Using positive space in photography composition

Space is an important element of design in photography composition, but most of us learn about negative space long before we encounter positive space. Well, to have negative space in a photo, you also need positive space. The thing is that positive space is the main subject of an image and can also be other important elements that stand out, so it’s obviously really important. Yet, positive space in photography is not discussed as much as negative space.

You’d think that composing with negative space in mind, takes care of positive space composition. But there’s more to it than that. 

1. What is positive space?

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. Positive space and negative space are simply two of of the four types of space that make up an image.

The other two are dead space and active space composition.

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 is therefore actually the positive space.

So you can have a photo without negative space, for example when you fill the frame with the subject as then there are no empty areas. But you can’t have a photo without positive space.

Child is positive space in strawberry patch

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

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

2. Using positive space in photography composition

The trick to using positive space as a compositional technique is first to decide on what you want to say with your image.

This is why photography composition is so important. Knowing how to expose an image or focus on a subject or photograph in manual, is fine, but if you don’t plan the composition of your photo, it’ll never reach its full potential.

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

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

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 won’t engage the viewer nearly as much.

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.

Paraglider flying showing direction of subject moving into space in photo

Here’s a good example of how to use positive space. The blue sky is the negative space around the paraglider, who is the positive space.

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 empty space around the positive space, it makes the positive space stand out.

  • Positive space is the leading lady/man and can also be other important and eye catching elements
  • Negative space is the support act

A lot of negative space in an image creates:

  • A sense of scale – the less negative space (empty areas) 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

Elephant is the small active space viewed through window of elephant hide

Although the elephant is the smallest part of the image, it’s clearly 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. 

How to create negative space

As I’ve written a full 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 areas 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 the rule of 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 breathing room if it’s in front of the subject (active space). If the subject is moving, allowing space in front of a moving subject to move into also gives them room to breathe. As a general rule of composition, this would be considered good composition.

Conversely negative space can box in the subject (positive space) if it’s behind the subject (dead space), forcing the subject up against or close to the side of the frame. This creates tension. So, if tension is your aim, this would be the correct use of active space and negative space. However, most of the time we don’t want to create tension in portrait photography.

So, the composition drives home the message of the photo, depending on the position and direction of the subject of the photograph (positive space) within the frame using the rule of thirds.

Woman on a stormy day looking to edge of frame

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, left of the image, 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 looking into space in portrait

For this image, photographed 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

Well-balanced compositions are when negative space and positive space are used to create harmony in an image. Imbalance can introduce tension.

Visual weight

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

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

For example, a human being seems puny when photographed at the base of a vast mountain filling the background.

Color or black and white

Color in photography composition, 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. The resulting emphasis on tonal balance can change the relationship between subject and background, as well as the feeling in the image.


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 several active elements of 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

Filling the frame with active space of a lot of random objects creates a crowded composition and makes 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 taking up a small part of the photo. 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 emotional feel of a photo is affected by how much positive space fills the frame. So with very little negative space 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, would change the feeling completely.

Example of active space and negative space in photography

I took these two photos of a baby elephant suckling seconds apart and they 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 for a composition simplicity and to 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, particularly when there’s a sense of movement in the image 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 (a lot of empty space vs a little space) evokes emotion.

7. Wrapping up positive space in photography composition

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

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

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about positive space in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my positive and negative space tips have helped you to understand how space affects composition, share that too.

2 thoughts on “Using positive space in photography composition”

  1. Interesting take on a main subject. In any class on composition, that is what is discussed, the main subject. Negative space is pointed out but not in the relationship of the two. I believe that thinking in positive/negative space makes the subject and importance of the two more visible.

  2. I love the way you get into the nitty-gritty of composition. So for you writing composition is the negative space and your photographic focus is the positive space,
    or something like that. Thank you. I wish you well. Almost forgot the check mark below.


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