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How to Use the Rule of Space in Photography

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 7 min read
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The rule of space in photography can be used to add important context to a photo. Or you can use it as a storytelling technique in your photography. Or you can create motion by intentionally directing the viewer’s eye away from the subject.
However you use it, it will add a level of dynamism to your photos.

What Is the Rule of Space in Photography?

The rule of space creates motion in an image through the use of negative space.
A minimalist photograph with lots of space around the main subject is not applying the rule of space.
The viewer of the image has to look at the main subject, and then their eyes have to be led into the negative space within the image.
That could be because the main subject is looking in a certain direction. Or there is a moving object that’s heading into that negative space.

A monk sitting on a wallgazing off into the distance, with a beautiful mountainous landscape behind him - rule of space in photography
In this photo the monk gazes off into the distance, this rule is sometimes called the rule of gaze.

Why Use This Technique?

The key here is that it adds a story to your image.
Your image will grab the attention of the viewer by showing the scale of the scene in front of them. This is achieved by the correct application of negative space.
The viewer will enter your image from the perspective of your main subject. What the main subject is looking toward will form the narrative of your image. Although your image is static, this sense of looking or moving somewhere will give your image a dynamic edge.

a red truck driving on a highway, a beautiful; mountainous landscape in the background - rule of space in photography
This photo shows the scale of the location, as the truck drives along the road towards the camera.

Locations That Work Well for Rule of Space Photos

Locations where you can exploit minimalism and create leading lines work well for the rule of space.
Through the correct selection of focal length, it’s possible to produce the negative space needed for this type of photography.
That said, urban locations will be more of a challenge than the countryside.

  • Coastal locations. These are great for landscape photography, and coasts lend themselves very well to the rule of space. A person gazing out to sea would make a compelling main subject.
  • Country roads. These provide natural leading lines in an uncluttered environment. Whether you choose to use a car or cyclist as your subject entering the negative space is up to you.
  • Deserts. Deserts will work in much the same way as a coastal location, though finding the main subject might prove more of a challenge. A camel herder moving through the dunes would work well.
  • Subway. Within an urban setting, the subway has lots of minimalism and leading lines that can be used for a photograph that applies the rule of space.
Three camel riders moving across a desert landscape - rule of space in composition
This photo shows camels moving from left to right across the scene, giving the still photo a sense of dynamism.

Use Stationary Subjects to Highlight the Rule of Space

A photo attempting to use space in photography to provide a narrative cannot do so with a stationary main subject. That means lone trees, and lone buildings are not what’s required.
The subject needs to allow the viewer of the photo to follow their gaze or their motion. That means this style of photo is much more of a moment of capture.

A woman sitting on a park bench looking off into the distance
In this photo the woman looks off into the distance.

  • The gaze. The gaze of a person or animal will draw the eye towards whatever it is they’re gazing at. An epic piece of scenery such as mountains in the distance or a cityscape will work well here. It’s also not necessary to see any faces either. The person can have their back to the camera gazing into the distance.
  • Objects moving to the side. Whether it’s a ship moving along the horizon, or a car driving along the road, they all make good subjects. The key is to make sure they’re moving into the negative space within your photo, and not away from it.
  • Objects moving to the camera. Look for objects that are in the distance and are approaching your camera. A cyclist or car approaching you along a stretch of road, a road that curves towards the camera or produces an S-line.

A femal model in red dress holding the branches of a cherry blossom tree

How to Create Space in Your Images With Different Focal Lengths

Focal distance is a vital factor when producing this type of photo. There are times you’ll want to use a long telephoto lens. A wide angle will also allow you to get a greater sense of space within your photo.
When you choose the focal length you’re going to use for your photo, consider the following for wide-angle and longer focal distances.

  • Wide angle. To avoid a tight crop using a wide angle lens is a good idea. This type of lens will give your scene an epic sense of scale, and it’s easy to produce negative space with this type of lens. You’ll find it most useful in environments that are minimal themselves. These focal lengths also come with a catch though, since you could clutter your image with too many extra elements.
  • Long focal length. This focal length will work well when you have your main subject in the distance. If the main subject is too close to the camera, you won’t be able to compose your photo to produce negative space. The crop will be too tight. The advantage is that you’ll be able to cut away those unwanted elements in the frame and focus on the main subject. You could use compression to allow the viewer to look at a cityscape or mountain in the distance while zooming in on your main subject.
A stunning volcanic landscape under cloudy sky
This photo uses a wide-angle lens to give the volcanic landscape an epic sense of scale.

Use the Rule of Space With Other Composition Techniques for More Interesting Images

Photography often works best when you apply more than one composition technique to the same photo, or some creative techniques as well.
When creating a photo that follows the rule of space, apply some of these simple composition ideas to your frame.

  • The rule of thirds. Position your main subject on the left or right third of your image. If they’re on the left, you need to have them looking or moving to the right.
  • Leading lines. These aren’t always needed for this type of photo, but they’ll strengthen the image if you can use leading lines. You’ll want your main subject to be looking or moving along your leading line. For example, a cyclist moving along a road.
A female model in red dress walking through country fields - rule of space photography
Lines that run through a photo, such as this fence, can add strength to an image.
  • Minimalism. Compose your photo in such a way that your main subject is small, and the viewer has to look for it within your photo. Then use a big empty space in the rest of the photo as an extreme composition technique.
  • Patterns. Negative space doesn’t mean you have to include an empty sky in your photo. It’s better if the negative space has some level of interest to it, like a pattern. This could be in the form of an intermittent cloudy sky, a brick wall, or branches of a tree. As long as the pattern is consistent and leads back to your main subject, this will work in your image.
A man riding a bicycle in a cityscape with motio0n blurred background - rule of space photography
Techniques like panning show motion from side to side, and this can be used in combination with the rule of space.


Adding motion to your photo through the rule of space will strengthen your images. Whether you’re doing portrait, landscape or street photography, this technique will be useful to you.
Try combining other techniques with the rule of space in photography to add dynamism and intrigue to your photos.