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Rule of Space in Photography: How to Create a Visual Balance

A young woman walking and looking to the left side. An example of a photo taken with the rule of space concept in mind.

Creating visual balance in photos is about understanding and leveraging the art and science of composition, with one of the most influential principles being the rule of space. This concept, as abstract as it may seem, governs how elements within a frame interact with each other and the viewer.

Today, we dive into the depths of mastering space in photography and how it can guide you in creating stunning, balanced photographs.

What is The Rule of Space in Photography, and Why is it Important?

The rule of space in photography can be likened to providing a visual pathway for the elements in your photo. It suggests giving the subject room to “move” or “look” within the frame.

It’s like building a narrative around your subject, giving them room to engage with the world within the frame, enhancing the photo’s dynamism and liveliness.

Let’s say you capture a soccer player in motion, chasing after a ball. According to the rule of space, you would want to place the player so that there is more room ahead than behind them. This technique shows where the player is heading, anticipating the action and movement.

a boy playing football on the streets of a city. black and white photo with harsh lighting and shadows.

The same principle applies to static subjects, such as portraits. If a person is gazing off to the side, it’s more visually pleasing to have more space on the side where they’re looking. It provides an element of intrigue, making the viewer wonder what the subject might be looking at.

A young man standing on stage with his hands wide open

Even with inanimate objects, like a building or a landmark, you can employ the rule of space. For instance, if you’re photographing a well-known building, it’s a good idea to allow more space above it, thus giving it “room to breathe” and further emphasizing its grandeur and height.

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What Genres Use the Rule of Space

You can use the rule of space in photography in many ways. Let’s dive into how it is used in different genres of photography.

Minimalism Photography

In minimalist photography, the Rule of Space creates an ’emptiness’ that emphasizes the subject, making it stand out. With a more significant portion of the image as space, the viewer is drawn more powerfully to the minimal subjects present.

Photo of the beach in Jurmala, Latvia with a lot of negative space.

Action or Sports Photography

In action photography, the Rule of Space is often applied by leaving more space in the direction where the subject is moving. This gives a sense of motion and anticipates the subject’s next movement, making the photograph more dynamic and engaging. 

indoor drifting in riga

Landscape Photography

Using the Rule of Space in landscape photography often involves the creation of depth and balance. Photographers may use the sky, an open field, or a body of water as the ‘space’ to balance the elements in the landscape.

For example, a lone tree or a house in a field can be positioned to one side, with the rest of the frame filled with the open field, creating a sense of isolation and tranquility.

Photo of a small lone house in the middle of the field. Minimal black and white photo of a house.

Animal Photography

When photographing animals, leaving space in the direction the animal is looking or moving is common. This approach provides context and suggests the animal’s intentions or next move. 

For example, if you were photographing a bird in flight, you would leave space in front of it, implying its flight path and adding dynamism to the image.

bird flying in the blued skies

Urban Photography

Urban photography often uses the Rule of Space to create depth and a sense of enormity.

By including open sky or water in the composition, photographers can balance the imposing structures of the city and give viewers an understanding of the city’s scale.

For instance, a shot of a building with a large portion of the frame dedicated to the sky emphasizes the buildings’ height and majesty.

photo of a lighthouse and blue sky

Why Use The Rule of Space?

Creating visual balance in photography involves thoughtfully arranging elements within your frame. It’s about mastering the dance between your subject and the surrounding space. Here are some of the most important uses of the Rule of Space in photography.

Adding Depth to Stationary Subjects

Using the rule of space with stationary subjects is done primarily to add depth to a photo.

Using the principle of spatial placement in photography can make your images more dynamic and exciting, regardless of whether your subjects are moving.

How you arrange your shot can be influenced by the direction in which the subject is looking or the gestures they make, coupled with empty areas. When a person is looking in a specific direction, it’s instinctual for us to want to follow their gaze.

A young woman in white dress looking to the side. Portrait photo taken in Spain.

Another idea is keeping the space beside the subject empty: if there’s nothing but emptiness in the direction of the gaze, our eyes naturally move back to the person.

Example: Consider a photo of a person sitting alone, looking in one direction. By leaving plenty of empty space in the direction the person is looking, you create a sense of anticipation and story and add depth. The viewer’s gaze follows this person’s line of sight into the negative space, then naturally returns to the subject, reinforcing their significance in the frame.

An old asian man sitting on a bench with a newspaper in hands and looking into the distance.

Emphasizing Movement or Action

The rule of space photography advises allocating space either ahead of or behind the moving subject. This is done to showcase action and a sense of movement. It essentially manifests a thought.

Imagine a subject moving towards the empty space in your photograph rather than moving away from it, ephasizing the sense of direction. An example would be a vessel navigating the distant horizon or a car cruising down the road.

Black retro Mercedes Benz car driving

Compositional Techniques to Achieve the Rule of Space

What is the composition in photography definition? You might know that compositional techniques have always been about guiding the viewer’s eye and invoking a sense of aesthetic harmony.

But when it comes to rule of space photograhy, here are the most critical compositions that go along with it:

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Leading Lines

Leading lines guide the viewer’s eye across the image and provide a path visually connecting different elements within the frame.

So while the rule of space is about creating an expectation of action or thought, finding leading lines can help sculpt that space, guiding the viewer’s gaze to the negative space and amplifying the sense of anticipation or depth.

This interplay between the subject, the space around them, and the potential for action bring life and dynamism to a still image.

Photo of a male walking up the stairs. Black and white photo utilizing rule of space and leading lines in photography.

PRO TIP: Using leading lines does not have to be literal or overt. Subtle hints of lines, whether created through shadows, light, or the arrangement of elements, can be just as powerful in shaping the composition and providing a sense of space.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of space often works in harmony with the rule of thirds, as positioning the subject to allow more space in the direction they are facing or moving places them approximately one-third of the way into the frame, enhancing balance and visual interest.

Portrait photo of a young man standing next to a library full of books, looking down and smiling.

When you apply the rule of thirds, the image not only becomes balanced but also takes on a narrative quality.

For instance, placing a moving subject one-third into the frame (with two-thirds of the space in front) would give an impression of where the subject is heading, simultaneously adding depth to the image and suggesting movement.

The anticipation of movement keeps the viewer’s eyes engaged within the frame and invites them to ponder what might happen next.

Photo of a person driving off-road ATV

PRO Tips – Rule of Space

Experiment with Cropping: Sometimes, the best application of the rule of space comes after the photo has been taken. Feel free to experiment with cropping in post-production to enhance the effect of space around your subject.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom demonstrating how to crop a photo to follow rule of thirds in photography

The rule of space can significantly enhance storytelling in your photos. For instance, an empty chair in an otherwise busy room could tell a story of loss or anticipation. Use space to add context and narrative to your images.

Frequently Asked Questions – Rule of Space

Photographers often focus on negative space to emphasize the main subject, create balance, or evoke a certain mood or emotion. Negative space can be used to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, creating a powerful composition. It can also help to simplify an image, removing potential distractions and providing a clear focus.

In visual arts and photography, positive space refers to the primary subjects or areas of interest within a frame, while negative space is the area surrounding the subject. In other words, positive space is the space occupied by your subject, and negative space is the space not occupied by your subject. Both are critical composition components and can create balance, depth, and interest in a photo.

Blank space in photography, often called negative space, is any part of the image unoccupied by the main subject. This can include the sky, an empty field, a wall, or any other relatively uncluttered area. These areas provide a “breathing room” for your main subject and are often used to create a more balanced or minimalistic composition.

While photography is a highly subjective and creative art form, some commonly accepted rules can guide beginners in creating more compelling images. Here are seven popular rules:

  1. Rule of Thirds: Dividing the frame into nine equal parts for visual balance. It would be best if you placed the subject along or at the intersections of these lines.
  2. Leading Lines: Using lines in a photo to guide the viewer’s eye toward the main subject.
  3. Balancing Elements: If the main subject is off to one side, including another object on the other side can balance the composition.
  4. Symmetry and Patterns: Symmetrical scenes or patterns can create a sense of harmony.
  5. Viewpoint: The perspective from which a photo is taken can significantly affect its composition. It’s essential to experiment with different perspectives.
  6. Background: You should avoid a cluttered or distracting environment that could distract from the subject. Negative space or shallow depth of field can be used to make the subject stand out.
  7. Depth: Including elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background can give a two-dimensional image a sense of depth, especially in landscape photography.

Final Thoughts: Bend the Rules

We’ve seen how the element of space in photography can add visual interest to your photos, making them more intriguing and complex. However, it’s important to note that rules are often bendable.

An image of a person going off the frame’s edge with very little space in front can create a sense of tension and imminent departure, a deviation from the rule of space that adds a unique emotional layer to the image.

Portrait of a young male looking to the left side of the frame.

Ultimately, the goal is to use these rules to guide your creative decisions, not to limit them. They’re tools to help construct and tell a story, build a sense of dynamism, and create a visually compelling composition.

If you want to delve more into both the creative and technical sides of photography, check out our other articles on OhMyCamera.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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