Negative space is the thread that holds an image together.
It separates the elements in your composition and gives your viewer’s eyes a place to breathe.
While often forgotten, using negative space is one of the easiest ways you can elevate your composition.
How and when should you use negative space in your photography?
In this article, we’ll demystify negative space and show that more is not always more when it comes to photography.
What is Negative Space?
Negative space is the area between and surrounding the subject of an image.
It goes hand-in-hand with minimalism in that both concepts thrive on the idea that less is more.
Negative space keeps compositions from being crowded and distracting.
It provides the viewer with a clear focus, similar to casting a spotlight on your main subject.
Without negative space, it will be difficult to capture and hold viewers’ attention.
Below are two images with different amounts of negative space.
As you can see, the one on the right is much easier to examine. The subject is also much more noticeable.
Negative space aims for simplicity. But don’t be fooled, it’s anything but simple.
And when done well, they are deceptively powerful.
Negative Space and Positive Space
Positive space is the opposite of negative space.
It is the portion of your image that arrests attention is a positive space.
In contrast, negative space blends into the background.
Your main subject is the most obvious example of positive space. But, other prominent elements within your frame can also be considered positive space.
To better understand positive and negative space, think simply of written words on a blank sheet of paper.
The words stand out, while blank paper beneath is ignored. In this example, the paper is negative space, and the written words represent positive space.
The success of your image significantly depends on your ability to balance between positive and negative space in your composition.
Does Negative Space Have to Be Empty?
Negative space is not necessarily empty space.
So long as the objects aren’t distracting, you can consider them negative space.
For instance, a vast stretch of sky or water may be used as a negative space in some compositions.
Another example is a blurry background in a bokeh photo.
When the space around your main subject seems to dissolve into the background, you can consider that negative space.
Why is Negative Space So effective?
Negative space makes images enjoyable and comprehendible.
With negative space, it is not difficult to identify the image’s focal point. The elements do not blur or congeal into an unidentifiable mass.
As such, your viewers can understand your message in digestible sections easily.
Negative space also makes looking at an image much easier.
It makes it much easier for the audience to contemplate the deeper meaning of an image and make a meaningful connection with it.
In this way, negative space allows you as the photographer to forge a lasting connection with your audience.
How to Create Negative Space in Photography?
Thinking about implementing negative space in your composition but not sure how?
Here are some of my favorite ways to do it.
You can use backlighting to create negative space in your image.
Backlighting happens when you position your light source behind your subject.
That is, the light in front of your lens, and your subject is between you and your camera.
It’s similar to a solar eclipse.
During a solar eclipse, the moon is in between the Earth and the Sun. The moon appears entirely black with a rim of light around its perimeter.
When you backlight your subject, it turns into a silhouette (this is your positive space).
Next, a thin line of light will outline your subject, and your background will be complete brightness (negative space)
This is a beautiful and impactful effect to test out in your compositions.
Resource: 12 Tips on How to Take Stunning Images With Backlighting
Another way to create negative space is to generate Bokeh.
The word Bokeh comes from the Japanese word “boke,” a Japanese word that means blurry or out-of-focus.
In portrait photography, Bokeh is commonly used to draw emphasis on the main subject.
Portraits often benefit from blurry backgrounds with a subject in sharp focus.
You can achieve Bokeh by using a low f-stop (typically f/2.8 or less).
When you use a low f-stop, you’ll have a narrow depth-of-field.
A comprehensive depth-of-field keeps your subject sharp while leaving your e background soft and blurry.
As you increase your aperture, you’ll get less and less Bokeh.
While it’s possible to attain Bokeh with an aperture around f/3.5 or f/5, it won’t be as effective,
For that to work, you’ll need to be further away from your subject for the effect to work.
To create Bokeh, make a note of the following compositional elements:
1. Distance: The Camera and The Subject
Aim to have as little distance as you can in between your camera and your subject.
If your camera isn’t far enough from your subject, it can be tricky to get it into sharp focus.
If you’re too far away from your subject, it may be impossible to make the background appear blurred.
2. Distance: The Subject and The Background
Your subject and your background should be as far away from each other as possible.
When your subject is further from your background, the background will appear blurrier.
3. The Size of Your Subject
The size of your subject matters too when you’re seeking to achieve Bokeh in your image.
Larger subjects will typically require a narrower aperture than smaller subjects.
As such, the blur in an image will be less on larger subjects than smaller subjects.
When using Bokeh to create negative space, pay attention to bright elements in your background.
There are certain elements that even a bokeh can’t prevent bright objects from being distracting.
You may have to take some time to explore multiple angles to exclude unwanted objects from the background, but this is often much easier than removing them in post-processing.
Underexposure happens when there isn’t enough light present in your image.
When this happens, the details of the underexposed part of the image get lost in the shadows.
For this reason, you’ll typically want to avoid underexposing your image.
Unless, of course, you’re trying to create a specific effect, like negative space.
Since underexposure removes details, it ultimately creates negative space.
This type of negative space is great for establishing a mood in the composition.
Underexposed images are naturally darker and more dramatic. They tend to have an eerie effect and, when done well, are hauntingly beautiful.
Another advantage of using underexposure to remove detail is that it allows your readers to fill in the missing parts.
It gives viewers the chance to let their imagination run wild. As a result, your viewers will take a heightened interest in your image.
Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure
On the flipside of underexposure is overexposure.
Overexposure happens when you ley too much light into your camera.
This abundance of light burns details in part of your image.
And, as mentioned, eliminating detail is one of the best ways to create negative space.
Similar to underexposed images, overexposed images force the audience to fill the blank spaces on their own.
When viewers have to use their creativity to understand the image, it adds drama and mystery to the composition.
Overexposure is a great way to create negative space, especially if you want to add a degree of soft, other-worldly effect in your image.
Test out the effect of overexposure on your images and portray unique narratives that draw viewers in.
Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure
5. Play with Contrast and Affinity
Another easy way to create negative space is by playing with contrast.
Contrast is the difference between light and dark in the frame.
To create negative space, contrast your subject and your background.
For example, photograph a vibrant red flower with a background of green grass. Or photograph a yellow umbrella against a blue sky.
Contrast is also a great way to evoke strong feelings among your viewers.
The higher the contrast, the higher the emotional response. The disparity between the contrasting elements will pull attention to your image.
You can play with contrast in photography in different ways.
For one, you can place your subject next to a contrasting background.
You can also play with contrast using light. You can choose to shoot with muted lighting, such as in a foggy morning, to help your subject stand out.
Another option is to create contrast through post-processing. This option allows you to make manual adjustments until you reach the contrast level is of your liking.
How To Use Negative Space in Photography
1. Rule of Space
Another way you can implement negative space is when photographing people and wildlife.
In photography, this technique is known as the “Rule of Space.”
The Rule of Space suggests that there should be an ample amount of negative space in front of your subject’s eyes.
Humans have an instinct to follow other people’s line of vision.
As such, when you leave ample space in front of your subject’s eyes, it compels readers to explore what’s in front of the subject.
The viewer will naturally want to know where the subject is looking, which adds dimension to the image.
Leaving more space in the direction towards which the subject is facing can also add the illusion of motion.
For instance, if you’re trying to photograph a beautiful horse running up a hill, leaving space in front of it will emphasize its movement.
Adding negative space is a great way to exude feelings of calm, intrigue, and mystery in your image.
Without distractions or cutter, your viewers can hone in on your subject with a singular focus.
3. Centered Composition
Most rules in photography discourage placing the subject in the center of the frame.
While these rules are generally helpful, they’re not rules but merely guidelines.
And there are circumstances where your subject will benefit from being placed in the center of your composition.
Some subjects can become a part of their surroundings when they’re centered in the frame.
I particularly enjoy placing subjects on the center if they are against a background filled with negative space.
This composition tends to create a sense of immersion between the subject and the background.
Combining the centered composition with negative space amplifies the emphasis to your focal point.
4. Minimalist Photography
Minimalism and negative space go hand in hand.
Both concept thrive on simplicity–yet neither is simple.
Minimalism aims to move its audience with less.
And it often does with the help of negative space.
It uses negative space to keep its compositions from being overwhelming and distracting.
And it uses negative space to highlight only the best elements in the frame.
Negative space is how minimalistic images capture and hold their viewers’ attention.
It plays a significant part in the emotional value minimalistic image gives to its viewers.
Minimalist photography is proof that negative space when applied well, they are powerful.
You now know the value of negative space and how to implement it in your compositions.
You’ve learned that you can use it to create a minimalist image. You’ve also learned how to use it to exude a sense of movement in your image.
But learning doesn’t end there.
Pick up the camera and explore how you can use negative space to elevate your photography.
Then let me know how it worked out in the comments below 🙂