What is negative space in photography, and how can you use it for beautiful compositions?
The term negative space may sound strange, 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?
The negative space of an image is anything other than the subject. It’s the foreground, the background, and the visual “breathing room” all around the scene.
Check out this next image, where the foggy sky and the empty water act 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!
Negative space and minimalism
Technically, negative space is present in nearly every image, even if the compositions are chaotic, messy, and otherwise overwhelming. But when you think of negative space, you might associate it with minimalism. Why?
Minimalism in photography heavily emphasizes negative space to create a tranquil effect. This type of image uses lots of negative space to give the viewer plenty of room to breathe and focus on the subject.
Think of a lone tree or a solitary figure in a field, surrounded by emptiness. It makes for an eye-catching composition, and that’s primarily due to the power of negative space!
But there’s an essential point that I want to emphasize: Not all images with negative space are minimalistic. Minimalism uses negative space in a unique way, and you can go for striking results by taking a minimalistic approach, but you don’t have to. You can always compose with a balanced combination of positive and negative space for a different effect.
The best genres for negative space photography
Negative space isn’t confined to a single genre. In fact, you can apply this concept across various types of photography.
Take landscape shooting, for instance. The wide expanses of sky, beach, mountains, and desert often lend themselves to heavy use of negative space. And this allows the main subject, such as a mountain or a tree, to truly stand out.
Here’s an example of a landscape photo that uses negative space in the composition. It works because the blue and orange colors in the sky add atmosphere and mood:
Travel photography also benefits from negative space. Imagine a road stretching through an empty landscape, or a person standing at the edge of a lake; the results are meaningful and striking at the same time.
Even certain forms of street photography can look great with lots of negative space. A lone figure crossing a wide-open plaza can speak volumes about urban life and isolation.
On the flip side, portrait photography, event photography, documentary photography, and sports photography often focus more on positive space. The aim here is to convey information about a person, setting, or story, and positive space generally communicates more details.
But don’t let that limit you! If you feel inspired to shoot documentary images with lots of negative space, go for it. Creativity knows no boundaries, and it’s always refreshing to try new approaches.
The genres and ideas I shared above are merely suggestions. The beauty of photography lies in personal interpretation and experimentation. Dive into different subjects and see how negative space can enhance your style.
Negative space in portrait photography
While negative space is often ignored when discussing portrait photography – as I mentioned above, positive space is discussed more frequently here – it’s actually an essential aspect of good portrait photos.
How does negative space work with portraiture?
In portraiture, negative space is the area around the main subject of your photograph. The portrait below 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 from 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.
Why does negative space matter in photos of people?
Now that you know how to create images of people that utilize negative space, it’s also helpful to understand why negative space images are important and why you should consider incorporating at least a few into every photo session.
1. It helps emphasize scale
Using negative space when you’re photographing people can help to emphasize the size of the person you’re photographing. For example, if you’re photographing a newborn and fill the frame in every image you take, you may have missed the ability to convey just how small newborn babies are relative to their surroundings.
By including varying degrees of negative space in your images, you will be better equipped to emphasize the scale of a newborn. Similarly, you could also consider using negative space images to convey how small a bride and groom are compared to the vast beach they were married on.
2. It gives your clients options
If any part of your business plan includes offering digital images to your clients, keep in mind that many of your clients will want to post the images you’ve taken on social media. Many of the popular social media platforms are not very conducive to typical “fill the frame” portraits, forcing your client to either cut off the top of their head or cut off their shoulders (leaving them looking rather like a floating head as above).
Similarly, if a client requests a certain image printed on a canvas, images with negative space allow you to accommodate that request without worrying about part of the image getting cut off by the gallery wrap. By including negative space in a few images, you’ll be giving your clients more options and less frustration!
3. It gives you options
Not only do images with negative space give your clients flexibility, but they give you additional flexibility as the photographer.
Want to submit your image for the cover of a local magazine? Many editors want images with plenty of negative space to accommodate headline text. Want to start offering a Christmas card design to your clients? Negative space images help make that easier. Want to advertise mini sessions on Facebook? Try placing the text in the negative space of one of your favorite images.
Making an effort to utilize negative space every time you photograph people will give you more ways to use your images!
Negative space photography tips and tricks
Hopefully, you now feel ready to capture some negative space images of your own. To that end, here are 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
As I explained above, minimalistic compositions use negative space to great effect. 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.
5. Look to the sky
Finding lots of negative space in a scene can sometimes be a challenge. But if you feel your composition lacks negative space, you might just need to look up.
The sky, with its generally flat appearance, provides an excellent canvas for negative space, and it can certainly help push the viewer’s attention toward your subject. In other words, the sky isn’t intrusive or distracting; it’s just there, and it can effectively balance out the positive space in your compositions.
How do you bring more sky into your shot? Try changing your angle. Get down low. Aim your camera upward. Suddenly, the sky becomes a major part of your composition, and an ordinary snapshot becomes something far more interesting.
This technique can turn a crowded, messy street scene into a calm, serene image, and it can make a flower in a field seem profound and significant. So next time you’re struggling with negative space, remember to look to the sky. It’s always there, just waiting to help you create that perfect photograph.
6. Try a black-and-white conversion
Did you know that black-and-white tones can transform your images? It’s true! A black-and-white conversion can take what counts as positive space and turn it into negative space.
You see, when you work with colors, certain areas feature a variety of hues, which generally ensures they appear as positive space. But strip away those colors, and suddenly, you’re left with a lot of near-identical grays – and an abundance of negative space.
In other words, by converting a shot to black and white, distracting colors vanish. This can turn a once chaotic area into a serene negative space, adding a whole new layer of elegance to your image.
Of course, this technique doesn’t work every time. It depends on the existing tones in the photograph. But when it does work, the results can be breathtaking. Minimalistic black-and-white images, brimming with negative space, have a timeless appeal that’s hard to resist.
7. Eliminate distractions
Imagine capturing a perfect scene, only to notice a stray object in the background later.
Distractions can ruin a composition. They draw attention away from the subject and clutter the image, leaving the viewer’s eye confused and wandering. In negative space photography, this can be especially detrimental.
You see, distractions always add positive space to an image. They interrupt the emphasis on the subject that negative space aims to create. Whether you’re going for a minimalistic image or a balanced composition, distractions can throw everything off-kilter.
Before you press that shutter button, take a moment to scan the entire frame. Look for anything that doesn’t belong and adjust your composition to exclude it. This might mean changing your angle, repositioning your camera, or waiting for the right moment. With a distraction-free frame, you’ll be more likely to achieve that perfect harmony between positive and negative space.
8. Go wide
Ever felt constrained by your lens?
Wide-angle lenses open up a new world of possibilities. They expand your field of view, allowing you to include vast backgrounds filled with negative space. Imagine a landscape with a lone tree, backed by a seemingly endless sky. Or imagine a few flowers in a field, backed by a stretch of grass that goes on forever. That’s what a wide-angle perspective can capture.
But what if you don’t have a wide-angle lens? Don’t worry; you can still capture the same effect. Simply take some steps back, find a new vantage point, and shoot from there. It might take a bit of trial and error, but with some patience, you’ll find the right spot.
Wide-angle or not, going wide with negative space can lend your images a sense of grandeur and simplicity. It’ll emphasize the subject while creating a wonderful sense of scale.
9. Share your photos on Instagram
Sharing your work is a rewarding part of the creative process, and I think that Instagram is an excellent platform for showcasing negative space photography.
Why does negative space work so well on Instagram?
Well, the simplicity of negative space captures the viewer’s attention. Instagram, being a platform generally viewed on phones, presents images briefly as users scroll through their feeds. Photos that have lots of negative space are simpler to process, allowing even a casual viewer to be stunned by the thumbnail-sized file.
Basically, negative space adds an artistic touch that stands out in the fast-paced world of social media. Your followers will appreciate the ease with which they can understand and connect with the image.
And consider using specific hashtags that cater to negative space and minimalism. Engage with communities that appreciate this style. You’ll be surprised at the connections you can make and the feedback you can gain!
Negative space photography: final words
Photography is a world filled with endless possibilities, and negative space is one powerful tool in your creative arsenal. By now, you should have a rich understanding of what negative space is and how it can be applied across various genres of photography.
Remember, negative space isn’t limited to minimalistic shots. It’s a way to direct the viewer’s attention, create harmony, and even tell a deeper story within your images. Whether you’re capturing breathtaking landscapes, engaging street scenes, or intimate portraits, negative space can be a subtle yet profound element to explore.
I encourage you to consider this the next time you go out shooting. Incorporating negative space into your images can be very rewarding, though it can also be quite challenging. Sometimes situations will present themselves where a solid approach is clear. Other times you will have to get creative with a subject to find the proper framing to create an image with lots of negative space.
Don’t be afraid to share your work on platforms like Instagram, where your negative space photography can resonate with viewers. From landscapes to street photography, negative space has its place, and even in genres that focus more on positive space, there’s room for experimentation.
So remember this article. Memorize the advice. And good luck!
Now over to you:
What do you think about negative space? Do you plan to use it in your images? Share your thoughts in the comments below!