Using data frames

The data frame displays a collection of layers drawn in a particular order for a given map extent and map projection. The table of contents on the left side of the map window shows the list of layers in the data frame.

Each layer in the data frame is used to display information from a dataset (such as a feature class or an image file). The table of contents lists the drawing order of each layer.

Data view in ArcMap

You work with features, rasters, and layers within the data frame in ground units (using feet, meters, and so on). When you create a map, it contains a default data frame listed in the table of contents as "Layers" (you can rename it if you want).

In data view, the display window is the data frame—showing the map layers of the active data frame drawn according to their order in the table of contents from bottom to top.

Working with additional data frames

While in many maps, you'll only need one data frame, you can add more data frames using the Insert menu as shown here. You can remove a data frame by right-clicking the data frame name in the table of contents and selecting Remove.


A map must have at least one data frame. You can't delete the last data frame on a map.

Adding a new data frame
A new data frame named New Data Frame added in the table of contents
When a new data frame is added in ArcMap, it appears in the table of contents and is highlighted as the active data frame.

The active data frame

When your map document contains more than one data frame, you will have one that is the active data frame; that is, the one you are actively working with. The active data frame name is shown in bold in the table of contents. To make a data frame active, right-click on its name in the table of contents and select Activate.

Moving layers between data frames

When you have more than one data frame and add layers to the map, they're added to the active data frame. You can move layers from one data frame to another by selecting them and then dragging and dropping them into the target data frame.

Navigating in the data frame and working with its layers

The Tools toolbar is one of the primary ways that you interact with geographic information displayed in the data frame. It contains tools for working with the contents within the active data frame—for example, to pan and zoom your map, to identify features, and to measure distances.

The Tools toolbar

Functions on the Tools toolbar




Zoom In

Zoom In

Allows you to zoom in to a geographic window by clicking a point or dragging a box.

Zoom Out

Zoom out

Allows you to zoom out from a geographic window by clicking a point or dragging a box.



Allows you to pan the data frame.

Full Extent

Full extent

Allows you to zoom to the full extent of your map.

Fixed Zoom In

Fixed zoom in

Allows you to zoom in on the center of your data frame.

Fixed Zoom Out

Fixed zoom out

Allows you to zoom out on the center of your data frame.

Go Back To Previous Extent


Allows you to go back to the previous extent.

Go To Next Extent


Allows you to go forward to the next extent.

Select Features

Select features

Allows you to select features graphically, by clicking or dragging a box around them. You can also use the Select by Polygon, Lasso, Circle and Line tools to select features using graphics drawn to the screen.

Clear Selected Features

Clear selection

Unselects all of the currently selected features in the active data frame.

Select Elements

Select elements

Allows you to select, resize, and move text, graphics, and other objects placed on the map.



Identifies the geographic feature or place on which you click.



Triggers hyperlinks from features.

HTML Popup

HTML pop-up

Triggers HTML pop-ups from features.



Measures distances and areas on your map.



Finds features in the map.

Find Route

Find Route

Allows you to calculate point-to-point routes and driving directions.

Go To XY

Go to XY location

Allows you to type an x,y location and navigate to it.

Open Time Slider Window

Open time slider window

Opens a time slider window for working with time-aware layers and tables.

Create Viewer Window

Create viewer window

Creates a new viewer window by dragging a rectangle.

In addition, right-clicking in the data frame displays a shortcut menu of data navigation tools.

This shortcut menu is displayed when you right-click in a data frame.
Right-clicking inside the data frame view displays this shortcut menu.

Interactive panning and zooming using basemap layers

Smooth, continuous panning and zooming can be turned on and are productive, especially when using basemap layers.

Improving display performance

You can use a number of approaches to ensure better drawing performance of your data frames. Here are a few of the approaches you can take.

Data frame properties

Each data frame is a geographic window for displaying GIS information. Data frames have properties that define the context for displaying and working with the data they contain. To view and set properties of a data frame:

  1. Right-click the data frame's name in the table of contents (or the data frame on the layout).
  2. Click Properties, then click the various tabs to view, and set data frame properties.
  3. You can set and review various properties under each tab in this dialog box.
Coordinate System properties in the Data Frame Properties dialog box

The coordinate system is one of the most important properties because it defines the map projects for the data frame. Typically, the coordinate system of your data frame is determined by the coordinate system of the first dataset you add to your map. You can review and set the data frame's coordinate system from the Coordinate System tab on the Data Frame Properties dialog box.

In addition, other properties can be set from this dialog box. These include adding grids and graticules, setting the full extent of your map window when you click the Full Extent button, creating and managing a feature cache to boost performance across a network, and setting appearance properties such as the position of the data frame on the page, borders, and background.

See Working with data frames in page layouts for how to use many of the tabs in the Data Frame Properties dialog box.

Setting the map scale of your data frame's map display

You can set a specific map scale at which to view data in your map frame using the Map Scale drop-down list on the main menu. Type in the desired map scale or select one from the drop-down list.

Setting the map scale of your data frame

See Working with map scales to learn more about working with map scale in ArcMap.

Map navigation using bookmarks

Bookmarks provide a way to locate specific areas on your map that users can navigate to easily. When you are using ArcMap and find an extent that you want to mark, you can add a bookmark to your map that will make it easy for others to find it later on.

Navigation using bookmarks

See Using spatial bookmarks for more information.

Working with the Data Frame tools

The Data Frame Tools toolbar is available for working with data frames. You can open this toolbar by clicking Customize > Toolbars > Data Frame Tools on the main menu.

The Data Frame Tools toolbar

Using these tools, you can rotate your map contents in the data frame and use a collection of your own places (My Places) for map navigation. See Using My Places for more information on using place names to navigate around your maps.

Common data frame tasks

Here are some common operations and links to more information on performing each.

Common tasks

Where to go for information

Setting or changing the coordinate system

Zooming and navigating a map

Creating an inset or reference map

Customizing the appearance of a data frame on the layout page

Changing the extent used by the Full Extent button

Improving the performance of map display