Fill the Frame

macro photo of orange heirloom pumpkinSince I am the judge this month for our Picture This contest, I am taking the opportunity to expand on my theme – Fill the Frame.   Link to contest entry rules and previous post.  Whether or not you intend to contribute a photo to the contest or just want to take stronger photos you will want to be mindful of filling your frame as fundamental to your composition.

Think of your photo as an artist thinks of a canvas, every part of it is meaningful and contributes to the overall story.  Whether you frame up your photo in the camera or crop it later, think of the four edges as the edge of your canvas and find a composition to hold your viewer’s eye on your subject.

The gloriously scarlet orange pumpkin in the opening photo is all about color, there is no reason to show any edges.  Note I have composed it so that the stem is off center and I can take advantage of the striations that are part of this heirloom Cinderella pumpkin, ‘Rouge vif D’Etampes’.

Macro photography can be difficult to fill the frame effectively because too often photographers will put their subject dead center due to the short depth of field and limited sharpness.   A centered composition can certainly work, but be aware of the potentially boring space around the edges of any macro image.  This tupelo leaf, in my original contest posting, is a good example of using negative space effectively when filling the frame.

Tupelo, nyssa sylvatica leaf fall color

In most of my workshops I concentrate on landscape photography and “seeing” the garden.  Filling the frame of a landscape picture requires the photographer to think clearly about the story you are seeing and distilling it down to just the elements that contribute to that story.

Autumn in Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco

In this picture of a waterfall in autumn at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, I have cropped the photo and filled the frame with only those elements that tell the story.  We don’t need to see more of the tree to know it is autumn, but any less will not fill the frame with the wonderful branch structure, and would cut out some of the yellow foliage of a distant Ginkgo tree.

Sometimes when you are working to find the best composition to fill your frame you will need to walk around the scene; frame up different angles in the camera.  In this scene in the gardens of Museum Hill in Santa Fe New Mexico, I was struck by the fall color in the grasses and perennials of this wonderful drought tolerant garden.

fall color garden Museum Hill, Santa Fe

This first picture is typical of how I work.  I try to get a few quick pictures before the light changes while I process what I am seeing.  I was really struck by the color of the grass (Panicum virgatum) and how it was sandwiched between the late summer flowering perennials.  As I became more confident in what I wanted to say about this, I realized I could best tell the story and fill the frame as a vertical:

vertcial photo gardens in autumn with panic grass, Museum Hill Santa Fe

The vertical composition distills what I was seeing – and what I want the photo to say about fall color and grasses in a New Mexico garden.  I wanted the frame to be loose enough to still say ‘garden’, so I needed to see both a bit of the pathway at the bottom and a hint of the garden beyond at the top of the frame, but still emphasize the three main colors I saw in the plant material.  The first, horizontal photo, now seems too loose and did not use the frame as effectively to tell the story.

Let’s look at one more example of getting to the core of a garden scene, finding the photo, and filling it with the story.

small lawn xeriscape

I love the way this garden juxtaposes a small lush lawn near the house with the drought tolerant border around it. With a path through the border, it is a fine example of a California xeriscape garden design.  But it is no prize winner in a photo contest.  I want more drama, a bolder composition, a stronger statement.

In the center of the photo, note the red foliage of Phormium ‘Maori Maiden’.  I walk up, and walk around, looking for a more dramatic composition.

phormium and feather grass in garden border

This shot is much bolder; it still shows a xeriscape garden, because the two very different water zones are obvious (to anyone who gardens in the West anyway).  The frame is now filled with the most important elements – if the story is about the plants.  The previous photo is better if the story is about design.  (While that first photo may not win a contest, I would draw your attention to its use of the entire frame to tell the story – from a piece of the house, the native oaks beyond the garden, the path winding its way through the frame – all indicate a carefully composed photo.)

But even this second shot is probably not a prize winner.  It hints at boldness, but doesn’t quite reveal it.  The strong upright leaves of the Phormium are nestled in with the Mexican Feather Grass (Nyssa tenuissima).  It is a dramatic combination and I know there must be a stronger composition.  I literally walk around it looking through the camera rather than my eyes.  This sort of framing technique often works for me when I really want to fill the frame to  bursting.  Once I find an angle that seems to work, I put the camera on the tripod and only then carefully compose the final image.

Phormium and feather grass in garden

I love this picture.  The feather grass just flows through the Phormium.  The frame is filled.  I wish I could enter it into  Gardening Gone Wild’s contest.  So I guess any of you who are thinking about entering, you now have a better idea of what the judge is looking for.

About Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

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7 Responses to Fill the Frame

  1. Debra Lee Baldwin October 22, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Marvelous, insightful post, as usual, Saxon. I love the way you educate and entertain in equal measure. While looking at the photos that include grasses, I thought of the book you photographed on grasses, by Nan Ondra. Music on paper. Say, are cropped photos eligible for this month’s contest?

    Debra Lee – You are too kind. Absolutely cropped photos are fine. I always suggest filling the frame in camera while you study the scene, but some cameras end up shooting a bit more than you see in camera, so a tight crop needs to made later anyway. Other times you may see a square photo or panorama in your mind’s eye but your camera is not formatted that way, so cropping is a must later on. And there are always those photos that seem dull until you re-visualize them and crop them to fill a new frame – the one you show your audience.

  2. Cathy October 24, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    Thanks so much for the additional information. I have been struggling with this challenge this month!

    Cathy – there are many ways to fill the frame, just be conscious about what you are seeing and don’t waste any space. – Saxon

  3. Cathy October 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    And let me also add to Deb’s words of praise for the book you worked on with Nan Ondra. I love Debra’s description: Music on paper. Because of that book and her Fallscaping book, we now have recently included some ornamental grasses in some of our beds…. something I had vowed years ago never to do. What a difference a photograph can make…. ;) Now I am off to once again review my photos for the contest. If it weren’t for the last minute, I’d probably get nothing done!

  4. Lyn October 25, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    I followed a link here from redhousegarden.com and I’m so glad I did. This is such a helpful article, and the pictures illustrateyour point perfectly. I’ll be sticking around.

  5. Helen at Toronto Gardens October 26, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    Although I’m regrettably too late for the contest, I really enjoyed your instructive post and, of course, your pictures. Thank you for doing this.

  6. Tatyana October 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    I also missed a deadline, but I want to thank you for such a great lesson!

  7. Linda Lehmusvirta October 30, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    Wonderful tips, Saxon, and as always, outstanding photographs. And geez, I wish my garden looked like these!

    Thanks for stopping by Linda. I think we all wish our gardens looked like these … – Saxon