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I’ve written about using negative space in composition both here on the website and in my composition ebooks. But it’s also interesting to write about its opposite technique – filling the frame.
There are two problems you need to be aware of when it comes to filling the frame. The first is that when you use the rule of thirds you might get a large area of empty space on one side of the photo.
The other is that you can also end up with too much empty space if you over-simplify the composition.
The solution is to find something interesting that fills the space. It should complement the subject without distracting from it.
The 35mm problem
You’re more likely to encounter these problems if you use the 35mm format. The 3:2 aspect ratio means that you’re working with a narrower rectangle than photographers who use Micro-four thirds cameras (which have a 4:3 aspect ratio).
The long rectangle is even more challenging to work with when you use it in the portrait format. The degree of difficulty depends on your subject. It’s easy to fill the frame when making a portrait, for example, but a lot harder when you’re making a landscape photo. Some landscape photographers prefer to use a medium format camera (with a 4:3 aspect ratio) because of that.
Now it’s time to look at some practical examples of how you can fill the 35mm frame.
Use more than one focal point
Many photos have a single main subject and a background. A portrait is a good example. The model’s face is the subject, and the rest of the photo is background.
One way to add interest to the composition and fill the frame at the same time is to use more than one focal point.
In the photo below, for example, the facades of the buildings in the photo take the eye from one side of the frame to the other. They fill the space and create a kind of visual rhythm as the eye jumps from one to the other.
Filling the frame with pattern
This isn’t a technique you can use often. But it comes in useful when you find interesting repeating shapes and patterns. See what happens when you move in close so they fill the frame.
That’s exactly what I did with the photo below. I could have stepped further back and included the entire basket in the photo. But in this situation it made more sense to move in close and fill the frame with the apples. The repeating shapes, colors and textures are interesting to look at. You can see enough of the basket to see what it is. There’s no need to include more of it.
Filling the frame with an interesting background
A common technique in photography is to use a prime lens and a wide aperture to blur the background. There are times when this is the right way to compose a photo. But there are others when it’s better to stop down and make the background sharper. The idea is to include interesting, contextual detail that’s partially blurred, but not unrecognizable. You can see how that works in this photo.
Filling the frame with story telling detail
The final technique is to fill the frame with interesting details that tell a story about the subject.
For example, in the photo below the main subject is the house. The rest of the photo provides context. The stone wall in the foreground shows that the house is in a country lane. The trees tell us that it’s summer and that there’s an orchard in front of the house. The clouds add interest to the sky – it would have been far less interesting photo if it were blue.
How long did it take you to see the birds? They add interest and provide a kind of reward for looking at the photo and taking in the detail.
Regardless of your camera’s aspect ratio there are times when using negative space is a good approach to composition. But there are times when you need to take the opposite approach and find interesting ways of filling the frame.
A lot depends on the subject. If you’re making landscape photos with long exposures, for example, then it’s natural to use negative space. It’s part of the point of the technique.
The same applies if you’re making photos with a prime lens set to a wide aperture. This technique can blur the background completely and look very effective in a photo.
But there are times when stopping down and making the background sharper is better. You’ll learn to tell the difference with experience. Don’t forget you can experiment with different apertures to see which results you prefer.
If you use the rule of thirds a lot in your compositions then you need to pay attention to filling the frame. As we’ve seen using the thirds can result in a lot of empty space. It’s not enough to put the subject on a third – you need to think about the entire frame and what’s going on in every part. The ideas in this tutorial will help you with that.
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Lots of people. Anybody with a full-frame digital SLR or mirrorless camera is basically using a 35mm camera. APS-C digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras have the same aspect ratio. And yes, square format is very good for all sorts of subjects.
I had a look and couldn’t find your web site on photography. If you could let me know so I can see your advice and tips that would be great!
Hi Lucia, absolutely, the lens doesn’t really matter, it’s more about the shape of the frame and finding interesting ways to fill any empty spaces.
‘…to use a medium format camera (with a 4:3 aspect ratio) because of that…’
No, 4:3 is the aspect ratio used by digital medium format cameras. 5:4 is used by view cameras.