Fill the frame photography composition for impact – how, when, why

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.

Fill the frame for photographs with impact

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:

  • Background
  • Foreground
  • Other people
  • Objects

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.

Photography composition ebook

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.

Filling the frame is the opposite of using negative space, another great composition technique. When you fill the frame in photography, you include mainly positive 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

Busy frame filled with summer meadow flowers

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.

Filling the frame for simple composition

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.

Filling the frame simplifies a busy image

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.

Zoom to fill the frame for better composition

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.

Get closer to the subject for better composition

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.

Get closer to the subject to fill the frame

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.

Wait for a moving subject to fill the frame

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.

Allow a moving subject to move into frame

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.

Zoomed out penguin colony

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.

Zoom to fill the frame in photography

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.

Too much space around the subject

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.

Crop to fill the frame if you're not able to zoom

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

What to include when filling the frame

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.

Add background context for scale in frame

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.

Including too much space around a subject in a 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.

Including background for texture for frame filling photography

 I moved closer for the image above and used a focal length of 56mm. Do you see how the background is more blurry?

Including texture when filling the frame

I then zoomed in closer to 62mm, which filled the frame with the model and made the background even more blurry.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about when or how to fill the frame in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography composition tips have helped you to understand frame filling, share that too.

6 thoughts on “Fill the frame photography composition for impact – how, when, why”

  1. This was such a great post to read Jane – and timely too! I spent yesterday at the beach taking close up photos, filling the frame with all things natural. The problem of course was that i only had a 50mm macro lens with me which I usually love. This time though it wasn’t so fab – because the items I was trying to capture weren’t all on the same plain, I ended up with most of the photo out of focus! Next time, I’ll take my regular zoom lens and use that to fill the frame – hopefully it’ll make for a better focused image!

  2. Hello?Jane,
    Thank you for your tutorials so well explained & with photo examples. I have always been interested in photography if people at their work place so much time is spent there. I would like to photograph a mechanic friend of ours but not sure what to place into the frame any suggestions would be most helpful.
    Keep up your great work it is appreciated. Helen

    • Hi Helen
      I love environmental portraits – so much opportunity to create a story!
      I would make sure to:
      1. Go in close (hands working – with tools, in the engine etc)
      2. Step back and include the garage/cars in the background of portraits (head and shoulders, 3/4 length and full body length)
      3. And of course the classic – legs sticking out from under the car

      With all these shots, approach from different angles and viewpoints for variety and to bring the viewer into the mechanic’s world. Mix action shots (so that the viewer can see what he/she does) with straight forward portraiture (so that the viewer can connect with him/her).

      The cherry on the cake? Be aware of the colors in your shots, try to carry the same range of colors through your shoot. Pick an accent color to subtly include as a little splash in each shot too – like a red oil can in the background of a shot, red cloth for cleaning hands, red screwdriver etc etc.

      Hope that helps. Jane

  3. Toujours plein de methode et d idée a retenir pour mes amélioré mes photos et superbe réponse à Helen pour ses photos sur le sujet du travail manuel pour des mécaniciens pour l exemple mais applicable pour beaucoup d autre travaux manuels


Leave a Comment