STOP Filling the Frame (Portrait Photography)

In Portrait by Jim Harmer

This photo is much more engaging with the subject only occupying a tiny portion of the frame.

When I was a beginning photographer, someone told me that the best tip for capturing great portraits was to fill the frame.  The idea is that many portraits look better when cropping in tight on the subject.  I AGREE with that advice in most situations, but I want to point out that some of the most dramatic portraits I have ever seen do the exact opposite.  Today's portrait photography tip is to make the subject just one small element in a larger landscape.  Not only is this good advice for environmental portraits, it's also one of the hottest trends in portrait photography today.

The principle behind this tip is more than just showing the scene around the subject.  In fact, making the subject only a small part of the frame is even applicable when the background is merely a solid color.  This is called negative space.  Negative space is simply an area of a photo that does not hold interesting detail, but is used as a compositional element to fortify the importance of the main subject.

Here are a few tips to help you use negative space more effectively in your photography:

Tip #1:  Use negative space for balance. If you place the subject in the middle of the frame, there will not be enough strength in the sides of the image to give the photo balance.  As a general rule, you need twice as much negative space to balance the space your subject occupies.  For example, if your subject is a person's face on the right side of the frame, you should have twice the amount of negative space on the left side of the frame as your subject occupies.  If you're new to the concept of balance in compositions, then check out this post on balancing your compositions.

Tip #2:  You don't have to de-focus the negative space. Many photographers have the tendency to use a low aperture and throw anything out of focus that isn't the subject of the portrait.  This isn't always necessary for negative space portraits.  Just by using negative space, the subject of the photo will already capture the attention of the viewer, so you don't have to throw it out of focus.  In fact, sometimes the shot will be stronger by keeping the entire scene in focus.

Tip #3: Don't allow the subject to cheat you out of your composition.  When taking photos using negative space, the subject should almost always be looking into or at least facing the negative space.  Otherwise, the composition will not make much sense.

If you enjoy learning digital photography from these daily tips, you might consider checking out one of my 5 photography books and eBooks in order to support the site.  They are full of great content and only cost $5.99.



About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on