Using External References – a short tutorial

Angry in Pink


a series of short tutorials on different compositional techniques you can use to make images with stronger impact

Using an external reference, a reference to something outside the image frame, is a mechanism to add a depth of story and mystery. What are they looking at? What is going on out there? Are there any clues I can find within the image? What is within the frame is the obvious, what is outside the frame is a mystery.

What the photographer must do is use gesture and motion to lead the viewer to wonder: “what is going on out there?”

La dama en el balcón

It can be a simple as a change in the direction of a glance. It is to good or bad, just different. The trick is to stay with your subject and capture different moments. Some will be reflective and within the frame, others will refer to things outside the frame. Here are some examples.

Maiseld3-IMG_4462 Maiseld3-IMG_4463
Inside the frame. Simple and obvious Outside the frame. What’s happening out there
A Little NIght Music #3 A Little NIght Music #4
Inside the frame. Street musician Outside the frame. Street musician meeting a friend

Referencing things outside the frame adds tension, excitement, and anticipation. Here are some things to remember:

  • Stay with your subject
    • Wait for them to look away
    • Look for situations with interaction, but only capture half the interaction in the image
  • Typically you will be working with people or animals
    • Watch where they are looking
    • Use gesture

Waiting for the right action takes patience, but has great rewards in story telling.

Lifeguard Wannabees

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