Composition: The Rule of Space

By Geoff Harris

In many different genres of photography you will have a subject in your photograph with space around it, and the rule of space looks at how this space should be organised relative to the subject in the photograph.

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.

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.

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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