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In portraiture, negative space is the area around the main subject of your photograph. The portrait above has negative space – it is the dark area around the model. I’ve highlighted it below in green so you can see exactly what I mean:
There’s a quote in photography attributed to photojournalist Robert Capa:
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
A lot of the time, that’s good advice – many portraits can be improved by getting in closer to the subject, either physically or with a longer lens, so the model dominates the frame. When it comes to photographing people, it also helps to get closer emotionally to your models, by establishing a rapport or connection that enables you to take deeper, more insightful portraits.
But there are also times when the environment around your model can contribute to the composition. Sometimes the subject needs room to breathe. This is when you can create an interesting image by backing off and including more negative space.
There is nothing to stop you getting in close to your model and making a portrait, and then stepping away and including more of the environment to make use of the negative space. This is called working the subject, and is the process of exploring the photographic possibilities by varying focal length, shooting distance and other factors.
In addition to making the portrait above, I also got in close during our shoot. Here’s a close-up portrait, side-by-side with the first so you can see the difference. See how the close-up also uses negative space, just in a different way:
Please note there is no right or wrong here, no simple rule to tell you what to do. You have to take each situation on its merits and find the best way to make a good portrait of your model. But, it always helps if you keep the composition as simple as possible. In the examples here, the negative space is ’empty’. There is detail if you look closely, but nothing to distract attention away from the model.
This technique also works with subjects other than portraits. Here is an example with a photo of a dandelion. Note the principle of simplicity has come into play again. I used a wide aperture (f2.8) to ensure the background is blurred:
Here’s an example of a landscape photo that uses negative space in the composition. It works because the blue and orange colours in sky add atmosphere and mood:
Finally, here is a black and white photo I took in Argentina a few years ago. I was attracted by the textures in the door and the wall, which I knew would come out well in black and white. Note the use of rectangles in the composition. The door is a rectangle, so is the door frame, and so are the paintings hanging on the wall. They are all contained in another rectangle – that of the 35mm frame. The negative space provided by the wall (which I darkened in post-processing to emphasise the effect) accentuates the rectangular shapes in the image.
My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.