A Photo’s Subject is Important, but Don’t Forget the Rest of the Frame

The process of crafting great imagery is something I have been studying for years. One of the undertakings in this riveting pursuit was to study hundreds of great images from many photographers.

The works I studied are both 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 a great image. 

Let me explain. We are living in a very open, loud and colorful 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 a 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 a 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 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 articles. 

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. 

The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Charles Cramer, Edward Burtynsky, Michael Kenna, Erin Babnik, Chuck Kimmerle, Rachael Talibart, Hans Strand and John Sexton, Theo Bosboom to name a few.

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About the author: Olaf Sztaba first picked up a camera thirty-five years ago. Since then his passion for “seeing” has become a lifetime journey with photography. Widely known as a visual poet, Olaf’s unique eye and relentless pursuit of visual simplicity allows him to capture “superbly creative and aesthetically pleasing images.” The images, along with his writings, can be found at Olafphotoblog. Discussions on seeing, creativity, inspiration and fine art photography parallel the images.

Olaf is a founder and editor-in-chief of the Medium Format Magazine and co-founder of the ELEMENTS Magazine. Olaf spends most of his time curating, writing, and photographing in the field, usually exploring less-traveled roads. He is a sought-after speaker and educator.