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When learning about photography composition, you may have come across the technique of using negative space. Well, to have negative space in a photo, you also need positive space. Yet, positive space in photography is not discussed as much as negative space.

It’s almost as if by composing with negative space in mind, positive space composition is taken care of. But it’s not. 

Because how you use positive space in photography composition forms the heart of the image, it’s really important to get it right. And that’s what we’ll explore today.

If you’re not familiar with negative space, it might be a good idea to check out our tutorial on it before getting into how it works with positive space.

Further reading: Using negative space in photography composition

1. What is positive space?

Firstly, positive space has nothing to do with being optimistic, or with light and dark. The usual meaning of negative and positive doesn’t apply when we’re talking about space in photography. Neither one is better than the other. They’re simply the two types of space that make up an image.

Positive space in a photo is the subject, or subjects (there doesn’t have to be just one), and other important details that stand out in a photo. It’s the main emphasis of an image, even if it takes up just a small part of the image.

So, naturally, all photos have positive space, because all photos have a subject.

Without a subject, all you have is negative space, in which case, the negative space is the subject and so is actually the positive space. 

So you can have a photo without negative space, for example when you fill the frame with the subject. But you can’t have a photo without positive space.

How to use space in photos

The blue sky is the negative space around the paraglider, the positive space.

2. Using positive space in photography composition

The trick to using positive space in composition is first to decide on what you want to say with your image. 

This is why composition is so important in photography. Knowing how to expose an image or focus on a subject or shoot in manual, is fine, but if you don’t plan the composition of your photo, it will never be a Mona Lisa. It may as well be a stick figure with a blank stare.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get what I mean. Good composition is the secret sauce!

Composition is more than just a practical tool to direct the viewer and help them determine the subject of the photo with techniques such as:

  • leading lines
  • and rule of thirds

It’s also the key ingredient to creating emotion in an image. If an image doesn’t evoke some kind of emotion in the viewer, it will never be a great image.

This is where the use of positive and negative spaces in photography becomes important. How you use space triggers different emotions in photos. 

And we’ll get to the “how to” in just a minute.

Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition

3. What does negative space do in a photograph with positive space?

In a nutshell, the role of negative space is to set the stage for positive space. Because it’s the space around the positive space, it makes the positive space stand out.

  • Positive space is the leading lady/man
  • Negative space is the support act

A lot of negative space in an image creates:

  • A sense of scale – the less negative space there is, the more dominant the subject (positive space) becomes
  • Feelings of tranquility, loneliness, peace, majesty or even being lost

So negative space helps to tell the story, which is why how you frame an image is so important.

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

Using balance of positive space and negative space for storytelling

Although the elephant is the smallest part of the image, it is the subject. The hide window forms a frame within a frame to draw attention to the subject, as does the direction of my fella’s gaze. Blurring the foreground makes creates the negative space around the main subject of the image.

How to create negative space

As I’ve written a tutorial on negative space, I won’t go into detail here, but in summary, negative space can be created with the use of:

  • Actual space – empty space around your subject and where you place your subject in the space
  • Color – a solid patch of color behind the subject
  • Shallow depth of field – create a blurred background behind the subject

Further reading: The easy way to a beautifully blurry background

4. How do you use positive and negative spaces?

While there’s no right or wrong way to combine negative and positive space in photography, it’s an inescapable part of every photo, whether you plan it or not. 

Which is why it’s essential to pay attention to this important composition technique.

Getting into the details of how you use positive and negative space is the fun part, because this is where you get to see how photography composition is actually a way of thinking. It’s a system, a language of visual storytelling, rather than individual concepts applied to a photo. 

No composition technique is more interwoven with other elements of composition than the use of space in photography to tell a story or highlight the message of a photo. 

Here’s why…

How the rule of thirds uses positive space and negative space

Negative space in a photo can give the subject room to breathe if it’s in front of the subject (positive space). Conversely the negative space can box in the subject (positive space) if it is behind the subject, forcing the subject up against or close to the side of the frame. This creates tension.

So, the composition drives home the message of the photo, depending on how you position your subject (positive space) within the frame using the rule of thirds.

Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds, and how easy it is

Negative space behind subject creates tension

In the photo above, the out of focus clock imagery on the pillar behind Helen was my inspiration for theme. Tension is created by placing the negative space behind the subject to underline the message of time running out. Incidentally, this photo was taken during golden hour on the last day of the year, so time was quite literally running out for that year!

Subject has room to breathe with negative space in front

For this image, shot in the opposite direction, a little earlier I placed Helen to the right of the frame looking into space on the left, giving her room to breathe within the composition. The out of focus triumphant figure on the pillar in the background and the light of the setting sun adds to the positive emotion in this image, making it very different from the one above.

Balance in photography composition

When both negative space and positive space are equal, there is balance. Imbalance can introduce tension.

Visual weight

Balance in an image is affected by how much positive space versus negative space is used, because negative space, like positive space, has visual weight.

The more positive space you add to an image, the bigger the negative space will be and vice versa. The bigger element will hold more visual weight.

A human being seems puny when photographed at the base of a vast mountain in the background.

Further reading: Essential tips for creating balance in composition

Color or black and white

Color, or the lack of it, can also impact on the balance between positive and negative space.

A black and white image, stripped of busy color, becomes about shape, tone and light. This can change the relationship between subject and background, as well as the feeling in the image.

Further reading: 

Black and white photography tips for beginners

Using color in photography composition for standout photos

5. Filling the frame with positive space

The same subject can evoke different emotions depending on how the positive space and negative space are used in an image. So, how you fill, or don’t fill, the frame changes the feeling of a photo.

Filling the frame with positive space of several similarly shaped or colored objects, an order or pattern could emerge, which feels calm. Such as a:

  • grocer’s stand of fruit
  • traffic jam on a highway viewed from above

Further reading: 

Fill the frame for photos with impact – how, when, why

Pattern in photography composition makes photos interesting

Filling the frame with positive space of a lot of random objects will make the image feel very busy, such as:

  • crowded, pedestrian filled sidewalks
  • a flock of birds in flight

The same subjects can feel small and vulnerable when there’s just one in frame. So, a small positive space surrounded by a vast negative space, such as:

  • just one person in the distance on an empty sidewalk
  • one bird flying across a vast, cloudless sky

Yet, having only one subject in frame doesn’t necessarily create vulnerability as the emotion is changed by how much the positive space fills the frame. So with very little negative space a positive space that’s not busy, but fills the frame can bring simplicity and minimalism to the image. Photographing either the pedestrian or the bird close up, filling the frame, will change the feeling completely.

Further reading: How to use simplicity in photography composition

Bad framing makes the subject lose impact

These two photos of a baby elephant suckling were taken seconds apart and demonstrate how the use of positive space and negative space makes all the difference to a photo. In the photo below, I cut out all negative space by filling the frame with the subject. I also converted the image to black and white to further reduce any distractions from the positive space.

Fill the frame with positive space for simplicity in composition

6. Positive and negative space exercise

The best way to see the impact of positive and negative space in photography is to revisit old photos and look at them with fresh eyes. 

Try different crops to see how the framing impacts the:

  • dominance of the subject
  • feeling of the photo

Maybe you’ll come up with a stronger composition that might have been missing before. Or maybe it’s just different. 

Either way, with this simple exercise, you’ll learn a lot about how the use of space evokes emotion.

7. Wrapping up positive space in photography composition

So, the magic lies in how you use the negative space and positive space within your composition.

Learning the language of composition unlocks the richness of storytelling and takes your photography to the next level.

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