Want Your Photos to Look Better – Give Your Subject Some Space

By Lane Erickson

“If it doesn’t look right, it isn’t right.” – Malcolm Armstrong

Photography is art. As art, photographers, like other artists, need to learn and understand some basic rules of artistic composition. When a photographer follows these rules, they can create striking images. 

There are many specific rules of artistic composition that you can Google and study on your own such as: the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, the golden mean or golden ratio, leading lines, S curves, symmetry, asymmetry, and so forth. All of these are important to understand when it comes to creating art.  The problem is, sometimes it’s difficult to think about these rules when you’re creating photographs, especially if your subject is in motion. 

So let’s talk about a singe simple rule that you can follow any time you are creating a photograph of a living object or even a non-living object. 

I call it the Rule of Space. I’m not talking outer space here.  I’m talking about giving the subject of your photo some space or room, or area or territory or whatever you want to call it. 

Let’s look at some photos so you can understand what I mean. 

Space to Look Into

Anytime you have a subject in your photograph that is not looking directly at the camera, you should try to give your subject some space in the direction they are looking. In other words give them space to look into. 

Here are some examples where the subject of the image was given some room to look into.

In analyzing all these photos some people would say that many of the composition rules mentioned above are being followed. That may be true, but remember we’re trying to simplify here. We’re trying to make it easy for each of us as photographers to remember what to do when the action is happening. 

If all you do when creating photos is remember that you need to leave some space for your subject to look into, your compositions and your photographs will immediately be better. 

Space to Walk, Run, or Move Into

Additionally, regardless of whether that your subject is living or nonliving, you should give your subject some space to walk, run, or move into. 

Let’s look first at an inanimate object. In these photos, I have chess board pieces set up on a chessboard. The first photo is tightly composed leaving no room. However, the second photo leaves some room for the chess pieces to move into. To me, the second image is more powerful than the first.  

Here are some additional examples of people and a car. 

Can You Ever Break the Rule of Space?

Now that you’ve seen how this simple composition rule works, many people ask if there is ever a time when you can break the rule? Yes. As the quote above states, if it doesn’t look right then it isn’t right. Anytime breaking the rule will make a photo look better, then break the rule. 

I do it sometimes myself. Here’s an example:

I created this photograph of the bald eagle from a boat floating on a lake near the shore. The eagle was constantly looking in every direction. This made it difficult to try to compose the image. However, I realized that two important things were involved. The first was that the eagle was the subject. The second was that the eagle shouldn’t be hanging out in the air. In other words, I needed a portion of the main tree in the image to anchor the photo so that it looked normal and natural. 

When I looked at my photos on the computer, I realized another thing. When the eagle was looking towards the right of the photo (where there was more room) it appeared that it was looking into the branches of the tree. However, when the eagle was looking to the left, where there was empty blue sky, the photo appeared more normal and natural, even though there was very little space for the eagle to look into. 

So use the Rule of Space to guide you as you are creating photos. However, the most important rule of photography is to create the picture that you feel looks the best.

Thanks for reading, and please leave your comments. I welcome your thoughts, suggestions and even your critiques.

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