Fill The Frame And Make Better Photos

A wire fence, covered in ice, on a quiet hillside on Huangshan mountain in Anhui province, China that illustrates the notion of fill the frame in photography composition.

The camera's viewfinder is, for the photographer, what the canvas is for the painter. A fundamental aspect associated with how to frame most photographs is to fill the frame in a way that allows the image to breathe, in a visual sense, without filling it up with clutter.

The Importance of Visual Space in a Photo

It’s worth meditating on the notion that, in addition to faces, trees, rocks, food or cake, the amount of space that’s included within the photographic frame has a great deal to do with the visual appeal of the photos you make.

The amount of visual space within the image should vary depending upon the subject and the story you want to explore.

You can frame an image very tightly in camera or, alternatively, crop it on the desktop to achieve a range of concepts including the following:

  • Strength

  • Power

  • Anger

  • Constraint

Likewise, a subject that’s surrounded by a lot of space might suggest a range of notions including the following:

  • Small

  • Powerless

  • Alone

  • Freedom

Watch how the lens focal length you choose, as you zoom your lens in and out, effects both the size of important elements within the photo and their relationship with each other and the edges of the photographic frame that surrounds them.

It can have a big impact on the story you’re trying to tell. In some cases it might even change it.

Likewise, think about how to use cropping to enhance the emotive qualities of a photo and how it can enhance the story or concepts you’d like to explore.

Light and shade together with light and shape provide an expansive view of the spectacular Harpa Performing Arts Centre in Reykjavik, Iceland.

How to Frame a Photograph

Objects exist within the boundaries of the photographic frame in a way that’s different to how most folks perceive them in the real world.

In a photograph or a painting the space surrounding a focal point (i.e., primary object), and the visual and metaphorical space between it and surrounding objects, effects the prominence of that focal point within the image and its relationship with the objects that surround it.

Here’s a few examples of how space can be used to produce visually interesting images.

  • Expand or visually compress the sense of space and depth in a photograph

  • Explore the sense of space that surrounds an object

  • The visual tension that can be achieved through the space that separates one object from another

  • The relative space between one or more objects and the edge of the photographic frame

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

Space is an element of composition that, to my way of thinking, is very underrated. You’ll make better photos if you consider the concept of space when composing your images in your camera’s viewfinder.

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

For most photos to be visually arresting it’s important to place emphasis on the primary subject or focal point in the image.

But it’s important to understand that the degree to which you either zoom in or move closer can influence the success of your photo by either clarifying, confusing or changing the story you’re trying to tell.

There are more subtle and, sometimes, more sophisticated considerations over than just making your subject appear bigger, that determine the best way to make them more prominent in the photo.

The simply action of using the photographic frame to exclude distracting information from the final image is an essential component in great photo composition.

By excluding the superfluous we elevate the essential.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

This can often be achieved by moving your camera slightly to the left, right, up or down from its current position.

By changing the position from which the photo is made you can produce dramatically better photos by changing the relationship between competing focal points and by visually separating a subject from a distracting background.

It’s true that you might achieve a simpler and more visually dynamic image by zooming in or moving closer to your subject.

But think about what lies just within the edges of your frame and whether or not the subject, story or theme you want to explore is strengthened or hindered by the presence of those objects.

My point is that the objects that, exist either side of the edges of the photographic frame, should impact on the actual amount you zoom or move when making your photo.

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

Great Composition in Photography

Some folks would refer to this action as producing a good composition when, strictly speaking, 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 range of design elements we are able to work with within the bounds of the photographic frame. After all, that’s what most photographers do.

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

  • Contrast

  • 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 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.

I'm referring here, in particular, to 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 your photos 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, which is probably why they’ve been referred to as time capsules.

Abstraction, Hongcun Village, China

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Why Great Photo Composition Is Important

Great photos have the potential to cause people to stop, look and think about what it is they’re actually looking at. That might be because they’re trying to work out the content of the photo, how it was made or what theme, message or metaphor is being explained.

While I love cinema I believe still photos, generally speaking, require a different kind of consideration, from photographer and viewer alike, compared to moving images, whether made on video or motion picture film.

It’s because we dwell longer on a still image, that we find compelling, compared to a few seconds from a motion picture film or video, that I believe still photographers have to pay particular attention to composition and lighting.

When it comes to the moving image less than ideal composition may not be noticed due to the following:

  • Movement of characters and objects within the frame

  • Dialogue

  • Addition of background audio effects

  • The soundtrack

Looking At Images | 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.

Slowing down should encourage most photographers to concentrate on space, balance, line and shape within the photographic frame.

As a result the photo is not so much about an old, snow covered fence, 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 partially 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 evident in the placement of the horizon in more traditional landscape paintings and photos.

Yet the partly collapsed section of the fence suggests that it’s 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.

I can tell you that I took a lot of time composing this image in my camera’s viewfinder. And the notion fill the frame with what’s important, by excluding superfluous clutter, was absolutely central in my mind when doing so.

An interesting composition is formed by ripples and patterns on the surface of the Expedition Pass Reservoir near the town of Chewton in Central Victoria, Australia.

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.

The notion of a frame within a frame is explored in this image of an overhead street light and 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 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 dualities of detail and negative space, in Melbourne, Australia.

Embrace Space And Let Your Images Breathe

There's no coincidence 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.

When it comes to improving the composition in your own photos my advice is to fill the frame with what’s important, including space when and where it’s appropriate to do so, and exclude what’s not.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru