If you have been photographing and everything seems right technically but you still feel something is missing in your shots, then it might be your composition. This article discusses space in photography and highlights several ways to use it creatively in your work.

You’ve been used to working with aperture, shutter speed, lighting and focus on a consistent basis. But there is one other thing you’re working with, whether you’re aware of it or not: it’s called “space”. If you know how to effectively use space in your shots, it can be a powerful compositional tool.

Let’s see what “space” means in photography and how it can enhance your skills as a photographer.

Say “no” to cropping

It is often tempting to fill up the frame as much as possible. When photographing something that really interests you, it can be hard to refrain yourself and consider your composition thoroughly. But photographs are more than just the objects that are being shot. They are the environment and space they come from.

Many photographers steer away from empty areas and crop out negative space, instead of embracing all the possibilities for experimentation and adding style to their compositions. Space also adds a realistic dimension where the subject exists in a space and the two elements complement each other. It is only a matter of composing your shots to find this duality and cooperation.

Contrary to popular belief, the absence of shape and form does not mean the absence of interest. In fact, negative space often stirs curiosity, highlights the subject, and creates emotions effectively, as you can see in the image below:

Positive space in photography

The active area is the space occupied by your main subject. Conversely, negative space is not an active part of your subject, but rather the area behind the subject that passively highlights it and builds the actual feel of the story.

Let’s say you’re shooting a portrait and you don’t want a flat headshot, but open it a little bit and make it tell a story. What you can do is take your subject and create a negative space and simply move their eyes in the direction of that negative space.

This starts to imply that some sort of action is going to happen and makes the viewer wonder what the person is looking at. Giving your subjects plenty of “breathing” room also gives them much more clarity.

space in photography - profile of a young womanhttp://flickr.com/photos/juliannehide/2379921099

Using active space in your compositions, whether it’s sports photography (bikes, people etc.), wildlife (running animals) or any other moving subject helps you to build excitement within the image. The key is to present your subject with more active space and less dead space to create a powerful impact and show that it’s moving and has a destination.

This compels viewers to naturally look to where the subject is heading, thus stirring emotion and setting the mood. Not only does it add dramatic feel to your shots, but it also creates a flow to naturally pull the eyes of viewers to the direction of your subject.

Negative space in photography

Negative space has a great influence on your composition and how your work is perceived by the viewers. It is a principle used in art and architecture and it is equally relevant in photography. Basically, negative space defines and emphasizes your main subject, drawing viewers’ attention to it. It gives some breathing space by allowing the viewer to rest inside the frame and averting the image from seeming too cluttered.

Contrary to popular belief, the absence of shape and form does not mean the absence of interest. In fact, negative space often stirs curiosity, highlights the subject and creates emotions effectively, as you can see in the image below:

space in photography - red beaked birdhttp://flickr.com/photos/botheredbybees/1452218117

A great way to achieve simplicity in your work is to use plenty of empty space in your compositions. Empty space can be anything from big shadowed areas, open skyline or clean, uncluttered parts of the scenery. The amount of empty space you can use depends on the strength of your main subject. Typically, the more powerful your subject, the more space you can use around it.

When composing your shot through the LCD screen / viewfinder, ask yourself:

– How is the negative space spread throughout the frame?
– Is there too much of it in one place and not enough in another?
– Is there too little negative space in the frame adding uneasiness to the image?

Some of the best ways to use the negative space is to blur it. Using depth of field, you highlight your subject and create a gradual blur to the negative space, thus optimizing the space in your shot. By narrowing the depth of field, you throw the negative space out of focus and highlight your subject more creatively.

Adding “space” to your compositions

As you can see, space can be used in many ways to balance your compositions and to create properly weighted images. For example, you can use the Rule of Thirds or the Rule of Golden Spiral to arrange the elements in a specific way.

The rule of thirds

The Rule of Thirds teaches you to virtually divide the workspace into 3 equal parts both horizontally and vertically and on the intersections you put the weighted elements to produce a weighted and balanced image. The goat in the image below is placed into one of the four key points of interest while the rocky area (negative space) serves to balance the composition.

space in photography - deer in a slope on a mountainhttp://flickr.com/photos/lfphotos/8736928719

The next time you experiment with the Rule of Thirds, place your subject at one of the intersection points and then fill the rest of the shot with negative space to create a more dramatic effect.

Rule of golden spiral

In the Rule of Golden Spiral (also called the Golden Ratio), you use the Fibonacci Series and divide the workspace using the series in ratio accordingly and draw a final geometry joining the diagonals of the gradually decreasing portions.

space in photography - view of the city by the sunset
http://flickr.com/photos/newdimensionfilms/2283222098
Some of the weighted elements that create a balanced image include:
  • Eyes of a portrait
  • High-contrasted objects
  • Colored objects according to ascending priority
  • Isolated objects from a series of objects

Some photographers even consider the Golden Ratio to be a more powerful composition tool. Here is an easier way to compare the two:

  • The Rule of Thirds is a grid split into nine equal boxes (a 33/33/33 division)
  • The Golden Spiral is roughly a 62/38 division that creates the intersection of several diagonals

Splitting the frame into nine squares on a 3×3 grid is easy and many camera LCDs already provide us with such a grid that we can use. The Golden Ratio is a little harder to use, however Lightroom 3 has a golden ratio overlay feature where you crop the image. This way, you can overlay the Golden Spiral ratio over your image to quickly match the points of interest in your image.

Summing up

Splitting the frame into nine squares on a 3×3 grid is easy and many camera LCDs already provide us with such a grid that we can use. The Golden Ratio is a little harder to use, however Lightroom 3 has a golden ratio overlay feature where you crop the image. This way, you can overlay the Golden Spiral ratio over your image to quickly match the points of interest in your image.

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