A Natural Frame

You're out on safari. As the vehicle rolls out of camp at the crack of dawn, you feel the winter chill hitting your face, gushing into entering every open zipper or gap in your cloths. Your head is constantly turning from left to right, up and down as you can for wildlife and if you are like me, a natural frame or two as well. Im sure you have seen a tree or rock formation out on safari somewhere along the line and thought, man; I wish there was a leopard on that rock, or in that tree.

Suddenly the radio fires up, someone has spotted a leopard. The peaceful bumble you were on has now become somewhat of a safari rollercoaster, holding on to everything tightly as your guide accelerates to get into the area that the leopard is moving in. That cold winter chill that was on your mind is now gone. Your mind is going crazy with the potential opportunities that await. A few minutes ago you may have seen the most beautiful rock formation or Marula tree that you now see that cat in/on. You then hear you guide say; the leopard is not too far off now, you zoom around another corner and the vehicle comes to a stop.

Your guide points into the direction of the cat and this is what you see;

Natural Framing | Wild Eye | Photography | Travel

Its pretty "messy" and does not make for the best photographs, this will probably be the case 85% of the time. All your expectations of those beautiful frames you had in mind seem to disappear? Well do not let them!

Remember, most animals live in dense environments and the photography will be a challenge but trust me when I say, if you're willing to accept this challenge, be patient and work with different angles, some golden opportunities will arise. These animals cannot sit in one place forever, they must move and so if you put in the time, you will be rewarded.

I remember a sighting I was blessed with many years back as a lodge based guide at Sabi Sabi. I had just returned back to work after a two week break and I could not wait to get back out into the field again. On that first afternoon, I was out on safari with a group of six guests. My afternoon goal was to find them a leopard as they had been on a few safaris before but not yet seen this elusive cat. Shortly after leaving camp, my tracker had told me to stop at a small stream of water next to the road. We both jumped down off the vehicle and noticed female leopard track next to the water.

I looked up at my guests and smiled. Its one thing seeing a leopard in Africa but being part of the adventure of tracking it down is such a thrill. It was a safe area for the guests to get off the vehicle and so I got them involved. I wanted them to come and see/study a leopards track in order to "help" my tracker and I find this cat. The more I can get my guests involved in the experience, the better. After explaining to them that these tracks were fresh and that she may have a kill in this area, I asked them to help me see which direction she had moved off in. It was as if they had done this before, less than a minute and they had established a direction for us.

So now that we knew this, I said lets jump back in the vehicle and get going to see if we can find her. Every single one of my guests were SO excited and ready help Phios and I track down this cat. I told them to scan every tree, look down every drainage line, look for tracks, listen out for bird or monkey alarm calls... They were so focused! I lived for as a full time, lodge based guide.

I am going way off this blogs topic now but I'm nearly done. Long story short, after a short while zig zagging in a particular are, one of my guests stopped me and said Mike, I'm sure I just saw movement in that tree. I picked up my binoculars and BOOM! James had found us the leopardess we were tracking. Everyone on the vehicle cheered, this group effort had paid off and I can assure you that this leopard tracking exercise is something they will never ever forget.

Anyway, let's get back on track (pun intended), a leopard in a tree gets all photographers extremely excited because again, in your mind, you envision the most beautiful imaginable but for the most part, this ain't the case.

For example, this leopardess that James had so proudly found for us all those years ago was indeed up in a tree and I was so excited that I could barely breath. As we moved off road and got closer to the tree she was in, we noticed that we could only see patches of her through the thick canopy. Photographically speaking it was a nightmare but not impossible.

Natural Framing | Wild Eye | Photography | Travel

As I mentioned earlier, if you're willing to accept the challenge, be patient and work with different angles, some golden opportunities will arise.

Let's focus on two words in particular, "different angles". This may mean a lot of things but what I mean by this is look for a natural frame and work with various angles.

There are certain key composition techniques that you can use to enhance the look and feel of your images. Natural framing is one that is widely known, but needs careful and thoughtful application. Using framing can create extremely impressive and elegant images when done right.

Making use of a natural frame is when you use an element within your image to frame the subject. This draws the eye into the photograph and highlights the actual subject. Remember your eyes will be drawn to the sharpest parts (areas in focus) of the frame. This internal frame can be constructed using a multitude of things you’ll find out in the field, branches, leaves and grass, as well as things that aren’t solid like light, shadows, rain or fog, it doesn’t really matter what you use.

Why you should use natural framing:

  • It easily draws your viewer’s eye into the photograph and emphasizes the subject.
  • It isolates and separates your subject from what’s around it.
  • It brings a sense of order and structure to a photograph and the eye loves order.

In the images you will see below, you will notice that I have used thick vegetation in the foreground as my frame. I made use of a wide open aperture to blur these areas out and you will see how this will not only lead your eye directly onto the subject but it also adds a great punch to the images thanks to the vibrant colours.

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I just love the saturation and depth value seen above.

So now that you have seen the above method of blurring out the foreground, you can still make use of vegetation that is not in the foreground as a natural frame.  Using the natural curves in the vegetation around you will also result in leading lines that will in turn, ensure that your viewers eyes fall onto your subject as seen below;

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These natural elements are always available and so there is no excuse. It's your responsibility to look out for these opportunities and seeing that the vegetation does not move around much and so you rely on the animal being in the right place at the right time, this requires a bit of patience.

Speaking of patience, lets move onto another technique of utilizing a natural frame but this requires a whole lot more patience to achieve than the method mentioned above. I say this because you now need two (or more) animals to be in the right place at the right time.

I'm sure you've guessed it... Make use of other animals in the foreground as your frame.

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Using two or more species to frame the image is the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding techniques. Remember, it doesn’t really matter what you use to frame your images as long as your main subject is clearly visible.

I'll be concluding with these two images in which I used natural light to frame my scene but these are probably the rarest "natural frame" moments to capture.

Last few tips;

When to use natural framing

  • To obscure boring sky.
  • To add depth to an image, especially when the object acting as the frame is not in focus.
  • To bring contrasting elements into the photograph without detracting from the subject.
  • To create structure.
  • To create a feeling of a self-contained image, particularly if you are photographing something quite ordinary and simple, a frame will help give depth to the subject.

Natural framing is one of the toughest techniques to pull off well. You don’t need to have a frame around all four sides of your photograph for it to work, in fact, I’d encourage you not to do that. I think more often than not, it looks more natural and pleasing to the eye for the frame to take up just two or three sides of the image, but like every recommendation, use your own personal judgement. Shoot what you think looks best.

Shooting making use of a natural frame is a very good way to remember that you are in control of how the viewer’s eye will move around the image. It doesn’t matter how big the photo is, the eye won’t see the complete image all at once. The eye will be drawn to one part (sharpest/in focus area first) and then move around the image depending on where the elements are placed.

So, your job as a photographer is to direct the viewers eye.

Wildlife is forever moving and unforgiving. All the moments you've seen above do not present them self too often when out in the field. You need to maximise your time and now take advantage of animals in dense environments rather than putting your camera down. Your chances of accomplishing this increases dramatically only by spending more time in the field shooting!

I hope this blog has taught you something and that it has inspired you to get creative. Please feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments below.

Until next time;


4 thoughts on “A Natural Frame

  1. Mandeep & Dhruti


    What a delightful and super-informative read! Thank you Mike

    • Michael Laubscher

      Thank you so much for the kind words and for taking the time to read the blog.

  2. ELena Hanakova


    excellent content! thank you for sharing

    • Michael Laubscher

      Hello Elena

      Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to read the blog.

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