what is negative space in photography

Written by
Kevin LJ, Professional Photographer

Reviewed by
Chris Johnson, TPG Editor

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What is Negative Space in Photography?

Negative space in photography is the composition area surrounding your main subject(s). How you arrange the elements within the four edges of your frame determines how people view your photos. You can use negative space to enhance your subject and control how it interacts with everything else in your frame.

Whether you're just starting as a photographer or have some experience already, it's good to know how to use negative space best. Photography composition has many rules. How well you apply the rules determines how much attention a viewer gives to your images.

Intentionally creating space in a photo can serve to guide a viewer's eye toward your subject. The subject's relationship with the empty negative space can provide the right balance for composition and strengthen it. To fill your frame well, it does not need to be cluttered.

Negative space photography provides the viewer's eyes with breathing room—a place to rest. Keep reading to discover how you can use negative space to enhance your photographs positively.

Source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1461468611824-46457c0e11fd?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=1170&q=80

Source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1461468611824-46457c0e11fd?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=1170&q=80

Why Include Negative Space in Photography Compositions?

Negative space photography can create much more interesting compositions. If you always aim to pack your frame with the main subject, you'll often miss showing the subject's relationship with the surrounding area. You can use negative space in an image to help fill the photo.

Filling the frame is one key photography composition technique. When you ensure that whatever is included in your photo is relevant, your pictures are stronger. Eliminating distracting elements is essential. How you do this can include techniques such as:

  • Carefully choosing the camera angle
  • Adjusting your camera settings
  • Using a shallow depth of field
  • Adjusting focal length
  • And other techniques

Negative space helps create alternative compositions that help hold a viewer's attention. The main subject does not always need to be the dominant focal point. The key is to balance positive and negative space and make stunning images. 

Including negative space in a photo is an excellent tool to add feelings to an image, especially to portraits. A carefully chosen camera angle, a wider aperture setting, and white space can bring emotion to a face or even to a silhouette.

How negative space is used in a photo can add drama or make a picture feel more mellow. The interaction between positive space and the area surrounding it can provoke tension in a photograph. How you manage this depends on the intention you have for your photograph. 

Think about why you include negative space and how negative space affects your main subjects. This is important in making balanced compositions.

rocks with negative space in photography

Source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1536623975707-c4b3b2af565d?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=1170&q=80

What’s the Difference Between Positive and Negative Space in Photography?

Positive space in a photo is the main subject, and anything else that catches your eye. Negative space in photographic composition is everything else. It might be:

  • A blurred background
  • An empty sky, sea, or field
  • A blank wall
  • Even a very busy background

How you photograph negative space to make your subject stand out is as important as how you focus on your main subject.

When negative space contains distracting features, the other objects pull a viewer's eyes away. It's essential for the viewer to enjoy the empty, but at the same time, it's just as important to have everything in the photo work together and for the main focus to remain on the subject. 

New photographers often leave negative spaces in their images because they don't pay enough attention to the whole image. They are looking only at the main subject and fail to notice distracting features. These other objects mainly fall into the category of positive space rather than create negative space. Using negative space is only a powerful technique when it is used intentionally.

More experienced photographers sometimes don't use negative space effectively. It's easy to become comfortable with certain fixed rules that you love to compose by. But don't forget to use negative space to create more interesting portraits, still-life images, or street photography. Negative space can be used in so many different ways to help create more of a sense of atmosphere in photography.

negative space in photo streets

Source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1507215487789-6f9492e16a88?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=1170&q=80

How Can You Balance Negative and Positive Space in Photography?

You can use a wide range of photography techniques to render any element in a photograph as positive or negative space. Using a wide aperture is one of the most popular ways to eliminate a cluttered background and avoid too much positive space. 

Strong vertical or horizontal lines used well will enhance a subject and separate it from the negative space. Camera orientation and lens focal length are other ways you can affect the balance between positive and negative space.

Why is the way you include negative space important to a composition? 

Like any photography composition rule, it is best to use only when it works to enhance your subject. If you go looking for a subject to apply a fixed rule to, you'll often end up with an out-of-balance composition. 

The best way to learn to balance positive and negative space and any other composition technique is to practice. The more you practice, the more of a sense you'll develop for when to use a technique. You'll reach a point where you instinctively know which of the elements in your frame will be best as positive space. You'll know what areas are more effective as negative space.

Always look for more ways to view a subject than the first angle you think of. This will help you refinance your eye for using negative space and creating a balanced composition. Sometimes the more negative space you can include in an image, the more interesting it will be.

negative space photography - ferris wheel with sky

Source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1476036604315-fed0874dfd55?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=687&q=80

What's the Best Way to Use Negative Space in Photographic Composition?

As a photographer, your intention for the images you create is vital to how interesting they will be. Anyone can take a snapshot of an interesting subject. But a good photographer will make a subject stand out. Often this depends a lot on how well they manage the negative space in the composition.

When you want a light, happy photo, but the background is chaotic or dark, you may want all of your composition to be positive space. If your intention is to show how insignificant your main subject is to the background, you'll want to use negative space to fill most of your frame. Negative space photography is strongest when it's used intentionally.

One of the most common portrait photography mistakes I see is unintentional negative space left above a person's head. Think about this when you're looking at portrait photos, and you'll understand what I mean. It's a very common problem.

It's not very often that a portrait is made more interesting by leaving lots of headroom. The space is empty, but it does not aid the portrait composition in any way. It's there because the photographer has aimed the center of their lens at the person's face while holding the camera vertically.

The best way to use negative space in a portrait is to orient your camera horizontally and leave space to one side of your subject. If they're looking away from the camera, there's an unwritten rule that you should include the negative space in the direction they are looking. This creates an implied line from their eyes leading into the negative space. But you don't have to.

However you choose to include negative space in your photography, do so intentionally. As you line up a composition, look at the edges and corners of your viewfinder. Take stock of what's there and make the most of it. Either as a positive space you want people to notice or as a negative space that has no significance other than to help balance your composition.

negative space - portrait  thailand

Source: https://www.kevinlj.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Karen-Men-Portrait-Thailand-KevinLJ.jpg

Is Negative Space Always Empty Space?

Negative space is not always empty, but it often is. How you manage your exposure settings, focus, timing, and other techniques can render a busy background as negative space.

The relationship between the negative space and the other elements in the picture is key in negative space photography. Sure, negative spaces are frequently empty spaces. But how you manage your camera's settings, framing, and timing affects how busy areas you see in the viewfinder look in your photos. Even the busiest of scenes can be photographed in such a way that much of the photo contains negative space. 

negative space photography - hot air balloon

Source: https://www.kevinlj.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Cappadocia-Balloons-KevinLJ.jpg

The hot air balloon in this photo is surrounded by the amazing rock formations of the Cappadocia landscape. The balloon is my main subject; the landscape is all negative space, even though it contains so much texture and so many features. The color contrast between the subject and the rest of the image helps enhance it.

Conclusion on Negative Space Photography

Every time you take a photo, your intention is key to how much impact the photo has. 

To create negative space with intention balances the main subject of your photo with the rest of the image. Unintentional negative space left in photos will not capture the interest of viewers. Be conscious of how you arrange the elements in your picture and adjust your camera's settings. These things determine how successful negative space in a photograph is.

Practice taking photos that include negative space. Think about how your main subject relates to the space that it's in. Each time you find an interesting subject, photograph it in a variety of ways. Crop in tight for some. Leave plenty of space around it in others. Always look for alternative angles to take pictures from. Don't only take a photo from the first angle you see a subject from.

Make choices about what lens you use - how you frame your subject and what other camera settings you adjust to can help you capture the most interesting negative space in your pictures.

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