Why is it Important to Fill the Frame for a Fantastic Composition?

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To fill the frame is important to good composition. This is because it keeps everything relevant to the image you are making. Beginning photographers are often frustrated when they review their photos. They see things in the picture they had not noticed when they were taking it. In this article, I will teach you how to see those extraneous elements and what you can do about them before you take a photo. I’ll also cover other important aspects of what to include and exclude from your compositions as you are taking photos.

Everyday photographers are taking photos of any subject imaginable. Many of them are then shared. The competition to have your photos seen and noticed is intense. No matter what you photograph, the way you photograph it makes the most important difference. When you create well-composed images where the whole frame is intentionally filled, your photos will stand out from the crowd.

Being intentional about how you fill the frame when composing a photo is essential to making good pictures. What you include and what you exclude from your frame shows people how you view the world around you. It also makes for a strong photograph or a weak one. When you capture photographs that include irrelevant stuff, your pictures lose impact.

A composition with a clear subject often has the most impact. Images showing all manner of irrelevant stuff will not captivate a viewer’s attention. Or, at least, not for long. Choosing only what you want to include in a photo that supports your main subject will always result in a better image. Fill the frame encourages you to think more about what you see through your viewfinder.

cropped frame.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

I had to crop in tight for this photo of the monk leaving the ordination hall at Sri Suphan temple. I wanted to avoid including extraneous elements in my composition. In the foreground outside, there were people, signs, and other distractions.

I was using my 85mm prime lens, so I took a few steps forward as I saw him exiting the building. This meant I also had to crop some of the roof and sides. Sadly, I could also not include both the statues at the foot of the stairs. It did mean that my frame only includes relevant elements.

The Two Main Rules

When I started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper, I was eager to learn as much as possible. There were two rules repeated often. Make sure it’s sharp and fill the frame.

Out-of-focus photos were not acceptable. Even slightly soft images were discarded as they always look terrible reproduced on newsprint. Filling the frame was also essential as space in the newspaper was always at a premium. Journalists wanted their stories to run longer, and photographers wanted their images to fill more of the page. Submitting weak compositions that a sub-editor could crop and still retain the meaning of the picture was a mistake.

The better I could fill the frame, the more likely my photos would not be butchered by a sub-editor’s blade and the larger they would run. Besides this, a frame well-filled makes for an all-round more interesting image. Only including that which is relevant to the story my photographs illustrated meant they were more compelling.

sharp focus image.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Having everything in your frame sharp is not always necessary. Often you’ll only want a small amount of your main subject sharp to ensure that’s where viewers will focus their attention. The amount of sharpness in a photo can be controlled by managing the depth of field, or as in the photo above, by controlling motion blur.

For this photo, I used a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second, so the passing truck is not sharp. My aperture setting was f/20 with an 18mm focal length. Using a fast shutter speed would mean the truck was sharp and a distraction away from my main subject.

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What is the Frame in Photography Composition?

When I’m encouraging you to fill the frame, I am not talking about getting your photos printed out and hung on the wall. That comes later. First, you must fill the frame you’re looking through when you take photos.

Our vision is unbounded. As we look around, we can see life as it constantly changes without any borders. Taking a photo is different. You capture a brief moment in time, encompassed inside four corners and four edges of a frame. This frame is integral to your photos.

Usually, it’s rectangular. Sometimes it’s a square. Whichever shape, you need to decide what you include in it before you press the shutter release button.

woman making a frame with her fingers.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

To fill the frame means you have to be mindful of everything you include, not only your main subject. You need to consider the entire frame when you are looking through your camera viewfinder. Beginning photographers too often are fixated on their subject. This is not all you need to be thinking about. 

You also need to look at what’s in the background and what other elements are in your frame. Think about how these things add to or distract from your subject. How does the light affect your composition? Will using a wide-angle lens, a zoom lens, or a telephoto lens help you frame your subject better? The more pointless things you have in your frame, the less visual impact your photo will have.

Key Tip

As you go to take a photo, look around the edges of your frame and at each of the corners. What can you see? Is it helping to fill the frame in an interesting way that adds to the photo you are taking? What’s peripheral in your photos often either helps contain a viewer’s gaze or takes it outside the image. 

One reason vignettes are a popular editing addition to photos is that the darkened edges help keep people’s attention on the subject. Having light or bright shapes or lines at the edges or corners tends to draw attention outwards and away.

close up portrait of a women.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Adding a vignette to this portrait helps keep your attention on the subject. Light areas at the edges were distracting. Even though the depth of field is very shallow and there’s no mistaking what my main subject is, the bright areas did not add to the composition. There was also one white flower in the background that I cloned out for the same reason.

Consider Your Main Subject

Many strong photos have one main subject. It’s a rare photographer who can include many, many elements in a frame and hold a viewer’s attention. Sebastiao Salgado is one who does it magically well. For most of us, it’s often best to include a single subject for viewers to focus on. This might be one element or a group. The more whatever else you include in the frame to support this subject, the stronger your compositions will be.

street parade off-center placement.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

For this photo of a young man with his French horn playing in a street parade, I positioned myself carefully. I have also chosen a narrow aperture setting and come in close to him. This is so the busy background is not distracting but still provides supportive information.

I wanted to feature him. The shape of his instrument attracted me, as did his red shirt and intense concentration. I used my 35mm lens set to f/1.4. Had I used a narrower aperture setting and stood further back, his bandmates in the background would compete visually. Being close to him and using a wide aperture means you know who the other people are in the photo. But they are not taking attention away from the young man and his French horn.

Had I stood to his left, most of the band would be excluded from the frame and the bystanders watching the parade would be visible. While this would also add context, it would not make such an interesting photo. Including the other band members adds to the story in a more interesting way.

Can Negative Space be Used to Help Fill the Frame?

Yes. So long as it’s intentional. Negative space is all the area around your main subject. Some photos have no negative space. The subject fills the entire frame. Most compositions do include some negative space. This is a legitimate way to help fill the frame, so long as the space is a deliberate part of the photo.

Snapshot photos often contain vast amounts of space. This space has not been considered at all by the photographer. They are fixated on their subject and are not paying attention to what else is happening in the frame. With care, any space can be creatively included in a photograph. But it must be intentional and add something to the image.

Fill the frame does not require you to compose, so only a small portion of what’s before you is in your photos. In any photographic situation exploiting the options of filling the frame with some empty space or taking a close-up is good practice. Ask yourself, does the empty background add to or detract from the composition?

wide angle image of a boat on a beach.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

When I took this photo, there was nothing much other than negative space to include. I did not want to crop in tight to the young guy in his canoe. That would have meant losing context. The lake and the beautiful light are also important elements in this photo.

The negative space is relevant and adds to the overall aesthetic. Along with my exposure choice, it creates the mood of the picture. Had I set my exposure for the man and canoe, the reflection on the water would contain little or no detail. Having no texture visible in such a large portion of the frame would not have helped my composition.

Is It Possible to Use Other Composition Rules and Fill the Frame?

Yes! Making good use of other composition rules will help filling the frame in more interesting ways. The rules of composition are popular for a reason. They work. Most composition rules have been used for hundreds of years by painters. Photography has adapted them to the medium, but often in a more limited manner.

Painters and sculptors are not restricted by time and space as photographers are. Our cameras take a photo in a split second. A painter has as long as they like to work on a piece. They can compose and recompose as often as they like. Moving elements around on their canvas is much easier than moving them around in your camera’s viewfinder.

Contemplating how you’ll compose a photo, think about the lines and shapes you are seeing. Will they fit with a dynamic symmetry grid? Could you apply the rule of thirds? Are there strong lines, either real or implied, you can make use of? Whatever other techniques you incorporate into your composition, use them well. It’s never a good idea to apply a rule when it doesn’t help enhance the picture.

woman sitting against an old tree stump for filling the frame.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Don’t Force It

Never force the use of a composition rule when you are framing a picture to take. Make sure the elements you are working with come together well. Don’t try to manipulate images, so they comply with any composition rule you feel like using. Fit the rule to your subject.

Whenever you are composing photos, it’s best to do so using your intuition. The better you know, and the more you have practiced the rules of composition, the more freely you’ll make optimum use of them. Don’t force a rule on your subject. Let it happen naturally. Practicing and understanding composition techniques enable you to become skilled at using them. The more you practice, the more naturally you can incorporate them into your photos.

Don’t aim to break the rules of composition. Aim to know them so well that you can use them without consciously being aware of what you are doing. With plenty of regular practice, you can learn to apply composition rules most creatively.

Strong Shapes and Lines

frame composed with shapes and lines.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

I composed this photo to make use of the strong shapes and lines. I always like photographing bicycles whenever I find them in interesting locations. The circular window provides a perfect balance of the bike’s wheels. Together they form an implied triangle that mimics the shapes in the bicycle and the triangle shapes seen through the window.

The red lines of the fence and the one painted on the wall are prominent elements, as are the vertical lines in the round window. The three potted plants add to the visual harmony. If there had been two plants or four plants, they would not have helped to fill the frame so well. 

Structuring a photo well is important. How you arrange elements within your frame can add strength or create visual chaos. Filling the frame is not about cramming as much into it as you can. Leave space. Manipulate the lines and shapes. Consider the weight of light tones and dark tones. Use the building blocks of composition well.

Key Tip

The rules of composition are best applied when you know them so well you don’t have to think about which one to use. You will see a scene to photograph and know intuitively which rule will best apply. This takes time and practice. Experience will show you when it’s best to apply a particular composition rule to help you fill your frame.

Edward Weston said, “Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.” 

couple walking along the mountains in the background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

How to Fill the Frame?

Filling the frame is a matter of including what you want and excluding everything else. There are various techniques and tricks for doing this well.

Where to Take a Photo From

Where you take your photo from, your point of view determines much of what you’ll see in your picture. Positioning yourself well, you can exclude elements from the background you don’t want to see in your photos.

Photographs render what we see in three dimensions into two dimensions. This means that elements included in a composition may appear differently through the lens. When we see with both eyes open, we have a different perception of depth than what is captured in a photograph. Closing one eye as you line up a photo can help bring this into a clearer perspective.

You have to ‘zoom with your feet’ to adjust your composition when using a prime lens. You are also more likely to explore different angles as you are not relying on zooming to alter your composition.

As you move about, look at how the relationship between the elements changes in your composition. Watch how the reflection of light can change the appearance of objects depending on where you view them from. Take your time. Don’t rush. When you have found something interesting to photograph, it’s worth spending time to get it right.

Take photos from many different angles if you are not sure. Carefully compose each one as well as you can. Don’t blaze away in continuous frame mode. Compose each frame with purpose, even if at first you are not sure if it will be any good. As you shift your point of view, you will see your subject, other elements, and the background differently.

portrait of a woman outdoors with a blurred background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Try This

Look at an object about two or three meters (yards) away from you that’s around the same size as a laptop computer. Close one eye and hold one hand out at arm’s length, so the object is obscured from behind your hand. Move your hand a little to the left or right. This reveals the object. Then hide the object behind your hand again.

Now open both eyes. Can you see the thing your hand was blocking when you had one eye closed?

This exercise can help you understand more about what happens when you are looking through your camera lens and not using both your eyes. You see things from a different perspective, even when you are using a standard lens.

camera positioned far from the subject.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

These guys made the most delicious kebabs. I ate there on many occasions and one day took a series of photos. It was an ideal situation. The men were very interactive with customers and even people who happened to be passing by. I knew they would not mind being photographed. I wanted to capture a number of images to show the location and the action.

I moved around and took photos from many different angles. The scene was so colorful and active it was not so difficult to get some interesting pictures of it. Had I only stood in one spot though, my perspective would have been too limited. By moving around, I was able to make a good series with a lot of variety, all of the same subject.

getting closer to the subject.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Move Your Camera

In each place you take a photo from, experiment with your compositions. When you’re taking a photo and there’s something distracting behind your main subject, you can often hide that unwanted element from view. You do this by moving a little. Left, right, up or down. Even a small change in your point of view can make a big difference to how you fill the frame.

A simple camera tilt or shift will alter what you see at any edge of your frame. Where you have something at the top of your frame you don’t want to see, tilt your camera down a little. If there’s something on the left or right that’s best eliminated from view, shift your camera one way or the other. You can avoid seeing the distraction with this basic movement.

To do this well, you need to be paying attention to everything within your frame. This can be challenging at times. If there are a lot of moving elements in a scene you are photographing, it can be tricky to keep track of them all. When you’re making a close-up portrait or taking some still life photos, it’s easier to do.

Look around the edges of your subject and of your frame. Whatever is closest to your subject within your frame, you must pay most attention to. It might be something some distance behind your subject that visually intersects with it and creates a distraction. If you’re not looking for these types of things, you may not see them.

When you are looking and you do notice them, then you can make amends. Often a simple camera movement can help eliminate unwanted elements from within your field of view.

night scene framed in camera viewfinder.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Try This

Find a single subject to photograph. Compose it as you normally would. Take a photo. Then compose it again, but only by moving your camera a little. Observe what you can see in your viewfinder. Look at what else is in the frame with your subject. Is there anything there that does not need to be and is not enhancing your main subject?

Move a little to the left or to the right. Up or down. Can you improve on the first composition you made by simply moving your camera a little? Don’t be shy to check your camera’s monitor to see how you are framing your subject. When you look at your monitor, you may see elements in the frame that you had not noticed when you were looking through the viewfinder.

Once you practice using this technique for a while, you’ll find yourself doing it virtually every time you go to take a photo.

taking photo from a different angle.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

From this angle, I was able to capture some candid photos of this chef. When he was busy, he was focused on his work. I was also around the side of the kebab stand and not obvious to him from this position.

Move Your Body

More than zooming with your feet, move your position closer, further back, left, or right. Even up or down when you can. This will alter what you see in the background and the relationship of your subject to other elements in the frame. Sometimes it takes more than a little camera movement to improve the composition.

When you find something interesting to photograph, move around and view it from different angles. Often, the first place you think to take a photo from will not result in the most interesting picture. The best way to discover where you are going to get the best photo from is to move about. This is one reason using prime lenses helps you compose your photos more creatively.

Take time to observe what you are photographing and consider what will happen when you change positions and view it from a different angle. Exploring the possibilities by actually moving around is the best approach. You will see things alternatively when you change your position. Your final image will be stronger for it.

Your initial impulse for where to take a photograph from will not always make a great composition. It will be the most obvious, so this is where most people will take a photo of the same subject. You will often get better photos from the second or third position you try.

Don’t only think about it, do it. Actually move and observe as you do. Changing where you alter your relationship with every aspect of the composition.

moving close.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

As I moved around, I was able to photograph the same man with a variety of backgrounds. For this photo, I was much closer to him, and we were chatting together as I was buying a kebab from him. 

Distance Matters

The closer you are to what you are taking pictures of, the more pronounced difference changing position makes. Taking photographs of a very wide landscape and moving only a little may not make much difference at all. Photographing a head and shoulders portrait, any small amount of movement you make will have more impact.

Anything that you are close to will be affected more in how it looks in your viewfinder than objects further away from you. Think about this and experiment with how your subject looks by getting closer to it and then further away from it.

As you are learning to use this technique, take lots of photos. Compose and take pictures from each position you try. Even if you don’t think they look much good at the time you take them, don’t delete them from your card.

Review sets of images you make of each subject you photograph like this and compare them. Look for aspects of the compositions you like the most. And those that you like the least. This will help you improve your photography composition much more than if you only take photos from the first point of view you think of.

Change Your Focal Length

Zooming with your feet, getting closer or further from your subject, has a certain effect. Changing lenses to a longer focal length or to get a wide-angle composition with a short focal length produces a different type of image.

Using a zoom lens extended to its farthest focal length gives you a very different perspective than standing close to your main subject. With a wide-angle lens, it looks much different. How your subject appears and what you can see in the background will be very different depending on your focal length and focal point.

Sometimes you might need to stand far from your main subject. To fill the frame well, you may think you need to use a long focal length lens, so a significant portion of what is around your main subject is excluded. Changing lenses and positions may make a more interesting composition. 

Getting into a higher or lower position could help. Including another critical element could enhance your subject. Use an off-center placement of your subject. Embrace some negative space. This can make a creative alternative to always taking close-ups.

The longer the focal length lens you use, the greater the appearance of elements in your frame look closer together. This compression also affects what you see within your frame. Elements appear a lot closer together when you use a long lens than when you choose a wide focal length.

Photographic exploration is a good thing. Using a different lens, closer or further focal point, and alternative points of view helps you to see better ways to compose your photos. Always relying on zooming is not the best option. Using prime lenses forces you to see and fill the frame with your subject alternatively.

less distant image.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

I took the photo above with my 35mm lens on a full-frame camera. I was standing quite close to my subject with the camera tilted down. This allowed me to capture the lovely shadow made as she twirled and swayed her dress.

Experiment with Different Focal Lengths

Find a single subject to photograph that has some distance between it and the background. Compose a photo using a medium lens, say a 50mm on a full-frame camera or a 35mm on a crop sensor. If there are other elements nearby that are in your frame and different distances from the background, this will help.

Take a few photos with your medium lens. Move a little and a lot around your subject to see if you can improve your composition. Keep about the same distance from your subject as you do this.

Then, still using the same focal length, move closer to your subject. Take another series of photos. Then move back further away from it than where you started. Take more photos.

Now change your focal length to the widest you have. Compose your subject so that it’s about the same size in your frame as it was in the first set of photos you made. Take another series of photos. Move about and look at your subject from a variety of perspectives.

Can you get closer to your subject and take another series of images? Then get further back. Stand the same distance away you were when you made the third set of images using your standard lens.

Now repeat this exercise again using your longest lens. Start by framing your subject, so it’s about the same size as it was in the very first photos you made of it. Then move closer and further away as you make this series of photos using your longest focal length.

Review all these photos on your computer. Look at how your main subject appears in your compositions in relation to other elements in your frame.

image taken wtih 180mm lens - focal length example.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Here’s another photo of the same young lady as the image above. They were taken on the same day in the same park. In this photo, I used my 180mm lens for a completely different look and feel to my composition.

How Much of the Image Needs to be in Focus?

Using a wide aperture is a popular photography technique to create bokeh (blur around your subject.) Filling your frame with blur is very effective when you do it well. How much blur you include depends on the subject and how relevant the background is. Sometimes you may want completely soft bokeh. Blur at other times may hide relevant information that can help to fill your frame and add to the image.

In a busy composition where much of the information is relevant to your main subject, managing the depth of field can be challenging. You must combine the right lens and aperture setting. You need to focus and consider the background distance. These things control how blurred or sharp portions of your composition are.

including the relevant surrounding elements.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Managing this well means you can maintain a viewer’s attention on your main subject. You can still have other elements in the frame that provide supporting information. At best, the other elements will be recognizable but not distracting.

This takes practice. Using one focal length consistently means you’ll get a feel for it and how to best manage depth of field. This is one reason I love using prime lenses more than zoom lenses. I use my 35mm and 105mm lenses the most and have a pretty good feel for how the depth of field will appear when using my most common settings.

To learn more about how to do this, please check out my article on depth of field.

Managing Depth of Field

sharp image with blurred background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

For this photo, I used my 50m lens at f/4. Because I was relatively close to the people’s hands as I focused, they are sharp, and the background is blurred but still recognizable. You can make out that this action of passing the slice of cheese was at a busy market. You are able to make out people and products on display in the background. These help to fill my frame with relevant information without distracting from my main subject.

Had my lens or settings been different, more of the photo could have been in focus. With a wider lens and a narrower aperture setting, a photo taken from the same distance would have a deeper depth of field. The people and products in the background could be sharp. This would distract from the foreground action.

Fill the Frame with What is Relevant

Woman forming a frame with her arms and dreadlocks.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Filling the frame making the subject spill over the edges is not what it means to fill the frame. When this technique works best for the chosen subject of a photograph, use it! But, you can also make good use of negative space to enhance an image. Filling the frame in photography is about including what is relevant to the photograph you want to make. Exclude everything else.

Be mindful of what you see within the edges of your frame. Filling the frame of your image with elements or empty space that does not support your subject weakens any photograph. Take time to look carefully before you press your shutter button. Your photography will improve greatly the more consistent you are in doing this.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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