UNDERSTANDING “NEGATIVE SPACE”

negative space in photography woman near tree

I have been blogging about different photo subjects for years now, and the interest in “negative space” photos continues to grow. So, what is “Negative Space”?

Negative space refers to areas of a composition that are empty, bland, or otherwise uninteresting. That’s why negative space is also called white space; it’s where nothing is really happening. But, the photograph with negative space seems to be an growing type of photo subject because it creates some mood to the photo with a new interest in the feel of a photo. A lot of “negative space” photos do not go along with the composition rules of photography. Kind of one of those subjects you can break the rules on.

In photography, negative space is often made up of certain elements:

  • Water
  • Sky
  • Walls
  • Sand

Note that all of these elements tend to fade easily into the background, and that’s why they make such great negative space. An empty sky does not draw the eye, any more than a blank white wall, a stretch of empty sand, and so on.

Now, some photos are full of negative space. These compositions are often very abstract, such as a stretch of empty blue sky, or a sand dune stretching off in every direction. Such negative-space-centric compositions can also be minimalistic, with a single eye-catching element surrounded by emptiness.

So let’s take a look at some of the points of NEGATIVE SPACE:

1. Let the scene dictate your negative space and positive space combination

For example, a few years ago, I stood at a popular lookout, observing an iconic rock sitting in the Atlantic Ocean in Eastern Canada. It was early morning and some fog had rolled in, covering most of the impressive structure. The woman standing next to me turned to me and said, “It’s so sad, we’re driving by today, and I wanted to get a photo of the Percé Rock. But due to the fog, it seems it won’t be possible.”

She left, disappointed that she didn’t get her shot. But I stayed, and I stood for a long time, examining the fog and the way it draped the rock like a heavy blanket. I thought it was one of the most amazing things to happen that day. I felt so lucky to be there at that exact moment to capture the wonder unfolding. I embraced the negative space, and I captured a beautiful, minimalistic image.

foggy rock on the water

Bottom line:

Be adaptable. Be flexible. If negative space dominates a scene, let it, even if you generally prefer to avoid minimalistic compositions. Make sense?

2. Use negative space to balance out positive space

A key goal of photographic composition is to achieve visual balance. You want your images to feel whole, complete, satisfying.

And one way to achieve balance is by identifying your positive space, then countering it with negative space.

For instance, look at the image below. You can see the positive space – the clenched fist. It’s a powerful, eye-catching subject, but it’s countered by all the surrounding negative space. It creates an overall balance, as you can see:

negative space raised fist

By the way, it’s important to recognize how lots of negative space can balance out just a little positive space. Positive space is aggressive and powerful. Negative space is much more subdued, even soothing. So unless you’re specifically after a very in-your-face image, positive space should come in small doses.

Some photographers practice a “2:1” negative space rule, where you add two parts negative space for every one part positive space. I don’t like to restrict myself in this way, but it’s a good guideline to bear in mind.


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Minimalistic compositions use negative space to great effect. In fact, they’re all about negative space; they take lots of negative space, include a touch of positive space, and create an eye-catching result.

3. Experiment with minimalism

Here’s an example of a minimalist image, where the shadow acts as positive space, while the bricks provide some empty negative space:

cross on the bricks negative space

If you like the minimalistic look, I highly recommend you try it out. It’s pretty simple to pull off.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Start by identifying a main subject, like a tree, a person, or a building. This will be your positive space.
  2. Adjust your positive, focal length, and camera angle until your main subject is all alone, surrounded by nothing but negative space. (A low perspective is great for this; by dropping down to the ground, you can frame your subject against the sky.)
  3. Eliminate as much color as possible. You want uniformity, if you can get it: just one or two colors in a highly harmonious scene.
  4. Position your main subject toward the edge of the composition. You can try putting the subject at a rule of thirds power point or along a gridline, but you might also consider moving it closer to the edge of the frame.

The tree photo below is highly minimalistic. It includes a small tree positioned in the corner as positive space, while the rest of the photo is (for the most part) negative space, for a nice overall balance.

tree and clouds

4. Use negative space to convey emotion

Negative space tends to be bleak, even melancholy, especially in black and white images.

Use this fact. Tell a story with your composition – a story that’s laced with sadness, or loneliness, or quiet pleasure.

Of course, you should let the scene guide you, as I emphasized above. But you can also carefully add more negative space to your composition by zooming out, or by finding a uniquely empty background, etc.

Check out this negative-space-filled image. Is it full of emotion?

negative space bird flying sunset

CONCLUSION:

Negative space photography is an excellent way to expand your skills and your photographic eye. By mastering negative space, you can capture consistently gorgeous images – no matter your genre of choice.

This article written by: Sandra Roussy, and it was originally posted in: DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY SCHOOL

HERE ARE JUST A FEW EXAMPLES OF NEGATIVE SPACE PHOTOS:

spotlight illuminating smoke
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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Published by 123photogo

I have been a photographer for many years. Worked in retail selling cameras and accessories for over 20 years. Taught many photo classes, and have even been a judge in several county fairs. Now, I want to share photo instructions and entertainment with all other photographers around the world.

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