Ignore the ‘Active Space’ Rule for Moving Subjects

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Another rule of composition that we’ve talked about previously is creating Active Space for moving subjects to move into.

The idea is that if you are photographing a subject that is moving you should place more empty space in front of it than behind it. This gives the viewer of the image a sense of where the subject is moving and creates a sense of anticipation.

While following this rule can produce some excellent results, breaking it can add a little tension and intrigue to your images.

Image by Jim Skea

Image by Jim Skea

It can also convey a sense of speed and/or give the viewer a sense of where the subject has been rather than where they are headed.

For instance – the image to the left would not have been as dramatic without the trailing smoke behind the place. The fact that it’s approaching the top edge of the frame also gives a sense of speed as it almost bursts out of the frame (not to mention the clever mirroring and contrasts in the image).

This post belongs to our series of posts on breaking rules of photography to get great images.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • In a way this can be considered reverse active space; when I first looked at the photo, my eyes were on the plane – and only then they followed the trail – almost like the action would have happened in reverse.

    Interesting article, with a very suggestive photo! In this case, I think the statue from the back also plays an important role; the similarities between the two (the statue and the plane) are striking, both of them having a cross-like shape.

    It would be interesting to see an article on this; two unrelated subjects that put together create a different concept.

  • Bob

    Love the shot. Thanks for the tip.

  • David Jackson

    You’re wrong.

    More space in front would have made a better photograph.

    I have many photographs that break the rules of symmetry, thirds etc. – and some work – but that picture doesn’t.

  • Alan

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on that comment, David. I think the photo works quite well in breaking the rule: the mountain is rising, the smoke is rising, both ending in a similarly shaped object of completely different natures. Positioning the point of focus so that the active space is ahead of the plane would leave us with empty sky and cloud, eliminating the upward motion of the mountain (and smoke) and generally be boring (IMHO).

  • Tharry Beavers

    What is the subject? Not the plane, as it is crammed into a side. So it must be the smoke trail. And what is the relationship between that statue and the smoke. None unless we should consider the locale.

  • Greg W

    It’s a little hard to tell without more context, but the statue in the background appears to be Christ the Redeemer on top of the Corcavado Peak in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

    In contrast to Tharry’s comment, I think the plane could be the primary subject, with the statue being the secondary subject. Both occupy a traditional 3rds rule position of their own, and the lines created by the smoke point to the plane, making it a primary subject. The darker silhouette of the mountain create lines to the statue, although my interpretation is that the subtle nature is secondary to the plane.

    In response to David, I would tend to agree with Alan. If you cover up the smoke trail and envision what the sky would look like, it strikes me as there would be a lot of dead space. You need the trail to imply motion, otherwise the plane would look even more stalled than it does now.

  • michelle

    That is one goregous shot! I am a pilot, and do a lot of aviation-related photography, and sometimes the most difficult thing is to give the photo some sort of context, rather than the typical aircraft-in-the-clear-blue-sky shot. This ‘breaking the rules’ tip is a good one to keep in mind for this type of photography. This shot is probably from the Rio de Janero stint of the Red Bull Air Races, held in various scenic locales around the world. And it succeeds in doing what all great photographs do… makes me want to go out there and start shooting!

  • Kimberly Lee

    i find it hard to believe that this is a real photo. looks more like a photoshop job to me.

  • Kimberly Lee

    after going to Jim Skea’s site, this one isn’t the only one that is fake. he is good at photo shop for sure. i am not a professional photographer but i could see that something was wrong w/ this picture & then my husband confirmed it, just look at the light on the plane vs the light on the statue of Jesus among other things.

  • Kimberly Lee

    hey i just noticed~~ the date of my entry is wrong. today is the 14th & it’s 5:31 pm, here in Virginia anyway.

  • This site is run out of Australia where we’re proud to be ahead of the rest 😉

  • Kimberly Lee

    oh thank you~~ i had no idea mate~~ bless you, want to visit some day~ but if a certain someone gets elected pres, we may move there~ what photo ops you must have~

  • David Jackson

    In response to Greg W. – I wouldn’t necessarily have left out more trail, just, well maybe increased the frame height or increased the whole picture area.

    Who knows? The picture is (hopefully without sounding like a card carrying photo club freak) a creative experience that you play with until it’s right.

    That one just isn’t – although I take the point.

  • rani

    every photo has shows its self story rather to show just a click without think before this photograph doesn’t show me any good purpose

  • Echo

    Great short article. This photo is a perfect, and inspiring example of your point. Great shot!

  • Michelle

    i think this is a beautiful and creative photo. I love how the statue has a similar shape as the plane.

  • Brett

    Nice photo!! NZ is more ahead than Australia 😛

  • Artdrea

    I love the composition and the tip is really helpful.

  • pril

    When you break this rule you have some leading lines.. is there a way that you can break all the rules in one photograph and still be good?

  • Steve Coleman

    Two things: I think placing a moving object in this type of configuration adds to the illusion of speed and movement. No, it’s not Photoshopped 🙂

    Another suggestion I have and use is playing with white balance. I don’t know if that’s considered to be a little too creative though. Here’s a link to a recent example of mine: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feenixfoto/5377207752/in/set-72157625935251164/

  • Nice Photo. The smoke helps enhance the sense of motion while the parallel with the statue works for me, my eyes are drawn from the plane to the statue and back, I cannot help compare and in that the photo succeeds.

    The smoke and the mountain also inter sect and at the junction the eye again will follow the line to either plane or statue. Its a good photo, it has contrast and while busy it does have variable points of interest.

  • Paulo Mauricio

    Nice photo!!
    For the record, this monument to Christ the Redeemer is doing TODAY (10/12/2011) 80 years of existence.

Some Older Comments

  • Paulo Mauricio October 13, 2011 02:37 am

    Nice photo!!
    For the record, this monument to Christ the Redeemer is doing TODAY (10/12/2011) 80 years of existence.

  • Dewan Demmer May 21, 2011 02:45 am

    Nice Photo. The smoke helps enhance the sense of motion while the parallel with the statue works for me, my eyes are drawn from the plane to the statue and back, I cannot help compare and in that the photo succeeds.

    The smoke and the mountain also inter sect and at the junction the eye again will follow the line to either plane or statue. Its a good photo, it has contrast and while busy it does have variable points of interest.

  • Steve Coleman January 31, 2011 01:10 am

    Two things: I think placing a moving object in this type of configuration adds to the illusion of speed and movement. No, it's not Photoshopped :)

    Another suggestion I have and use is playing with white balance. I don't know if that's considered to be a little too creative though. Here's a link to a recent example of mine: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feenixfoto/5377207752/in/set-72157625935251164/

  • pril November 7, 2009 07:32 am

    When you break this rule you have some leading lines.. is there a way that you can break all the rules in one photograph and still be good?

  • Artdrea August 13, 2008 10:26 pm

    I love the composition and the tip is really helpful.

  • Brett July 22, 2008 10:31 pm

    Nice photo!! NZ is more ahead than Australia :P

  • Michelle July 19, 2008 01:51 pm

    i think this is a beautiful and creative photo. I love how the statue has a similar shape as the plane.

  • Echo April 3, 2008 01:33 pm

    Great short article. This photo is a perfect, and inspiring example of your point. Great shot!

  • rani August 26, 2007 09:03 pm

    every photo has shows its self story rather to show just a click without think before this photograph doesn't show me any good purpose

  • David Jackson August 15, 2007 08:07 am

    In response to Greg W. - I wouldn't necessarily have left out more trail, just, well maybe increased the frame height or increased the whole picture area.

    Who knows? The picture is (hopefully without sounding like a card carrying photo club freak) a creative experience that you play with until it's right.

    That one just isn't - although I take the point.

  • Kimberly Lee August 15, 2007 07:41 am

    oh thank you~~ i had no idea mate~~ bless you, want to visit some day~ but if a certain someone gets elected pres, we may move there~ what photo ops you must have~

  • Darren August 15, 2007 07:36 am

    This site is run out of Australia where we're proud to be ahead of the rest ;-)

  • Kimberly Lee August 15, 2007 07:31 am

    hey i just noticed~~ the date of my entry is wrong. today is the 14th & it's 5:31 pm, here in Virginia anyway.

  • Kimberly Lee August 15, 2007 07:30 am

    after going to Jim Skea's site, this one isn't the only one that is fake. he is good at photo shop for sure. i am not a professional photographer but i could see that something was wrong w/ this picture & then my husband confirmed it, just look at the light on the plane vs the light on the statue of Jesus among other things.

  • Kimberly Lee August 15, 2007 12:23 am

    i find it hard to believe that this is a real photo. looks more like a photoshop job to me.

  • michelle August 13, 2007 01:24 am

    That is one goregous shot! I am a pilot, and do a lot of aviation-related photography, and sometimes the most difficult thing is to give the photo some sort of context, rather than the typical aircraft-in-the-clear-blue-sky shot. This 'breaking the rules' tip is a good one to keep in mind for this type of photography. This shot is probably from the Rio de Janero stint of the Red Bull Air Races, held in various scenic locales around the world. And it succeeds in doing what all great photographs do... makes me want to go out there and start shooting!

  • Greg W August 12, 2007 01:59 am

    It's a little hard to tell without more context, but the statue in the background appears to be Christ the Redeemer on top of the Corcavado Peak in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

    In contrast to Tharry's comment, I think the plane could be the primary subject, with the statue being the secondary subject. Both occupy a traditional 3rds rule position of their own, and the lines created by the smoke point to the plane, making it a primary subject. The darker silhouette of the mountain create lines to the statue, although my interpretation is that the subtle nature is secondary to the plane.

    In response to David, I would tend to agree with Alan. If you cover up the smoke trail and envision what the sky would look like, it strikes me as there would be a lot of dead space. You need the trail to imply motion, otherwise the plane would look even more stalled than it does now.

  • Tharry Beavers August 11, 2007 01:34 pm

    What is the subject? Not the plane, as it is crammed into a side. So it must be the smoke trail. And what is the relationship between that statue and the smoke. None unless we should consider the locale.

  • Alan August 11, 2007 08:53 am

    We'll have to agree to disagree on that comment, David. I think the photo works quite well in breaking the rule: the mountain is rising, the smoke is rising, both ending in a similarly shaped object of completely different natures. Positioning the point of focus so that the active space is ahead of the plane would leave us with empty sky and cloud, eliminating the upward motion of the mountain (and smoke) and generally be boring (IMHO).

  • David Jackson August 11, 2007 06:37 am

    You're wrong.

    More space in front would have made a better photograph.

    I have many photographs that break the rules of symmetry, thirds etc. - and some work - but that picture doesn't.

  • Bob August 11, 2007 02:29 am

    Love the shot. Thanks for the tip.

  • Tehsha August 10, 2007 03:48 pm

    In a way this can be considered reverse active space; when I first looked at the photo, my eyes were on the plane - and only then they followed the trail - almost like the action would have happened in reverse.

    Interesting article, with a very suggestive photo! In this case, I think the statue from the back also plays an important role; the similarities between the two (the statue and the plane) are striking, both of them having a cross-like shape.

    It would be interesting to see an article on this; two unrelated subjects that put together create a different concept.

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