When I first picked up a camera, I was told to fill the frame with my subject. It’s one of the ten commandments of photography – with good reason, I hear some of you say. Why fill the frame? For clarity and impact, so viewers can quickly see what your picture’s all about. In this age of instant gratification, you don’t have long to grab their attention.
Beware though. Not everybody wants to have their attention grabbed – it can feel like being mugged. Why not try leading people gently into a photograph? Then if they like what they see, they’ll be inclined to stop and look.
Elliott Erwitt sometimes takes the gentle route. In Brighton (1966) for example, an elderly gentleman is paddling in the sea, with his trousers rolled up and a flat cap on his head. There isn’t another soul to be seen. With its mood of quiet contemplation, this image has steadily grown on me.
But how does Erwitt draw viewers into the picture, when his main subject only takes up a small portion of the frame? By positioning and contrast. The man stands about a third of the way into the frame, with plenty of space to look into. And his dark clothes stand out against the light grey sea. The picture has been widely published and can easily be found online.
I tried a similar approach with this picture that I took for my Town Dogs project. With its open spaces, Kensington Gardens attracts dogs and their owners from all over London. So I headed there one Sunday and settled down near a busy footpath, to wait and see what came by. As expected, the footpath brought lots of passers-by. Just as importantly, in the photo it guides the viewer’s eye towards the small, unaccompanied dog. Limited depth of field and an uncluttered background also help to focus attention on the dog.
Next time you’re tempted to fill the frame with your subject, stop and think if there’s another way of making your point. Remember – the ten commandments of photography are only there as guidelines, not to stifle your creativity. Try an experiment. Play with the size of your main subject and see how small you can make it, before the picture loses its impact. Then let me know how you get on.