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 with clutter.

Just as the color white requires memory to record it and pixels to describe it, space warrants attention within the photographic frame.

Space is an element of composition than, to my way of thinking, is very underrated. Hopefully this post will go someway to resolving that problem.

Nothing is not nothing, it’s just an absence of something.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

What Does Fill The Frame Mean In Photography?

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

These days we can take the term fill the frame to describe the need to, on occasions, move closer to or zoom in on the primary subject of the photograph so as to render it larger in the photographic frame.

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

This simply action will place more emphasis on the primary subject of your image by effectively excluding their surroundings from the photographic frame.

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.

However, 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.

I’m talking here about much more than where to place the horizon or the primary subject within the frame. Other, potentially crucial, elements of composition that should be considered when making a photo include the following:

  • Color

  • Line

  • Shape

  • Texture

  • Space

  • Balance

  • Rhythm

  • Repetition

Striking sunset light provides a brilliant backdrop for these flowers in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.

Your Photos 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 we produce through the creative process of photography.

What lies within the viewfinder is akin to the painters canvas and we need to fill it with care.

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.

Have you ever noticed how some of your photos seem to have a life unto themselves?

While they are often made to document a person or an important event, you also make photos to record your experience of the world around you. And the world that’s present in some of your very best photos seems to exist, somehow, outside of space and time.

In that way photos are very much like memories preserved.

Abstraction, Hongcun Village, China

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Why Great Photo Composition Is Important

Still photos have the potential to cause people to stop, and look and think. It because of this that I believe still photos require a different kind of consideration, from photographer and viewer alike, compared to moving images (i.e., video).

I think this is particularly the case when it comes to composition and to lighting formal portraits and still life images.

Photography | The More You Look, The More You See

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.

While using a tripod added another level of complexity to the making of this image, it slowed down the process of composing the image and encouraged me to more carefully 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 stand of trees.

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

If we take another moment to study the photo made on Huangshan you’ll notice that the diagonal direction of the fence line divides the frame into the old Rule Of Thirds, often seen in the placement of the horizon in more traditional landscape paintings and photos.

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 acts to prevent the viewer’s 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 visual journey they've just undertaken.

This kind of reading of the photo requires some effort and imagination. It could even be considered as an interesting, non-traditional form of story telling or narrative.

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

Using The Rule Of Thirds To Make Visually Dynamic Photos

Notice how I’ve taken a non-traditional approach to the Rule Of Thirds in this image of ripples and patterns on the surface of a lake in Central Victoria, Australia.

The demarcation between the textured and smooth areas of the frame is also a division between detail and what’s referred to as negative space.

Notice how the division of the frame has enhanced the energy of this image with the placement of the imagined horizon along a diagonal line.

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

Space: The Forgotten Element Of Composition

To further emphasize the importance of space in a photo I thought we could look to music for an analogy. My favorite musicians understand the need for space between the notes they sing or play.

Do you remember those 80's heavy metal guitarists who'd play hundreds of notes at breathtaking speeds? Could you hear what they were actually playing? I sure couldn’t.

From the guitarist’s point of view I guess it was all about a level of dexterity and a certain kind of technique (i.e., speed) mixed in with a lot of showmanship.

From the fans point of view I suppose the attraction was based upon the speed at which the guitar was being played, rather than any emotional response to the music.

To me 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.

What I learned by listening to B.B. King play is that it's the space between the notes that best explores the relationship between each individual note.

Sometimes that space is short and one note follows on quite quickly from the other.

More often than not there’s a longer space between the notes which gives an expressive player, like B.B. King, time to bend or sustain the notes in ways that add remarkable color and texture to his playing.

A more soulful sound follows and connects, in a meaningful way, with the audience. Well, that’s my view.

A stunning stone Celtic Cross, composed around the contrast of detail and negative space, in Melbourne, Australia.

Embrace Space And Let Your Images Breathe

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.

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

From my point of view the best thing about inspiration is that it leads to transcendence. And that’s why I’ve dedicated myself, as an artist and teacher, to the art of photography.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru