The “rest” of the image

The process of crafting great imagery is something I have been studying for years. One of the undertakings in this rivetting pursuit was to study hundreds of great images from many photographers, well known and less well known, from different backgrounds and with unique seeing profiles across most genres of photography. Today I would like to share with you some of those findings.

When observing the world around us we usually want to find one special, grand, dazzling subject. In other words, we look for the central point around which the image will be built. We dream, fantasize and long for great subjects. To fill the void of interesting subjects we often buy expensive trips to the most scenic places in the world, travel to historic sites, research Google maps for the best views, hire models, look for unique characters – anything that would give us a visual advantage. That’s not a bad thing at all. 

But this is the issue. In this relentless pursuit of a great image, we are sometimes so preoccupied with the subject that we forget about “the rest.” Your subject is important, but it is still only part of your image. In fact, in most photographs the subject only occupies a tiny portion of the image. What about “the rest?”

The “rest” is something we call negative space or white space. Why am I talking about this? Because after studying hundreds great images, I came to the conclusion that it is just where a good image turns into great image. 

Let me explain. We are living in a very open, loud and colourful world. Nowadays, all you need to do is walk the streets of big cities and you will find plenty of interesting subjects. You can also hop on a plane and be in an exotic location within hours or days. Great subjects are everywhere, and we all have access to them. 

If that’s the case, we should have a superfluity of great images but somehow it’s not happening. Why? Because when we encounter great subject, we are so excited and preoccupied with it that we forget about crafting THE ENTIRE image. We forget that finding a great subject is just a part of this craft. Not only must we place the subject within the frame but we must also craft the frame (or negative space) ourselves. 

I really like the phrase “white space.” It reminds me of how painters create their masterpieces. They start with white canvas and then carefully add elements inside the frame. They might start with the subject and go from there, or they might put in all the elements and leave an appropriate space for the subject. We cannot do this in photography, of course, but what we can do is arrange the frame using a few methods which I am going to talk about in future posts. 

Going back to the initial thought, of course the subject is important but once you identify your subject, make sure to shift your attention to everything else. The more work you put into arranging the white space, the more powerful your photograph will become. I often remind myself, okay Olaf, now you have the subject, make sure to pay it adequate respect. Organize the space around the subject so it not only complements it but also invites the viewer to go on a visual journey of exploration and awe. 

Next time…

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8 thoughts on “The “rest” of the image

  1. Interesting. It reminds me of a collegue in my working time who had the opportunity to travel frequently to beautiful exotic locations. He than came back showing me his photos, saying ” look what a beautiful photo is this”. I always tried to be kind but sometimes (oft?) my thoughts were…no this is not a beautiful photo, it’s simply a normal photo of a beautiful place!

    You are correct much work (thinking?) to do once you find your subject 🙂

  2. Devil is in the details, it is said. Exploring them may transform the initial view of the subject into another completely new, and this process is slow, painful but incredibly satisfying, in my case. What about trying to work with two subjects in a complementary way in the same image?
    Looking forward to reading your next thoughts on the subject Olaf. I feel at home with it, reading and speaking about true photography.

    All the best.

    1. Thank you so much Robert for your thoughts and support. You are asking all the right questions. I will be exploring this and other topics over the course of the year. Cheers, Olaf

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