Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition

As with all photography techniques involving the rules of composition, the rule of space is not so much a rule as a guide for composing images.

The rule of space is an easy rule, but a powerful tool for creating a sense of movement, a feeling, a sense of scale and for saying something about your subject. Knowing how to use it helps you to decide where to place your subject in a photo.

Observing the rule of space in photography composition doesn’t just mean ensuring there’s space in an image. It’s how you use the space.

Not all space is the same.

Types of space in photography composition are:

  • Negative space – the space empty space in an image (also known as white space)
  • Positive space – the main focal point of the image (subject)
  • Active space – the space into which the subject is looking or moving
  • Dead space – the space behind the subject of your photograph

Negative space can be active space or dead space, depending on subject placement

Let’s take a closer look at how to use space to enhance an image and tell a story.

Rule of space composition tips

What is the rule of space in photography?

The rule of space is a composition decision to include or exclude empty space in an image, also known as negative space or white space. It also guides us on:

  • Where to include space and
  • Why you should include the space

With this compositional technique, the space says as much about the image as the subject, also known as the positive space.

What’s more, the inclusion or exclusion of space in an image can make or break it. For example, a tight crop could be exactly what the image needs to remove distracting elements or create a dramatic impact for strong composition.

Very often we use the rule of thirds when composing an image with the rule of space, because of where we position our subject in the frame. Giving the main subject breathing room with a lot of negative space creates a calming image. Unless the use of space isn’t well balanced. It could be intentional to create tension or unintentional, in which case it’s not good composition. More on this in a moment.


How does the rule of space work?

The four aspects to using the rule of space as an element of design in photography composition are:

  1. Movement
  2. Gaze 
  3. Perspective
  4. The results of breaking the rule

1. The rule of space – movement

When photographing movement, we need to consider the direction of movement and the use of space in the image for that movement to get the right balance.

Space in front of the subject – active space

A horse race is a good example of the need to ensure that there’s enough active space in front of the subject to emphasize the movement and to give them space to move into.

Ideally, we’d also use the left to right rule of composition for such a shot. The horses would be on the left of the image, moving into the active space on the right. 

Without much space, the horses would appear to be boxed in and the viewer wouldn’t feel the sense of movement. 

Space behind the subject – dead space

Sometimes including space behind the subject, shows the journey the subject has already taken. If it’s relevant, then it’s a good use of the space.

However, if the destination and sense of forward movement is more important, then including too much dead space behind the subject is irrelevant and takes away from the strength of the image.

Photography composition ebook

How the rule of space was used in Forest Gump

Think of the scene from Forest Gump where he’s running and running. He’s been running a long time. His hair is long and he has a long beard.

We see him up close and about to exit the shot. The space in the image is behind him to show that he’s been on a journey. There’s also a crowd of followers and a highway leading back to Monument Valley in the dead space.

If you Google “Forest Gump Monument Valley” you’ll see the scene. Interestingly, it’s also at this moment that he stops running. His journey ends and the composition underlines this.

Side note – several different elements of composition were used in this scene to create a clear message. It’s a great example of unity in photography composition, which is applying elements of visual design for a cohesive image.

Active space usage for subjects to move into

The children have space in front of them in the frame, giving them space for their movement

2. The rule of space – gaze

People are curious, so using the rule of space to take advantage of our curiosity with the gaze of a person, automatically creates a more engaging image.

Just as with allowing space for movement, when photographing people not looking directly at the camera, they need space to look into. When your subject looks into negative space in an image the viewer is intrigued by what they might be looking at that’s out of shot.

What’s more, the viewer’s eyes go in the direction of the subject’s gaze, because we want to see what they see. So, when your subject looks at something in shot, it creates a journey for the viewer’s eyes. This makes the image more interesting and holds your viewer’s attention for longer.

Gaze is a way to tell a story and create a compelling image.

When there’s little space for the subject to look into and the negative space in the image is in the opposite direction of the subject’s gaze, it creates an unsettling feeling. Just like when there’s movement, the subject feels boxed in. They might be unhappy, trapped or feeling conflict.

They don’t have room to breathe within the image.

PS – the reason I chose the image at the top for this article was because the girl is looking down. Her downward gaze leads your eye to the text below.

Rule of space tips on subject's gaze out of shot

The boy is gazing out of shot at his father who has just asked him a question about his cars. As a viewer you don’t know this, but you know from his expression and his gaze that he’s looking at somebody, so it makes you curious and creates a story in your head of what might be happening.

3. The rule of space – perspective

Perspective in photography is the spatial relationship between elements in an image. 

When you allow a lot of space around a subject, you reduce their visual weight in the image. In other words, you can make a large object seem small in a large space by including a large amount of negative space.

This is the opposite of the composition technique of filling the frame, where the viewer gets close to the subject.

So giving a subject a lot of visual weight in an image makes them dominant and reducing their visual weight makes them appear more vulnerable.

Using rule of space to show perspective in the desert

Including a large amount of the space around the couple places them in the environment and highlights their vulnerability. They’re small in the expansive Namib desert. (If you’re wondering what’s going on – it was scorching hot and my friends were cooling off and having a laugh together under a wet kikoy.)

4. Breaking the rule of space

Like with all composition rules, when you follow the rule, you create harmony and balance in an image.

When you break the rule, you create tension and discord.

This is why sometimes breaking the rule is essential for creating a strong image.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about the rule of space in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my composition tips have helped you to understand the rule of space, share that too.

2 thoughts on “Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition”

Leave a Comment