When I was a kid and hadn’t been taking pictures very long my mother often asked me, “What were you taking a picture of?”
She couldn’t see what I saw when I pressed the shutter on my simple Kodak box camera because I hadn’t filled the frame with my subject.
Our brains are very good at filtering out all the peripheral junk that our eyes see, concentrating our attention on whatever we’re interested in at the moment. A camera doesn’t perform the same magic. It records everything the lens sees, regardless of its importance.
Filling the frame doesn’t necessarily mean to photograph a close-up view. It simply means to eliminate everything that is not
important to your subject. A broad landscape or an intimate detail can fill your frame. Ask yourself, “What am I seeing?” Then get rid of the rest. Lose the extra space around your family. Get rid of the cars along the street when your home is the subject. Bring your viewer’s attention to the exquisite blossom in your garden.
Are you photographing your grandmother’s beautiful face? Then move (or zoom) in so her face nearly fills the frame, with just a little room around her so she doesn’t look crowded. But if you want to show her love of cooking, you’ll want to include some of the kitchen and see the space where she creates marvelous flavors as well as her face.
There is, of course, a point of balance in this frame-filling business. You can go too tight, so close that you remove all context for your subject. That’s fine if mystery is your motivation. But more often you’ll want to give your subject a little “breathing room.” Play around with your framing until, like Goldilocks, you find the “just right” composition. At first you’ll have to think about it every time, but with practice you’ll be filling the frame with your subject nearly every time.
One way to tell if you’ve succeeded in filling the frame and creating compelling images, is to look at many of them together as small thumbnails. The strong images will almost jump out at you, while the weak ones will recede into the background. You can do this on your computer or with a stack of prints laid out on the kitchen table.
When you get it right, your mom will no longer ask, “What were you taking a picture of?”
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Mark Turner is a Bellingham professional photographer who creates heirloom portraits of families, high school seniors, and pets. He is the photographer and co-author of Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Bellingham Impressions, and the smartphone app Washington Wildflowers. His photography has been published in national garden books and magazines for 20 years. His website is turnerphotographics.com.