There is something peculiar about people. We are amazingly adept at reading one another. We can look into someone’s eyes and see emotions without having to think for a second about it. Because people are so good at this, photographers have to be careful when they frame portrait pictures. If you don’t give your subjects a space to look into, the photo will seem a little strange. Most people won’t be able to tell you why they think the photo is strange. They simply won’t like the picture.
The most common mistake people make when taking pictures of one another happens when they place their friend’s beautiful face in the center of the picture. Most amateur photographers do this without knowing why it’s such a photographic taboo. They figure they’ve snapped a picture of their friends smiling and that’s that. While these kinds of photos might be great for proving where you were last night on Facebook, they’re far from being the kind of photography you want to produce.
As a general rule, whenever photographing anybody’s face, never place a person’s face in the center of the photograph. Try to offset the face to the left, top, bottom, or right portion of the photo. This helps to invite your viewer into the picture. It is also known as photographic composition.
For most pictures, a principle known as the “rule of thirds” applies. It is very simple, and it works in almost all cases. All you need to do is place your subject in one of the third divisions in your photo. Take that smiling face and place it on the rightmost third of the frame. Now see what happens when you snap the picture. You won’t exactly know why, but you’ll probably like it better than a picture of the same face smack dab in the center. For example, the lady on the right is positioned on the left third line.
The rule of thirds doesn’t apply to all situations, but it’s a great rule of thumb. There is a reason why it works so well. It tends to draw the eye into the photo and keep it there. When your friend’s face is in the middle of the photo, your eye sees the face, notices there isn’t anything else in the photo to keep your gaze fixated on the face, and then moves away from the face. The lack of balance in the photo makes it visually uninteresting and bland. You hit the face and get stopped in your tracks.
When you create a space for your subjects to look into, the photo has an added element of mystery. You wonder where the person is looking and why they are so interested in the thing they are looking at. Your natural curiosity takes hold, and you suddenly don’t know why you like the picture so much.
Always make sure you add the extra space in the direction where your subject is looking, or has their body pointing. If your subject is looking to left, put space on the left side of the photo. When the extra space isn’t on the correct side, it confuses the viewer. He knows the subject is looking at something interesting, but the photo isn’t framed in such a way as to convey that message.
The “viewing space” rule doesn’t just apply to portraits. It’s very important when creating action and sports shots as well. In general, if your subject is going somewhere and is looking where she is going, you will need to create some space in front of her. This extra space gives the viewer a feeling of motion. It represents a goal that has not yet been attained. In many ways, that is the entire purpose of action and sports photographs. We want to capture the moment of glory just before our subject accomplishes something very important.
Photography is art, just like a novel or a movie is art. You wouldn’t read a book or watch a movie if there were no conflict or moment of uncertainty. The same principle applies to photography. When you create a space in front of your subjects, you are adding a little uncertainty and mystery into the mix. You are allowing your viewers to experience suspense. And once they’ve had a single dose of excitement, they’ll keep coming back to your photos for life.
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