Negative space is a powerful concept in art and photography that allows you to say a lot with very little. In this article we look at the basics of negative space and how you can use it as a tool for creative and powerful photo composition.
What is negative space?
Negative space is the empty space around and between subjects in a composition that does not draw the viewer’s attention. This is a space intentionally left devoid of “interest” where the eye fails to capture a theme or element.
This ’empty’ space creates both heightened attention to the main subject and allows the viewer’s gaze to wander around the frame, creating calm rather than busyness.
It’s up to photographers to decide how to use negative space to visually speak about the interplay between the subject and its surroundings.
Negative space is a powerful medium for using nothing to make something. The space allows the subject room to breathe. It makes the photo clearer, especially when you have competing elements in your image. It emphasizes and defines the main subject or element of a photo.
Negative space is an age-old concept in fine art, widely used in everything from painting to graphic design to photography. Many examples of negative space can be found in the work of some legendary photographers such as Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
How and when to use negative space
Deciding whether and when to use negative space in a photograph is an artistic choice and entirely up to the photographer. It’s a tool you can use to:
- Provide “room to breathe” and a place for the viewer’s eyes to rest.
- Add a sense of size and scale, whether small or large.
- Convey emotions like calm, loneliness, sadness, hope etc.
- Draw attention to a specific topic (or topics).
- Allow the viewer space to follow where a subject is looking.
- Create a theme out of creative empty space.
Negative space in a subject’s gaze
Negative space is used not only to show openness or convey emptiness, especially in landscape photos, but also to add depth and view space in portraits, especially when the subject is looking to the side rather than directly at the camera. Here is a pair of portraits showing this effect.
In this first portrait, the subject faces the camera to the left, and the viewer’s eyes generally try to follow the subject’s gaze. But since we don’t have enough space to the left, the viewer’s gaze breaks off abruptly and that creates tension in the picture.
On the other hand, in this second photo/detail, the viewer’s eyes are given enough space to wander through the picture and follow the subject’s gaze.
If you had considered just one “rule” of photography, e.g. For example, to fill the frame with the subject, you would say that the first image is “more correct,” but again, there are certain rules that take precedence over the others. Knowing the nuances of when to follow certain rules and when to break them can take your photo composition to the next level.
Artificially create negative space
There is no need to add or plan for negative space while taking the photo on location. You sometimes notice it while you are in the post-production phase.
To give you an example, consider this photo I took a few years ago while hiking up a hill at sunrise. I spotted a leafless tree by the side of the trail, lit by the morning sun. The added fog created some atmosphere and the branches of the deciduous tree formed an abstract pattern, so I pulled out my camera (dialed my shutter speed down to get a silhouette) and took a picture of it.
The image looked fine on the back of the camera screen and during editing I found the image just looked ‘ok’. So I started experimenting with the image – changing the white balance, removing a few elements like sticking out branches etc. Then I thought, “Let’s test the negative space.” The monotonous orange color of the sky in the background helped with this decision.
I exported the image to Photoshop, expanded the canvas, and used Content-Aware Fill to add negative space to the top-right side of the image. The overall image size ballooned from just under 24 MP to almost 80 MP. Here is the last picture:
So, as you can see, adding “nothing” to the image changes the entire composition. It conveys the loneliness of the tree in the vast landscape. Adding the negative space makes the minimalist photo look aesthetically pleasing. This altered photo would look better than the original shot as a framed print on a wall in my opinion.
This is of course not a “truthful” photo and many may have a problem with “adding” negative space in this artificial way. Nonetheless, it is an example of what negative space can do by “adding more with less” in composition. The easier way to get this negative space benefit is to just create it with your frame when you actually take the photo.
Using a shallow depth of field
When a subject’s surroundings are anything but blank and the background is filled with distracting elements, using a shallow depth of field to blur your background can be a way to add pleasing negative space.
Use of light and shadow
Negative space can also be created in a busy scene with lights and shadows and a camera’s limited dynamic range. A man walking down a busy street in a big city can be photographed with plenty of negative space by exposing for a spot of light and crushing the shadows into rich blacks.
Negative space as a theme
Creatively composed negative space can be an issue in itself. When the negative space forms a unique and artistic form, it can be the main subject that draws a viewer’s eye.
While in this photo a canyon is usually the main subject of a landscape photo and the starry sky is the background, the shape of the windswept canyon opening means that the night sky becomes the main subject – it almost looks like a sparkling river winding its way through one rocky channel.
Sometimes negative space in art, design, and photography can be more of an issue and less readily noticeable at first glance. In terms of design, the FedEx logo is known to have an arrow in negative space between the “E” and the “x”.
posters for the film The Dark Knight rises famously used the negative space between crumbling buildings to create the shape of Batman’s symbol.
Another example of the creative use of negative space in photography is a series of commercials shot by photographer Amol Jadhav to promote pet adoption – each photograph features people with negative space between them in the form of an animal.
While creating this type of negative space in a photo can be difficult, and even more difficult to figure out “in the wild,” you may be lucky enough to find examples if you look at the space between things in the world look closely enough.
Negative space compared to filling the frame
Negative space actually goes against a common rule of thumb in photography. If you’re just starting out in photography, you may have been advised to “fill the frame with the subject.”
This “rule” basically boils down to the fact that the subject you are trying to photograph should be dominant in the frame and as a general rule of thumb should take up about 80% of the space. It’s true though: viewers should focus on what you see in a photo and what you want them to focus on. But like any other rule, it’s meant to be broken, and you should break it with a purpose. In the end it is an artistic decision.
Photography shares similar principles with the world of design, where negative space is also often used. In graphic design and advertising, where effective communication is vital, the use of negative space can be paramount. Volkswagen’s iconic Think Small ad campaign brilliantly demonstrates the power of negative space.
The theme is still the car, but imagine how different the effect would have been if the same car had been displayed across the entire page. Volkswagen would have paid the same amount for the ad in both cases.
The effect of negative space is also evident in typography, and as a result, sentences written in a mixture of upper and lower case letters look more legible than just capital letters. The spacing differs around the lowercase letters, which allows the eye to quickly distinguish each word, as opposed to all uppercase letters where the letters all have a similar profile.
Negative space and the rule of thirds
Sometimes the rule of thirds and negative space go hand in hand. Trying to move the subject to one side in the image to accommodate the rule of thirds often creates negative space on the other side.
This is one of the reasons why the rule of thirds is a common piece of compositional advice given to beginners: it’s an easy way to add breathing space and interest when building a composition.
Examples of photos with negative space
Here are other examples of photos that use negative space in their composition:
Negative space is a powerful concept to know and keep in mind when composing and editing photos, and it’s an easy way to transform an everyday image of a subject into one that’s more aesthetically pleasing and visually interesting.
The next time you compose a shot, think about what you want to communicate to your viewer and think of negative spaces to “say a lot with very little”.
Photo credit: Header photo by Boris Thaser and licensed under CC BY 2.0. All other photos, unless otherwise noted, by Aditya Aashish.