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Fill The Frame - Is This Good Or Bad Advice For Photography Composition?

Image by: Danila Panfilov

I often find myself being the guy with the camera in a range of situations. This has pro's and con's. For instance, there's normally not much evidence of me actually being in the sports teams, at the parties or on the holidays that I've claimed (because I'm always behind the lens)! On the plus side, I love taking pictures, so I can to do that all of the time.

Another negative is that I get to be the recipient of lots of unwanted advice... There's always a few common refrains that get blurted out whenever a picture's about to be taken. One very common example is, "Fill the frame". I'm sure you're familiar with this one! But what does it actually mean? Is it good advice? Are there any pitfalls associated it? Let's explore...


What does filling the frame mean?

Obviously, when people shout, "fill the frame", they're encouraging you to fill the majority of the scene through your viewfinder with the main subject. The idea is that the subject is presented as big and clear. It's always irritating when the thing you want to look at is just bit too small, and slightly lost in the wider scene.

We've all taken holiday snaps where our smiling family members are just one small detail of a bustling scene, the rest of which is of no interest whatsoever! So, on the face of it, fill the frame is good advice.


But Isn't It A Bit Subjective?

Yes, that's really the point. When is it possible not to fill the frame? In a sense, never. The frame always features something in every area - there's no such thing as totally blank space (other than black shadows and blown out highlights!). So I get slightly irked when the idea of filling the frame is proffered as universal advice - a golden rule of taking pictures.

Who decides what the main subject is? Who decides what is irrelevant to the photo? That's part of your creative pre-rogative, and the fun of taking pictures. A photo of a restaurant you've just visited might be so much better if shown as part of the whole street. A tree might look better close-up, fillling the frame with its brances and leaves - or you might choose to fill the frame with the surrounding field and sky too.


But It's A Good Thing To Do Sometimes, Right?

Image by: Danila Panfilov

Absolutely. If you've got a subject and the background is, well, boring, don't waste any precious space on it. If you ever have the chance to do a studio shoot with a model and props, using a plain white sheet as a background, remember the advice of filling the frame.

The model and their pose is the main event, the background only serving to eliminate any distraction. Occasionally using plain white negative space can be an interesting, fun or quirky approach. But generally speaking it should be kept to a minimum. The same is true for still life photography.

Informal 'people' pictures are also a good example. One of the most common mistakes beginner photographers make is not to zoom in tightly enough on people. This is especially true when you really want to convey facial emotion. That said, environmental portraits (where the subject's immediate environment directly informs the meaning of the photo), e.g. a pilot standing next to his plane, or a market-stall trader selling his goods, are a lot of fun to do and very effective.

I read Photo Nuts and Shots a while ago when I was struggling for creative ideas. It really helped boost my motivation and introduced some cool new techniques.

So When Should We Forget About Filling The Frame?

Well, never, in the sense that you should always carefully select what to include. The frame should always be filled with worthwhile content. But, in the sense of filling the frame with one main subject, here are some of the warnings/times to ignore the advice:

1. When looking to show scale

Image by: Trekking Rinjani

Portraying a sense of scale can be a really effective tool in photography. It relies on doing precisely the opposite of filling the frame. It's about the relationship between two things.

For example, tiny little people in a huge mountainous landscape; a boat on an open sea, or anything whose size/scale is interesting to see represented. Sometimes, it really doesn't matter whether the larger part of the scene is interesting or not! It's just a function of showing the scale of the more interesting, smaller part.

2. For minimalist images

Image by: Vinoth Chandar

Another time to ignore the advice to fill the frame is when you feel a subject can be shot in a minimalist stye. I have to admit this is one of my favorite approaches to photography, but it's really hard to pull off well.

Minimalism involves sparce, simple, clean shapes and compositions. It's often bordering on abstraction, seeking to boil the subject down to its bare essentials: a lone wave breaking on the shoreline, an empty room containing just one or two items of furniture, a single tree on a green field against a blue sky.

3. Environmental portraits/explanatory purposes

Image by: Christian Senger

I've already mentioned environmental portraits. This can be extended to any subject where the main focal point is directly informed by the surroundings. Whether by way of contrast, complimentarity or simply explanatory benefit, think about whether a wider angle of view taking in more of the scene would strengthen or weaken an image.

4. To avoid 'fussy' edges

When filling the frame results in fussy lines around the edges. This is a very common problem. We look at photos in very much the same way as we take in the world around us. The area at the very edges of the frame is kind of like our peripheral vision. We skirt around it, assume it's irrelevant and only really pay attention to the content a bit further in.

We find it uncomfortable to dwell on a part of an image that's scrunched right up to the edge. It's just awkward and fussy. So if you're thinking about a photo in terms of the valuable real-estate areas where viewers want to be looking - leave a bit of breathing space around the edges, because it is always overlooked.



So filling the frame is a good idea, some of the time. It's good to bear in mind when you're just starting to get the hang of composing photos more carefully. But zooming in tightly is not always the solution, and can sometimes look very awkward. Composition is about the relationship between different parts of an image - not focusing solely on one!

On the whole, I think a much better expression to use than "fill the frame" would be "don't waste any space".

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