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Composition: negative space

How often in life is a negative a good thing? Not often, but in photography it is. Even in the digital age where we no longer deal in film negatives. To be exact, negative space in photography composition is a good thing.

What is negative space?

Negative space is the area around your subject. It is the empty space in a photograph. The subject is the positive space.

When you shoot with negative space in mind, your composition is based largely on the negative space and not the subject. You place your subject according to where you want your negative space to be. So, you need to decide first what purpose that negative space is serving. Why do you want it and what are you photographing?

Sounds complicated, but as with all things photography related, it is easy once you get into the hang of thinking about it… and examples always make it easier to understand. So, lets have a look at a few.

Turning a negative into a positive

Creating negative space in your images serves several objectives, depending on the purpose or message of the image. Negative space:

  • Allows your subject room to breathe.
  • Creates a space for text – think magazines and blogs.
  • Simplifies your image.

Let’s look at these 3 positives of negative space in photography composition.

1. Room to breathe

Allowing your subject room to breathe, creates a calming image. Sometimes it can also drive a message home, make the subject seem more isolated, alone.

How you use that negative space says a lot about the image. For example, is your subject looking into the negative space, or is the negative space behind them? If it’s behind them, it breaks the composition rule that you should allow space for your subject to move into. However, if your message is that the subject is feeling frustrated, boxed in or without choice, using negative space behind your subject highlights the feeling of claustrophobia.

Or, from a positive point of view, your subject can look at peace, restful and free if they have the oodles of negative space to wander into in front of them.

Negative space allows the viewer the space to imagine. If you stuff an image full to the brim, with distractions in every sector of the image, it keeps the viewer very busy. Sometimes, that’s what you want. However, sometimes you want to give your viewer the ability to let their imagine roam, to be in the photo, or to rest peacefully while taking in your image.

no negative space used in composition I grabbed this shot of my besties really quickly - it was a cute moment and I didn't want to miss it. I paid no attention to composition, so it's just a snapshot of a happy memory.

Negative space in photography composition

They were having a chat and a giggle, taking shade in the heat of the Namibian desert. So, I had time to react. I quickly recomposed and incorporated negative space to show them in their surroundings. If I’d had longer I would have dropped to my knees and shot from a low angle to really emphasise the big barren space.

2. Space for text

We’re all so familiar with our second reason – creating space for text. In fact, we’re so used to seeing negative space filled with text that we don’t even notice it anymore.

Flick through any magazine to see the technique being used to advertise a product. When something is photographed to be sold, the photographer must bear in mind the need to create space within the image for text.

Negative space used for text in advertising

The rise and popularity of flat lays is a clear example of the Instagram / Pinterest / blogging world adopting advertising techniques to draw in readers. We all know that in social media images are essential to grab your reader’s attention in a sea of posts. A flat lay is an attractive arrangement of objects that tells a story and is most often created with the intention of leaving space for text.

3. Simplicity in composition

The last reason, which is simplicity, fits in with the minimalism style that is current in all aspects of life these days, particularly with millennials.

In order to have a clutter free photograph, you need negative space. This will draw the eye directly to your subject and create strong composition.

Minimalist photography composition with negative space

An example of how using negative space and minimalist design to create, in this case, a simple, eye catching maternity image that stands out from the crowd.

Last words on negative space

By concentrating on using negative space in your composition you will improve your photography immensely. When you concentrate on negative space, every element in your image becomes important, so you start to become very intentional in your composition. Becoming intentional is when you start to make a photograph, not just take a photograph.

Another reason to love photography... negatives are a good thing!Click To Tweet

But wait there’s more…

If you learnt something about negative space in photography composition, you’re going to love the other 18 photography composition tips covered in 19 Photography Composition Tips to be Awesome

If you’re struggling to get to grips with the negative space, you can be sure that many others are struggling too. Please share your questions and/or struggles below and we’ll give you some help.

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