A photograph is an artefact – it is a flat piece of paper (or an image on a computer screen). It typically has four sides although who’s to say you can’t make it a heptagon or a dodecagon? However many sides you give your image, they will remain its edges. Everything you want to say with your photograph has to be said within that area. So how do you create images that can show three dimensional space within those constraints?
I am going to share a few of my photographs to show how I try to do it and how I attempt to use space when I am composing images. These are just my own views and, as with many things in art, there is not a right or wrong answer. I would love to hear your own views. Please share them in the comments below.
So let’s begin by thinking about empty space. This is the negative space in your photograph – the opposite is positive space which is the subject of your photograph. You will want to consider how the two interact. Begin by checking if there is anything you can see through your viewfinder that might distract from your subject – pay particular attention to the edges of the frame! Be aware that it might not be something behind your subject – check for any out of focus objects in the foreground butting in.
If you want your subject to stand out you may want to minimise anything in the background. One option is to photograph your subject from low down against the sky, as in this example of St. John of Nepomuk on Charles Bridge, Prague. I was only interested in getting a picture of him and it was an overcast day so I had a uniform and neutral coloured sky as the background. I wanted the subject to be isolated so the negative space is completely uniform with no detail in it.
On other occasions you might want the negative space to play a part in the photograph, as in this case. The subject is the flint lying in the grass in the foreground. In the background, though there is an old earthwork, a Bronze Age burial mound; the background therefore provides extra information about the subject and adds context.
The burial mound is out of focus. Whilst your photograph is a flat plane, careful use of focus can create a sense of depth in your picture. Here’s another example – a line of barbed wire with an out of focus field and woodland in the background.
These two photographs could also be considered as layering, where objects are placed in front of another, to create a sense of depth.
The track in the second photograph is another way of creating depth in a flat photograph. Your eye follows the track to the back of the picture. Here are two more photographs of another track but in each of them the effect is slightly different. In the first photograph there are some people walking away from us into the distance which emphasises the sense of depth even more. As a viewer you follow them and are drawn deeper into the back of the image. In the second picture, taken at the same places the people are coming towards the viewer out of the woods; the track leads us into the background but now we are being brought back to the front of the picture.
Photographs of subjects moving help create a sense of space. For example in this photograph of a person cycling across the image; there is space in front of them to ride their bike. There is an viewpoint that moving objects should always have that space to move into otherwise the picture may not work as well.
Here’s another cyclist with the space behind them. What do you think? Do you react differently to this picture?
This photograph does give the viewer a hint that there might be something beyond the edges of the photograph. Other ways of doing this is to have objects intentionally butting into the image, leaving the viewer with the idea that there is more outside the viewpoint.
Here is a close-up of a sunflower; it shows the detail but hints at the whole.
Another way of doing that is to have your subject look out of the frame. The viewer gets the idea that there is something beyond the edges of the photograph. It also, as in this example, creates a sense of distance; space beyond the photograph.
That’s a few of the ways that I try to use space in my photographs. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the subject. Please add them in the comments section below.