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As with all composition techniques that start with the word “rule”, it is not so much a rule as a guide for when we’re composing images. The rule of space is an easy rule, but quite an effective one for creating a sense of movement, a feeling, a little intrigue and for saying something about our subject in perspective. 

Observing the rule of space doesn’t just mean ensuring there is space to an image. Not all space is the same. Let’s take a closer look.

What is the rule of space?

It is a composition decision to include or exclude empty space in an image. The rule of space also guides us on where to include space and why. With this composition technique, the space says as much about the image as the subject.

What’s more, the inclusion or exclusion of space in an image can make or break it.

Very often the rule of thirds comes into play with the rule of space, because of where we position our subject in the frame.

How does the rule of space work?

There are four aspects to the rule of space

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

1. Movement

When we’re photographing movement, such as a horse race, we ensure that there is space in front of the horses to emphasise the movement. At this point we would also employ the left to right rule of composition. The horses would be on the left of the image, moving into the space on the right. This space is called active space.

If we did not include this space, the horses would appear to be boxed in and the viewer would not feel the sense of movement.

Sometimes including space behind the subject, shows the journey the subject has already taken. If this is relevant, then it is a good use of the space. If however, the destination and sense of forward movement is more important, then including the dead space behind the subject is irrelevant and takes away from the strength of the image.

Think of the scene from Forest Gump where he is 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, along with a crowd of followers and a highway leading back to Monument Valley. If you Google “Forest Gump Monument Valley” you’ll see the scene. Interestingly, it is also at this moment that he stops running. His journey ends and the composition underlines this.

Active space usage for subjects to move into Playing at superheroes and leaping about in the studio.

2. Gaze

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 your image the viewer is intrigued by what they might be looking at that is 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. It is a way to tell a story in an image.

When there is 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 with 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 header image 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 is looking at somebody, so it makes you curious and creates a story in your head of what might be happening.

3. Perspective

When you allow a lot of space around a subject you reduce its perspective in the image. In other words, you can make a large object seem small in a large space. This is the opposite of the composition technique of filling the frame, where the viewer gets close to the subject.

4. Breaking the rule

Like with all the composition rules, when you follow the rule, you create harmony and balance in an image. When you break the rule, your create tension and discord. This is why sometimes breaking the rule is essential for creating a strong image.

Using rule of space to show perspective in the desert By including a large amount of the space around the couple, it places them in the environment and highlights their vulnerability. They are small in the expansive Namib desert. If you're wondering what's going on - it was scorching and they were cooling off and having a laugh together under a wet kikoy.

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