Photography – Composition & Negative Space

Photography feature image

Telling a story with a video is easy, but to do it in a single shot? Now that’s impressive. Simon Thomas talks us through the magic of image composition

Photographer: Simon Thomas

I’ve started a few of my articles with the words, “each photo you take tells a story”, and that’s true, but any great story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. So, how the hell do you manage that in a photo?

In this article, I’m going to be concentrating less on your camera’s features and multi-functional buttons and focusing more on how to use thoughtful composition to create images that tell a story, and that draw your viewer into your world.

Good composition gives your images structure and helps our brains decide if we like something or not. You don’t have to be an art critic to have a valid gut instinct as to whether you like an image or not. You simply and instinctually react to it and your opinion is set.

It’s easy to tell a story with a moving motorcycle in an image. The spinning wheels, the blurred countryside, giving us that sense of speed and movement, and the gravity-defying angle of the leaning rider and bike as they slice through the apex of a curve. But, creating a story with a stationary bike takes a little more effort.

Third Time’s the Charm

The rule of thirds is one of the simplest and oldest guides for creating powerful images. All it really means is that most of the time (not all of the time) dividing your image into thirds and making sure that what you want your viewer to ‘see’ is in one of those thirds. Check out this article’s photo, and you can see I made sure that Lisa and the landscape completely fills the lower third of the entire image space.

Now, imagine vertical lines passing through the image and you see that Lisa on her bike is where the right vertical third and the lower horizontal third intersect. Our brains like that symmetry and our eyes go there instinctively.

However, the key to making any adventure image work, whether the rider is still or stationary, is being able to create that story, with its start, middle and end. So, it’s crucial to make sure that when you compose your photo, you take into account the space in the photo that the rider will eventually be riding into. Sound odd?

Let’s look at why this simple photo of Lisa works. Lisa, although she’s in focus, isn’t what the photo is about. She’s just where the story starts. Past Lisa and to the left, your brain has already moved on and is conjuring up emotions about what it would be like to ride into that landscape. Effectively, your brain is creating the story right there!

Breathing Space

I’ve used several techniques to make sure your eye looks at the brightly lit and rugged landscape. The slight angle of Lisa’s bike pointing towards the mountains and the darker out of focus foreground of the track pushes your eye upwards.

I’ve also created the maximum space for the story to develop. Yeah, I know, ‘psychobabble’, but bear with me. By putting Lisa in the far lower right, I’ve used the maximum amount of space for you to imagine her story. She slips her bike into first, feeling the bike slide as it fights for traction in the mud, before she rides down and into the stunning, sun-kissed landscape as the storm moves around her. Hopefully, you’re putting yourself into the photo if your imagination has really kicked in.

The story is happening in the space between Lisa on the right and the far left of the photo. Best of all, you’re doing the storytelling for me with your imagination. If I’d stuck Lisa in the middle of the photo, then all the space to her right would have been wasted. It’s dark, cloudy, out of focus and doesn’t add to the story. Magazines would also have an issue, as Lisa would be cut in two by the centre of the magazine on a two-page spread. Yeah, I think about that too.


Think about where you want the viewer’s eye to go. Use all the space in the photo to the maximum. Decide what story you want to tell and use good composition to help tell your story. Have fun.