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Negative Space in Photography? What is it? Why is it Important? How to Make the Most of It?

What is Negative Space in Photography?

People who have an “ART” background or who have taken some drawing lessons will know for sure what Negative Space means. But for those who have neither an art background nor the benefit of having taken drawing lessons will surely benefit from a short introduction to the three basic elements of composition.

The "Frame", The "Positive Space" and The "Negative Space" are those three elements. Among them frame needs no further explanation as we all know what it is. Then comes the positive space; Positive space is the space in your frame that is occupied by the main subject.  And finally negative space – Negative space in simple terms is your frame excluding the space occupied by the main subject.

what is negative space in photography
what is negative space in photography

In the picture given above the dragonfly being our main subject; the space occupied by it is the positive space, and the surrounding space (in this case the bokeh background formed by various shades of green and the dark area) is the negative space. The concept is explained more clearly in the illustration given below.

The Three Elements of Photographic Composition
The Three Elements of Photographic Composition

The 4 borders of the rectangle constitute the frame; the black shape of the dragonfly denotes positive space and the white space inside of the frame represents the negative space.

Negative space is also called “White Space”, “Empty Space” or “Open Space”. Personally I prefer to call it white space as the term Negative sounds…. Well NEGATIVE.

Characteristics of Negative Space

The concept of negative space has to do with compositional balance. As a general rule negative space should not have any elements in it that compete with your main subject for the viewer’s attention. It is the area of an image that is largely devoid of subject matter. It is the bit of a photograph where not very much happens. Apart from helping the photographer better frame the subject, negative space also fulfills a very important role, it is the place for the viewer’s eyes to rest. It’s possible that just about every photo, even macro’s and tight portrait shots can have negative space.

Importance of Negative Space in Photography

Negative space could perform several important compositional roles; in this article we will discuss some of them to help you make the most out of what's not in your scene.

1. White space need not necessarily be White

negative space in photography
negative space in photography

White space can be any “color”; even made up of many different elements, it all works as long as it doesn’t compete with the main subject for the viewers’ attention. It could be anything from a blue sky, the surface of water, creamy bokeh when shooting wide open, walls, foliage in the distance etc. try framing your subject from different angles to find white space that best complements your frame and your subject.

2. Negative Space Helps Emphasize the Main Subject in Your Photograph

Proper use of negative space in your frame could help emphasize the main subject in your photograph by leading the viewers’ eyes directly to it. Since there are no other elements competing for attention, the viewers’ attentions stays fixed on the main subject.

3. White Space Helps Balance Your Shot

Negative space can be used effectively to better balance your shots. A rule of thumb in photography is to use twice as much negative space as the space taken up by your main subject. So compose your shot in such a way that your main subject only takes up one third of the frame leaving the remaining two thirds as white space.

4. Open Space Helps Give Your Subject Context

negative space photo
Photo by: Alexander Ess

The space surrounding your subject helps establish the scene and the situation where the picture is taken, thereby giving context to your subject.

5. Helps Evoke Emotions in the Viewers’ Minds

Creative use of white space would make a more dynamic picture which will effectively evoke many emotions in the minds of the viewers.

definition of positive and negative space in photography
Photo by: dreams & pancakes

In the image given above the white space she is looking into and gives the viewer quite a sense of mystery when the viewer sees the hint of a smile on her face.

6. Watch the direction of their eyes and body

negative space in photography definition
Photo by: Trey Ratcliff

When composing your frame, pay attention to the direction in which your subjects eyes and body is. In general photographers prefer to leave more space in the direction the subjects eyes are facing.  Compose your frame in such a way that your subjects are gazing into the white space created by your frame; it lets the viewers eyes roam around the image giving them a sense of comfort. In comparison if you compose your shot such that your subject is looking out of the frame (subject looking towards the edge instead of into it) the viewers’ eyes will follow that of your subjects straight out of the frame making them uncomfortable. Here the viewers’ attention is frequently distracted from the main subject.

7.  Open Space Helps Create Depth in your Pictures

composition negative space
Photo by: Daniel James

Negative space could be used effectively to create depth in your photographs. In addition to leaving space to the either sides of your subject you could also try to create space in front and back of the subject.  The trick is to include elements in both the foreground and background that work together to separate those two parts of the scene; giving the picture a three dimensional feel.

8. Master the Use of White Space if you Want to Sell Your Photos

In the world of commercial publishing it’s a sad truth that mastheads, slogans, straplines etc. need to be fit in the image.  Layout artists need the flexibility to pop a photo caption onto an image, reverse out a headline, run body copy around an interesting shape, or even drop in a text box.

What is negative space
What is negative space

When selecting a photo to be featured on any magazine cover the design people would always ask themselves, where is the masthead going to fit in, where is the negative space that would allow them to include the straplines, barcodes etc. without cutting off critical elements in the picture. So if you ever wish your photography to be featured in any of the magazines front cover you should shoot with the whim of the editor in mind. I’m not saying one should always do this but this is certainly worth when you submit your portfolio.

Give negative space photography a try, try to resist the temptation to fill your frame with details, give the subject some space, focus on less, and you’ll be happily surprised with more.

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