Space to Breathe In

Space is one compositional aspect I find is often not talked a whole lot about in photo literature. Yes, indirectly as part of the composition, as the point-of-view you choose when taking a photo, as in how you build a photo with for instance a foreground, a middle ground and a background, and sometimes as something called negative space, which is just another word for emptiness, to put it somewhat bluntly. The actually feeling of space, of openness or the room in which the photo resides in, is hardly ever addressed as such.

For me this feeling of space is tremendously important in any picture. It can make or break your photo. Space makes the eye and the mind come to rest in a photograph. If you are able to capture a feeling of space, you open up the viewer’s perception to explorer what lies within and beyond the obvious. Even in an otherwise cluttered composition, space and a feeling of room encourage the viewer to breathe and slow down and spend more time within your photo.

As I mentioned in my post two weeks ago, Some Things Never Change, space along with time are two factors that are completely camera independent. No matter how advanced the camera you have is it cannot pick the space you choose to photograph. Space is yours to handle, whether you use a cell phone or a professional DSLR- camera.

Try to open up the space. Move around the subject and see if you can open up the space that surrounds it. Move out from enclosed and cramped positions and bring space into your photos. Of course, sometimes you want to create a feeling of tightness and constricted boundaries. In that case you might not want to open up the space in you photo, but in most cases, a feeling of space is good.

Think of your subject as been placed on a stage. You have been to the theatres, no? Maybe then, you have noticed how the stage has carefully been arranged to give a feeling of space and depth. You have backdrops placed at different distance from front to back on the stage. And you have an open space where the act itself can develop. It is all done to create a three-dimensional impression and of course a place for the play to be acted out.

That same impression you want to create in your photos, even if they are nothing but two-dimensional and flat «stages». Try to create a perception of an open space where the story in your photo can unfold and try to make it feel three-dimensional. Part of this is the classical compositional advice, which is placing various elements in the foreground, the middle ground as well as the background, just like backdrops on a real stage. For instance framing the main subject with an opening through some trees or through a doorway will emphasize a feeling of depth. If you add some mountains or a city in the background, you go even further in creating this feeling of three-dimensionality.

Of course, on a real stage in a theatre you literally create the backdrops and place props exactly where you want them to be. When photographing real life you cannot really do so. Instead, you need to move yourself around to find a point of view that brings available «backdrops» and «props» into your viewfinder. It does not necessarily have to been more than a step or two to one side or the other, and suddenly the stage falls like magic in place. Or you may just have to turn the camera in a different direction—or a combination of the two.

Along these lines, see how you can open up the space and really create a feeling of a wide stage. In a cramped room, you may not have many options, but in most places, you can easily open up the space, again by either moving yourself and/or turning the camera.

If, for instance, you are taking a portrait on the street, maybe of your family on vacation somewhere, do not place the family members up against a wall; do not even shoot them with a simple wall as a background a bit further back. Yes, that does create some feeling of space and depth, but still nothing compared to if you turn yourself around 90 degrees and instead of a wall have the whole street running into the background. Now place your family in that stage and your photo suddenly tells a much more in-depth story, literally.

However, keep in mind, in doing so you do run the risk of creating a busy and cluttered background, simply because you fill it up with more elements. So while expanding the stage this way, you still need to make sure to clean up the background. Things become a little more complicated, but you will see that after some practise, the open space you capture this way, will give your photos a different boost.

We human beings like space. Nothing is quite as calming and arousing as standing at the boundary of the ocean and take in that open space that curves around the earth. Or standing at the top of a mountain range and literally feel on top of the world and all there is, is space above and abound. That feeling that is so alluring is what we want to bring into a photo, at least to some extent.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon EOS-1D and a 28-135 mm lens set at 28 mm. Shutter speed: 1/50 s. Aperture: f/20. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

48 thoughts on “Space to Breathe In

  1. I always try to be cognizant of the context of the photo but often (especially with grandkids!) I’m rushing to capture the moment and am surprised at what else I’ve captured in the shot😏

  2. A couple of thoughts came to mind. One is that space is important even in macro shots. The other is that sometimes a little cropping can do wonders, eliminating unrelated or unnecessary parts of the photo. Moving around to frame a photo is important, of course, but in nature, particularly, there can be so much going on that a closer crop makes an image seem more spacious, rather than less.

    Of course, there can be too much space in a photo, as well, but that’s a different issue, and probably more a matter of physically getting closer to the subject to establish some boundaries.

    I love these articles, Otto. They really do stimulate thought, and if all goes as it should, improvement!

    1. And of course, you are right; there is no one way to capture space. Too much space may be just as wrong as too cramped a space. That is the beauty of photography, and art in a more general sense, that there are no rules, really.

  3. Good advice as always, Otto. I was reminded of the wonderful Renaissance paintings with their distant backgrounds, creating a sense of framing the characters in the foreground whilst setting them in the space created by the wider landscape. My favourite, Raphael’s Three Graces comes to mind.

  4. Otto, it;s always nice to read your advice, love the idea of negative space, that emptiness, but so necessary to a great picture. The more I think about any subject you find a correlation to everything else in life, a wisdom, like in the Orient they like to say, the purpose of a bowl it’s emptiness, so it can be filled with something.
    Thank you for your great advice. 🙂

  5. I enjoyed this post greatly.
    Two thoughts on space constantly interest me:
    1 Within the frame of the image an awareness of what is happening in so-called ‘negative’ space is important. I don’t accept that there is such a thing as ‘negative’ space. Negative space identifies shapes and relationships. The important point for the photographer is to ensure that the space makes a positive contribution. Sometimes cropping is necessary to get the balance right. Our eyes don’t view the world as 3 x 2.
    2 The space outside the frame is also important. A picture needs breathing space to make an impact. For this reason, like you, I prefer to publish only one image at a time.

    1. You are so right on both accounts. It’s almost a contradiction to call open space for negative space, because it should, as you point out, have a positive impact on the visually expression. As to space outside the frame, that this is important, too, is evident when you know how much considerations, for instance, are put into sequencing in the design of books, whether or not to have two photos on opposite pages or which two pictures fit together.

  6. Such an encouraging post, Otto, as I too attempt to “frame in” the subjects of my watercolours. I do need to remind myself often that…more is not always better. Space is paramount or…the painter’s illusion to achieve that mental memory image of it. (I hope you understand what I’m trying to explain. ) So nice to see that Pacific Northeast vista in the above photo!

    1. I certainly understand what you say, whether we talk about photography or painting. I believe you meant Pacific Northwest, and it is, indeed, more specifically in Mount Rainier National Park in the State of Washington.

  7. Mycket intressant inlägg Otto. Särskilt svårt när man fotar bilder rakt uppifrån så som jag ofta gör när jag fotar is/macro och abstrakta former i naturen. Svårt läge att hitta rätt placering och få till något överhuvudtaget, inte blir det mycket djup heller men ska absolut tänka mer på rymd runt om och huvudmotivets placering. Är lite förtjust i tvådimensionella/platta bilder också.

    1. Ingenting galt med todimensjonale bilder – det blir jo et poeng i seg selv, rent visuelt. Men du har også rett i det at det ikke er lett å skape en romfølelse når du fotograferer rett ovenifra. Det du gjør er jo nettopp å jobbe mer med abstrakte former, og da blir rom mindre viktig. 🙂

  8. Great post and very useful advice, Otto. Composition considerations usually make or break a photo. But since I often ‘shoot’ birds, such considerations tend to become secondary to capturing the whole object – with wings and all 🙂

  9. Noting that humans respond strongly to wide open spaces is a nice reminder to think about what draws people in. But rules are made o be broken, as you note!

  10. one time we were in a mall with two stories and interesting patterned tiles, so i sent my sister in law the the balcony above to take a picture of me lying on the floor… i used to have a lot more fun looking for photo ops when i was young 🙂 oh and yes, there was a lot of space, but i was up against the floor lol in a snow angel position

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