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Learning composition: getting in close and filling the frame

In the previous two installments of this series, basic concepts and lines and curves, we covered how to control what is in your viewfinder and the use of lines in your compositions. In this third article, I want to talk a little more about framing because it is so important. In particular, a very simple concept that can have a profound impact on your photographs: filling the frame with your subject.

Many snapshots are taken from a respectful distance from the subject. Partly this is convention, partly it is not wanting to be rude and put a camera in someone’s face, sometimes people feel like they need to include their entire subject (in the case of people, the entire body) in the frame. The result is usually less than stellar. Remember that the frame is your canvas. Everything in the frame should have something to add to the photo.

Boy, closeup. 1/400s @ f/4, 200mm
Boy, closeup. 1/400s @ f/4, 200mm

One of the easiest ways to exclude elements from a scene, especially in the background, is to simply move closer to your subject. As you move closer, your subject begins to fill the frame, the background is eliminated, and you begin to create a feeling of intimacy and reveal details that just aren’t there in a wider shot.

You can also do this by zooming in. And you can do it after the fact by cropping your image once you’ve downloaded it from your camera. The only caveat there is that the more you crop your image in software, the maximum size print you can make is reduced.

The following example shows how filling the frame can give you a different feel:

Children, cropped. 1/60s @ f/2.8
Children, cropped. 1/60s @ f/2.8

And here is the original, uncropped version:

Children, wide. 1/60s @ f/2.8
Children, wide. 1/60s @ f/2.8

The original is already pretty close. But notice that it still includes background elements. You can tell that the children are sitting in a chair. You can see a dining table behind them. You can see her arm around his shoulders and their clothing. These elements give you context, they put the children in a specific place and time. In the tight crop, all of that is gone. The surroundings and everything they can contribute to your understanding of the scene are removed. You are left, simply, with a feeling, an emotion, joy.

There’s an important difference between zooming closer and actually moving closer and it all has to do with perspective. When you are far away from something and you zoom closer, all you are really doing is cropping and enlarging the image in your camera. You get a cropped version of the scene in front of you. But when you actually move closer to your subject, the perspective changes. Straight lines begin to diverge and objects closer to the lens grow larger while objects farther from the lens get smaller. This is important to keep in mind, especially when shooting people. Moving in close to a person can distort and exaggerate features in an unflattering way. This is especially pronounced when using wide angle lenses very close to your subject.

Girl, closeup. 1/125s @ f/3.5, 18mm
Girl, closeup. 1/125s @ f/3.5, 18mm

The next time you shoot, get closer! Fill your viewfinder with your subject. Get intimate. Reveal hidden details and texture. Create a connection with the viewer. And it hardly matters what your subject is. Personally, I shoot a lot of portraits. But people, architecture, nature, animals–even an octopus–all can benefit from this simple technique.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.
  • To take this one step further: if it’s in the frame, make sure it’s on purpose. A lot of times we shoot so quickly that we don’t look much beyond our main subject. Later when we look at the shot we find trees in the background that look like they are growing out of people’s heads or other distratcting elements. So fill your frame purposely.

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  • Thanks, very useful!

  • Eddie

    Your article was helpful. I wonder how well this will transfer to camcorder. E