The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
4. Into the Picture
Subjects Need Their Space
In the previous chapter, we discussed opting not to position the main subject where everyone expects it. But where to place it instead? There is no simple, universal answer to the question as each particular photo is different. And the position of the subject isn’t everything; the subject’s line of view or direction of movement and the desired message all make their contribution.
In addition to the rule of thirds that has already been mentioned, there is another rule of thumb that’s just as practical – unless, of course, you have a deliberate reason to ignore it: Give any main subject that is looking or moving in a particular direction some visual space in the area at which it is looking, moving, driving, or flying. Make it clear to the viewer what the subject is looking at or moving toward. In other words, a subject should look or move into your image rather than looking or apparently attempting to move beyond it. Viewers subconsciously wonder what a subject is looking at or where it’s going, and instinctively try to follow that path with their own gaze to find out. If your subject is looking or moving beyond the edges of your photo, viewers won’t be able to find any answers to their questions, at least not within the frame.
For portraits, this might mean that you need to provide some space in the direction of the subject’s gaze rather than place the subject near the edge of the photo looking outward. The subject’s line of sight will influence the viewer’s gaze. If the subject is looking beyond the edge of the frame, the viewer has to assume that whatever has captured the subject’s attention is not within the picture. There are good reasons you might want to do this to create tension – for example, if you want your photo to emphasize how shy the subject was while you were photographing him or her. However, this is more likely to be the exception rather than the rule. In most situations, it’s worthwhile to have the subject’s gaze contained within the image or to at least create a little space in the line of sight. You can always experiment with alternative compositions and designs after capturing the initial photo. Generally, all of this applies not only to portraits of people, but also to portraits of animals.
Served up bite-size: The Roller throws the captured insect into the air so it can swallow it with greater ease. There is plenty of space in the bird’s line of sight. | Nikon D300 • 600 mm • 1/3200 s • f/4 • ISO 800
Colorful and flighty: This Lilac-breasted Roller kept still – for once! – as I took my photograph in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. | Nikon D300 • 510 mm • 1/640 s • f/5.6 • ISO 800
When taking portraits of all kinds, pay close attention to the background in relation to your main subject and its direction of sight. Building edges, fences, railings, or horizon lines that pass directly into your subject’s head can ruin otherwise attractive photos. The key to success is carefully evaluating the scene in your viewfinder or on your camera’s monitor. Often, you can avoid distracting background elements by adjusting your position slightly. If that won’t solve the problem, you might opt for a larger aperture or create a larger distance between your subject and its background to minimize the distracting elements.
Whether to position your main subject in the top third or bottom third of your image depends on the subject, its surroundings, and the situation of your photo. For landscape photos, this question often comes up when deciding whether to shift the horizon line upward or downward from the center of the frame. Let the subject at hand drive your choice: If the sky features interesting clouds or attractive lighting conditions, then give it some space. If the foreground is more important or the sky is uninteresting thanks to a uniform cloud cover, shift the horizon up near the top of your photo. You might even go so far as to remove the sky from your photo entirely. It’s worth considering this option especially with high-contrast photos if it will make it easier to retain detail in the darker foreground or if the sky would otherwise end up being blown out.
The feeling that you intend to convey with your photo also plays a role. If you position your subject near the lower border, the larger part of the picture above it can tend to weigh down on it in some circumstances. Conversely, if the main subject is higher up in the top third, your photo often will have a lighter feel.
In the ranger station at Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. The safari guide’s outstretched arm, the blur in the foreground, and the fall of light direct the viewer’s attention to the displayed specimens. Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/60 s • f/4 • ISO 1600
Above: The photographer’s viewing direction sends the viewer’s gaze out of the picture. Below: In this take, the viewer has a much better sense of what the depicted photographer is looking at. | Nikon D300 • 600 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 400
Traveling in Antarctica: The traveler’s line of sight and posture and the direction of the zodiac direct the viewer’s attention to the background. | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 200
At the Port of Ushuaia, Argentina: The markings on the ground and the traveler’s direction of movement and sight invite the viewer’s gaze into the picture. Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/1000 s • f/9 • ISO 200
Sea kayaking near an iceberg in Greenland. Nikon D700 • 40 mm • 1/1000 s • f/9 • ISO 200
Almost every picture could be improved in some way, including this one from eastern Greenland. It would have been ideal if the depicted photographer had turned 180 degrees so as to look into the frame. Here he points his camera at a subject beyond the border of my picture, and leaves the viewer clueless. Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/500 s • f/11 • ISO 400