What is negative space in photography, and how can you use it for beautiful compositions?
The term negative space may sound problematic, but it’s actually an essential component of almost every great image. In fact, if you want to create gorgeous photos, you must master negative space; that way, you can take shots that feature balanced, harmonious, eye-catching arrangements. (You can also capture wonderfully minimalistic compositions, as I discuss down below.)
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about negative space, including:
- What negative space actually is
- Why negative space is important
- Simple tips and tricks to use negative space in your images, whether you shoot landscapes, portraits, street scenes, or architecture
Ready to become a compositional master? Then let’s get started.
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.
Here’s an image full of foggy sky, all of which acts as negative space:
In photography, negative space is often made up of certain elements:
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.
Other photos, however, feature plenty of non-negative space, also known as positive space:
Positive space versus negative space
Positive space is the complete opposite of negative space. Negative space rejects the eye, while positive space steals the spotlight. You see, positive space is the area of a photo that includes elements of interest, the area that includes the main subject, the area where the viewer’s eye goes first.
In the photo below, there is plenty of positive space, but very little negative space. The flag, the buildings, and the trees all act as positive space. Even the clouds provide some positive space, thanks to their interesting arrangement and texture. The biggest patch of negative space is the sky, which takes up a tiny portion of the shot.
Now, positive space can be anything, but here are some common examples:
So which is better, positive or negative space?
In photography, the goal is to combine both types of space to create a balanced composition. You want negative space, yes, but you also want positive space. That’s how you can get consistently stunning photos!
(Some photographic styles do heavily emphasize negative space, while others heavily emphasize positive space – but in general, a mix of the two is the way to go.)
Negative space tips and tricks
In this section, I’ll share my favorite tips and techniques for working with negative space.
1. Let the scene dictate your negative space and positive space combination
Every scene has a different ratio of negative space to positive space.
And while you, as the photographer, can zoom in, change perspective, and crop to emphasize certain parts of the scene, you need to be flexible; you need to be able to embrace a scene that’s full of negative space, just the same as you embrace a scene filled with positive space.
So don’t try to force a scene in a certain direction. Instead, ask yourself: What is the scene already like? And work with what you’ve got.
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.
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:
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.
3. Experiment with minimalism
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.
Here’s an example of a minimalist image, where the shadow acts as positive space, while the bricks provide some empty 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:
- Start by identifying a main subject, like a tree, a person, or a building. This will be your positive space.
- 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.)
- Eliminate as much color as possible. You want uniformity, if you can get it: just one or two colors in a highly harmonious scene.
- 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.
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?
Yes, it’s an emotional shot, at least to my eye. The empty sky, sprinkled with a bit of positive space, tells a captivating, haunting story.
Negative space in photography: final words
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.
So remember this article. Memorize the advice. And good luck!