When I was just 18, I found myself interning at my then-hometown newspaper in Lawton, Oklahoma, under the supervision of a veteran photographer named Bill Dixon.
My first assignment on the first morning there was to ride along with Bill and photograph severe thunderstorm damage at Fort Sill. It was typical Oklahoma late spring tree damage, but that’s always news, so I photograph it to this day.
We drove a “radio car,” a giant, loping Chevrolet sedan with a two-way radio and a scanner. The two-way was on 173.275 Mhz, and we used the FCC-assigned call sign, KYK323. (Both of these are entirely from memory.) The scanner was a Bearcat III, a popular eight channel crystal-controlled police and fire scanner in the 1970s that was obsolete by 1982, but it still worked, since all police, fire and sheriff communications took up about five of those channels.
Bill pulled the car up to the headquarters on the base, a facility where my wife Abby’s uncle Dutch and his son Al commanded at various times in their careers. He told me to get out and photograph the trees on the ground next to a ceremonial cannon. My camera was a Nikon FM. At that time, I only owned three lenses, a Nikon Series E 28mm f/2.8, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, and a Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. The 28mm was on the camera, so I used it.
“Get in there! Fill up the frame!” he barked. I thought I was filling up the frame, but, like a lot of beginners, I wasn’t.
There was only so much room on the page at newspapers in the 1980s. Photos competed with news, graphic, ads, coupons, obituaries, and more, so there’s not a huge amount of room to fiddle around with photographs that don’t convey the message quickly and obviously.
Another key reason to fill up the frame is that we almost always shot on Kodak Tri-X 35mm film, which, while forgiving of exposure mistakes (we call that having “good latitude”), was grainy, and enlarging tiny portions of a tiny frame of grainy film resulted in kind of a mess.
It’s still a good idea to fill up the frame in the digital age, for many of the same reasons. We buy phones and cameras that have millions of pixels, yet too many of the images I see coming my way from every angle feature a lot of sky and grass, with the main subjects (mostly people) crowded into the center of the frame.
So try it yourself. Get yourself set to make a picture, then tell yourself to get closer and fill up the frame. You’ll be surprised how much it can improve your images.