What is a frame in photography?
Before we can figure out how to fill the frame in photography, it’s helpful to understand what we mean by a frame, because we’re not talking about hanging a photo on a wall. Not yet anyway. In photography composition, when we talk about a frame, we’re talking about the image itself.
When talking about “shooting in burst mode” you might be familiar with the term “frames per second”. This refers to how many photographs per second the camera can take.
In photography composition, framing is what’s in the photo. The beauty, impact and creativity of a photograph is affected by how you frame it, what you include and what you exclude.
The edge of the photograph is the edge of the frame, and within it is the part of the scene you choose to capture.
What does it mean to fill the frame?
When you fill the frame with your subject, you fill the photograph with the subject. So you’re making a clear statement of what’s most important in the photo. As it takes up most, if not all, of the image the viewer is immediately drawn to your subject.
When we’re new to photography we tend not to fill the frame with the subject. Instead, we include too much:
- Other people
This can be distracting and doesn’t immediately draw the viewer to the focal point of the photo, because a busy image makes the viewer’s eye dance around. As a result the image loses impact if it’s too busy for the subject.
Sometimes busy is good and what you want, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
By the same token, too much space around the subject can reduce the impact of the photo if there’s no reason for there to be space.
In portrait photography composition, there’s a time and place for each technique.
The trick is knowing why you’re using a particular technique, because that’s when you start creating strong images with impact.
Why is it important to fill the frame?
1. Framing to simplify an image and reduce the busy
I took these two images within seconds of each other. Both images were shot at 1/1250, f4.0 and with a focal length of 62mm. The only thing that changed was the framing. In the busy image above you expect to see a bee buzzing past. In the more relaxed image below you expect to hear the distant sounds of summer and smell the meadow.
2. Framing to draw attention to the main subject instantly
Fill the frame with more of your subject to make the main focal point of the image clear.
This makes your subject more important by giving them the largest portion of the image so the viewer immediately knows what the photo is about.
I’d taken up position along the roadside of a May Day parade through the town. I couldn’t move to a new position, otherwise I’d lose my really good spot. For this image I zoomed in on the woman putting a blob of green paint on the boy’s nose (it’s a Green Man tradition). In the image above, there’s a lot going on, so it’s not easy to see who is the main subject. Whereas below, because I zoomed in, the action and the focal point are clear.
3. Framing to create a greater connection between subject and viewer
Filling the frame in portrait photography makes the image more intimate, as the viewer is much closer to the subject.
So the composition creates a greater engagement and connection with the image.
Photographing little ones at play is a bit like photographing wildlife. You take a few shots a bit early just to get the shot, then you move closer to improve on your composition. That’s exactly what I did here and you can see what a difference it makes when you fill the frame with the subject.
How to fill the frame in photography
Three techniques to fill the frame in portrait photography.
1. Get closer to your subject to fill the frame
The best option for filling the frame is to get closer to your subject, but if you can’t, then wait until your subject comes closer to you.
I was positioned on a part of the curb that curved round with the road, so it was perfect for getting close to the action. The image above was taken too soon, before the subject was close enough to fill the frame. The below image is a much better composition.
2. Use a longer focal length for frame filling
If you can’t move closer to your subject and your subject isn’t likely to come closer to you, switch to a zoom lens and zoom your lens to a longer focal length to fill the frame.
In the shot above (focal length of 160mm at f13) there are a lot of penguins and nothing really to grab the viewer’s attention. I could not get closer, but as I had a zoom lens on my camera I was able to zoom in closer to 200mm for the shot below. I changed my position slightly to eliminate distractions from the background and foreground and set the aperture to f2.8 to blur the background.
3. Crop tighter in post production
Cropping an image in post production is a last resort as a frame filling technique as it’s much better to get your composition right in camera. The quality of a digital image with frame filled composition straight out of camera is much better and can be printed much larger than a tightly cropped image.
In the image above the boy is lost in the frame. Below, I cropped the portrait to fill the frame in post production, which makes the image instantly more engaging.
What to include when you fill the frame and why
Filling a frame just for the sake of filling the frame won’t automatically lead to better photography composition. Here’s why…
1. You don’t need to stuff the frame full
When you fill the frame, you don’t have to completely fill it all the way to the edge.
You can leave a bit of room for details that add context to your story, or offer contrast to the main subject.
2. Be selective with framing
Everything that’s in frame needs to be there for a reason, it needs to be relevant and add to the image.
Make sure that everything you want is in the frame and exclude what you don’t want.
3. Be aware of the background
Eliminate all distractions in the background by frame filling so that you can focus on what’s important.
Either move distractions out of the background or change your angle so that a distraction is no longer in frame. If the background is busy, you can tidy it up a bit by using a wide aperture to blur it. This also helps to make your subject stand out.
Examples of how to fill the frame for better composition
The first example of filling the frame is a portrait of someone who teaches online courses on how to make your own clothes. The image shows her filming her video tutorials on how to create a pattern.
When photographing somebody working, including their tools adds context to the image and tells the viewer something about the person. So they’re an important part of the image.
Filling the frame with the subject’s activity places the viewer in the scene, making the portrait more intimate.
Filling the frame with something that lends scale to the main subject helps to put it in context.
This close up of a newborn baby’s feet sticking out of a knitted blanket includes enough background to add context and tell a story. The size of the stitching of the blanket shows how tiny her feet are in comparison.
Texture in photos and color add interest to the background, compliment the main subject and make the image more striking.
However, texture can also be distracting, as in the example below. If she were a fisherman, the lobster pots would be relevant and therefore part of the story. As she’s not, they’re a bit of a distraction in the first image.
In this series all images were captured at f2.8. However, I moved closer for the second image and then zoomed in closer for the third image. As a result, the background became more blurred and we end up with an interesting texture, rather than a distraction filling the frame.
I captured the above image using a focal length of 70mm and aperture of F2.8. AS you can see, the background is quite distracting.
I moved closer for the image above and used a focal length of 56mm. Do you see how the background is more blurry?
I then zoomed in closer to 62mm, which filled the frame with the model and made the background even more blurry.
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