Composition and Negative Space

Composition and Negative Space


Composition and negative space

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:

Composition and negative space

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:

Composition and negative space

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.

Other subjects

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:

Composition and negative space

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:

Composition and negative space

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.

Composition and negative space

Mastering Photography

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.

Composition and negative space


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • marius2die4 August 23, 2013 08:22 pm

    In some case, negative space improve the picture. If I want no negative space I use the "Crop".

    Some of my pics:

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  • Fritz August 23, 2013 08:59 am

    Robert Capa was a war photographer. I think he really meant that you must get close to your subject to get an interesting picture; don't use a longer lens. He didn't talk about negative space.

    The standing lady is in the middle of the photograph. I would have placed her a little to the left: less negative space behind her back, and more breathing space in front of her. The position of the body creates a leading line from the left into the picture.

    The good tight crop of the lady emphasizes her face, which is nice. I wouldn't say it is more beautiful than the other picture; it just depends on what you want to capture.

    The composition of the good tight crop of the lady is very symmetric, with the head on the right side of the frame. I would position the head a little to the left to make it more dynamic.

    You can make the dandelion sharp without blurring the background.

    The landscape is uninteresting. The black and white picture is nice and well composed.

    Just my 5 cents.

  • Colin August 23, 2013 08:11 am

    But if your image is to be judged in any competition be aware that many judges, not knowing that your avoidance of the Crop Tool was deliberate , will say something like " Would have been better with a good tight crop " ! Maybe they are 'right' but personally I like a bit of negative space and include it, when I do, because I personally think it adds to the image . As with this one.How many judges, faced with a tight crop , say "Should have left some more space " ? Not too many, unless there is a moving object with nowhere to go to.

  • ArturoMM August 23, 2013 05:26 am

    As you said, there is not right or wrong:

    To me the first portrait is the best.

    And about the dandelion I'd like to see it completely focused while the background completely blurred.

  • Brian Fuller August 22, 2013 04:38 am

    I rarely use negative space, but it definitely has its place. Thanks for the article to remind me.


  • Mridula August 20, 2013 01:19 am

    I have used it with flowers and I like ti when I see it. But conscious use, I have to become better.

  • Kishan August 19, 2013 06:14 pm

    Nice article on Negative spaces. Some examples from me:

  • Chris August 19, 2013 09:00 am

    I prefer using negative space to give a portrait some breathing room. Getting closer often just makes it feel, I don't know how to describe it, sort of like a school photo or yearbook picture, or any budget family photoshoot.

    I guess the surrounding context, even if conceptually "empty" transforms a photo from "this is someone" to "this is a scene".

    Anyway, here are a couple of shots you might like, or not - any comments are welcomed, if you feel like it! :)

  • Steve August 19, 2013 04:25 am

    Light colour flower blooms can be enhanced nicely with a dark negative space as the background