Breaking the rules: When is it OK to break the active space rule? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Breaking the rules: When is it OK to break the active space rule?

by David Peterson 2 comments

Now that you've learned all the rules of photography, I'll bet this is just what you want to hear: forget everything.

Well, don't forget everything. The "rules" are there because there's a very good reason for them. Most of the time, you will want to follow the rules of photography because most of the time they will serve you very well.

But not all the time. That's why I'm bringing you this series on when and how to break the rules of photography. This is rule number two on my list, or rule-breaker number two: the "active space" rule.

[ Top image Molly by Flickr user Photon™]

What is the active space rule?

If you photograph sports or other fast moving subjects, you're likely aware of the "active space" rule, even if you don't really have a name for it. This is the rule that says that you should always leave some breathing room around the subject--more in front than behind. This gives him/her/it some space to move into. Most of the time, viewers need to have this space in an image because it feels uncomfortable to see a subject who is about to jump right into the side of the photo. We feel like there's going to be a collision, like the subject is going to stop abruptly and jarringly when he gets to that imagined wall. If there's plenty of active space in front of him, though, we can breathe easy because we know he's got somewhere to go.

This is true even for subjects that aren't moving. Let's say we've got a head and shoulders shot of a woman looking off into the distance. If we don't give her some space to look into, then she's just looking at the flat edge of the photograph. Why is she looking at the flat edge of the photograph? There's nothing there but a wall.

Instead, a well-behaved, rule-abiding photographer will put some space between her face and that abrupt edge of the image. Now she appears to be looking at something off camera. We viewers can relax.

You can probably guess what I'm going to say next. The rule of active space works very well--most of the time. But there are times when you can and should break it.

What if you actually want your viewer to feel a little tense? I know, that seems so mean. But let's face it, not every photo is about beauty and tranquility, nor should it be. Not every photo needs to make a viewer feel comfortable. Let's look at this one:

  • Pentax K10D
  • 400
  • f/1.4
  • 0.001 sec (1/1600)
  • 50 mm

Rice Raider by Flickr user Vermin Inc

The subject is clearly moving fast. In front of him, the edge of the image is getting uncomfortably close.

The first impression a viewer might get when looking at this photo is a sense of unbridled speed. He's already committed his crime and now he's on the move, trying to escape the consequences. And that creates some excitement. There's a large amount of space behind the subject, so we can clearly see where he's been. We can see what he's done based on the rice in the bowl and the rice in his beak. That's story telling. And he's moving so fast that the camera can't keep up with him, which makes us wonder where he's going and whether or not he'll get there without being caught.

Emotion in motion by Flickr user Kevin Conor Keller

If that's the mood you want your photo to create, then it's time to abandon the active space rule and experiment with pushing the boundaries of your photographs.

So are photos that violate the active space rule always tense and uncomfortable? Not necessarily. The mood you create with this rule-break is still going to depend largely on your subject and setting. You can also shoot a scene in a tranquil setting and then break the active space rule in order to imply the end of a journey rather than a beginning. Let's look at this example:

  • Canon EOS 30D
  • 100
  • f/4.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 100 mm

Walking out of the ordinary frame by Flickr user HAMED MASOUMI

If the subject in this image was walking into the photo, we'd get the feeling that he was moving forward. Maybe he's embarking on an important trip, or maybe he's just got places to go and people to see. But because he's walking out of the photo, we get the opposite feeling: he's completing his mission or he's arrived at his destination. These two images could be otherwise exactly the same, but they have vastly different moods just based on the way they are cropped.

Now what about that static subject who is staring off into that unseen world outside the frame of the photograph? Is there ever a reason to take that active space away from him, too? Yes, of course. There's always going to be some situation where it's appropriate to break a photography rule. In this case, you can apply the same basic reasons as you would for a moving subject: if you want to create a sense of tension or a feeling of anxiety, go ahead and box your subject in. Giving her no active space to look into can make her seem vulnerable or trapped. It can create empathy in the viewer. It can be a very effective tool for telling a story, especially if that story isn't all unicorn sparkles and happy endings.

Of course there are other situations where there might be good reasons to keep your subject in a box. If she's looking at the camera, for example, she's not going to require any active space, because the active space is implied: it's the space between the subject and the viewer.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
  • 200
  • f/2.8
  • 0.05 sec (1/20)
  • 50 mm

August 15th 2008 - Crispy by Flickr user Stephen Poff

As with all of these broken rules, you will need to have a good understanding of why the rule exists in the first place and what it does for a photograph before you will be able to effectively break that rule. Spend some time looking at photos that make good use of active space. Ask yourself why those photographs work, and then try to picture them without the active space. Crop them and then ask yourself if the cropped image has the same impact as the original, if It works too and if so, if it completely changes the tone of the photograph.

Now put it into practice. Start by shooting a few scenes both ways, or hang back a little to give yourself a little more flexibility when you crop in post processing. At some point a few real winners are going to emerge, situations in which you've really nailed this rule-break. And as you master the non-active space rule, you'll only improve your mastery of situations in which it's best to just stick to the rules.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Melvin says:

    An eye opening article in the true sense of the word.

  2. Harold Price says:

    Thanks. I have completed your DVD course and beginning to feel well grounded. Although I know it is the very beginning for me. And keep the tips (valuable insights)coming. Harold

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.