Guide to Composition - Using the Space in the Frame

Composition | 4 Ways to Use the Space in the Frame

In our last tutorial, we examined various ways of arranging the various elements in the frame. In this tutorial, we will take a look at different ways of using the space in the frame.

1. Fill the Frame with your Subject

Filling the frame completely or almost completely with your subject can be another effective composition technique. This is a technique I like to use in architecture photographs in particular. By filling the frame with the building, I am inviting the viewer of the photograph to explore the details of the subject.

Fill the Frame with your Subject - Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame de Paris

In this photograph of Notre Dame Cathedral and surrounding buildings, I have cropped my frame very closely to the subject leaving very little space around the buildings themselves. There is only a small portion of sky visible. When displayed or printed in a large format, this allows us to examine the details such as the balconies on the building to the right or the flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Fill the Frame with your Subject - Lion Portrait
Matt the Lion – Dublin Zoo

The next photograph features my cat, I have completely filled the frame with his face leaving absolutely no space around him. I have even cropped out the edges of his head and mane. I did this as I wanted to focus on the textures on his fur and the details in his eyes. You may notice that this photograph also uses the rule of thirds with his eyes sitting along the top line of the rule of thirds grid. The various composition ideas can often be combined like this. He is a lovely pet but you should see the state of our couch. He also loves children but he couldn’t eat a whole one.

2. Leave Negative Space in the Frame

Having told you that filling or balancing the frame works well as a composition technique, I am now once again going to suggest you do the exact opposite. I’d make a good politician I think. Leaving empty or negative space around your main subject focuses attention on the subject itself. Negative space means there is little to distract from the main point of interest.

Leave Negative Space in the Frame - statue of Shiva in Mauritius
Statue of Shiva, Mauritius

This photo of a giant statue of the Hindu god Shiva in Mauritius is a good example of using negative space. I have left plenty of space around the statue filled only by the sky and clouds around it. This focuses our attention on the statue itself while giving the main subject “space to breath” so to speak. The composition also creates a sense of simplicity. There is nothing complicated about the scene. It is a statue surrounded by sky, that is all. Simplicity is always a good idea when it comes to composition as we will see in the next tutorial.

Leave Negative Space in the Frame - Tunisian Flag
Tunisian Flag at the Kasbah of Hammamet

The Tunisian flag in the above photograph is also surrounded by plenty of negative space. This flag sits on the walls of the beautiful Kasbah of Hammamet. There is a superb souk or market at the base of the kasbah. I manged to find a genuine Billy Vuitton handbag for my wife that the seller insisted was made from his beloved late camel.

Leave Negative Space in the Frame - Lone Tree
Tree at Dawn, County Kildare, Ireland

In this photograph, I made use of a very simple and uncluttered background to focus attention on the tree. This photo makes use of negative space around the tree to add to this sense of simplicity and minimalism. Misty mornings provide excellent conditions for leaving negative space as the mist often fully or partially obscures potentially distracting elements in the background.

3. Use the Rule of Space in the Frame

The rule of space relates to the direction the subject(s) in your photo are facing or moving towards. If you are taking a photo of a moving car for example, there should be more space left in the frame in front of the car than behind it. This implies that there is space in the frame for the car to move into.

Use the Rule of Space in the Frame - Boat on the Rover Seine
Bateau Mouche and Conciergerie, Paris

In this photo, the boat is placed on the left hand side of the frame as it moves from left to right. Notice how there is a lot more space for the boat to move into in front of its direction of motion (to the right) than behind it. We can mentally imagine the boat moving into this space as it sails along the river.

We also have a subconscious tendency to look forward to where an object is heading. In this case we look from left to right and take in the rest of the scene with the Conciergerie building along the quay and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. If the boat was up at the right hand side of the frame, this would lead us out of the photograph!

Use the Rule of Space in the Frame - Gondola in Venice
Gondola by the Bridge of Sighs, Venice

In this photograph, we see a gondola travelling along a canal towards the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. In this case, the gondola is at the base of the frame and is moving away from the viewer towards the space in the top of the frame. As in the previous photograph of a boat in Paris, the gondola has plenty of space in front of it to travel into.

The rule of space is often applied in other situations such as sports photography.

Use the Rule of Space in the Frame - Sports Photography
Aviva Stadium/Lansdowne Road, Dublin

I took this photo on my phone camera a few years ago. Notice how the kicker (Johnny Sexton) is placed to the left of the frame and the ball is travelling into the space on the right. He made the kick by the way.

As a kid my dad was able to lift me over the turnstiles at the old Lansdowne Road without a ticket. I don’t think he’d manage the same feat today. Since then, I’ve gained a few pounds and he’s had a hip replaced.

4. Use the Left to Right Rule in the Frame

There is theory that says we “read” an image from left to right in the same way we would read text in a book or newspaper. For this reason, it is sometimes suggested that any motion portrayed in a photograph should flow from left to right.

Use the Left to Right Rule in the Frame - Woman Walking in the Tuileries Gardens Paris
Woman in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris

The photo above follows the “left to right” rule. The woman walking in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris is walking from the left to the right of the frame. You’ll notice that the photo also adheres to the “rule of space” among others.

This is all very well but it assumes the viewer is from a country were text is read from left to right. Many languages are read from right to left such as Arabic for example. To be honest, I’ve seen plenty of fantastic photographs that “flow” from right to left.

Breaking the the Left to Right Rule in the Frame - Woman Walking in Venice
Campo in Venice

This photograph of a woman walking across a campo in Venice completely ignores the “left to right” rule. I don’t think this is an issue at all. To me, what is important in this scene is the moment itself that has been captured, the surrounding buildings and the warm evening light. The direction the woman is walking didn’t even cross my mind when taking the photograph.

I was once criticised by a judge for the fact that a woman in a different photo I took was walking from right to left. He told me it didn’t follow the “left to right” rule. I reminded the judge that the photo was taken in Tunisia where people read from right to left. I don’think he appreciated me challenging him and unsurprisingly, I didn’t win.

This demonstrates why I’m very wary about talking about “rules” when it comes to composition. As I have already said several times now, it is best to view these “rules” as guidelines or ideas for composition rather than something that needs to be adhered to without question. Some also make more sense than others.

Bonus: Rule of Odds

Having just gone on a mini rant about “rules” in composition, I am now going to discuss one more of these so called “rules”: The Rule of Odds. This “rule” is a strange one in that it’s tricky to categorize so I’m adding it in with the “Rule of Space” and “Left to Right Rule”.

In the world of photography, there are certainly plenty of “odds” but the “rule of odds” is something different entirely. The rule suggests that an image is more visually appealing if there are an odd number of subjects. The theory proposes that an even number of elements in a scene is distracting as the viewer is not sure which one to focus his or her attention on. An odd number of elements is seen as more natural and easier on the eye.

As with the previous “left to right rule”, I think there are plenty of cases where this is not the case but it certainly can be applicable in certain situations. What if you have four children? How do you decide which one to leave out of the shot?

Rule of Odds in Photography - 3 Arches in Venice
St. Mark’s Square – Venice

The photo above is an example of a time when the rule of odds can be effective. I deliberately framed the scene to include three arches. I think that two arches would not have worked as well in this case and may have indeed divided the viewer’s attention. It also so happened that there were three people in the scene.

Breaking the Rule of Odds in Photography - St. Mark's square, Venice
St Mark’s Square – Venice

This photo was also taken on Saint Mark’s Square. This time, it breaks the “rule of odds” several times in the frame. In this scene, there are two principal human subjects, four street lamps and two ornate columns, all even numbers. Does the photograph suffer as a result? I don’t think it does.

It would also be a lot a trouble to get out my angle grinder to cut down one of the street lamps. As for the columns, I don’t know where I’d start. I’d need a very strong rope and a heavy truck at least. I could always ask one of the couple to leave the scene or ask somebody else to join them I guess. Or I could just ignore the rule of odds.

In the next tutorial, we will look at the ideas of simplicity and complexity in composition.

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I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

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