Composition: Filling the Frame

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You have reached the archive of articles posted on my personal blog. This blog is no longer updated, but you can read my latest articles at my new website The Creative Photographer and find my photography ebooks at my new store.

Thanks for reading! Andrew.



Procession of Nuns Burma by Steve McCurry

Procession of Nuns, Burma by Steve McCurry

 

The 35mm format presents a unique challenge when it comes to composition – filling the frame. Let me explain what I mean. Photos taken with 35mm cameras, both full-frame and crop-sensor, 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 rectangle’ 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 (I wrote more about that here) means that you could potentially end up with too much empty space around the main subject. That can reduce the impact of the photo.

Shorter rectangles

This is one of the reasons that some photographers prefer medium or large format cameras. Their aspect ratios give a ‘shorter rectangle’ that is easier to fill.

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. One way to do so is to look at the work of some of the great photographers to see how they approach it.

Steve McCurry

 

Boy in mid-flight India by Steve McCurry

Boy in mid-flight, India by Steve McCurry

 

Steve McCurry is a photographer I really admire. Partly because he’s been to so many remote and difficult places and brought back some amazing photos. But also because of the strength of the composition of his photos. I’m sure that some film photographers will disagree with this, but I believe that the latest model digital cameras we have today are the best cameras ever created. Digital cameras are powerful tools and the instant feedback of the LCD screen lets us see the result of our efforts immediately. This helps us see whether we got the intended result right away, instead of having to wait until the film was processed.

 

Caretaker Cambodia by Steve McCurry

Caretaker, Cambodia by Steve McCurry

 

But there’s one skill that the best photographers over the last century or so possess that digital cameras can’t help with – composition. The strength of composition is one of the things that sets the work of photographers like Steve McCurry apart from the rest of us. I’ve used some of his images to illustrate this post. I really urge you to visit the links below and familiarise yourself with his work, especially in relation to composition. Look at all of his photos to see where he places the subject, and how he fills the rest of the 35mm frame. Think about how he keeps the overall photo quite simple, but still uses every part of the frame to good effect. Then think about how you can apply the same principles to your images. You can repeat this exercise with any photographer whose work you admire.

Iconic Photographs book by Steve McCurry

The photos in this post are used in his latest book, Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs available from Phaidon.com. (Phaidon have given me permission to use some of Steve McCurry’s photos and videos in exchange for the link).

You can find Steve McCurry’s photos at his website and his blog.

You can also see three sets of Steve McCurry’s photos at the Phaidon website:

The Unguarded Moment

Retrospective

South and South East Asia

Adam Marelli has an interesting interview with Steve McCurry on his blog.

Steve McCurry videos

Phaidon have also put together several short videos where Steve McCurry tells the stories behind some of his photos:

Steve McCurry shares the story behind his iconic photograph: ‘Beggar Girl, Bombay, India’ (1993)

 

 

Steve McCurry shares the story behind his iconic photograph: ‘Widow, Vrindavan, India’ (1995)

 

 

Steve McCurry shares the story behind his iconic photograph ‘Dust Storm, Rajasthan, India’

 

 

Steve McCurry shares the story behind his iconic photograph ‘Camels, Gulf War, Kuwait’

 

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