Filling the frame is one of many basic compositional guidelines that photographers follow. The whole idea behind filling the frame is to isolate and highlight the subject and to bring it to focus. Photographers often use this technique when they have something interesting to convey in their photos. With this technique, they can convey this to the viewers easily.
I have been a natural light portrait photographer for almost all my career. One of the basic approaches that I have followed in my photography (portrait photography) is filling the frame with the subject’s face. Sometimes, I would only focus on the eyes, and that allows me to capture the beautiful colors of the eyes as well as the details on the subject’s face.
I have been a big believer in cutting the clutter and excluding elements from the frame that does not add up. I believe if the element is not adding to the composition, it is taking away from it.
Thus my fascination for getting in close and filling the frame.
What Do You Imply When You Say, ‘Filling the Frame’?
Filling the frame essentially refers to cutting out space around the subject.
In other words, you fill in the frame using the subject of your image. The viewer gets to see mostly the subject of the image and almost nothing beyond that.
Thus his/her eyes are immediately drawn towards the subject. Filling the frame is a brave step forward.
This is because of the natural tendency among photographers, both newbies, and professionals are to include a lot of space around the subject.
We can take the above example where the subject of focus, Melissa is in the middle of the frame surrounded by a vast amount of Negative Space.
The reason why a lot of photographers prefer this style and are hesitant to fill the frame is because of the other very popular compositional guideline – Negative Space. Plus, many photographers prefer the minimalist style of photography and one way of achieving that is to leave Negative Space in your composition.
What is the Frame?
This is about the right time we clear the air around the term ‘Frame’. I know many of you may be wondering am I referring to the thing that we hang on our walls?
Take a look at the image above.
Normally, when we refer to the ‘frame’ we mean the picture frame, the one that we hang on a wall. But when photographers refer to the word frame, they mean the image itself. That means the entire edge to edge width of the composition that the sensor sees and is recorded by the camera.
Framing is a word that is also closely associated with frames. The implication of the word in photographic composition is the use of elements within the composition to ‘frame’ the main subject of the image. Let’s consider the below image.
In this image, the square window beautifully frames Melissa and the outside view from the inside of the ferry on the way to Whidbey Island in Washington State.
A similar effect is achieved in the first image of this segment. Look how Fushimi Inari Shrine makes the perfect ‘frame’ for Melissa.
In this image, the branches of the trees make a perfect frame for the the Duomo in Florence under the mid-day sun.
There are hundreds and thousands of ways you can use the elements in a frame to produce a frame.
A Word About Negative Space and the Absence of It
While we are on the topic of filling the frame and making tighter compositions and filling the frame, I think we should also have a quick understanding of what Negative Space is and how it works exactly the opposite of the concept we are discussing today.
Negative Space denotes the space around the subject of the image. The purpose of Negative Space is to leave out areas around the subject in focus and by doing so focus on the main subject (also referred to as positive space).
As I mentioned above, Negative Space is also one of the fundamental compositional guidelines of photography. It is widely used to create minimalist compositions which are widely appreciated. Still, the concept of Negative Space is exactly the opposite of filling the frame.
If you are trying to fill in the frame your composition should be devoid of Negative Space. The composition should only be about the subject or in this case positive space.
Techniques to Fill the Frame
Prime lenses are cheaper, many photographers use them because they come with fast wide apertures. E.g., the 50mm prime and the 35mm prime. There are also the 85mm and the 105mm primes. Arguably the best portrait focal length out there is the 50mm prime or 85mm prime and you could buy that lens to make stunning compositions.
Problem areas are the wide-angle primes, as well as the wide-angle zooms. With these lenses, you have to step in closer to fill the frame. But wide-angle lenses are known to produce perspective distortions around the edges of the frame when the subject is very close to the lens. This is also known as lens distortion.
Typically, you can find these two types of lens distortions with wide-angle prime lenses – barrel distortions and wavy (or mustache) distortions.
The 85mm lens is considered one of the best for portrait photography because it produces little to no distortions.
I have also shot with the 50mm prime, and it is also a great lens to make tight compositions. I can take a few steps towards the subject, and it won’t have any noticeable differences. It is also a well-balanced focal length, so if you don’t have an 85mm prime lens, a 50mm prime works very well too
Use a Zoom
A zoom lens that allows you to make a tighter composition is the best option for anyone to fill the frame. Zoom lenses give optical reach to make a tight composition.
Let’s say that you are trying to photograph a model with a 35mm lens (just like in the above example). If you want to fill the frame you have to step closer to do so. Alternatively, with a 70-200mm lens you can stay back yet make a tighter composition.
But always go for optical zoom. Some people shoot with compact cameras and they have digital zooms. Avoid that at all costs.
I was never a fan of digital zoom. All compact cameras and smartphones have a way to zoom in and that is always via digital zoom. Digital zoom is nothing more than using software to zoom in. It always degrades the quality of the product.
Use a High-Resolution Camera and Crop the Frame
An easy way to fill the frame is by cropping.
Cropping means cutting the edges of the frame in post-processing. But to achieve that you need to ensure that the original frame has enough resolution, to begin with. This is because once you crop the overall image resolution is going to drop.
These days a standard sensor (DSLR or mirrorless) offers around 24-MP resolution. These cameras won’t be best for using the cropping technique. You need at least around 30 megapixels or more.
Cameras like the Canon EOS R5 offer 45-MP, the Sony Alpha a7R III offers 42-MP and the Sony Alpha a7R IVA offers 61-MP.
These cameras offer an incredible amount of resolution. That allows you to capture anything and crop the rest of the frame and yet retain a lot of detail and resolution in your composition.
Using these cameras and a long lens like 500mm or even 600mm you can capture stunning images of flying birds.
Even if you don’t have such a long telephoto lens you can shoot with a 200mm or even a 300mm and then crop out the rest of the frame to produce a very tight shot such as the raptor image above.
Use a Macro Lens with a Long Focal Length
Macro lenses are used primarily to capture small objects like flowers, small wearables, insects, and stuff; basically, anything that is very small and normally won’t fill the frame, and to fill the frame with such a subject.
Macro lenses are special purposes photographic lenses that allow you to focus while working at extremely close distances, often less than a couple of centimeters. Normal lenses (wide-angle, telephoto, and super-telephoto) don’t allow you to focus from very close distances.
Plus, these lenses allow you to make life-size (1:1) reproduction of the subject being photographed onto the imaging sensor. Meaning, the subject you are photographing will appear the same size as in real life. There will be no compression.
Please note – true macro lenses will always be able to make 1:1 or life-sized reproduction.
Again, with macro lenses you can find both short focal length and long focal length lenses. With the short focal length lenses, you have to get in close to fill the frame. The working distance (the space between the lens and the subject becomes shorter). There are disadvantages to doing that.
First of all, there is a high chance of your body blocking the ambient light and you wouldn’t want to do that.
The second thing is if you are going to photograph a small insect like a butterfly or a moth you are going to scare the little thing to death if you try to get in too close. You wouldn’t want to do that either.
Therefore best option when shooting bugs and flowers and anything small like these is to use a lens with a long focal length. I would recommend you use at least a 60mm prime macro lens if not a 100mm prime. These lenses offer enough working space and the ability to focus close.
Filling the frame is an easy and effective technique to make compelling compositions.
There are many applications of this technique as we have seen in this discussion. You can use this in macro photography as well as in portraitures. There are many scopes of experimenting with this technique across different genres.