repetoire. Also (aside from the great Winogrand) loved your shot of the airplane seemingly being shot out of, or shot at by the exhaust tower.

Just because a photo is unusual it isn't necessarily good. If you follow the guidelines of composition you have a better chance of making the most out of a photo. However, a horrible composition can still be a good photo if it is either interesting, pretty, provacative, educational, important, etc, are some of any of these qualities.  Most of the examples shown are examples of ugly things on the edges of the frame. I wouldn't want to look at them if they were in the middle of the frame and I want to look at them even less at the edge of the frame.  

The shot of the elephant trunk is my favorite of the shots above. It isn't successful because the hand and trunk come from the edge. It is successful because it focuses your eye on the interaction between the trunk and the hand. 

Good point Doug. For me its a great photo on many levels...Successful perhaps for the reason you point out, but going beyond that to challenge ideas of where the main subjects should be in relation to the center of the frame, to bring humor to the moment, to capture the action/tension of the food dropping, and more, because it asks why the photographer made the decision he did when given the opportinity of this moment. These decisions define us as photographers, would we step back to include the whole of the elephant and person, change position to get another angle or just skip it all together because it wasnt what we had envisioned. Regarding what subjects we consider ugly, that is a sticky wicket...I think its pretty clear that one person's junk is anothers treasure, especially in the photo world...I've always like the idea (which I'm paraphrasing) "A good photo is more interesting than the subject it is depicting"...which can include both ugly and beautiful subjects.  Thanks for the comment.

i love the cloud one...and it is something I would have done.  I have been told that composition is my strong suit...but I would have cropped out the hand in the street vendor photo.  Maybe I need to look closely before I crop or discard.  Thanks...and much of photography, like all else, is in the eye of the beholder.  

I love the Wholesome Whole Nuts photo. The edges create another set of edges making a trapezoid shape. The plane is placed just-so, breaking the rules - saying hey look!. If it were hanging in a gallery, how many people looking at it would tilt their head?

I liked this article. Each of the photos shown says to me, Wake up! Look around you, the full 360 degrees. The world is interesting, and waiting for you to add to it by the way you see.

The Winogrand example is great.  Not one, but two appendages entering from the edge and two different members of the shot who we now wonder about.

Of course "Rules" annoy you.  Because you can't apply them to any of these images. These are NOT Artistic images much less interesting or even  creative photography. In real Art, rules of composition were established as a suggestion of what itypically is pleasing to MOST people and have been found to be most successful....especially in a judged competition.  I love Street Photography, but, I don't confuse it with Artistic Photography. It is actually an "off the wall Genre".   I would not suggest that beginning students of Photography read that "Rules are made to be broken"....not a good start.  Everyone with a camera or phone is doing this non-creative stuff.  Generally, Images without  main subject or a story, fail  In Sports, Coaches first teach Fundamentals because they have been proven to be most successful. If a player gets too far away from proper technique....he generally fails. True, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder......Maybe, a guage for success is when you take your work to a Art Show and see if it sells....if it does then write an article.

I, too, agree.  A lot of the images shown as examples would have been deleted the moment they were taken... especially the one that shows wide open blue sky along with small bits and pieces of... what?  A smoke stack, part of a billboard, the tip of a building that is under construction... oh and that 2 millimeter object that appears to be a jet, which I assume was the main subject, since it is the only thing in the frame to be shown in its entirety.  That said, I get what the author is saying in that breaking the rules of photography can be really effective and make for some stunning results.  I just wish there were interesting examples, in this article, that illustrated this concept.

Any photograph & therefore any TYPE of photography may transcend itself into FINE ART which is a reinterpretaion of reality !

Whether one understands or likes the work is totally one's own affair !

As to commercial success being the arbiter of artistic merit---ask Van Gogh !!  Ken Tyson

I agree..!

I believe creative photography to be the art of recognizing and capturing interesting perspectives that the casual observer would never conciously see. Such features are often at the periphery of a person's view and ignored in favor of what is generally in immediate focus - whatever is straight ahead and demanding attention.

So it makes sense that edge objects are where the focus of photography should naturally be - giving the viewer time to look around and explore the edges of the world that he would not have seen even if he was actually there but engrossed in going about his normal life.

Capturing edge detail is real photography...

This is an interesting article - shifting perspective and subject within the frame to provoke and force the viewers eye to a place they wouldn't normally. I particularly like the image of the buildings with the slice of sky between. I often take photos from this perspective, especially in NYC, because we so rarely look up and also because I like to take the buildings and use them as blocks of pattern and color! Thanks so much for the unique view!

These are the kinds of shots I get when I drop my iPhone and the camera goes off accidentally. I naturally hit the delete button. Perhaps I should be giving them a second look.

Good one Raf!...I tried to delete them, but they keep coming backindecision...  Sometimes you need to take bad shots before you get a good one and sometimes happy accidents do happen. The article is more about experimenting with new ideas than demonstrating proper technique or photos that are "successful". Regarding second looks, there are always good photos that we know are such the moment we click, but others do need a second or even third look and perhaps the perspective that time gives, to see their value.  Thanks for the comment. an iPhone shooter, you may like our latest podcast on iPhoneography.