Leaving Space Around Your Subject

While filling the frame with your subject can lead to a high impact portrait – particularly if the final image will be used at a small scale – using this technique all the time leads to a selection of images that are repetitive. As with many of the rules of composition, when your images are viewed as a set, variety becomes key.

Allowing space around your subject also enables you to include background or environmental details. Sometimes you may want a simple background, which keeps the focus on the subject but adds more interest than a plain white or black studio background. Everyday locations – such as flaking paint on an old wall or rusty garage doors – can become attractive areas of texture or colour when used as out-of-focus backgrounds behind your subject, yet are not so visually strong or distracting that they pull the viewer’s eye away from the subject. In this instance, the ’empty’ area around your subject is known as ‘negative space’.

Other times you may want to include environmental details that help to provide additional narrative details to the ‘story’ of the image.

Either way, by not filling the frame you give yourself additional compositional options, such as positioning your subject to one side, and making them small in the frame – perhaps to imply isolation or vulnerability. Additionally, your shots will have a wider range of commercial opportunities, as negative space provides an area for graphic designers to position text without crashing into the subject, making your images more appealing for editorial usage, for example.

Similarly, if you use the camera in landscape format and position your subject so they stand on one of the vertical lines according to the rule of thirds, then even if you later need a portrait version, you can easily crop into the shot.

‘Nose room’

The viewer’s eye tends to follow the gaze of the subject in an image. So if your subject is looking off-camera to the edge of the image, the viewer’s eyes will follow. To keep the viewer’s gaze within the portrait, allow sufficient space around your subject, particularly in the direction they are looking. The same is true of a moving subject – allow sufficient space in the frame in the direction of the subject’s movements for a more harmonious composition. Having a subject crashing towards the edge of the image creates tension for the viewer, and brings unwanted attention to the frame itself.

Visual flow

In cultures where text is read from left to right, the eye tends to also travel across images in this direction. Therefore, a portrait where a small child is running across the frame from left to right reflects this visual flow, and will appear more harmonious in its composition. In contrast, a model placed on the right hand side of the frame, looking towards the left side, subtly disrupts this flow, and may appear more challenging, strong and/or rebellious as a result.