Photography Composition

Negative Space in Photography

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Written By Nate Torres

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about negative space in photography.

I’ll be covering what negative space is, why it’s important, ways you can use negative space in your photos, and lots more.

Let’s dive in!

What is Negative Space in Photography?

At its core, negative space photography is all about the interaction between your subject—the positive space—and the rest of the image, i.e., the negative space.

Imagine looking at a photo where your apple pie is the main subject.

In negative space photography, we’re not only focusing on your pie but also on the empty space around it.

That open space is your negative space.

This technique is all about creating a relationship and a sense of balance between the two.

A great analogy would be a dance duet. While the dancers (the subjects) grab your attention with their movements, it’s the empty stage around them (the negative space) that allows you to truly focus on their performance without distraction.

For best results, the negative space should occupy at least half the battlefield. Picture a seesaw.

If the main subject is on one end, the negative space should be hefty enough to keep things balanced on the other.

That’s how you create that harmonious equilibrium in your shot.

In negative space photography, the possibilities are vast for the forms it might take.

It could be a solid black background that makes a white product pop, a tranquil expanse of a desert sand dune complementing a solitary camel, or perhaps even an array of fluffy clouds that act as the perfect canvas for a solitary kite.

The way you use this “void” plays a huge role in setting the mood for your photo and directs the viewer’s eye to your main subject.

Think about shadows and lighting, too. Just like a magician uses a distraction to execute his magic trick subtly, you can use these elements to make your subject stand out.

Shadows can darken areas, making them recede into the background, steering the viewer’s eyes towards the brighter subject.

And guess what? You can use negative space photography across a plethora of subjects, from a plate of steaming hot momos to a chic dress hanging on a rack, or even a gritty street shot in a bustling city.

Remember, no rules are set in stone with negative space photography.

It’s all about practising, being mindful, and letting your creativity fly high, while gently guiding the viewer’s gaze towards your chosen subject.

negative space example
negative space example

How to Use Negative Space In Photography

Here are some tips for using negative space in photography:

1. Keep it Simple

The first tip when using negative space in photography is to keep it simple.

Negative space is all about having an image that is simple and uncluttered.

With that being said, you’ll want to opt for a clean and unobtrusive background that doesn’t distract your viewer from your main subject.

2. Balance and Composition

The second tip when using negative space in photography is to pay attention to your balance between negative space and the subject.

I recommend using another compositional technique such as the rule of thirds alongside negative space so you can create a harmonious and visually appealing arrangement.

negative space and rule of thirds
negative space and rule of thirds

You can also consider how you frame your composition and pair that with negative space for an aesthetic image.

For example, seascape photo with the horizon placed along the lower third of the frame, leaving a vast expanse of empty sky above and the ocean below.

3. Use Negative Space to Highlight Subject

The third tip when using negative space in photography is to use it to highlight your subject.

As mentioned earlier, negative space is a great technique to use to draw attention to your main subject.

Let’s say you have a frame that has elements of both business and isolation.

You can place your subject in the part of the frame where there’s plenty of empty space around them, this way your viewer’s eyes will be naturally draw to them.

For example, A lone tree in a field of snow, with the tree positioned in the lower-right corner of the frame, emphasizing the vast empty space of the snowy field.

4. Contrast

The fourth tip when using negative space in photography is to consider a contrast between your subject and the background.

I’ve found negative space often works best when there is a strong contrast between your subject and their background.

This contrast can be in terms of color (such as complementary colors), brightness, or texture.

For example, a dark subject against a light background or vice versa.

negative space and contrast
negative space and contrast

5. Simplify the Story

The fifth tip when using negative space in photography is to use it to simplify the story.

Great photographs tell a story, and negative space is a great technique to help you simplify your storytelling in your images.

By eliminating distractions and focusing on the essentials, you can convery stronger messages in your photographs.

For example, a close-up of a child’s hand holding a ladybug, with a simple, blurred green background, focusing solely on the innocence and wonder of childhood.

6. Leading Lines

The sixth tip when using negative space in photography is to use leading lines as well.

Negative space can be used with leading lines to guide your viewer’s eyes toward your subject.

These lines can be formed by elements in the background or simply by the way you position your subject in the frame.

For example, a winding road leading through a desert landscape, with the road forming a leading line through the vast negative space of the desert.

negative space and leading lines
negative space and leading lines

7. Experiment with Different Ratios

The seventh tip when using negative space in photography is to experiment with different ratios.

Think about the ratio between subject and negative space. The most common ratio is a 1:1 ratio of subject to negative space.

I recommend trying different ratios to see what works best for your particular shot.

Sometimes, a small subject in a vast sea of negatiev space can be more impactful that a 1:1 ratio.

For example, a solitary hiker on a mountain ridge, with the hiker occupying only a small portion of the frame, emphasizing the vastness of the mountainous landscape.

And the beauty of today’s photography and editing softwares, is that you can choose to capture an image that has a small subject in a lot of negative space, and then crop in if you want to increase the ratio.

With that being said, I recommend capturing a from with a larger ratio of negative space to subject, and then cropping in post-processing if you want a more even ratio.

Why is Negative Space Photography Important?

The importance of negative space photography lies in its ability to emphasize and dramatically highlight the subject.

Think about it like being in a packed room where everyone is talking at the same time. It would be hard to focus, right?

That’s what it’s like for your subject when there are too many elements in your shot.

Negative space photography removes that noise, that chatter, and allows your subject to breathe freely and shine, just like the star of the show should.

Taking up at least half the photo, the negative space brings balance to your composition, like a perfectly balanced seesaw.

Remember, photography is an art form. As a painter uses brush strokes, the photographer uses light and shadow to paint the picture.

By manipulating light and depth of field, you can use negative space to guide your viewer’s eye to the main subject, just like the beam of a flashlight in a dark room.

Have you ever acted on a stage? If you have, you’ll understand that you’re not the only one on the stage, even in a solo performance.

It’s the same with your main subject, where the backdrop plays a crucial role in setting the tone of the performance and drawing the focus back to you.

Negative space photography is invaluable in evoking emotions. Depending on how you use it, it can evoke feelings of isolation, like a single tree in a vast desert, relaxation like floating on calm waters, or even contemplation, like a solitary figure against a sunset.

Practicing negative space photography is also an excellent way to improve your overall composition skills.

Now, there are no hard and fast rules to it, but just like learning to ride a bike, it gets easier and your intuition sharper with practice and experience.

Where Can Negative Space Photography Be Used?

Where can negative space photography be used, you ask? Well, I’m glad you’re inquisitive because the answer is nearly everywhere. From a high-fashion magazine to your very own Instagram feed, the art of negative space has a place in several photography genres.

1. Food Photography

Let’s talk about food photography for starters.

Picture a scrumptious chocolate cake nestled in the middle of an expanse of white porcelain plate, or even better, imagine an overhead shot of breakfast with a lone cup of coffee standing out against an expansive wooden table.

The negative space could be anything – a solid background, a wide stretch of sky, or even desert sands.

Sound enticing? That’s negative space for you, drawing your eyes straight to the subject!

negative space and food photography
negative space and food photography

2. Fashion Photography

Just as patterns and cuts are paramount in fashion, so is negative space in fashion photography.

It can enhance the appeal of the clothing, the model, and the very essence of the brand.

The emptiness around the model creates a mystique and gets you to focus on the central theme: the fashion.

negative space and fashion photography
negative space and fashion photography

3. Street Photography

Not to mention, it can add layers of depth and story to your street photography.

Negative space here might be a bustling crowd or aged buildings flanking a lonesome lamppost; it tells – no, whispers – countless tales.

4. Portrait Photography

Likewise, it plays an integral role in portrait photography by adding emotion, often amplifying the subject’s expressions.

negative space and portrait photography
negative space and portrait photography

5. Product Photography

And let’s not forget product photography! It’s like showroom of elegance, where the product is the star, and the negative space is the discreet spotlight.

It breathes life into the inanimate and incidentally, is an effective marketing strategy.

negative space and product photography
negative space and product photography

Who Can Benefit From Negative Space Photography?

Who can benefit from negative space photography? The answer is manifold – from professional photographers to aspiring hobbyists, businesses, artists, and even social media influencers.

Anyone who wants their visuals to make a strong, emotive impact can extract immense value from mastering this technique.

1. New Photographers

Suppose you’re a budding photographer experimenting with different composition strategies.

In that case, negative space can be your secret weapon. Remember the last time you saw a picture of a tiny sailboat floating on an expansive ocean?

The overwhelming vacancy around the sailing ship pushes the boat into the spotlight.

This is the part of the photo that jumps out at you – the effect created by negative space.

2. Business Owners

Now, let’s say you’re a business owner planning a product shoot. As you’ve gotten into the groove, you’ve realized that your products tend to get lost in busy backgrounds.

What if you started using solid backgrounds, much like a desert landscape – silent, serene, yet powerful.

This is where negative space photography comes in.

It extracts the noise to emphasize what really matters. As a result, your product gets all the attention it deserves.

3. Fashion Photographers

Fashion photographers, too, can greatly benefit from this technique. Imagine shooting a minimalistic portrait where the model populates only a small portion of the frame amidst a large, empty backdrop.

The attention naturally gravitates to the model. The simplistic yet powerful appeal of negative space can evoke strong emotions, eliciting a profound impact that turns heads and touches hearts.

4. Graphic Designers

Visual artists and graphic designers who are called upon to demonstrate high levels of creativity every day can make excellent use of negative space.

An artist dabbling with paints on a canvas could leave significant areas untouched and unpainted – metaphorically acting as breathing space allowing the subject or the theme of the artwork to stand out.

Logos, for instance, can be more interesting with clever use of negative spaces, like having an arrow hidden between the letters ‘E’ and ‘x’ in FedEx.

5. Social Media Influencers

If you’re a social media influencer looking to increase your visual thumb-stopping power on Instagram, negative space photography can help you stand out in the crowded world of feeds and Stories.

It’s akin to a person whispering in a crowd – you strangely tend to pay more attention to them amidst all the noise.

In essence, folks, learning to ’embrace the empty’ could be the game-changer you’ve been waiting for.

While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on the ‘nothingness’ in a photo, it’s the negative space that frequently makes a picture stand out. It’s like yin and yang – they complete each other.

When Did Negative Space Photography Become Popular?

This is one of those tricky questions that invite us down the beautiful rabbit hole of photography history.

Truth be told, the use of negative space has been an influential part of art, design, and photography for centuries.

It doesn’t necessarily have a specific date when suddenly everyone declared, “We are all about negative space now!”

The popularity of negative space likely grew in tandem with the evolution of minimalist styles that gained traction in the 20th century.

The less is more approach became somewhat of a revolution across art forms, including photography.

The advent of digital photography and sophisticated post-processing tools in the 21st century, such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, significantly increased the use and popularity of negative space.

Photographers could now easily manipulate images to eliminate distracting elements, enhancing the appeal of negative space and its capacity to convey potent and varied emotions.

What is the rule of space vs negative space?

The rule of space in photography involves giving the subject or the main element in the frame enough visual space to move or look into, while negative space is the area surrounding the subject, which complements and emphasizes the subject by creating a balanced and harmonious composition.

Is negative space good in photography?

Yes, negative space can be a powerful and effective tool in photography, as it helps emphasize the subject, simplifies compositions, and adds depth and visual interest to the image.