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Friendly Friday,  Photographic techniques,  Themed galleries

Friendly Friday Challenge: all or nothing?

In this, the last of my Friendly Friday photographic challenges, I’m going to talk about two contradictory composition ‘rules’. I’ve said throughout this series that these rules provide great guidelines to follow if you want to create some impact with your photos, but also that they are there to be broken when appropriate. Now I’m going to prove it by demonstrating two contradictory rules.

Let’s consider how much of your image is occupied by your main subject. Often the answer to that is, quite a lot of it. But you can take this to extremes, either filling the frame completely or leaving lots of empty space around your subject. Both can be effective, in different ways.

Fill the frame

One option is to fill the frame with your subject, leaving little or no space around it. This can be very effective in certain situations. It encourages the viewer to explore the detail of the subject in more depth, with no distractions.

In creating a full frame shot you will often need to do some post-editing. Crop tightly to remove any background, and don’t be afraid to also crop out elements of your subject. You may find that ‘less is more’ and your subject becomes more striking than if you stood back far enough to include it in its entirety.

I find this technique works particularly well for portraits, both human and animal, and often in monochrome. It’s also great for macro work, especially flowers.

Close up of a big cat's face

Obviously I used a zoom lens to take this close-up of a Snow Leopard at a conservation park in Kent, England!

Zooms are always useful when you want to fill the frame, although with more docile subjects you can simply move closer. Or crop later in editing of course. This was a zoomed-in shot but further cropped later to focus on this beautiful face.

Close up of an elephant's eye

I know I’ve shared this shot of an elephant at MandaLao, near Luang Prabang in Laos, before. But it’s too good an example of what I’m discussing here not to include it again.

Black and white photo of an elephant face on

At the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.

I guess I should apologise for including two elephant shots but I won’t! Not only are they among my favourite animals, they are also great subjects for frame-filling images. By cropping tightly so that not all of the elephant’s bulk is in shot you can actually create a stronger impression of its size than if you show the whole.

Side-on portrait of a monkey with a dark face

A full-frame animal portrait doesn’t have to be face-on, as this Green Vervet monkey in Gambia shows.

Black and white photo of a woman in a hat

And now a couple of human portraits (candid of course, my preferred approach). This one was taken at a market in Cambodia.

Black and white photo of a man with a stubbly beard and hat

This is a tighter crop of an image I’ve shared previously, I am sure. It’s a musician/dancer at Nizwa Fort in Oman. I’ve cropped out an intrusive sword (used in the traditional dances) and focused more closely on his face.

Black and white photo of a tree trunk

Focusing on the buttresses of this tree in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica, emphasises the texture and shapes, creating a more abstract image.

Close up of the centre of a deep pink flower

You don’t have to show the whole of a flower to convey its beauty, as this camellia proves.

Close up of a deep pink flower

Yes, deep pinks are among my favourite flower colours and they really pop when you get in close! This waterlily at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, has a little visitor.

Close up of a dandelion seed head

But you don’t have to travel far to find impactful full-frame shots. I photographed this dandelion clock a few minutes’ walk from my home in Ealing, west London.

Close up of a girl's face carved in dark grey stone

I’m finishing this section with a couple of slightly different examples. Statues and monuments can be as fruitful as actual people for this sort of photography, with the bonus that you don’t have to ask their permission or be a bit surreptitious! This is a detail of the Hang Dau Garden war memorial in Saigon (HCMC).

Modern building with single open window

Architecture can work well for this sort of shot. There’s no need to show the whole building to create an impression.

This office block in London’s Canary Wharf area is reflecting the waters of the old docks now repurposed as a setting for modern working, living and relaxing.

Negative space

Or why not do the exact opposite? Leaving a lot of empty or ‘negative’ space around your subject can be very impactful. It creates a sense of simplicity and minimalism. Just like filling the frame, it encourages the viewer to focus on the main subject without distractions.

The empty space can be sky, a blank wall, water … You can also create negative space through the use of a very shallow depth of field that blurs and brightens a background to make it unrecognisable and thus empty of interest or distractions for your viewer. Using a high key monochrome edit can have a similar impact. The tree on an island in Laos, below, is an example of that. Sometimes the space doesn’t even have to be empty, just devoid of much interest!

In composing with negative space it can be helpful to also consider the rule of thirds. If you only have one thing in your photo, place it where it will have the most impact!

Camel on a sand dune

I’m starting with another of those images I’ve probably shared several times in the past, simply because I like it and think it’s a good example of what I’ve been saying above. It was taken at sunset at Wahiba Sands in Oman.

Small mangrove bush isolated in pale orange sky and water

I suspect many of you will have seen this baby mangrove at Souimanga Lodge in Senegal before too, or a very similar shot. I tend to play around with this one a lot as it lends itself to editing in different tones. But regardless of the edit, it’s the negative space that makes this image stand out.

Black and white photo of a tree by water

This is the black and white edit I mentioned above, of a tree on Done Deng Island in the Mekong in southern Laos. Using a high key filter in Silver Efex makes the tree stand out while reducing the destractions in its surroundings.

Child by the sea on a beach

This similarly composed shot, taken on a beach near Hoi An in Vietnam, shows how negative space can be not actually empty but so lacking in interesting detail that a single element, in this case the child, stands out.

I’ve deliberately broken the rule of thirds to place him right at the edge of the frame, increasing a sense of loneliness. In fact, there were plenty of other people on the beach, but you wouldn’t think so from my composition!

Man fishing from a boat by a lakeshore

I spotted this Bulgarian fisherman on a lake when we made a roadside stop to see roses being harvested. My high contrast edit washes out the detail in the water to focus attention on the man and his boat.

Man with a fishing net in a misty river

Fishermen seem to make good subjects for this style of photography. It’s probably a combination of their location by or in water and the fact that they often fish alone.

This particular one was fishing in the Mekong just off Done Deng Island, in the same small village (Ban Houa) where I found the tree in my monochrome shot.

Lady in long skirt and orange blouse in front of a white building

In this photo, taken at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, Laos, I’ve blurred the background wall of the palace a little. This makes it less distracting and focuses all attention on the lady in her traditional skirt.

Incidentally, if including a person in your shot it’s usually best to compose with them facing into the negative space, not out of it. But that’s another ‘rule’ that can be broken from time to time for deliberate effect!

Blue beads and cross hanging from a tree

I’ve shared this shot of a rosary left at Choeung Ek, one of the Cambodian Killing Fields, very recently. But it’s too good example of what I’m talking about not to include it here. The subject matter really lends itself to this treatment, with the negative space emphasising a feeling of loneliness, sadness and reflection.

Imagine how much less impact the image of this offering would have if the background were cluttered.

Railing and brick pillar with misty palm tree behind

I took this one on a misty morning in Abu Dhabi, from the entrance of my hotel. Mist is a great natural creator of negative space.

If this space were totally empty however it would be rather a dull photo, so here I’m breaking my own guidelines by including something of interest in the space, the impressionistic view of a palm tree in the mist.

Sunset sky with silhouetted camel and bushes

The sky is an obvious source of negative space, but that doesn’t mean it has to be totally uniform in appearance, as this shot of a sunset in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan demonstrates.

The camel is squeezed into one corner (again breaking the rule of thirds) where he both provides interest while also emphasising the vastness of the skies above the desert.

Small island with old buildings and trees

In this shot of Kunta Kinte Island in the River Gambia I wanted the island to look small and isolated. Once known as James Island, this was a holding station for captured slaves waiting to be shipped to North America. Set in the wide river it was almost impossible to escape from. We were told that none ever did because they feared the river and never learned to swim.

This by the way is my most-sold photo on the Dreamstime agency site. So I must be doing something right in my use of negative space!

Over to you

I hope I’ve given you some inspiration. As always I’m looking forward to seeing your contributions. Do you have a preference between these two styles of composition? Or do you, like me, use both on occasion, depending on the effect you are hoping to create? Please share your examples and remember to post a comment with a link, as pingbacks don’t always work on my site.

Thank you

Thanks to everyone who joined in with last time’s ‘different viewpoints’ challenge:

  • Sandy shared a video to illustrate a range of viewpoints of a shrine in Kyoto
  • Woolly Muses showed us the Burg Khalifa from ground level and under construction
  • Cee reminded us that changing lenses can result in a change of viewpoint
  • Philo turned the camera on the photographers rather than their subject
  • Marsha got up close to some colourful statues in Melbourne
  • Bert and Rusha shared some different perspectives of a Dutch windmill
  • Liz of One Million Photographs posted an unusual and effective shot of a statue from behind

As mentioned, this will be the last of my Friendly Friday photographic challenges as we’ve taken the tough decision to shut down this particular challenge. Thank you to everyone who has taken an interest in the tips I’ve shared and especially those who’ve joined in and shared their own photography skills.

Of course the closure of the FFC doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. So I hope to continue sharing our images and our photography inspiration for a long time to come!


Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you! And please include your name in case WP marks you 'anonymous' - thank you