Having a great smartphone camera, using the best camera apps, researching your subject or waiting for the optimum moment is all well and good, but if you frame or compose your shot badly you may end up with a disappointing result. In this article we’ll look at another powerful composition technique – Negative Space.

We all see hundreds of photos every day – and nearly all of them are run-of-the-mill, busy, cluttered photos – snaps at best – with little care or thought involved. Effective use of composition can help your photos stand head and shoulders above the lacklustre efforts of others.

One of these composition techniques is called ‘negative space’. It’s a technique which really helps your subject stand out, or gives it a sense of context or scale.

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In this article we’ll look at some examples of negative space and how you can use this valuable technique to improve the impact your photos have.

What Is ‘Negative Space’?

Essentially, negative space is everything in your photo which isn’t your subject but which is, by comparison, simple, plain or uniform.

Photos which make use of negative space usually include a large plain or textured area which frame or counterbalances the subject. The subject itself is usually kept relatively small in the frame – rarely more than half the size of the frame, but can be as small as you like – and positioned almost anywhere you like.

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Examples of things you could use as negative space are:

  • a large expanse of sky
  • open water (a lake or the sea)
  • a field, grass or other vegetation
  • a painted wall
  • a coloured surface
  • a textured surface
  • fabric

The drama of the snowy scene below is compounded by the ominous white sky which suggests yet more snow to come, and even trickier driving conditions.

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Use Negative Space To Help Your Subject Stand Out

As with most other composition techniques negative space can be used to draw attention to your subject.

Positioning your subject against a busy or cluttered background will make it hard for the viewer to understand what they should be looking at.

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So aim to simplify the scene with a cleaner, simpler background. This can really help your subject stand out far better.

For maximum effect, don’t have your subject too large in the frame. There won’t be enough negative space and the opportunity for added impact will be lost.

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Use Negative Space To Create A Sense Of Scale

One powerful use of Negative Space is to convey a sense of scale. Your subject can be made to appear small or vulnerable when they are dwarfed by their surroundings.

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Even this large hotel looks diminutive under this expansive sky.

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Leave Space For Your Subject To Look Or Move Into

If your subject is pointing, looking or moving in a certain direction, you should create space in your composition for the subject to look or move into. The reason for this is that our natural instinct is to look where the subject is looking or moving towards. Without sufficient space for the viewer’s eye to explore the viewer will feel somewhat restricted.

Of course you can use this to create an image which contains more suspense or tension by having your subject looking or moving out of the frame – leaving the viewer in suspense.

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Give Your Subject Context

Negative space can be used to give your subject context. Find a relatively simple or plain background which tells the viewer something about the environment or setting in which your subject exists.

Use Negative Space As A Geometric Element

If your subject has a geometric shape (however organic or loose) you can complement this shape with negative space.

In the photo below the approximate triangular shape of the grass is counterbalanced by a similarly shaped triangular section of sky.

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Creative positioning of the subject and the inclusion of negative space to fill the rest of the frame can create very striking images.

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In the photo above the tangled rope and flowers are the subject. Cropping in more tightly would have worked but pulling back and shooting at an angle has given a more geometric feel with the rope, flowers and concrete forming one triangle and the negative space of the water below creating a triangular counterbalance.

Negative space can work really well with abstract subjects too. The photo opposite barely has a definable subject – perhaps it’s the fence – but really it’s the sensation of being indoors when it’s raining. The raindrops on the window create our negative space whilst the window, fence and field give us our context.

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Final Thoughts about Negative Space

The hardest part about composition using negative space is resisting the temptation to fill, or nearly fill, the frame with your subject. Of course it’s fine to do this – but to get the best out of negative space ensure you give your subject more room as this will provide more options for increasing the sense of scale or context using your chosen negative space.

You can use negative space in conjunction with other composition techniques – rule of thirds, leading lines, framing etc. – and this will give you endless possibilities to capture your subject in powerful, creative ways.

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In the example above, you can see how negative space can be used in conjunction with the framing composition technique we’ve looked at in a previous article. Rather than filling the frame with our subject, or cropping too tightly, we’ve pulled back a little and allowed the enveloping darkness to frame and exaggerate his isolation.

In the example below we’ve combined two composition techniques. The beach provides us with negative space which exaggerates the distance to the hills beyond. The tire tracks in the sand create leading lines which lead the viewer from the foreground, through our negative space, to the distant hills beyond.

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To recap, to use negative space in your photography, set your subject against a comparatively simple or plain background and don’t fill the frame with your subject. Allow the simple background to take up at least half the frame’s area. Position your subject in the frame to create a sense of scale or context – or both.

Once you start using negative space as a composition tool you’ll find opportunities to use it are all around you and, with practice, your photography will improve.

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