Powerful compositional technique: Negative Space
“Good composition is merely the strongest way of seeing.” Edward Weston
Today I want to share a well-known composition technique that is both easy to understand and practise – and will create and easy to put into practise. The aim of negative space is to help define your subject, and create more impactful photos.
The aim of negative space is to place your subject on an unobtrusive background of space or colour.
This ‘negative space’ behind your subject, will help define the shape of your subject. It will make your subject stand out, or ‘pop’ out of the image.
Nice simple image that shows both negative and positive space clearly. Can you see how the sky makes the dark branch and bird really pop out of the image? There are no distractions, so you can very clearly see the shape of the branch and the bird.
In a sense it is what defines your subject within the frame of the photo. Without it your subject, if not obvious, can get lost in the sea of information and competing elements.
The concept of negative space has been used for hundreds of years in art and design to define and create impact for the subject. You could also consider it as a sort of breathing room around the subject.
Can you see how placing the man against the bright yellow background gives him definition and more impact? That swish of his cassock would be hard to see with a busier background. And you can see, too, that the background colour and texture is important. Unlike in the photo of the branch further above, where the subject is on white sky, it was important to have a contrasting colour in this photo. Can you see why?
(And it case it wasn’t obvious, positive space is the space your subject is filling.)
One very common thing I see when looking at people’s images is that they place really interesting subjects on busy backgrounds – especially when photographing people.
You can use shallow depth of field (Dof) as another technique to separate subjects from a background when things are complex and busy, but using negative space means a deeper depth of field is still an option for you.
It can be challenging to shoot people, especially out and about on the street or at an event, because you are working so much on capturing the person at ‘just the right moment’ that you forget what is behind them.
So I like this technique of negative space because it is an easy way to think:
– How can I find an opportunity to create space or a clean background around my subject?
– And what will complement this subject?
The photo above is an easy way to see the power of negative space. The plain background and the colours are very powerful, and they really help to define the shape of the subject.
This photo is not pure negative space because the sky has clouds. But it doesn’t have to be totally around the subject. As long as there is enough to create depth in your photo and impact with your subject.
I think negative space really helps with:
You can of course use depth of field (DoF) to separate your subject from the background, but it does give a different feel to the image than negative space would.
I look for more negative space when I’m shooting with lots of DoF. This brings about that separation I want between my subject and its background, very useful especially when using a wider lens.
Using the technique of negative space is a great way to create this depth in a photo.
This photo above has two elements of negative space – can you see them? And how I have used them to create negative space?
I am always looking to show people how to compose images, to define elements in the world and build relationships between them with space. Looking for space around your subject is an excellent habit to develop.
It’s developing that sense of going beyond your subject and thinking of the whole frame (many people fall into the trap of putting all of their attention on their subject (I call it Subject fixation) so much they aren’t building their whole frame).
In the shots I took before I captured this frame, I didn’t have the man in shadow. It wasn’t working, but as soon as I moved towards this exposure the photo immediately worked. Having a strong silhouette against the soft pretty light and outline of the harbour in the background is great. But can you also see that the background doesn’t have to be totally ‘clean’ or empty to work? It just has to provide enough space and contrast to help the subject ‘pop’.
In photography (and life, lol!) we are always seeking balance, aren’t we? Sometimes you can have very, very intricate compositions that because they are balanced, have space where they need space, good balance between elements and a narrative that goes in one direction. They feel good to look at and are memorable.
Negative space is not about taking things away from a photo, or making it too clean, but recognising that the eye when looking at an image needs to be guided. The eye doesn’t want to be overloaded. You want the viewer to see your subject first (most of the time).
Placing your subject in negative space is an effective way to quickly draw the eye to it, especially when your subject is small or does not fill the frame.
You can also hit the opposite issue, placing subjects on backgrounds that are too plain, or too similar in colouring, so there is no contrast – and so the subject isn’t clear and defined enough. It doesn’t pop.
Here are some examples where negative space can be a good technique to use.
This was shot down on the Golden Horn in Istanbul. It was a beautifully misty morning and all my photos from that morning have an eerie black and white quality. Here the dark shapes of the birds are defined by the water. But also observe that the water isn’t totally flat. I don’t like to make things too clean. It’s those little oddities – the shapes, the chaos, the bursts of shape and colour – that really make photos interesting. Perfection is not a human quality, so it shouldn’t be expected in our art.
Sky is always a good negative space around your subject and probably what you will find easiest to use. I love that it gives a feeling of eeriness in this photo. A misty autumn morning in London – one of my favourite kinds.
Another one using sky to bring impact to your subject. I was bemused by this scene.
Reading or hearing information is only a little part of learning – the biggest part is being able to put the knowledge into practise. So now I want you to demonstrate what you have learnt.
Let’s do an excercise:
Where can you see negative space in these images – and what effect has it had on the subject?
What is the negative space contributing to this photo? Is it adding any messages to the photo?
I would love to know your thoughts on these photos – comment on my blog and I can let you know what I think!
Now – the last part of learning is – practise. If you are inspired by these ideas then I encourage you to immediately go out and get some practise! Then not only do you really embed that information, but you can then make it your own.
Have an awesome day & happy photographing,
Anthony and Diana
04/05/2018 @ 6:54 PM
I really enjoyed this article. Your questions really made me stop and think! Your images here powerfully demonstrate the use of negative space. Something I’ve known about but not really paid much attention to. I’m going to look out for opportunities to use this technique now. Many thanks for the inspiration!
18/04/2019 @ 7:49 PM
Glad you liked the article Adrian! thank you for commenting.