Portrait Tip: Don't Fill the Frame - Digital Photography School
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Portrait Tip: Don’t Fill the Frame

“Fill the Frame with your subject!”

Cheese sellers at Tbilisi Market

I still remember my high school photography teacher instructing our class with this rule. He drummed it into us week after week and his words have echoed in my ears ever since – 20-something years – almost every time I raise my camera to take a portrait.

Hiking in Sunnmøre, Part 3: Skårasalen

The rule was well intentioned and good advice. As I think back to the portraits my classmates and I took back then – many of them were of subjects that could have done well to have the subjects filling the frame more. Many of my early shots had my subject well back from the lens and the result was that they were small in the frame – lacking detail and getting lost in the image.

Filling the frame with your subject helps those viewing the image to know where to look without distraction and in many cases will leave you with a portrait that is intimate and which has impact.

Camera gear over the last decade or so has probably led us to take the ‘fill your frame’ approach to extremes. Relatively compact cameras with ‘super zooms’ and affordable telephoto lenses for DSLRs allow us to fill the frame with little effort.

However this ‘fill the frame’ rule, like all photographic rules, does not apply in every situation and there are times when filling the frame could actually lessen the impact of your shot.

Open air restaurant in Pingyao

The Power of Context

Sometimes what is around your subject is actually going to strengthen a shot and giving your subject context and placing them within a larger scene is what makes a shot come alive. To fill the frame with your subject in these cases is something of a wasted opportunity.

Environmental Portraiture is one that I would highly recommend photographers explore. It is a style of portraiture that is all about capturing a subject in an environment which says something about who they are. It might place them in the context of their work, home, family or some social activity.

gotische damen

It is not always easy to get the balance between the subject an their context right but when that balanced is achieved the images can have real power and leave you with images with real interest.

Again – there’s nothing wrong with filling the frame as a general principle (and it is one I teach my kids) – it’s something many photographers could benefit from doing – however I do sometimes wonder if some fall into the trap of doing it in every circumstance.

Lou, Part II

So next time you’re taking a portrait – before you zoom in and fill that frame – take a few moments to consider the context of your subject and how it might actually improve your shot to include some of it.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Gene E

    Please let me clarify a couple of points by first stating that I like all of these images. They’re very well done and very thought provoking. Each tells it’s own story which is the ultimately goal of photography as I understand it. I have no quarrel with these images or the people who made them.

    @ onyxe, in my haste I used “‘environmental ‘photography’” rather than “environmental ‘portraiture,’” which I meant, and a term that I didn’t invent but merely picked up in the writings in this blog above my first comment.

    @ brian, while simply ignoring my comments would seem to be a tad elitist to me, please feel free to do so if you desire but let me assure you that I am anything but elitist – far from it, however, most words have generally accepted meanings with the occasional broadening exception in normal usage and the word “portrait” is not excused from the pack. Further, just to get it straight, I’m not talking about all the other possible philosophical and idiotic arguments about art and artists or photography as art, and if it really is art – I’m merely talking about the definition of the word “portrait” and whether or not we should hijack the term and alter it to mean whatever we want it to. You seem like a bright guy – look it up in any dictionary or encyclopedia, both of which are good guides and a reasonably acceptable practice in our world, and you will find that we do, as a body of people, generally agree on what the word “portrait” means. Another practical definition, not that it is a recognized authority, but Google ‘images’ for “portraits” and see what you get.

    Imagine, if you will, rather than walking down the hallowed walls of the White House or nearly any other governmental agency, educational or business establishment, museum, castles in Europe, etc., you find an image of John F. Kennedy slouched up on a couch listening to music with headphones, which would be a perfectly reasonable state to find Kennedy in, given that it’s a normal human activity of his time, and saying “and here is a portrait of the 35th President of the United States. Yow? That’s OK? Formality is something artists have rarely been known to have much respect for but that doesn’t mean that other people do not and some people do not like a portrait of them called a snapshot and vice versa. Not me, mind you, I don’t care one way or the other but the people who run things in the world have an idea of what a good portrait is and what isn’t. It’s not simply the purview of the artist community that matters in such an instance.

    It isn’t elitist to want a normal modicum of structure and respect for convention and tradition so we can celebrate the innate distinction of things that differ. Without accepting that there is a distinction between the definitions of a picture and a portrait, we should then just not stop there which means that we could call ducks geese, call cars trucks, broccoli is suddenly cabbage or better yet, cake, and at that rate then, we can simply forget about the distinctions in anything. I even think that has a name – it’s called chaos. For every whimsical Norman Rockwell type, who, incidentally, was known as an “illustrator,” not a painter of portraits, or Van Gogh who was generally figured to have only one oar in the water, also not so much a painter of portraits, there have been literally thousands of portrait artists out there whose paintings and photographs have not been whimsical and I’m sad to see that you would shut all the portrait photographers studios and run them out of town. I have noticed that when studio portrait photographers take their clients out to do a portrait or a family shot, they go to some nice place in the park, not over to the local mechanic’s place or the dentist’s office. Just so you don’t get your drawers in a bigger bunch than they already are, for advertising purposes, or whatever, I see nothing wrong with taking a photo of some dude/dudette at work, playing golf, or… I think I said that already. Nothing wrong with that, especially if he/she is a golfer. I’m just not convinced that meets the criteria of what a portrait should be.

    There has been an on-going effort for a couple of decades now to ‘elevate one’s status’ in life by adapting more sophisticated terminology to describe what one does and in so doing, put oneself in a position to make more money, like a hairdresser or barber becoming a “stylist” when 99.99% of them have never created one single “style” but merely mimicked the creativity and work of others. Could it be that’s what’s involved in this somehow, this effort to try to get us to accept the creation of ordinary snapshots and call them portraits? Shoot whatever you want to but please don’t make me a cheese and baloney sandwich and try to tell me it’s steak and lobster. Now I’m done with this. Cheers!

  • Mike

    I agree 100 % with gene e. This is just like dog breeding. 10 years ago if a lab and a poodle had puppies, you called it a mistake (mut) now you put a cute name on it (labradoodle) and you can sell them for $700. I have spent alot of time learning lighting, composition… To make a good portrait. These are OK pictures, but my 7 yo daughter can take the same pictures. There is a place for these, they just aren’t portraits. Unfortunately, like dog breeding, soon crappy photography will be accepted. The crappy photographers will call it art, and who are we to say what is good when it comes to art?!? I will say these are OK at best as art, and I am darn sure they are not portraits!

  • David M

    BY

  • Tinker’s Realm

    Unbelievable, the author of this article puts something out into the virtual universe to share his perspective w/ those that are interested in the subject & instead get’s beat to death by a bunch of petty people who IMO did not take the time to (or may not even be capable) create an article & post images but that are now ” Pros” worthy of destruction-most pros would not stoop so low IMO!

    To clarify I use the word Pro loosely-meaning anyone with a professional attitude or ability would at least respect the efforts made by the author even if they did not agree & just move on.

    I loved the article-it was a good reminder to add variance.

  • Tinker’s Realm

    PS: I would bet that if a photograph of President Kennedy went up for auction of him sititng around listening to music on a headset versus a Classic Portrait of him taken by an elite professional-The one w\the headset would sell for more $ & reveal more about him-I know which one I would want in my collection.

  • Mike

    I’ll make sure when I go in tomorrow to shoot portraits of 25 of the top executives at bank of America, I’ll let them know that I’m not a “real” professional. BTW I respect his efforts, but to put these shots in the “portrait ” category is wrong. Do these tell a story, yes. Are they portraits, no. These would be great pictures to illustrate a story in a book, or magazine… There is definitely a place for these pictures, just not as portraits.

  • Brian

    A portrait is not a bust. It is not a “head shot”. It is not a picture that “accurately depicts the physical features of their face”, or even a particular facial expression.

    A portrait is a deliberately staged photograph that is intended by its nature to capture the *essence* of the individual, and it certainly *may* include an appropriate backdrop or setting, as well as the accoutrements of the individual’s profession, etc.

    Yes, you *can* and, unless you’re the most inartistic photographer on earth, *should* paint or shoot a portrait of Daniel Boon in his coonskin cap, sitting on a fallen tree on a Kentucky mountainside, with his long rifle across his knees…and that *is* properly termed a portrait, not merely a “picture”, (and one, by the way, that would be much more revealing of the essence of Daniel Boon than if you dressed him up in a suit and sat him in front of a black velvet backdrop).

  • Brian

    Mike, if you take a bunch of shots of old stiffs in suits, you’re the one who’s taking “pictures”, as opposed to creating portraits.

    …and along those lines, if you were to do portraits of the Justices of the Supreme Court, guess what they’d most likely be wearing?

    If you said “their robes”, you’d be right. The accoutrements of their office. And this is no different from a portrait of a blacksmith taken with his sleeves rolled up and the light of the forge reflecting off his face.

  • Tinker’s Realm

    Well, only tell them that Mike-if it’s true & by your attitude I suspect that it is-LOL!!!

    My point is read it & go on-why crap in the guys blog if you don’t agree-just find a blog that you agree w/the photography principles & definitions & stay there-not directed at you personally just MO in general on the subject.

  • Tinker’s Realm

    ITA brian!

  • Mike

    First of all, these old men I’ll be shooting are in their 30s and early 40s,and a few of them are incredibly hot women, but whatever. I never said you had to fill the frame. But, if your subject only takes up 25 % of your frame. That’s the problem. Of course environment can play a huge roll in a portrait, giving context to the subject. But if your subject is less than about 75% of the frame, you lose focus of what the subject is. Then it becomes more of a multi subject story (for lack of a better word) than a portrait. In a portrait there is no question what the main subject is. I don’t disagree with the idea of pulling back, but there is a line you cross if you pull back too far. You go from portrait to something else. All I’m saying is these examples are something

  • Gene E

    a.) Brian, I’ve had the impression that a portrait is mostly designed to cast the subject in a good light, not to ensure that the world knows he’s a slob. Also, it is my impression that in 1800, buckskin clothes were “Sunday go-to-meeting clothes” in those parts.

    b.) tinker’s realm, perhaps you missed something along the way here that has allowed you to feel comfortable in chiding some of us for disagreeing with the blogger. It’s a pretty broadly known concept that if you put a blog on the ‘net espousing potentially controversial views that tend to run counter to accepted practices and provide a comments section, perhaps you should expect that there will be people who don’t agree with you when you depart from “teaching” factual information and climb into a philosophical realm. As for as I’m concerned, tinker’s realm, it isn’t within the scope of your responsibility to defend the blogger’s position by attacking those who would disagree and intimate that they have no right to descent. I admire and respect you for whatever sympathy you may have for the blogger’s position but he seemed quite capable of speaking for himself when he started this blog. He very aptly made his position on this issue clear and invited others to do likewise.

  • Tinker’s Realm

    Clearly, what you define is within my scope, is not for you to determine! I did not miss “Something along the way” but wanted to comment on the benefit of the reminder that I received from the article & that I kept it in perspective to my work & took from it what I wanted without having to create a negative spin & hammer the point (What Define A Portrait) as some have done here. Blogs are like Televison channels- if you don’t like the perspective of the Blogger-Don’t read & move on. It appears a few on here were staying & beating the rest of us over the head w/the fact that we may have gained something positve from the thread & applied it versus attacking the Formal Rules of Portrait Photography. That could be a subject that you could start on your own blog if you have developed one & a following as this Blogger has done!

    Unlike you that seems to have all day to post negative banter-It bores me easily & I will not respond to any of your further posts.

  • Gene E

    Well, with all due respect to you, tinker’s realm, it’s reassuring to see that you did indeed get my point which, more succinctly stated is for you to glean what you choose and withhold your name calling and disparaging insults toward anyone who would be so bold as to express disagreement with the subject matter. So your failure to respond further is precisely in line with the point I wanted to make. I disagree with the blogger and have the right, the facility, and the inclination to state my disagreement free of your unsolicited personal, demeaning, and insulting remarks as does anyone else who chooses to express their thinking on this or any other subject, the expression of which does not make them ‘negative,’ another of your unwarranted condescending comments. I am aware of my rights and choose, in a civil and respectful manner, to take exception to what I perceive to be misinformation when and where I find it, especially that being passed out in the guise of and in the name of a school, without being accosted or insulted by you, being called “petty” and “incapable.” You, perhaps, who nobody was addressing directly, should heed your ‘tv channel’ analogy and stop presuming that it is your calling to tell other people what to think and say. I too, was done with this until you entered the room and made the following insulting comment, whether it was aimed at me or not. “Unbelievable, the author of this article puts something out into the virtual universe to share his perspective w/ those that are interested in the subject & instead get’s beat to death by a bunch of petty people who IMO did not take the time to (or may not even be capable) create an article & post images but that are now ” Pros” worthy of destruction-most pros would not stoop so low IMO!” Now, I’m done for sure.

  • Tinker’s Realm

    Your Honor uh, I mean Pompus A– “May I be dismissed now?”

  • Gene E

    Brilliant, in perfect character, and yes you may.

  • David M

    By gene. That is the seconde time you have said your done with this, lets hope you keep your word this time.
    As a parting point to ponder on. Yes you can disagree with the writer of the blog but you were the one that started insulting people that did not agree with you. I and many others on this blog also have the same right to disagree with you without being belittled by your long winded tirades. Cut back on them and learn a little etiquette/humility,dont forget your bat and ball

  • bernie

    Geez, some of you people are long-winded! I just joined to find out how to make better pictures and find myself in the middle of protracted dissertations on the definition of “portrait”. Save me!!

  • Tiffany Tran

    Hello my photographer,

    Thanks for sharing that experiences about portrait. Although I am new to understand these new lessons, I love these photos which you added to explain it.
    Thanks very much!
    Tiffany Tran

  • ivaak

    I couldn’t agree more. Often have I quarreled with my fellow colleges about my portraits beeing done in this way – I like when everything is in focus and with a interesting background!!!!!!! =))))))

  • Mantas

    I love portraits, where people just relax, daily life, work place, street If I take, my long time made, family portait, or just viewing album, start memorise what happened that day, what was the mood and etc. By the way last image of this article is good, it gave me idea on how to decorate wall of my room. Super idea. Thumbs up
    portrait photography

Some older comments

  • ivaak

    January 4, 2013 10:02 pm

    I couldn't agree more. Often have I quarreled with my fellow colleges about my portraits beeing done in this way - I like when everything is in focus and with a interesting background!!!!!!! =))))))

  • Tiffany Tran

    January 4, 2013 03:49 am

    Hello my photographer,

    Thanks for sharing that experiences about portrait. Although I am new to understand these new lessons, I love these photos which you added to explain it.
    Thanks very much!
    Tiffany Tran

  • bernie

    December 29, 2012 09:26 am

    Geez, some of you people are long-winded! I just joined to find out how to make better pictures and find myself in the middle of protracted dissertations on the definition of "portrait". Save me!!

  • David M

    May 17, 2012 01:13 pm

    By gene. That is the seconde time you have said your done with this, lets hope you keep your word this time.
    As a parting point to ponder on. Yes you can disagree with the writer of the blog but you were the one that started insulting people that did not agree with you. I and many others on this blog also have the same right to disagree with you without being belittled by your long winded tirades. Cut back on them and learn a little etiquette/humility,dont forget your bat and ball

  • Gene E

    May 17, 2012 12:18 pm

    Brilliant, in perfect character, and yes you may.

  • Tinker's Realm

    May 17, 2012 12:15 pm

    Your Honor uh, I mean Pompus A-- "May I be dismissed now?"

  • Gene E

    May 17, 2012 10:42 am

    Well, with all due respect to you, tinker's realm, it's reassuring to see that you did indeed get my point which, more succinctly stated is for you to glean what you choose and withhold your name calling and disparaging insults toward anyone who would be so bold as to express disagreement with the subject matter. So your failure to respond further is precisely in line with the point I wanted to make. I disagree with the blogger and have the right, the facility, and the inclination to state my disagreement free of your unsolicited personal, demeaning, and insulting remarks as does anyone else who chooses to express their thinking on this or any other subject, the expression of which does not make them 'negative,' another of your unwarranted condescending comments. I am aware of my rights and choose, in a civil and respectful manner, to take exception to what I perceive to be misinformation when and where I find it, especially that being passed out in the guise of and in the name of a school, without being accosted or insulted by you, being called "petty" and "incapable." You, perhaps, who nobody was addressing directly, should heed your 'tv channel' analogy and stop presuming that it is your calling to tell other people what to think and say. I too, was done with this until you entered the room and made the following insulting comment, whether it was aimed at me or not. "Unbelievable, the author of this article puts something out into the virtual universe to share his perspective w/ those that are interested in the subject & instead get’s beat to death by a bunch of petty people who IMO did not take the time to (or may not even be capable) create an article & post images but that are now ” Pros” worthy of destruction-most pros would not stoop so low IMO!" Now, I'm done for sure.

  • Tinker's Realm

    May 17, 2012 09:51 am

    Clearly, what you define is within my scope, is not for you to determine! I did not miss "Something along the way" but wanted to comment on the benefit of the reminder that I received from the article & that I kept it in perspective to my work & took from it what I wanted without having to create a negative spin & hammer the point (What Define A Portrait) as some have done here. Blogs are like Televison channels- if you don't like the perspective of the Blogger-Don't read & move on. It appears a few on here were staying & beating the rest of us over the head w/the fact that we may have gained something positve from the thread & applied it versus attacking the Formal Rules of Portrait Photography. That could be a subject that you could start on your own blog if you have developed one & a following as this Blogger has done!

    Unlike you that seems to have all day to post negative banter-It bores me easily & I will not respond to any of your further posts.

  • Gene E

    May 17, 2012 07:46 am

    a.) Brian, I've had the impression that a portrait is mostly designed to cast the subject in a good light, not to ensure that the world knows he's a slob. Also, it is my impression that in 1800, buckskin clothes were "Sunday go-to-meeting clothes" in those parts.

    b.) tinker's realm, perhaps you missed something along the way here that has allowed you to feel comfortable in chiding some of us for disagreeing with the blogger. It's a pretty broadly known concept that if you put a blog on the 'net espousing potentially controversial views that tend to run counter to accepted practices and provide a comments section, perhaps you should expect that there will be people who don't agree with you when you depart from "teaching" factual information and climb into a philosophical realm. As for as I'm concerned, tinker's realm, it isn't within the scope of your responsibility to defend the blogger's position by attacking those who would disagree and intimate that they have no right to descent. I admire and respect you for whatever sympathy you may have for the blogger's position but he seemed quite capable of speaking for himself when he started this blog. He very aptly made his position on this issue clear and invited others to do likewise.

  • Mike

    May 17, 2012 07:07 am

    First of all, these old men I'll be shooting are in their 30s and early 40s,and a few of them are incredibly hot women, but whatever. I never said you had to fill the frame. But, if your subject only takes up 25 % of your frame. That's the problem. Of course environment can play a huge roll in a portrait, giving context to the subject. But if your subject is less than about 75% of the frame, you lose focus of what the subject is. Then it becomes more of a multi subject story (for lack of a better word) than a portrait. In a portrait there is no question what the main subject is. I don't disagree with the idea of pulling back, but there is a line you cross if you pull back too far. You go from portrait to something else. All I'm saying is these examples are something

  • Tinker's Realm

    May 17, 2012 06:02 am

    ITA brian!

  • Tinker's Realm

    May 17, 2012 06:01 am

    Well, only tell them that Mike-if it's true & by your attitude I suspect that it is-LOL!!!

    My point is read it & go on-why crap in the guys blog if you don't agree-just find a blog that you agree w/the photography principles & definitions & stay there-not directed at you personally just MO in general on the subject.

  • Brian

    May 17, 2012 04:57 am

    Mike, if you take a bunch of shots of old stiffs in suits, you're the one who's taking "pictures", as opposed to creating portraits.

    ...and along those lines, if you were to do portraits of the Justices of the Supreme Court, guess what they'd most likely be wearing?

    If you said "their robes", you'd be right. The accoutrements of their office. And this is no different from a portrait of a blacksmith taken with his sleeves rolled up and the light of the forge reflecting off his face.

  • Brian

    May 17, 2012 04:52 am

    A portrait is not a bust. It is not a "head shot". It is not a picture that "accurately depicts the physical features of their face", or even a particular facial expression.

    A portrait is a deliberately staged photograph that is intended by its nature to capture the *essence* of the individual, and it certainly *may* include an appropriate backdrop or setting, as well as the accoutrements of the individual's profession, etc.

    Yes, you *can* and, unless you're the most inartistic photographer on earth, *should* paint or shoot a portrait of Daniel Boon in his coonskin cap, sitting on a fallen tree on a Kentucky mountainside, with his long rifle across his knees...and that *is* properly termed a portrait, not merely a "picture", (and one, by the way, that would be much more revealing of the essence of Daniel Boon than if you dressed him up in a suit and sat him in front of a black velvet backdrop).

  • Mike

    May 17, 2012 04:36 am

    I'll make sure when I go in tomorrow to shoot portraits of 25 of the top executives at bank of America, I'll let them know that I'm not a "real" professional. BTW I respect his efforts, but to put these shots in the "portrait " category is wrong. Do these tell a story, yes. Are they portraits, no. These would be great pictures to illustrate a story in a book, or magazine... There is definitely a place for these pictures, just not as portraits.

  • Tinker's Realm

    May 16, 2012 09:41 am

    PS: I would bet that if a photograph of President Kennedy went up for auction of him sititng around listening to music on a headset versus a Classic Portrait of him taken by an elite professional-The one w\the headset would sell for more $ & reveal more about him-I know which one I would want in my collection.

  • Tinker's Realm

    May 16, 2012 09:39 am

    Unbelievable, the author of this article puts something out into the virtual universe to share his perspective w/ those that are interested in the subject & instead get's beat to death by a bunch of petty people who IMO did not take the time to (or may not even be capable) create an article & post images but that are now " Pros" worthy of destruction-most pros would not stoop so low IMO!

    To clarify I use the word Pro loosely-meaning anyone with a professional attitude or ability would at least respect the efforts made by the author even if they did not agree & just move on.

    I loved the article-it was a good reminder to add variance.

  • David M

    May 16, 2012 09:03 am

    BY

  • Mike

    May 16, 2012 08:44 am

    I agree 100 % with gene e. This is just like dog breeding. 10 years ago if a lab and a poodle had puppies, you called it a mistake (mut) now you put a cute name on it (labradoodle) and you can sell them for $700. I have spent alot of time learning lighting, composition... To make a good portrait. These are OK pictures, but my 7 yo daughter can take the same pictures. There is a place for these, they just aren't portraits. Unfortunately, like dog breeding, soon crappy photography will be accepted. The crappy photographers will call it art, and who are we to say what is good when it comes to art?!? I will say these are OK at best as art, and I am darn sure they are not portraits!

  • Gene E

    May 16, 2012 07:11 am

    Please let me clarify a couple of points by first stating that I like all of these images. They're very well done and very thought provoking. Each tells it's own story which is the ultimately goal of photography as I understand it. I have no quarrel with these images or the people who made them.

    @ onyxe, in my haste I used "'environmental 'photography'" rather than "environmental 'portraiture,'" which I meant, and a term that I didn't invent but merely picked up in the writings in this blog above my first comment.

    @ brian, while simply ignoring my comments would seem to be a tad elitist to me, please feel free to do so if you desire but let me assure you that I am anything but elitist - far from it, however, most words have generally accepted meanings with the occasional broadening exception in normal usage and the word "portrait" is not excused from the pack. Further, just to get it straight, I'm not talking about all the other possible philosophical and idiotic arguments about art and artists or photography as art, and if it really is art - I'm merely talking about the definition of the word "portrait" and whether or not we should hijack the term and alter it to mean whatever we want it to. You seem like a bright guy - look it up in any dictionary or encyclopedia, both of which are good guides and a reasonably acceptable practice in our world, and you will find that we do, as a body of people, generally agree on what the word "portrait" means. Another practical definition, not that it is a recognized authority, but Google 'images' for "portraits" and see what you get.

    Imagine, if you will, rather than walking down the hallowed walls of the White House or nearly any other governmental agency, educational or business establishment, museum, castles in Europe, etc., you find an image of John F. Kennedy slouched up on a couch listening to music with headphones, which would be a perfectly reasonable state to find Kennedy in, given that it's a normal human activity of his time, and saying "and here is a portrait of the 35th President of the United States. Yow? That's OK? Formality is something artists have rarely been known to have much respect for but that doesn't mean that other people do not and some people do not like a portrait of them called a snapshot and vice versa. Not me, mind you, I don't care one way or the other but the people who run things in the world have an idea of what a good portrait is and what isn't. It's not simply the purview of the artist community that matters in such an instance.

    It isn't elitist to want a normal modicum of structure and respect for convention and tradition so we can celebrate the innate distinction of things that differ. Without accepting that there is a distinction between the definitions of a picture and a portrait, we should then just not stop there which means that we could call ducks geese, call cars trucks, broccoli is suddenly cabbage or better yet, cake, and at that rate then, we can simply forget about the distinctions in anything. I even think that has a name - it's called chaos. For every whimsical Norman Rockwell type, who, incidentally, was known as an "illustrator," not a painter of portraits, or Van Gogh who was generally figured to have only one oar in the water, also not so much a painter of portraits, there have been literally thousands of portrait artists out there whose paintings and photographs have not been whimsical and I'm sad to see that you would shut all the portrait photographers studios and run them out of town. I have noticed that when studio portrait photographers take their clients out to do a portrait or a family shot, they go to some nice place in the park, not over to the local mechanic's place or the dentist's office. Just so you don't get your drawers in a bigger bunch than they already are, for advertising purposes, or whatever, I see nothing wrong with taking a photo of some dude/dudette at work, playing golf, or... I think I said that already. Nothing wrong with that, especially if he/she is a golfer. I'm just not convinced that meets the criteria of what a portrait should be.

    There has been an on-going effort for a couple of decades now to 'elevate one's status' in life by adapting more sophisticated terminology to describe what one does and in so doing, put oneself in a position to make more money, like a hairdresser or barber becoming a "stylist" when 99.99% of them have never created one single "style" but merely mimicked the creativity and work of others. Could it be that's what's involved in this somehow, this effort to try to get us to accept the creation of ordinary snapshots and call them portraits? Shoot whatever you want to but please don't make me a cheese and baloney sandwich and try to tell me it's steak and lobster. Now I'm done with this. Cheers!

  • Brian

    May 14, 2012 01:47 pm

    I think that we can safely ignore Gene's comment, not because it is astoundingly elitist, although that would be reason enough, but because it's neither accurate nor useful.

    Shooting an individual within their environment may even be a requirement for a portrait when that environment is pivotal to capturing the essence of the person. There's a reason that there were so many portraits of Edison in the surrounding of his lab.

    And, rather than consult Gene, we might take our cue from the world's best artists and how they did portraiture - in particular, self-portraiture. For instance, there is Norman Rockwell's famous triple self-portrait showing him painting himself at the easel while he peered into a mirror, and other artists such as Van Gogh who included their easels, brushes, etc. in their self-portraits.

    You can find "the environment" (and sometimes even "chaotic environments") in their portraits of others as well. Obviously, they felt that the essence of the individual was somehow bound up with the environment in which they lived, worked, loved and played.

    http://www.artchive.com/artchive/r/rockwell/rockwell_self.jpg

  • OnyxE

    May 13, 2012 05:41 am

    I never studied photography so never learned any rules until I started reading articles like these. I always thought though that portrait meant fill the frame. I like goose and duck portraits that fill the frame.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marionlynne777/7168776414/in/photostream/lightbox/

    And thanks to gene e's comment I now know enough to call photos like this 'environmental photography'??
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marionlynne777/7130675873/in/set-72157629937866845/lightbox/

  • David M

    May 12, 2012 02:37 pm

    These are old portraits http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2008/02/what_makes_a_great_portrait/

  • Gene E

    May 12, 2012 12:43 pm

    There's nothing wrong with the concept of shooting more broadly inclusive photographs and referring to it as environmental photography which has always been with us and will be forever, but my point is that there's no reason to hijack a well established and accepted term that has another meaning and apply it to whatever technique we choose. I agree that a steady diet of portraits, bust and head shots, can become pretty boring but they have their place and serve a specific purpose to identify a certain type of photography and I feel it should be left alone and whoever wants to can back up and include as much in their photograph as they desire without calling it a portrait. .

  • Linda Lucas

    May 12, 2012 08:57 am

    I studied photography with some of the best. No one ever told me there were rules regarding composition. Included in my portraits are the items necessary to tell the intended story. As an artist who derives creativity from instinct, I find the philosophy of composition an interesting observation.

  • Bridget Casas

    May 12, 2012 04:38 am

    I enjoyed this article and the examples shown. I also enjoy environment photography. Thank you for sharing.

  • Mervin McDougall

    May 12, 2012 04:08 am

    Thanks for sharing that post. Believe it or not, but when I was just starting out in learning photography, I was always told just the opposite. The idea was to use the framing as a cropping mechanism to remove all distractions. But, then I started noticing that my images become very plain and predictable. They had no sense of drama, or excitement which would lead someone to try to learn more about the subject.

    I actually taught myself to stand back further and look at the whole scene by pure accident in taking a photo of some flamingos. Yes, the shot of the singular flamingo would have been interesting. But then having placed this flamingo among others which were not stationary and within a pond with amazing reflections of the birds, I saw my image literally come alive with much more of the emotion of the moment being conveyed. Consequently, I have been teaching myself to learn to use the environmental context in my photographs.

  • David M

    May 12, 2012 12:16 am

    If we don't try to break down accepted traditions we would all still be using box brownies and never expanding our capabilities.
    I am a member of a photography chat board and see hundreds of fill the frame shots of head/faces and after looking at four or five all I can say is oh hum, more of the same. I don't even bother looking at them any more.

  • Mikel B PHOto

    May 11, 2012 10:18 pm

    Awesome pics! I really like the pic with the girl on the bed. The lighting is really good. I wonder if it's a self portrait?

    Check out this blog post and see the pic of my wife and son. It' kinda like a silhouette portrait.

    http://mikelbphoto.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/amorgan/#wpcom-carousel-235

  • Paul

    May 11, 2012 08:53 pm

    Interesting article and concept....... funnily enough I sometimes review a set of wedding photos and come to the same conclusion; too many head and shoulder shots of guests etc and needing more in context! Well done.

  • Marco

    May 11, 2012 06:30 pm

    @janice -- A DSLR takes images in the 3:2 ratio so if you make the height 8" it will be 12" long. To get an 8x10 you will have to crop from one end or the other or some from both. The point and shoots that I have used would make an 8x 10.75 so again some of the width needs cropping for an 8x10. Most labs let you decide what gets cropped, so set your best layout possible within the constraints. If you want the whole image you would need multiples of the image format from the camera. Point and shoots are not standard sizes so will always be cropped some. With a DLSR without cropping those would be 8x12, 16x24, 20x30, or 24x36. Hope this helps.

  • Timshel 2010

    May 11, 2012 12:13 pm

    Great article. I am always curious about composition decisions. Two portraits...one up close and one with more space and "context." Comments appreciated.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/timshel2010/7174145294/in/photostream
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/timshel2010/7174131314/in/photostream

    Great contributions by all above. TY.

  • Diane

    May 11, 2012 10:54 am

    Excellent tip and such an easy one

  • Mozzie71

    May 11, 2012 10:44 am

    The kid sitting on the rock.. is that legit?? looks like a studio shot!!!

  • David

    May 11, 2012 08:58 am

    Be careful about ignoring the rule to "Fill the frame". I haven't seen any comments explaining why those old crabby teachers kept saying "fill the frame". I taught photography for over twenty years and it was one of the hardest things to get my students to either move in or use a longer focal length lens. Why? Try making a sharp 8 x10 head and shoulders portrait from a 35mm frame and the subject is a full length shot. No different with digital.

    Yes, there are times when you have to shoot on the run. Its called a grab shot. However, most of the time when doing portraits or landscapes you have more than 20 seconds to click that shutter. Take your time, compose and shoot. Cropping is a great tool. Don't abuse it..

  • Gene E

    May 11, 2012 08:04 am

    Portraiture implies a more formal and designed setting and particular techniques than you've depicted here. What you've shown and are willing to call environmental portraits seem to be an attempt to blur the lines between what is a portrait and what is a picture or snapshot. These kinds of pictures have been around since photography began. Various terms were adapted to describe certain types of photography and you seem willing to "reinvent the wheel" and in so doing, elevate an ordinary picture to the normally accepted elite level of being a formal portrait. Part of the purpose of doing a formal portrait is to separate a person or group of people from their environments and depict them as who they are, not what they are. I don't care to see a down and out person with a hard luck story in any kind of a setting except one where a serious photo-journalistic endeavor is the purpose, just as I don't care to see some obviously disheveled person slouched in his living room listening to music with earphones while debris and chaos cascades all around him as you tell me 'it's a portrait.'

    The author as well as most of the respondents appear to be a group of folks who like to conveniently change the rules up as you go. You would be better off learning what things mean than spending all your time trying to re-define them. Oh, another thing - could it be that "fill the frame" may be describing more the act of making sure you focus entirely on your primary subject and eliminate extraneous and distracting elements from a scene than it does to get your subject so close to the edge of your image that it leaves the lab no room to work. It looks to me like some of us, in the absence of the skills for producing quality images from our camera, would like to elevate our mediocre work to the level of the elite by adopting the elitist vocabulary and applying it to our images. Why don't you instead focus your effort on learning how to and then making good images, learn the language, and then leave it alone so there remain some standards by which we can all be guided toward excellence in the future rather than trying to break down accepted traditions. .

  • Mindy

    May 11, 2012 06:53 am

    Janice, I wonder if you're referring to aspect ratios when you talk about your 8x10 being cut off? An 8x10 must be cropped since it's shape doesn't correspond to the shape of the image made by your camera. I'm no good at the mathematical explanation but if you google it there are plenty of explanations available.

  • David M

    May 11, 2012 03:42 am

    For me a portrait tells one about the person. If a person is say a cabinet maker I would want to take his photo in his workshop surrounded by his tools, tools slightly out of focus so as not to keep distracting from the face.
    The only time I wish to fill a frame with a face is when the face tells a a story by its self, ie a homeless elderly man where you can see from the face he has lead a hard life, a person in uniform that tells you what he/she is. Filling the frame with a beautiful woman just tells me she is beautiful and nothing elese.
    You must remember when you take a photo you know who the person is or what they are doing, doe's the photo tell the observer the same thing?

  • Janice

    May 11, 2012 01:33 am

    I have a problem with filling the frame rule because I have had photos printed at the lab that were cropped by the lab when I requested for instance 8 X 10 picture or larger and some of the photo would be missing or cut off. If I had backed away a bit I would be able to print out the whole shot as taken.

  • Chris

    May 10, 2012 10:59 am

    Spot on! Really great pics. Inspired me to dig out a few.

  • Robert

    May 8, 2012 12:10 pm

    Love the environmental portrait in black and white! I really like when photos have a feeling or story attached.

  • Mikhail Anand

    May 7, 2012 10:54 am

    great pics...the first one has to be a my favourite although the asian market place pic is great too
    some portraits from mumbai
    http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/expressions-bombay/
    and rajasthan
    http://mikhailanand.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/expressions-rajasthan/

  • Mike

    May 7, 2012 10:44 am

    Another reason to not fill the frame is for prints. If you fill the frame, you will end up cropping out alot of the picture. Usually way too much. I know that isn't the reason for this article, but still something to think about.

  • Alexx

    May 7, 2012 05:01 am

    Yes! That's something I always tell everyone!

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

  • Marco

    May 6, 2012 06:12 pm

    As I am a wildlife photographer, I often think of Eagle Portraits or other animals. If they fill the frame then for sure they are "portraits" of the animal. However after about a year of taking these portraits, I started including some of the surroundings to place them in context. I still think of them as portraits because the image would be totally boring without the main subject which is the animal. So I think the idea of "environmental portrait" is appropriate here. Using a Canon 7D with 18mp and high resolution L lenses gives me more than enough to work with if I chose to crop them as close portraits at a later time, so having this extra context is still fairly flexible. Furthermore the extra room around them really helps when doing gallery wraps of the images. In my judgement the thing that makes the concept of environmental portrait work is the the image is of a strong subject with some context surrounding it.

  • Tinkers Realm

    May 6, 2012 12:57 pm

    I am definitely guilty and thanks to your excellent article & examples am going to pull back on my next challenge!
    Thanks again.

  • Al

    May 6, 2012 01:33 am

    Good advice here, thank you.
    Here's a shot I took with hopefully enough context.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/albertshu/7145153647/in/photostream

  • Gustavo J. Mata

    May 6, 2012 12:25 am

    Thank you Danny,

    I'd have to agree with you and Piper that when people speak of portraits they usually mean a photograph of a single person filling the frame.

    Perhaps the main point here is that in a subject-background situation one should be aware of the context's potential.

    The following is an exercise in which the subject is not even a person.

    http://bit.ly/Lf81vf

    Gustavo

  • Elizabeth

    May 5, 2012 03:39 pm

    This article is so written for me. I always fill the frame, wanting to capture lots of detail. When I get home and look at the pictures, I say to myself, oh to close or not enough surroundings. I will try to remember this in the future. I love the pictures and thanks!

  • Danny

    May 5, 2012 02:49 pm

    Thank you piper... I guess I am just getting old...I have been a photographer since the 60's and like everything else, photography has evolved tremendously...There was a time when none of the photos above would have been called portraits..But as I said times changed faster than I obviously have..... So from now on, a photograph with a person or people in them are portraits.

  • Nik M Zaim

    May 5, 2012 01:57 pm

    The 'story' that you want to tell determines your definition of the 'subject'. If the 'story' is the person per se, then we'll most probably fill the frame with the person in the best way possible that tells the 'story'.
    Likewise if the 'story' is the person within the 'environment' then the definition of the 'subject' of the story becomes the 'person within the environment' and we'll fill the frame with this definition of the 'subject' in the best way possible - that tells the story best, which includes what lens to use, angle of composition, lighting mood etc.
    So, your teacher wasn't wrong after all - its just that we have become so 'technical' and forget that things are defined within context.
    For me, I'd rather follow the heart and the 'story'...

  • piper

    May 5, 2012 01:45 pm

    Great post and examples.... when new to photography most people think portrait means just that.. a photograph of a persons face filing the frame.....love the depth in these images.

  • Danny

    May 5, 2012 01:40 pm

    Thank you for your response Gustavo...

    Maybe my question was worded wrong...Whether one or a group, if the setting or surroundings are just as important to the shot as the person/people, is it still a portrait or does the person have to take center stage? I am still curious as to yours and others ideas on this...

  • Gustavo J. Mata

    May 5, 2012 01:00 pm

    Danny,

    If you search in Google Images for "group portrait paintings" or "group portrait photography", you will find examples of portraits of more than one person.

    "Portrait" can refer to a more less formal picture of a single person, it is true. But its more general meaning is "picture" or "depiction", as in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man".

    Perhaps it is "pictures of people" what we are talking about, if you wish.

    Gustavo J. Mata

  • raghavendra

    May 5, 2012 12:30 pm

    This is nice,
    probably i should have read this earlier!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/03/kids-feeding-goat.html

  • Jim KIng

    May 5, 2012 12:14 pm

    I like the idea of filling the frame with the story. To the question "Is it a portrait?", I don't think I care what you call it.

  • doodles

    May 5, 2012 11:19 am

    funny you should right this article. Taking photos yesterday I could hear my photo teacher harping in my ear..............."fill the frame". I say rules are meant to be broken.

  • Marcus

    May 5, 2012 11:00 am

    While you're not filling the frame with the person, you are still filling the frame with these shots. Filling it with setting or context, but filling it nonetheless.

  • Danny

    May 5, 2012 10:40 am

    According to websters, a portrait is a picture (photo, painting,etc) of a person, usally their face....

    My question would be if the picture is bigger than the person, including his environment being an important part of the picture, is it still called a portrait? Personally, I dont think so...

  • Photographers Barrie

    May 5, 2012 09:01 am

    Solid advice, rules are great for learning the craft but at some point you need to stretch the boundaries and break a few. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jeff E Jensen

    May 5, 2012 05:56 am

    Very good point. Using the environment can really help tell the story of a portrait.

    A year ago or so, I had the opportunity to pass through Dallas, TX. I got up early one morning and went for a walk, wanting to see some of the historical spots that were close by. I was fortunate enough to come across a homeless guy by the name of Ron who was willing to give me a tour. It was well worth $10 I gave him.

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2011/04/dealey-plaza.html

  • Steve

    May 5, 2012 05:40 am

    This is hardest thing for me to learn. I too, have fill the frame and get in close drummed into my head.

  • Gustavo J. Mata

    May 5, 2012 04:20 am

    Rules are meant to guide the composition of a photograph, they should not to be regarded as absolute constraints. Well composed images please our senses.

    But images also tell stories, which are themselves made of characters, actions, settings, instruments, and intentions. A portrait centers on character, but can made to express other aspects as well.

    Gustavo J. Mata

  • steve slater

    May 5, 2012 03:29 am

    I agree, especially with the comment above that the frame in total should tell the story:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Street-photography-in-Brighton/G0000HairotCTNBw/I0000YVyOeVuRLe0

  • Jordan

    May 5, 2012 03:02 am

    I love the articles that remind us that rules are meant to be broken. This is just another example of a rule that is great when you're learning but can be restricting when you're past that learning stage.

    Thanks for the advice.

  • Tracy

    May 5, 2012 02:49 am

    Great advice. Rules are made to be broken.

  • Mridula

    May 5, 2012 02:20 am

    The telephone shot is amazing. Here are some (not all pics) from the hills with people in it.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2006/06/different-moods.html

  • Fuzzypiggy

    May 5, 2012 02:07 am

    That guy on the right, in the first shot, is about to get attacked by a large spider!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    May 5, 2012 02:01 am

    Great article indeed!

    Sometimes even though the frame is filled, the use of blendy and negative space accentuates the image as well - here the model has on black, some black background on the plane behind...

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/red-part-3-mcas-miramar/

  • Kit

    May 5, 2012 01:36 am

    This may be a no-brainer tip, but my the question I always ask myself is, "Does the frame tell a story?"

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