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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.

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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.

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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.

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Darren Rowse
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+.

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