On composition, part four

Okay, I went a little longer between posts than I prefer, due to several things, so it’s time to get back into it. In recognition of my absence, I give you a compositional element: empty space.

A very basic goal in photography is simplicity – strive to include only the elements that help the photo and leave out anything extraneous. The idea is to give the viewer a strong focal point, and/or a strong message or impression, and nothing else to distract them. But the element I’m now talking about takes the concept one step further: you include a large hunk of nothing to convey its own message. This message can vary, but it’s important to know how to use it.

In the example above, there’s a lot of space to the right of the frog. This provides multiple meanings. Primarily, it’s the space ahead. When you have either a moving subject or a line of sight from your subject, in this case the frog looking directly right, you provide this space ahead of the subject rather than “blocking it in” with the edges of the frame. Too close to the side of the image and you are, in a way, standing your subject in a corner, and it can be unsettling to the viewer. But it also implies distance in this case, leading to the idea that the frog is not merely looking right, but entirely across the river, and this is enhanced by the position atop the rock, high enough to have a good view, it would seem.

While that empty space is not really empty, but instead very complicated and full of things, it’s also out of focus (more on how to achieve this can be found here.) This gives a greater feeling of distance while simultaneously minimizing the impact it has on the viewer – we can’t focus on it, so we’re simply not supposed to, and pay attention to the focused parts of the image. With this framing, this becomes not simply a photo of a frog, but the idea of the frog crossing the river, and the river as the setting also provides the goal.

There are a couple of very subtle elements in here, too. Frogs obviously jump, but did you get the impression that the frog could jump across the entire river, or was perhaps contemplating it? There are two things that may have contributed to that feeling. The first is that the frog has a natural arc in its body, up and to the right, and this is even continued from the rock below it, in the light and pattern (and notice that we never thought the arc went in the opposite direction.) The second one is the arc of the background tree limb, mimicking the frog and drawing its own path across the river. While the frog could never jump that far, we are given the impression that it could.

Sometimes, empty space is really empty, and doesn’t seem to say anything. But it does, if only, “There’s nothing around for miles.” The isolation implied by the blank water is as much a photo element as the main subject here, and provides contrast to the sharp, intense detail of the tree stump. The empty space counterbalances the stump in the photo, and the frame is actually split in half diagonally, with almost nothing but grey and white to the upper right, and all of the color and shade in the lower left. This lack of color, by the way, allows us to notice the tiny little green leaves atop the stump, where otherwise we probably could not have.

The image says, “morning;” it says, “quiet;” it says “lonely.” The texture of the stump is almost welcome against the emptiness, and the tiny new sprouts are a ray of hope, or even defiance. A couple of leaves aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re given emphasis by the juxtaposition of empty space. Life finds a crack and forces its way in.

The featureless grey humps of the opposite shoreline are almost extraneous, and could simply be cropped out, but they add a greater sense of distance. They’re so subtle they nearly escape attention, and (unlike the bright rocks to the right of the frame in the frog photo at top) they do not distract at all, but enhance instead. Any more detail and they might have drawn the eye away for a moment, to examine their shape for something familiar or interesting, and this tiny bit of distraction or curiosity, especially without finding anything of interest, could have lessened the impact of the image and thus should be excluded.

Do you have the whole mood and feeling firmly fixed in your mind now? Good. Because now I tell you that anything could be right outside the frame to the left, but it doesn’t exist for the viewer if it’s not included… unless I mention it.

Now, you’re wondering, aren’t you? And the mood has changed for the image. That’s kind of what happens when you have distracting elements, only the viewer never felt that mood in the first place. So choose your elements wisely, look around the entire frame before tripping the shutter, and ask yourself what each item in the frame does for your composition. A mostly empty frame really is okay, and sometimes far better than a full one.