Composition: The Rule of Space
In many different genres of photography you will have a subject in your photograph with space around it. The subject may for instance be a person, an animal or bird, a flower, a tree or a building. Unless the photographer has cropped in so tightly on the subject that it completely fills the frame, there will be space around it. And the rule of space looks at how this space should be organised relative to the subject in the photograph.
As mentioned in previous blogs (see below), there are various rules of composition, one of the best known being the rule of thirds, which considers where to place the subject within the frame. A related but less known “rule” is the rule of space.
The rule of space relates to the direction the subject of the photograph is moving in, or even just looking in. If you photograph a runner, the rule says that you should have more space in front of the runner than behind, thus giving him space to move into within the picture. The same applies to a running animal, or a speeding bicycle or car.
Composing the photograph in this way is said to create an illusion of movement. The space in front of the subject is “active” space, while that behind it is “dead” space.
In a portrait, if the subject is looking out of the frame and not directly towards the camera, then it’s better to have more space in the direction in which they are looking, rather than behind them.
This rule can even apply to subjects which are neither moving nor really looking. For instance, in a portrait of a flower, the flower often appears to “face” in a particular direction – and just as in a portrait, it’s better to have more space in the direction it is facing than behind it.
Of course, like any other rule of composition, this rule is made to be broken on occasion. It can create an edgy, unsettled feel to an image if you do break it – imagine how a photograph of a man walking would have a very different feeling if he was just entering the frame on one side, or just leaving it on the other.
The rule of space is often intertwined with the rule of thirds, because if you allow more space in front of a subject than behind it, you may well end up with the subject about a third of the way into the frame.