You might hear it a lot: you need a clean frame or make sure you exclude unnecessary items that don’t support your story or subject in your photos.
It’s good advice and a ‘rule’ for making a well composed photo. But how do you go about getting a clean frame, especially when you live within life. You may know what I mean, especially if you have kids. With kids, things can get ugly. Yet, even with a messy house, you can still get a clean frame.
A clean frame is good composition no matter your genre, subject or place. And by clean, I mean everything in the frame supports the story. It doesn’t have to have lots of negative space. Clean means there isn’t a distracting element apart from the subject and story.
Sometimes we’re so focused on our subject that we forget about the rest of the stuff that shows up in our frame. Those distracting elements. These extra things can hinder our story and make it difficult for a viewer to decide what the subject is. Or worse, why the photo was taken.
Somehow those irrelevant items sneak into the frame and detract from the story. They can be obvious, like a bright blue trash can behind a newlywed couple. Or they can be more subtle like many colors that overpower the subject or story.
It happens and it even happens in product photography. I’ve done it. I’ve included too many props and the subject becomes lost. Or the props are irrelevant to the story I’m telling and the photo becomes confusing.
But, there’s a way to resolve it. Train our eyes to see the entire frame. Once we see the entire frame, we can adjust. Below I have several ways to adjust for distracting elements. After that a little exercise that, with practice, will help you see the entire frame more often.
3 disclaimers though before I begin.
First, I don’t mean an unclean frame makes a bad photo. A clean frame is only a rule, and yes you can break rules successfully.
Second, take the safe shot first. If its something that may change at a moments notice, because kids, then take the safe shot. After, adjust for the distraction to minimize it.
Third, I do clean my house and when it’s sparkling, it’s beautiful, and I do tend to take more photos then. But sometimes you just can’t avoid the mess.
Life’s not perfect so we shouldn’t expect our photos to always be. I create a lot of photos to get the one I love. And even then there are things that distract, that are imperfect or I could improve. So, we need to be kind to ourselves and each other when our frames aren’t as clean as we’d like. And if it really bugs you, there’s always Photoshop.
Use a Longer Focal Length
It’s obvious that a longer focal length allows you to capture a subject closer than a wide-angle lens. But it’s not the only benefit to a longer focal length. Longer focal lengths also compress the background, allowing you to cut out distractions. Wide angles show more of the background. Below, I took this photo with a 50mm lens. You see most of the background, even with me so close to her. If the background were particularly messy, then this would distract from the subject.
I switched to a longer focal length – 200 mm – and backed up. I wanted her in the same composition, so you’ll notice she is the same size in both photos. And you’ll notice the background is compressed. I didn’t move her, and the only movement I did was back up in a straight line. I also didn’t touch up either photo. Long focal lengths help minimize the distractions you might find in the background.
Use an Open Aperture
Another benefit to the compression of a long focal length is the bokeh it creates. It’s beautiful. And the best part is that bokeh helps distort distracting elements in your photo so that they are not as distracting.
You can see the difference in the two photos above. But even if you don’t have a long lens, you can still create bokeh with a wider angle but using a more open aperture. Below is a photo I shot with a 35mm lens. I noticed a lot of distractions behind the girls, so I used a pretty wide aperture. I opened it up to f/2.5 and shot. It’s not a perfect solution because with a 35mm lens you can still see people in the background, but it isn’t as distracting. Our eyes go directly to the sharpest part of the photo over the blurred out people.
Fill The Frame
Sometimes you’ve got such a mess, like a kid-built fort and all their toys they want to bring into it. There’s nothing to do but fill the frame.
Of course I had to shoot all the mess too but to capture the emotional fun of having a fort, I got close and filled the frame. The first is the shot, the second is the pull back.
And the pull back
Here’s another example of filling the frame. Obviously a playground is full of distracting elements, but by filling the frame with the slide I was able to reduce those.
Move the Distracting Elements
Obvious, right? All too often, I don’t notice a distracting element that I can easily move out-of-the-way. This is why the practice of checking your edges and corners is helpful. If you’ve ever seen shots of the cleanest kitchen counters ever, with nothing on them, most likely stuff was moved. I do it.
This is one of those moments:
Yes, it took literally 2 seconds to move it and look at the difference:
If You Can’t Move Anything, Move Yourself
Moving only slightly to the right or left will often give you a much cleaner view. Here, ant killer and something else on the floor distracting my eye.
Simply stepping the left a little and back, I was able to block it out with the doorway.
Change Your Perspective
A little more drastic than stepping to the right or left, this requires you to move in bigger ways. Change your entire perspective to change what’s in the frame. In the process, you might find that it makes for a more interesting photo too.
Below was my first shot. I saw too many things in the frame that were distracting and not helping the story.
So I moved to minimize those distractions and took another shot.
And the final one is a completely different perspective that told the same story with a very clean frame.
Another example of changing perspective. I took this first photo but a lot of elements draw my eye away from the subject.
I stood in the same spot but took a different photo, just from a different perspective. Much cleaner.
Use Pockets of Light
I’m lucky that I have some well placed windows in my home, so I use the direct light and dark shadows to mask the junk. Sometimes it does take a little processing to burn the shadows, but I know I can count on a cleaner frame with shadows and pockets of light.
I also use this outside a lot. Just make sure you expose for the light in the pocket and your subject is in the pocket of light.
Here’s the pullback for that shot. She was sitting in the stool camera right. The window she is sitting next to lets in a perfect pocket of light so that the tv and all else falls to shadow if I expose for the highlights. Then all I have to do is minimal burning in areas that might still show.
Convert To Black and White
Sometimes it’s color that draws attention to a messy frame. Usually when that is the case, and I can’t do anything about it, I convert to black and white. For example, I took this photo, but it has too many colors in it (at least for my style). The contrasting colors of the red cooler and the green of the mangroves and boogie board pull my eye away from my subject.
In the conversion those colors no longer detract from the subject. She is more prominent now, and the frame is seemingly cleaner.
A couple of weeks ago I sent my email subscribers a tip on how to recognize distractions before you take the shot. Many times we miss those distractions when looking through the viewfinder. It takes practice to look at all your edges and notice any elements that don’t need to be there.
But to practice it, you can do two things. First, you can use liveview if you have it. We tend to notice the edges more using the bigger screen on liveview than we do looking through the viewfinder.
Second, I learned a little exercise from another photographer local to me. It’s perfect for training your eye to look for the edges of the frame. Take a sheet of paper and draw a rectangle on it. Then sketch what you see in the viewfinder. Starting from the edges of the frame and moving in. It doesn’t have to be detailed or a perfect drawing. Sketch – only to get down on paper what your photo is.
By manually placing the objects in your viewfinder on to paper, you force your eye to see everything that’s there. And sometimes you might surprise yourself with what you didn’t see before!