Fill The Frame And Make Better Photos

A wire fence, covered in ice, on a quiet hillside on Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain), China.

The camera's viewfinder is, for the photographer, what the canvas is for the painter. We need to fill the frame, but not just with clutter. Just as the color white requires memory to record it and pixels to describe it, space warrants attention within the photographic frame. It is no less important a design element than any other.

What Does Fill The Frame Mean In Photography?

These days we can take the term fill the frame to describe the need to, on occasions, move or zoom in closer to the main focal point or subject of the photograph so as to render them larger in the photographic frame. This will place more emphasis on the primary subject of your image by effectively framing out their surroundings. 

The photographic frame relates to the edges of the image, either formed within the camera's viewfinder or on the desktop after any cropping has been applied.

This simple drinking fountain, photographed at night, provided excellent subject matter for a study in composition.

How Would You Describe A Great Composition?

Some folks would refer to this action as producing a good composition, when in fact it's only framing that we're talking about.

I have a slight problem with the value folks place on the word composition. It's actually only one of many elements that fall into the area of image design. But, as it's more important to be understood than it is to be pedantic, let's use the word composition to describe the whole range of design elements we're able to work with within the bounds of the photographic frame.

But we're talking about much more than where to place the horizon or the primary subject within the frame. Line, shape, texture, space, balance, rhythm and repetition are just some of the other elements that should be considered when making a picture.

A beautiful, abstract image of reeds on water in the famous Hongcun Village in Anhui Provine, eastern China.

Photographs Are Both Of And Separate From The World

Just like painters I've long believed that we photographers need to be responsible for every part of the image. What lies within the viewfinder is akin to the painters canvas and we need to fill it with care.

What we exclude from the frame can be as important as what we include.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

It is not only what's visible, but also what's suggested or hinted at that makes for a compelling image. What I'm referring to is that unique kind of reality or truth that exists within the bounds of the photographic frame.

The photographs we make have a life unto themselves. While they are often made to document and important event or our experience of the world around us, the world they record seems to exist somehow outside of space and time. In that way they are very much like memories.

Why Great Photo Composition Is Important

Because of their potential to cause people to stop and look, still images need a different kind of consideration than the moving image. The photo at the very top of this post was made on beautiful Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in Eastern China. It was a difficult image to make with me thigh deep in snow. And, while using a tripod added another level of complexity, it slowed down the compositional process and encouraged me to consider framing, space, balance, line and shape.

The result is that the photo is not so much about an old, snow covered fence or a hillside or a tree. It's the relationship between these individual elements, their similarities and differences, and how they are arranged within the frame that makes for a compelling image. Notice how the individual lines of fence wire resemble the finer branches on the trees and those partly submerged beneath the snow.

Introducing Story Telling Into Your Photos

The diagonal direction of the fence line divides the frame into the old 1:3 ratio, often seen in paintings or photos of more traditional landscapes. Yet the partly collapsed section of the fence suggests that it is not a barrier. The viewer can continue to move through the frame and up the hill, where the dense stand of trees prevents their eyes from leaving the frame.

The ability for the viewer to visually move through the image allows them to take note of interesting elements within the frame and, thereby, be better able to describe the journey they've just undertaken. This is probably the simplest form of story telling or narrative within an image.

Ripples and patterns on the surface of a lake make for an interesting image.

Space: The Forgotten Element Of Composition

There is a world that exists within the frame. We need to pay attention to that world and allow it to fill the frame accordingly. Not just with subject matter, but also with space.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

An overhead street light frames the iconic Q1 Resort and Spa at Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.

Let's look to music for an analogy. My favorite musicians understand the need for space between the notes they sing or play. Look at those 80's heavy metal guitarists who'd play hundreds of notes at breathtaking speeds. How many of you can hear what they're actually playing? I can't. It's all a blur and the attraction, for some, is the speed at which they're playing, rather than what they are actually playing. It's a bit like adolescent gossip: lots of words with little meaning.

Compare that to how B.B. King played Lucille, his favorite guitar. It's the space between the notes that best explores the relationship between each individual note. A more soulful sound follows and connects, in a meaning way, with the audience.

There's no co-incidence in the fact that some of history's greatest photographers were musicians or, at the very least, sort inspiration through music. And the best thing about inspiration is that it leads to transcendence.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru