Composition and filling the frame

Composition and Filling the Frame

The 35mm format presents a unique challenge when it comes to composition – filling the frame.

Let me explain what I mean.

Photos taken with full-frame and crop-sensor digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras have an aspect ratio of 3:2. This figure compares the ratio between the photo’s width and height (width:height – width always comes first). It means the frame is one and a half times as wide as it is high. If you turn the camera on its side, the aspect ratio becomes 2:3.

The long rectangular shape of the 35mm format means that once you place your subject somewhere within the frame, you’re often left with space around it. The challenge is filling this space with something that is both interesting and relevant to the subject.

Working on the principle that we can improve composition by simplifying means that you could potentially end up with too much empty space around the main subject. That can reduce the impact of the photo.

Filling the frame

Here’s an example. I made this photo in Mexico. There were two girls selling some items in the street. I saw the beautiful green wall behind them and knew it had the potential for a great photo. I asked them if I could take a photo and they said yes.

Composition and filling the frame

Afterwards I realized that I hadn’t filled the frame very well. The girls are central in the frame, and there isn’t much of interest around them. The result is empty space at either end of the frame.

One option is to crop the photo, but there is still empty space on the left-side.

Composition and filling the frame

To be honest, there probably isn’t much I could have done in this situation, because there wasn’t anything interesting to fill the empty spaces. A solution is to crop to a shorter rectangle, such as the 4:3 aspect ratio used by Micro Four-thirds cameras.

Composition and filling the frame

This problem of filling the frame is one of the reasons that some photographers prefer Micro Four-thirds cameras. And, more in the past than now, medium or large format cameras. Their aspect ratios give a shorter rectangle that is easier to fill.

Learn more: Framing, Placement and Composition

How to fill the 35mm frame

So, how can we overcome the challenge of composing using the 35mm format? I don’t believe that we can use the aspect ratio of the 35mm format as an excuse for poor composition. After all, there are plenty of photographers that are good at filling the 35mm frame.

If you find yourself struggling to fill the frame, you probably need to take some steps to deepen your understanding of composition.

The key is to find something interesting to fill the space that complements the subject without distracting from it.

Let’s look at some examples.

In this portrait the model’s face takes up part of the frame. I asked her to lean against the fence, then used the white posts to fill the left side of the frame. The post create a line that takes the viewer’s gaze to the model.

Composition and filling the frame

In the next portrait I placed the model on a third. One of the dangers of using the rule of thirds like this is that you end up with too much empty space around your model.

Learn more: Beyond the Rule of Thirds

Here though I wanted to show the background to give the portrait some context. There are old tyres, a metal roller door, an old oil can and a wall with peeling paint in the background. I used a wide aperture (f1.2) to make all those items go out of focus, otherwise they would have been too distracting.

Composition and filling the frame

The next portrait uses a similar idea to the first two. I positioned the model in front of an interesting rock formation, then used a wide aperture to selectively focus on the model. The rocks are out of focus and create an interesting background that fills the space without creating a distraction.

Composition and filling the frame

In this close-up photo of a red flower there was potentially too much empty space on the right-hand side. Luckily I was able to compose it in a way that included part of another flower. It fills the space without pulling too much attention away from the other flower. It creates interest in the empty part of the frame without being too strong.

Composition and filling the frame

I made the next photo in a glassblowing studio. My aim was to show the process that the glassblower went through while making things. I did that by using a wide aperture (a necessity in the low light anyway) and focusing on the hot glass and the glassblower’s hand.

But I made sure that the background was filled with interesting items, in this case the tools he uses while at work.

Composition and filling the frame

The final example is a photo I made in Beijing of two men playing Xiangqi (Chinese chess). I placed the board itself in the middle of the frame, with the two men either side. This was a natural and easy way to fill the frame. I deliberately included the feet of somebody watching the game as it’s an interesting detail.

Composition and filling the frame


Regardless of what aspect ratio you are using it’s important to fill the frame with interesting detail and to avoid the use of too much empty space. This is especially important with 35mm cameras as the 3:2 aspect ratio lends itself to compositions that leave empty space at either end of the frame.

It’s also something that comes into play if you tend to place your subject on a third, as this can result in a lot of empty space in the frame. It’s not enough to place the subject on a third and then think that the job is done – you need to think about the entire frame and what’s going on in every part.

The skill takes time to develop, but with practice you’ll become faster and better at it.

Further reading

Composition ebooks

Learn more about composition with our ebooks Mastering Composition Book One, Mastering Composition Book Two and Square.


Mastering Composition ebook

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


  1. Who uses 35 mm format any more? Also for some subjects, e.g. portraits, the square format probably is effective.

    1. Author

      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.

    2. Hello Bruce.

      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!

  2. Hi Andrew, would this be the same for shooting with a 35mm lens?

    1. Author

      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.

  3. Having shot 35mm film for decades, early on in my film days I was entranced by the concept of medium format film cameras. Many years went by before I finally purchased a Pentax 67. The 6×7 aspect ratio closely matches 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras. For five years I photographed landscapes with my Pentax 67, shooting black & white negative, and Velvia transparencies. I typically carried three prime Pentax lenses, and always used a solid tripod.

    My time spent shooting 6×7 film was rewarding and educational; My negative and transparency library contains many photos that I treasure. I have the photos scanned as the photography budget allows.

    When digital cameras had matured enough to gain my attention, I started with a crop sensor Nikon. I have also retained a few older Nikon film bodies, and use my collection of Nikon manual-focus lenses with auto-focus Nikon digital bodies.

    As I moved into more into digital photography, I eventually sold my Pentax 67 system. It became unreasonable for me to support too much gear. I have thought of buying a basic Pentax 67 system again — one body, two prime lenses.

    This discussion is about aspect ratios. One of the many things that I miss about my Pentax 67 is the aspect ratio. I don’t miss the system weight and the film development and scanning costs.

    When shooting with a modern full-frame or crop sensor digital camera, I am happy with the crop overlay tool in Lightroom. Different aspect ratios can be selected, and the photo can be dragged within the cropping frame to finalize the framing of the photograph. The virtual copy tool in Lightroom allows for an easy creation of multiple variations of a photograph.

    To think of an advantage of the 3/2 aspect ratio of digital cameras, panorama photos come to mind, both horizontal and vertical.

    Another puzzling aspect of the 3/2 digital sensor is the classic 8×10 enlargement. The 8×10 crop is fine for portraits, but why automatically throw away pixels by cropping an 8×12 landscape photograph that has been shot in landscape orientation? An 8×12 photo of a waterfall may also be best un-cropped.

    Fortunately many photographers own digital cameras with enough pixel density to allow reasonable cropping. Other techniques exist such as using focus-stacking software.

    Coming full circle, there is an instinctive satisfaction in creating a large, un-cropped photograph from an un-manipulated 6×7 Velvia transparency. My photo of reference is of Mount Rainier — the final snowfields, the rock faces, and the clouds above the summit of Mount Rainer. During a sudden spring storm, I had descended for cover, then re-ascended as “The Mountain Was Out”.

    A large metal print of that day was to become a wedding gift. I could capture a similar photograph with my full-frame Nikon, but there is something special about the 6×7 aspect ratio on that day. It surely fit with the summit of Mount Rainier.

    1. Author

      Hi Christopher, interesting to hear about your experiences with medium format cameras. A lot of photographers used them because they preferred the aspect ratio. There’s a well known British landscape photographer called Joe Cornish who shot a lot of landscapes with a large format camera in the portrait orientation because the shorter rectangle is easier to compose in.

      Thanks for the interesting link. My understanding is that the 3:2 aspect ratio has been used as the standard for 35mm cameras ever since Oskar Barnack chose it as the format to use in Leica cameras in the early 20th century.

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