What is a full frame?

What is a full frame?

I’ve talked about this elsewhere as part of larger topics but it came up again this week while talking with a photographer. So I wanted to talk specifically about my definition of a full frame.

There are two sides to the notion of a full frame: How the picture was made and whether it says something.

In the making of a full frame picture: It uses every centimeter of the frame in some way. It is geometrically complex though not necessarily visually cluttered. There is a clear three dimensional quality to the picture. There are many planes of activity at different angles. You can see triangles of connectivities throughout the frame - this color connects to that one and that one, these faces link, these shapes, and so on.

I’ve found that people respond to pictures from their own perspective, the sum of their experiences, so what a given photograph says can vary from person to person. You can't assume that just because you made a photograph for a given reason that people will respond to the frame for that reason.

I remember judging one contest where a judge just loved a picture because it reminded him of a painting that none of the other judges knew, so we didn’t respond to the image strongly. Strive to introduce universal qualities to pictures and more people will respond to them in the way that you intend. Build more layers of possible connections into the pictures you make and more people will have something on to which they can latch.

What is a universal quality and how do you introduce one or more into your pictures? There are two sides to universal qualities but what unifies them is when photographs give people something that they share with the subject, that they can connect with. The two sides are emotional and physical aspects. 

Introduce the emotional side to your photographs by setting out make a picture that elicits a response, it represents a quality as opposed to a fact or simply what is happening. An image that is about hope or fear or hate or love or hot or cold or friendship or brotherhood will touch people a lot more than a picture that simply shows something going on.

How do you introduce the emotional side? You have to knowingly use the qualities of light, color, moment, composition and distance from the subject in a way that conveys a quality. First, you have to know what the quality is that you need convey from the situation. Don’t over think this part. It’s almost always obvious, you just have to learn about the subject and learn from them what you should convey. But it’s your judgment, your assessment that drives what type of picture you’ll make. Second, you have to be in a situation at the right time or if there is no moment-driven situation, then you have to use the other four qualities to convey the quality or qualities that you feel are important.

The physical side of helping people respond to your pictures has largely to do with deciding what objects to include in the frame. I learned more about this at the White House than anywhere else. Time tends to remove the connecting dots that make a given situation significant - find a box of old snapshots and chances are every one of them records some significant moment but without reference you’re left responding to what people were wearing, what the cars or furniture or haircuts or pets were.

Introducing a layer of relevance that lasts forever is the goal. Give people bits of details that they can relate to. Don’t oversimplify what you put in the frame. Remember the popularity of long lens, clean photos a while back. Wait, some people still proffer those types of images. Most of those photos aren’t interesting beyond the first look because there’s little to grasp.

This does not mean that you load up every image with tons of stuff. It can be as subtle as including that tea set in the background, or including those unique shoes instead of stopping the frame above them.

It also means that photographs we don’t think are valuable today because of their ordinariness become much more interesting with time. Think, if you had made one picture every five years for 50 years of four shelves of the boxed cereal aisle at a grocery store.

As I said, the White House taught me to think about time in photographs and how to introduce relevance to people who will see your pictures long after you are a dead president. Not that you want to think about being dead.

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