Composition (2): Space and emptiness

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Space and emptiness


Composition is the key to a good picture. In the first part of our series on composition we looked at the role of the viewfinder as the main composition tool in photography. A good photographer uses the viewfinder frame consciously to integrate or exclude certain elements. In this part of the series, we’ll be looking at another fundamental principle of composition: the space you give your subject within the frame of the picture.

Position in the frame

Let’s start with a small task: take your favourite coffee-table book or a magazine and look closely at one of the photos in it. Consider what you’re seeing there. What is the main subject? How is it positioned in the picture?

You’ll find that the power of a picture rarely comes from the main subject alone. Rather, a decisive factor is how that subject stands in relation to the frame of the picture. This is because the observer is reading “between the lines”; the deeper meaning of the picture is usually only revealed from the alignment of the picture’s various elements. The main subject can be big or small, can be cropped or shown in its entirety.

The main subject in context

As soon as you know what your main subject is, take one step back in your mind. Consider what you want to express through your photograph. For example, that may be, specifically, the enormity of a particular building, or, figuratively-speaking, our vulnerability as humans.

This thought automatically leads to an initial idea for a photograph. If you show the building in full-format, it fills up all the space. However, if you position a person standing small at the lower edge of the frame, they will be completely “dominated” by the empty space.

You can drastically change the message of a picture by changing the size and position of the main subject within the frame. The space around your main subject gives your picture its depth in terms of content.

Try it out: take a photo with the main subject positioned in the centre of the picture. Then take another picture with the main subject positioned on the edge of the frame. Play around with different sizes. Try to consciously integrate the background as an “empty space” in the composition of the picture.

From now on, always think about “space” when you’re taking photos. How you use it and implement it as a composition tool has a direct influence on the message your pictures express.

Knowing that you can give your subject more or less space will make your perception sharper. And after a while you will be able to use space completely intuitively as a composition tool to achieve your intended effect.

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