To create a well-balanced composition you need to consider everything that enters the frame and not just the subject of your photo. Negative space is a concept used in art and refers to the space around the main subject. Ideally, it’s an empty space, one without distinctive elements. However, it’s not meaningless.
Negative space is both an aesthetic and functional ingredient. It plays the role of a supporting character, making the main subject shine and adding context to the story.
While artists can use their canvas however they like, photographers usually have to work with a given scene. Natural environments in particular are extremely challenging when it comes to choosing what enters the frame and what doesn’t. Crowded streets, vegetation, and vast landscapes make it almost impossible to isolate a subject. Not to mention moving elements that decide to enter the frame after you’ve carefully composed it! So how can you use the space you have at your disposal? Furthermore, how can you create negative space to enhance your compositions? Here’s everything you need to know about dealing with negative space in photography.
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Create Negative Space to Make the Subject Stand Out
A cluttered frame will distract the viewer from your subject and interfere with the message you want to convey. Furthermore, all the elements that enter the frame add shapes, lines, and colors that may be hard to fit into a harmonious composition. So instead of adding elements, you can seek to remove elements and instead use “empty” or negative space as a contrast to your subject.
The first thing you need to do is observe the scene and decide what you want to photograph. Then try different shooting angles and perspectives that create the negative space you need. To avoid framing disturbing elements you can photograph your subject from above or below, get to its level, or change the camera-subject distance.
Another way to create negative space and make the subject stand out is to use a shallow depth of field and blur the background. By using lenses with longer focal lengths, getting closer to your subject, or setting a larger aperture (small f-number) you can reduce the area in focus and hide a disturbing background.
If your subject is small or you want to focus on part of it, you can try close-up and macro photography. When the camera-subject distance is very short you eliminate disturbing elements and fill the frame with your subject. However, when the subject fills the frame its smallest details become individual elements. For example, a macro photo of a flower can make the pistil the subject and the petals the negative space. So pay attention to changes in proportions, contrast, and shapes.
Use Negative Space to Add a Sense of Depth
Especially for landscape photographs, recreating the 3D feeling of a scene is extremely important. How do you add a sense of depth that invites the viewer to submerge into the landscape and feel part of the scene? Well, using negative space wisely is one way to do it.
By leaving enough space around your subject you can highlight its scale and capture the distance between the layers of the scene. For example, when you photograph mountains you may include a significant amount of sky to emphasize their size. Or you may include a field in the foreground to highlight the distance between you and the mountains. Or you may include both the field in the foreground and the sky and emphasize height and distance at the same time.
You can also add depth to your composition by creating a luminosity difference between the subject and the space around it. Expose for the subject, set a fast shutter speed, and use flash to illuminate just the subject. The flash will cancel the ambient light and the background will be darker than the subject.
For the reversed effect (a lighter background and a darker subject), use an external flash unit to illuminate the surroundings and not the subject. Always expose for the highlights to make sure you underexpose the dark areas.
Combine Space and Leading Lines
You can add dynamism and a sense of movement by leaving negative space around leading lines to emphasize the path of your subject. Subjects may enter or leave the frame, conveying different messages and leading the viewer’s eye in different directions. Dynamic compositions are appealing and make the viewer spend more time observing the scene. Natural lines such as rivers, waterfalls, seashores, and edges between different surfaces are powerful compositional elements.
Another strong leading line, although an implied one, is the gaze of a person. When you have animated subjects such as people, animals, or insects, the larger amount of negative space should be in front of the subject. It also creates a flow within the composition, which enriches the narrative and opens the door for imagination.
Enhance Shapes and Contrast
Unless you take pictures in a studio, negative space is rarely a surface with a neutral, uniform color. It has its own texture, color, and shape and you should consider them in your composition. For example, you may notice that the negative space has a recognizable shape and use it to your advantage or change the position of the camera to change it.
Moreover, contrast can make the subject stand out or completely distract the viewer from the main character of your composition. A small powerful focal point in a large neutral space will become more visible. At the same time, negative space with vibrant colors may overwhelm a less colorful subject. You should always aim to balance dimensions, color intensities, shapes, and luminosity.
Don’t forget about abstract meanings either. The viewer will see more than colors and shapes. They will see emotions, feelings, ideas, and abstract concepts. You should be aware of all messages wrapped in your photos. For example, photographing a subject from below and framing a large area of the sky as a negative space may convey dreaming, thoughts about the future, isolation, sadness, and so on.
Create an Atmosphere
Maybe the most important role of negative space is to create an atmosphere. There, in the space around the subject, are clues about the location, time of the day or date, activities, attitudes, and mood. Even a black background has something to say even if it’s just the fact that the photographer is a chiaroscuro fan.
The brightness and color saturation of the negative space makes the difference between a happy and a sad photo. The intensity of its texture adds drama. The relation with the subject creates harmony or conflicts. A large empty space may lead to isolation, individualism, and reverie, while a small space may imply tension, limits, and struggle. There is nothing without meaning in a photo.
While negative space can improve a composition it can also ruin it or change its significance. As a general rule, stabilize the subject and its position in the frame and then take time to observe its surroundings and how they influence it. Check out the foreground and background but also what happens at the edges and in the proximity of the subject.
Want to learn more?
- Negative space isn’t a given. You have the power to change it.
- One way is to change the position of the camera so your background changes and becomes calmer and uniform.
- Another way is to use flash and change the direction and intensity of the light.
- A third way is to use background gradient cards and hide the natural space completely.
- Camera settings may also influence the features of the space, from adjusting the depth of field to the effects of long exposures.
- Decompose the scene in individual elements and then compose it into a meaningful story only adding the most crucial elements.
Step back from the photographer’s shoes and try to see your photos through the viewer’s eye. Where do you look first? What’s the most powerful impression you get? What do you remember from your photo? All these questions will help you better understand the role of negative space and its relation to the subject.
Do you look at negative space when you take photos and assign it a specific role? Let us know how you work with it and your technique for creating well-balanced compositions.