When NOT to fill the frame (for film photographers).

When I first wanted to take good pictures I was researching how to make the most of your travel photography for my upcoming honeymoon in Italy. One of the first pieces of advice I read was to “fill the frame!” This was echoed over several articles and it seemed important enough that it really stuck with me even to this day.

For some photographers the frame is sacred. I know film photographers that only print the full frame. That’s cool and I like (and admittedly at times love) their work but I had gotten myself into trouble on occasion following this advice.

Wether or not filling the frame is right for you depends on two things, the aspect ratio of the film when you take the shot and the aspect ratio of the intended print.

I had gotten myself into trouble filling the frame when I shot 35mm and tried to print some of the shots 8×10. Full frame 35mm is actually 8×12 so I had to decide which two inches on the long side I could live without or pay extra for my lab to cut down a sheet of 11×14 paper.

Two common formats I shoot are 35mm and 6×6. Neither of these map to 8×10 without serious cropping. Here’s a diagram of what you need to consider using these formats and printing 8×10:

Aspect ratios
Cropping considerations when shooting 35mm or 6×6 and printing 8×10.
There are formats like 6×4.5, 6×7, and somewhat obviously 4×5 that need little to no cropping to print 8×10. While we’re on the topic 16×20 is the same aspect ratio as 8×10.

The photographers I know that only print full frame have to scale the image down to fit on the paper. They do this by masking the paper with a 4 blade easel during printing. The problem that I’ve found when doing this is that pre-cut mats tend to look somewhat off when using this technique. The only real solution is to custom cut mats. If you’re not the one cutting the custom mats, it can be an order of magnitude more expensive than pre-cut.

  Here’s my 4 blade easel. They tend to be more expensive than 2 blade, boarder less, or speed easels but they’re more flexible as well. With that flexibility come some complexity and without instructions it took me a while to figure out how to use this one. 

 

Here’s what scaling a 6×6 image down to fit entirely on an 8×10 sheet (with a border) looks like. With this shot I could not find an 8×10 crop I liked. When taking the shot I “framed myself into a corner” when it came time to print it. When scaling images some choose to fill as much of the paper as possible while others may scale the image down further for visual effect. It all depends on the vision of the artist and the feelings they seek to illicit.

Full frame 6x6 picture of the barber room of an abandoned prison.
Full frame 6×6 picture of the barber room of an abandoned prison.

Neither approach is right or wrong, just if you’re looking to sell prints it’s a good idea to mat them and using pre-cut mats keeps the price down. It’s also more efficient to use readily available paper. Of course now you’re letting economics dictate aspects (no pun intended) of your work. There’s also the opportunity cost associated with the time or money. If you spend either on custom mats, cutting paper, etc, you’re not spending that on more photographs. It’s all up to you and what you prioritize.

No matter which path you choose the intended output of an image should be a consideration when framing a photo. It will dictate whether the frame needs to be filled or if you need to leave some breathing room, and where that space should be.