7 Tips and Tricks for Expanding Your Frame

"Memories on the Wind" Featuring Loren Schmidt

One of the techniques I frequently use when shooting on location (by frequently I mean pretty much every time) is to expand my frame. I believe that many of you know of this fancy maneuver and are probably already doing it like total pixel gathering pros. (Well done, friends.) However, we are all at different levels on our journey towards creative greatness, so for those of you who haven't tested out this handy trick yet - allow me to elaborate. ALLOW ME!! K thanks. (And for those that do know this technique, kindly stick around for some tips and tricks that will hopefully take your expanding game to the next level.)  

When I shoot here in the studio I use a Hasselblad (please hold your applause until the end), aka the file size is astronomical and the amount of pixels/information is everything a boy could dream of. When I shoot on location I don't bring the "big guns" and do my shooting on a 5D MarkIII. Now, yes, that is a fantastic camera and the images are plenty large enough and beautifully detailed ... but I can be a greedy little bugger when it comes to the amount of pixels on my canvas. When I get into editing I tend to zoom WAY in and work on details that hardly anyone is ever going to notice. It brings me joy. I like to have a lot of resolution to work with, which is precisely why I almost always expand my frame when I'm off in the woods somewhere.  

Basically all you are doing when you expand a frame is taking extra images around your main shot and then stitching them together in post, meaning your final image is made up of several images and is therefore larger/has more pixels/resolution/detail overall. And as an added bonus you can then print the finished image REALLY large. *Happy Dance* 

This technique is especially handy if you are still early in your photographic career and don't have a full frame sensor camera and want to capture sharper, larger, more detailed images. Or if you are just a detail whore like yours truly. Plus, when you shoot a subject closer to the camera (or zoomed in, should you be using a zoom lens), it makes the background softer (less in focus). Whereas if you were to back out and take the picture of the entire scene, your subject wouldn't be as crisp and sharp against a softer backdrop. (For example, please take a gander at the image below taken by Shelby Robinson of Loren and I having all of the fun setting up for this shot with the nice soft background.)  

TIP ONE - Fill Your Frame With Model!

I learned this tip by trial and error during one of my first ever expansion shots. It wasn't really the biggest error exactly, because the image came out wonderfully and is still one of my very favorites. What happened was that when I shot the picture of my subject she was already small-ish in the frame (as in I was backed out taking a pic of most of the scene like I mentioned above, oops), and then I took more images around that image. If I had tried to combine all of those images, my subject would have been itty bitty. This might be what you're going for and it's totally acceptable, but it was a bit overkill for what I wanted. I only ended up using one or two of the expansion photos to add some extra room to the left side of the frame in order to re-crop/compose the image to my liking. You can see how that picture all went down in this post.

For the technique to really shine, I find it's best to shoot your subject as large in your main shot as possible. If your model is standing like Loren was for "Memories On the Wind," I'd advise you to shoot them vertically in the center of the frame. There's no need to get all fancy with framing because you will basically get to pick how your image is composed later on, so just FILLER-UP! 

TIP TWO - Find Your Method 

There are a couple of methods for gathering the extra images around your subject. Some people are cray and will do sort of a "spray-and-pray" method. They'll shoot hand held and after they get their main shot, will circle around the subject snapping tons of images of the surrounding area (aka "spray"). Then they will hope that they have all of the parts they need for the stitch (aka "pray"). No matter which way I go about expanding I always end up participating in the "pray" portion - hoping that I got everything and didn't miss a random little patch of info somewhere.

The other method is to have your camera on a tripod and go about the expansion more systematically. After you're happy with your model shot, take an image of the frame without the subject in place just so you have a good clean image of the background. (You never know if you might want to move them in post or something.) Then pan left to right and take two images on either side of your original frame. After that, return to center (the original frame from your model shot) and pan up one frame, then do two shots on either side of that frame. Next, return to your original frame again but then continue down one more frame below, shoot that, and do two on either side of that frame. So when all is said and done you have three rows of five images. Sometimes, depending on the location and what all I think I'll want to include, I'll only shoot one image on either side instead of two, or more frames on one side than the other. Really you can shoot as many expansion images as you'd like, it just depends on how small you'd like your model to appear within your finished image. Either way I do highly recommend shooting with a tripod if at all possible; handheld expansions are MUCH more difficult to stitch together.

TIP THREE - Overlap Your Images

It's always a tiny bit stressful to do an expansion. (Right? That's not just me!?) I tend to worry that I've missed a little hole of information somewhere. Which DOES happen from time to time, but more often than not it's pretty easy to just stamp tool in some of the background to fill in the missing pixels. Well you're in luck, friends - there is one easy way to be fairly certain you don't miss anything. When you're about to pan over for the first time, find something at the edge of your frame to overlap so you don't miss a sliver of information.

Aka take note of a particular rock, weird stick, shrubbery or something prevalent on the left side of the frame then pan over to the left until that rock/stick/whatever is now on the right side BUT STILL IN THE FRAME. Then when you stitch the photos together later you know that there is a bit of overlap. Make sense? When you get to the point where you're going to pan up from center, making sure something at the top of the frame ends up at the bottom and so on. 

TIP FOUR - Cheating Is Okay By Me!

Once you get back to the safety of your computer and are ready to dive into compiling all the images you just took, it can be pretty daunting to go about melding them together. You can certainly take the time to hand stitch all of the images, placing them one by one and masking the edges until they blend seamlessly. However, that can (and probably will) take HOURS and it's quite frustrating, especially when you're trying to line up a zillion little branches that were moving in the wind. I don't hesitate to use the warp tool to bend the images to my will so things line up properly. I'd say it's a good practice for everyone to try expanding a frame by hand at least once just for the experience, and because it will more than likely help you know better how to shoot your future expansions. BUT, there is far easier way. Like, way far.

Open Photoshop, go to the "File" drop-down menu, then "Automate," and then at the bottom select "Photomerge..."  A window will pop up and from there you can click "Browse" and navigate to your images, select the ones you want to include in the expansion and then ..... just let Photoshop put them all together for you ..... It's that easy. It does take quite some time for Photoshop's magical algorithms to figure everything out, so I tend to "set it and forget it." A lot of the time I'll start the Photomerge and then leave it going overnight. It's like waking up to a present from Photoshop! There have been a couple of images that it didn't do quite so well with because I shot them without a tripod and the location was rather complex-looking so Photoshop had a difficult time deciphering what to do with everything, but it usually does a pretty bang-up job. At the very least it will give you a solid start.       

TIP FIVE - Take A Template Shot

This tip is exclusively for those times when you compile the images yourself, but it's quick and easy and you don't have to use it. I try to do it every time just in case, even though I'm always planning to letting Photoshop attempt to merge it for me. Anyway, have you ever tried to do a puzzle without the box? Yeah, me neither ... I'm not a savage. So why would you deny yourself "the box" when doing an expansion? Well after reading this I imagine you won't! It's pretty dang easy. After you're done shooting your main shot and all your expansion images, you simply back out and shoot a wide image of the entire scene. Then you can take this image of the whole environment, put it on the top layer of your Photoshop document and turn the opacity down some. Then I'll usually drag in my model shot to start with and transform this template layer large enough so it lines up with the model pic. Now when you drag in your expansion images (underneath the "puzzle box" layer) you can see right where it needs to go and roughly line it up. Note that you should not spend hours trying to match it exactly, it's just a general guide to help you get everything placed.  If you watch the very beginning of the speed edit at the bottom of this post right here, you can see this trick in action, and also what doing a hand stitch looks like. 

TIP SIX - You Don't Have To Use It All 

Once you've got your images all combined into one large canvas, the next step is to find the best composition for your final image. This can be tough, especially if you did take the time to hand stitch the image yourself .... "But I spent hours perfectly lining up and blending these blasted trees. I have to include them!" No friend ... you don't; let the trees go. Just let them go.

As is true with EVERY image I ever do, I always run it through my "checks-and-balances-system" ... aka I show my wife Sara (whom if you don't know is an incredible artist, duh...) periodically throughout my edit to see if she has any thoughts. One of the first times I showed it to her she felt I should crop off a bunch of the left side of the image. It was unneeded and "empty" of action. The blowing-pedal-swoosh as well as her line of sight were leading your eye off to the right side of the frame, so much of the left side was irrelevant to experiencing the image.

Even though this particular image was one that I let Photoshop stitch together for me (thanks boo), I still felt the need to use as much of my expansion as possible. Why wouldn't I want all the extra information!?!?! Well, because cropping the image improved the crap out of my overall flow and composition, that's why. So be sure to take a look at some different crops out of your fully expanded image until you find something that makes your image sing the most. Also, just because you took expansion images doesn't mean you can't later decide that you just want to use the original as is, with no expansion at all!  

TIP SEVENDon't Really Crop It

This is a quick and super easy tip. (You're preemptively welcome.) For large expansions like "Memories on the Wind" I like to make a new layer, fill it with black, make a rectangular marquee roughly where I think I'll eventually crop, and make that a layer mask on the black layer. This way you can see how your crop looks, but everything is still easily visible by turning one layer off. I inevitably crop and re-crop a bunch of times as I work on the image, so by just transforming/resizing my mask I can easily "re-crop" over and over.

Above is the black layer turned down to 50% for the purpose of this blog post so you can see exactly what's going on, but normally I'd have it at 100% solid black so I only see my "crop." You can actually crop it and just uncheck the box at the top of Photoshop that says "delete cropped pixels," but I prefer doing it my way because often times with such a large file (and so many layers because I can't not), it can take quite some time to re-crop even if you are only shaving off a tiny sliver.  

Well, there it was, some tips and tricks for expanding your images into gargantuan glory .... Is anyone still reading? Was it just me or did that feel long? (That's what she said...) I guess I had a LOT of thoughts about this subject haha. Hopefully some or all of my thoughts will be helpful to some or all of you fine people. Oh and let me just send a gigantic "You're-flippin-awesome" to Loren for being an outstanding model, and super fun friend who is always ready for an adventure at the drop of a hat. Definitely go check out her photography work ... like now. Anyways thanks for reading all my words friends, happy expanding!!

The particles used in this image can be found here, and the smoke is from here ..... Buy them.

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