Fill The Frame And Make Better Photos

What does the term fill the frame in photography mean? How can the technique known as fill the frame and the associated concepts of composition such as visual space in photography and the rule of thirds improve the photos you make.

The camera's viewfinder is, for the photographer, what the canvas is for the painter.

A fundamental aspect associated with how to frame a photograph is to fill the frame in a way that allows the image to breathe, in a visual sense, without filling it up with clutter.

Space In Photography Definition

It’s worth meditating on the notion that, in addition to faces, trees, rocks or food, 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 in a photograph should vary depending upon the subject and the story you want to explore.

You can fill the frame in a photo very tightly in camera or, alternatively, crop it on the desktop to better explore 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

Fill the Frame via Focal Length and Cropping

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.

The degree to which you fill the frame 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 want to explore.

Light and shade together with shape and space provide an expansive view of the spectacular Harpa Performing Arts Centre in Reykjavik, Iceland. The need to fill the frame with as much information as possible seemed important.

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.

The space surrounding a focal point, 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 in photography when composing your images in your camera’s viewfinder.

Fill the Frame Definition

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 in photography to describe the need to move closer or zoom in on the primary subject of the photo so as to render it larger in the 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 the composition of a great photo.

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.

You can do so by changing the relationship between competing focal points within the frame and by visually separating your 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 other objects.

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

This simple drinking fountain, photographed at night, provided excellent subject matter for a study in composition. I filled the frame tightly to concentrate attention on these elements of composition.

Composition and the Photographic Frame

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

We can use the word composition to describe the range of design elements we are able to work with within the bounds of the 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:

Striking sunset light provides a brilliant backdrop for these flowers in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. As you can see I decided to fill the frame with light and color.

Photography and Truth Within The Frame

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 the frame 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 compared to moving images made on video or motion picture film.

One advantage of viewing a great photo is that we’re able to dwell longer on a still image, that we find compelling, compared to the stream of images we have to keep up with in a scene from a motion picture film or video.

Let’s face it watching movies is a pretty passive form of entertainment where you pay your money and you’re taken along for the ride.

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

One day soon we’ll be able to smell the food shown in a film and feel what it’s like to roar along in a car chase.

Movies are great, but they’re nothing like books. With a book the images you create in your mind are, largely speaking, your own creation.

But what about the photos you make?

The extra scrutiny that’s associated with a single, still image is why it’s critical for still photographers to make visually interesting and thought provoking photos.

To make great photos you need interesting subject matter, good technique and the ability to light and compose the scene, within the frame, to produce the desired result.

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

Photos and What’s Inside The Frame

This photo was made on the 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 photo and encouraged me to more carefully consider framing.

Slowing down should encourage most photographers to concentrate on elements of composition such as space, balance, line and shape within the 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.

Can you see how the individual lines of fence wire resemble the finer branches on the trees and those partially submerged beneath the snow.

I think that’s really interesting.

The Rule Of Thirds in Photography

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.

The rule of thirds is, of course, often evident in the placement of the horizon in more traditional landscape paintings and photos.

But there’s a variety of ways by which we can achieve a variation on the theme with how we apply the rule of thirds in our photos.

And who said horizons always have to be horizontal?

Other, more subtle examples of horizons in photos could include the following:

  • Trees trunks

  • Architectural columns

  • Roads, railway lines

  • Rivers

Let’s consider what the partly collapsed section of the fence on Huangshan suggests in the above photo.

With no obvious horizon in the photo the fence’s placement in the frame allows it to act as an horizon.

What’s more that fence takes the eye through the frame, from left to right, helping to hold our attention.

But, unlike most fences, this one is bent down which allows it to function as a gate as much as a barrier.

That allows the viewer’s eye to 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.

Story Telling Within 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 the seemingly simple image of a broken fence in the snow on Huangshan in my camera’s viewfinder.

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. Notice the use of negative space in this image.

The Rule Of Thirds and Negative Space

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 the Expedition Pass Reservoir 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.

I think the void suggested by the negative space encourages the eye to search for information, in this case texture and repetition, in the rest of the image.

Notice how the division of the photo into areas of positive and negative space has enhanced the energy within the frame through 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 seem to have an innate understanding of 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 that kind of playing is 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 two individual notes.

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.

My view is that it’s the space, in this case measured in time, between two notes that allows B.B. King to play his guitar in a way that creates such melancholy beauty.

A stunning stone Celtic Cross, composed around the dualities of detail and negative space, in Melbourne, Australia. Have you previously considered the notion of space in photography.

Embrace Space in Photography

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.

I believe it’s important that many of our photos explore a sense of three dimensional space. Put simply, by embracing the concept of space the content within your photos will seem to breathe.

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

It seems to me that 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.

With consideration given to space, include only what’s essential to the needs of the photograph in question and exclude what’s not.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru