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A few weeks ago I wrote about the three S’s of composition: subtlety, simplicity and space. Today I’d like to dive deeper into one of those ideas and explore some more ways to use space in composition.
This isn’t a discussion of negative space (that’s an article for another day), but rather thinking about and using the space that you’re in. That may not make much sense at first, so let’s start with an easy idea to understand, the use of space in landscape photography.
Space in landscape photography
Most landscape photographers try to capture a sense of the landscape they’re in and the feelings that evokes, like awe, appreciation of nature’s beauty and wonder. To do that, the first step is to be on location when the light is at its most beautiful. That’s usually during the golden hour, the hour or so of golden light you get before sunset or after sunrise.
Wide-angle lenses are great for creating a sense of space, because they make anything in the distance seem further away than it really is. They help you exaggerate the sense of scale, distance and space in your photo.
The problem is that if you’re not careful using a wide-angle lens this way can leave your photo looking empty. So look for a viewpoint that lets you include something interesting in the foreground, middle ground and distance.
Here’s an example. The real subject (i.e. the thing that I really wanted to photograph) in this image is the jagged rock stacks in the distance. But I also wanted to create a sense of space, so I used a wide-angle lens and found some rocks to use in the foreground.
The space in this scene isn’t just the physical space in the landscape. It’s more than that and includes the gloomy weather, the dark clouds and soft light. It’s all the stuff that makes this such a beautiful location to work in in the first place.
Space in portrait photography
In a similar way, you can think about the space that you’re working in with portraits.
I like making portraits outdoors, with the setting being as important as the model.
Here’s how it works. I made the portrait below at a local monument. The marble walls gave us an amazing setting to work with. So did the view. We got there in the late afternoon to take advantage of the soft light of the sunset. I wanted a cinematic feel, so I used a telephoto lens. I only needed a hint of the background (the marble walls and the view) to capture a sense of the space we were working in.
Here’s another example. I made the photo below of a friend of mine with her two horses.
There’s a lot going on in this portrait. You get a great sense of the model’s caring relationship with her horses. But it all comes to life because of the setting.
My friend is standing in the sea with her horses. On the left, there’s an island. On the right, there’s a glimpse of the town where she lives.
Everything looks beautiful because the sun’s setting and its golden light is picking out my friend and her horses. It works because there’s a great sense of the space we were in, as well as the moment captured in the portrait itself.
Space in travel photography
It works the same way in travel photography, where you can make photos that capture a sense of the spaces that you find when you’re traveling.
Let me show you how it works with some photos I made in India.
I made the first, below, in a narrow passage in Delhi’s old quarter. I was struck by the heat and steam from the cooking, the eerie glow of the fluorescent light, and the textures on the walls. All this helps create a strong sense of the space in which the people in the photo were going about their daily business.
Below is another photo I made in Delhi. There are lots of shops like these in Delhi’s streets, open to the air and with the workers either busy or waiting for business. The motorcycle parts hanging from the front of the store, and the glimpses of the interior, give a great sense of the space in which these men work.
Lastly, is a portrait I made Jodphur, also known as the blue city. The man in the photo was sitting outside, and as I walked by indicated that I could make a photo. I had a wide-angle lens on the camera which was perfect as I could make a photo of the man and include plenty of the space behind him.
I wanted the blue wall in the photo to create a sense of the space in which this man lived. But I also made sure that I stood in the right place so I could include the green door behind him, and a glimpse into the building’s interior. Green and blue make a great color contrast, and it helps that the man’s sarong and footwear are also green.
This photo could have been about the man and the blue wall, especially if I had used a longer focal length and excluded the door from the photo. But taking the opposite approach and including the door shows us more of the world this man lives in, and is more interesting.
Find interesting spaces in your own neighborhood
It’s easier to make interesting compositions when you’re traveling as everything is new and exciting. But when you’re working in your own neighborhood use local knowledge to your advantage.
Where are the most interesting spaces in your neighborhood, especially ones that visitors don’t know about? How can you use these spaces to make interesting photos? Thinking about these ideas could reveal new possibilities that hadn’t occurred to you before.
You can learn more about all aspects of creative composition with my ebook Mastering Composition. It has 20 heart-felt lessons that take you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the other aspects of composition you need to understand to create beautiful photos.
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