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What is a frame?

Before we can figure out how to fill the frame, it is 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 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.

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.

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 are making a clear statement of what is 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 and objects. This can be distracting and doesn’t immediately draw the viewer to the focal point of the photo, because it makes the viewer’s eye dance around a busy image. As a result the image loses impact if it is 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 is no reason for there to be space.

Filling the frame is the opposite of using negative space, another great composition technique. When it comes to composition, there is a time and place for each technique. 

The trick is knowing why you’re using a particular technique, because that is when you start creating strong images with impact.

Why fill a frame?

1. To simplify an image and reduce the busy.

Busy frame filled with summer meadow flowers These two images were taken 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. To draw attention to the main subject instantly.

Fill the frame with more of your subject. 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 is a lot going on, so it is not easy to see who is the main subject. Whereas below, because I zoomed in, the action is clear.

Zoom to fill the frame for better composition

3. To create a greater connection between subject and viewer.

Filling the frame in portraiture makes the image more intimate, as the viewer is much closer to the subject. So there is greater engagement and connection with the image.

Get closer to the subject to fill the frame 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. See what a difference it makes to fill the frame?

Get closer to the subject to fill the frame

How to fill the frame

1. Get closer to your subject, or wait until your subject is closer to you.

Wait for a moving subject to get into 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.

Frame is filled with the subject

2.  If you can’t move yourself closer to your subject and your subject is not coming any closer to you, zoom your lens to a longer focal length.

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

3.  If you can’t do either, try cropping your image in post production. This of course is a last resort as it is much better to get your composition right in camera.

Too much space around the subject in a frame In the image above the boy is lost in the frame. I cropped the image to fill the frame, 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

1. You don’t need to stuff it 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 will add context to your story, or offer contrast to the main subject.

2. Be selective

Everything that is in your 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 so that you can focus on what is 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.

Here are some suggestions

When photographing somebody working, including their tools adds context to the image and tells the viewer something about the person.

What to include when filling the frame Here is someone who teaches online courses on how to make your own clothes. This shows her filming her video tutorials on how to create a pattern. Including her tools and her camera adds context to the image. Filling the frame with her activity places the viewer in the scene, making it more intimate.

Add background context for scale 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 stitching of the blanket shows how tiny her feet were in comparison.

Texture 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 image below. If she were a fisherman, the lobster pots would be relevant and therefore part of the story. As she is not, they are a bit of a distraction.

In this series all images were shot at f2.8. However, I moved closer for the second shot and then zoomed in closer for the third shot. As a result the background became more blurred and we end with an interesting texture, rather than a distraction.

Including too much space around a subject The above shot was at 70mm.

Including background for texture when filling the frame I moved closer for the shot 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.

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

Also, we love good news, so if our photography composition tips have helped you to understand how to fill the frame, share that too.

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