Lesson 53: The Rule of Filling the Frame

One of the oft-cited quotes of famous photographers is:  “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” (Robert Capa).  Given that Capa (famous for his images from wars as a photojournalist) reportedly died when he stepped on a land mine, it’s probably best to bear in mind that there is such a thing as too close.

There is an important message to consider in the context of our earlier lesson on filling the frame, however.  As I said before, your frame will be full of something.  Make sure it’s the something you wanted.  In Lesson 3, I used the example of taking a picture of my dog and how I would caption each example based on what was included in the frame and what wasn’t.

But what about when you’re shooting large landscapes?  Landscapes don’t often present themselves with logical end points.  And part of the impact of a landscape is expansiveness and scale.  There absolutely is such a thing as being too close when the story you want to tell is about vastness.  (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Pro HDR app.)

You have to make choices about what will fit in your frame and what won’t when you’re shooting a landscape.  One of the things I love about landscape photography is that there is usually time to figure this out.  Granted, changing light, weather, or a rising moon may make me feel rushed, but even then, a little bit of planning gives me lots of time to choose what I want in my frame.

There are many details to consider.  One of the things I look at are the edges of my frame.  Am I cutting off a city scape smack dab in the middle of a building?  Could I change my angle slightly or take a step back to hit between two buildings instead? (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Camera Awesome App.)

Similarly for a wilderness scene, I’m often shooting through tree branches.  I want those foreground branches to create a frame for the distant view.  I also want those tree branches to be in focus because I find blurry branches distracting.  Sometimes, I have to pick one, no matter how much I love pick-two menus.  (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Camera Awesome app.)

Your Assignment:  You’re frame is full every time you point your camera at something.  The key is to decide what you fill it with.  Get closer when your subject warrants being close–like people or subjects where the details make the difference.  Get further away when your subject needs distance–like vast landscapes.  Then look for what else is in your frame that you didn’t pick.  Do you want it there?  Can you do something differently to exclude it if not?

Lesson 3: Fill the Frame

In yesterday’s post we explore the rule of thirds.  Today, we’ll add the second “rule” (remember, rules are only meant to help you understand the choices you can make) of taking better photographs:  fill the frame.

You want your frame to be full of your subject.  Not the stuff around, behind, above, below the subject, just the subject.

To make this easy, let’s say you wanted to take a picture of a dog.  Often, people will take a picture of a dog that looks something like this:


Let’s look at what’s in the frame.  When you look at this image, you see that I have an ugly blanket draped sloppily over my sofa, there’s a plastic tray on one arm, an outlet partially showing behind the plastic tray, and an awkward corner of an area rug in the lower foreground along with a wood floor.  All of these things distract from my subject, which is my dog.

Even though I applied the rule of thirds by placing the upper-left intersection of the grid (discussed in yesterday’s post) on my dog’s eye, my dog looks like he’s floating in the middle of a bunch of other stuff.

When I apply the rule of filling the frame with the subject, this is what I get:


There are several things about this image that could be improved, but we’ll save those for later lessons.  In spite of these issues, the sloppy blanket has become a neutral background and there is no question about what the subject of this image is.

Think about it this way:  the first photo would probably be captioned as “dog on a blanket-covered sofa in the living room with his toy,” while the second image would just be captioned, “dog with toy.”  There’s nothing wrong with an image of a dog on a blanket-covered sofa in the living room with his favorite toy unless what you wanted was an image of a dog with his toy.

As a side note, I do not recommend zooming using the iPhone or any other camera that doesn’t have Optical Zoom.  Optical zoom means there is a moving lens that makes the image look closer.  A camera like an iPhone camera has Digital Zoom.  Digital zoom means the magical wizard in your smart phone figures out how to make the image look bigger, but it reduces the resolution of your image, often resulting in something really grainy.  If at all possible, use your feet instead of your fingers when it comes to getting a close up with a smart phone.

Your Assignment:  Pick your favorite subject that’s willing to stay still for a few minutes.  Stand far back and take an image of your subject applying the rule of thirds–don’t worry about what else is in the frame.  Now, step up close, apply the rule of thirds again, fill the frame with your subject, and take a second image.  Remember you have the option to turn your iPhone vertically if that helps.  Which image captures your subject more powerfully?