How to use negative space photography composition effectively

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 in photography composition?

Negative space is the area around your subject. It’s the empty space in a photograph, also known as white space. The subject is the positive space in an image.

When you photograph 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.

Negative space is one of four types of space of the rule of space composition. The others are:

  • Positive space
  • Active space
  • Dead space

negative space used for strong photography composition

So, you need to decide:

  • What purpose that negative space is serving
  • Why do you want negative space
  • What are you photographing

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

Another reason to love photography… negatives are a good thing!


Turning a negative into a positive

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

  • Allows your subject room to breathe
  • Creates a space for text – think magazines, blogs and social media adverts
  • Simplifies your image

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

Photography composition ebook

1. Negative space composition allows room to breathe

Allowing your subject room to breathe, creates a calming image. Sometimes it drives a message home, for example by making the subject seem more isolated or alone.

How you use negative space says a lot about the image. For example:

  • Is your subject looking into the negative space (in which case it’s the active space in the image),
  • or is the negative space behind them (in which case it’s the dead space)

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 them feels claustrophobic.

From a positive point of view, your subject can look at peace, restful and free if they’ve got oodles of negative space to wander into in front of them.

Further reading: Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition

2. Negative space gives the viewer the space to imagine

If you stuff an image full 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 above 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 improve on my first shot. 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 emphasize the big barren space.

3. Negative space leaves room 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 (also called white 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 in popularity of flat lay photography 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 negative space for text.

4. Simplicity in composition

The last effect of negative space in composition, which is compositional simplicity, fits in with the minimalist style that’s current in all aspects of life these days.

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 why you should compose with negative space

By concentrating on using negative space and combining it with other compositional techniques, you’ll 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.

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