When you hear people talk about “filling the frame,” it’s a little confusing because, of course, the frame is always full when you take a picture. It can be full of the fabric on the inside of your back pocket if you happen to be bad about sticking your phone into your pocket with a camera app still running. The frame can be full of sky, ground, sea, people, and/or miscellaneous stuff you never noticed when you were taking the picture.
One of my favorite examples of “stupid vacation photos” from my personal collection is a photo I took of my husband with a giant statue in the background looking like it’s sprouting out of the top of his head.
When we’re talking about filling the frame with the subject, we’re really talking about excluding anything that distracts from the subject and including anything that adds to it. While this may be a simple statement, it’s surprisingly difficult to achieve. Since we talked about landmarks in yesterday’s post, let’s talk about what that means when we’re photographing a subject like a large bridge, scenic riverfront, or other expansive views.
As a side note, since this lesson applies to all cameras, I’ve used photos taken with a DSLR camera rather than an iPhone. This allowed me to reuse photos from an earlier shoot rather than having to go reshoot with the iPhone.
Let’s take a simple example. We’ll look at 3 photos of the Walnut Street Bridge from under an arch of the Market Street Bridge. Each one includes and excludes different things, but all 3 have something in common: they were shot on the vertical. It’s somewhat unusual to take pictures of bridges vertically–choosing to shoot vertically or horizontally is often the first act of inclusion and exclusion. By choosing the vertical, I was able to make the sky, water, and ground important elements of the photos but get tight enough to keep the Walnut Street Bridge an important part of my overall composition.
Let’s start with 2 very similar versions. Both include a portion of the bow of the Delta Queen (a retired paddle boat that is now a floating hotel) peeking around a pillar of the Market Street Bridge in the foreground:
Notice the difference between the two at where the view of the Walnut Street Bridge ends. The second photo includes about half of the third section whereas the first includes less than a quarter. This subtle difference makes the second photo slightly more about the Walnut Street Bridge. However, both photos have the same problem–both the Market Street Bridge in the foreground and the Walnut Street Bridge in the background are awkwardly cut-off in the middle of a symmetrical shape.
Now, here is a 3rd similar image next to the first two:
Notice what’s excluded from this photo compared to the first two. The Delta Queen is gone. The first vertical support on the Market Street Bridge has disappeared. Notice what’s included. The far end of the Market St Bridge arch is now in the frame. An extra light also appears on top of the bridge. We now see all of the Walnut St Bridge that is visible under the arch. We even see part of a second arch in the Market Street Bridge. Because the end of the first arch is fully in the frame, but just barely, the point where the foreground bridge is cut off feels less awkward to me.
In the process of changing what was included and excluded, I also changed my angle to the bridge. This creates a nicer diagonal that draws the eye into the image. You might also notice how different the lighting looks in the different photos. The sun was shifting through cloud coverage at sunset when these were taken, so there were some unusual and interesting shadows to work with.
I prefer the third photo. I might have liked it better if the first vertical support in the Walnut Street Bridge were fully visible, but, in general, I like the way the structures are cut off in this one better. I also prefer the angle of the bridge, and the simplification of the scene by removing the Delta Queen.
Your Assignment: Take a large subject like a bridge and try different approaches to what you include vs exclude. Pay attention to the architectural shapes in the frame and where they are getting cut-off. Try different angles to see if you can find a way to cut-off those shapes in a way that is visually pleasing. Particularly look at the edges of your frame as you decide what to include and exclude, but don’t forget the rule of thirds. This is usually a great rule to use for this kind of photo. And, of course, never forget rule 1–there are no rules. You may find you can create an abstract-looking photo by cutting off a structure very awkwardly. Sometimes that can be fun, too.