Negative space in photography is a fantastic composition technique, one that allows you to create eye-catching, pop-off-the-page type shots that really captivate the viewer.
But what actually counts as negative space? And what are some simple ways you can use negative space for great results?
That’s what I’m going to share with you in this article.
By the time you’re done, you’ll be a negative space expert–and you’ll be able to confidently work with negative space, no matter your photographic subjects.
Let’s dive right in.
What Is Negative Space in Photography?
If you want to create beautiful compositions that use negative space, you must know exactly what you’re working with.
You see, negative space is actually very simple:
It refers to areas of your photo that are empty.
Now, I don’t mean empty in the strictest sense; pretty much every part of a photo includes something.
But when photos have lots of negative space, it’s as if they’re mostly made up of nothing, because the composition includes a lot of sky, or open water, or grass.
For instance, here’s an example of a photo that’s full of negative space:
Do you see what I mean about key areas including nothing at all? The sky is just an empty stretch–and that’s the negative space that I’m talking about.
Note that what counts as negative space often changes depending on your main subject. If you’re photographing a field of grass at sunset, then the grass will be a positive part of your composition, rather than negative space.
But if you’re photographing a person in front of a field of grass, the person will often act as the positive subject, while the grass around the person will serve as negative space.
Here’s another example of a photo that uses negative space to great effect:
It’s very captivating, right? Negative space in that minimalistic style is a very popular composition technique these days–it’s very modern–especially among black and white photographers.
Though plenty of social-media focused photographers also love minimalism and its use of negative space, because it’s an easy way to catch the viewer’s attention as they scroll down the page.
But what’s so great about negative space? Do you need to have it in all of your photos?
Why Should You Include Negative Space in Your Photos?
Most great photos have negative space of some kind.
And here’s why:
Negative space helps emphasize your subject, which is the focal point of your image.
Negative space allows your subject to breathe, while also compelling the viewer to look toward the subject, rather than away from it.
As I said, most photos include negative space of some sort, but it’s possible to include a lot of negative space, like this:
Or a little negative space, like this:
Do you see how negative space helps both of the images displayed above? In the first photo, it draws the eye straight toward the main subject. And in the second photo, it keeps the shot from feeling too cramped, while helping to frame the subject for a pleasing shot.
How to Create Amazing Compositions Using Negative Space
Using negative space is actually quite easy, once you get the hang of it.
While there are hundreds of possible ways to use negative space in your photos, here are just a few techniques for working with negative space:
Negative Space and Minimalism
As I mentioned above, minimalism is a very popular photographic technique that relies heavily on negative space.
But what actually is minimalism?
Well, minimalism uses lots of negative space, generally with a subject or two that’s small in the frame.
Minimalist photography is very eye-catching, because the negative space moves the eye straight toward the subject.
And minimalist photography tends to give a very atmospheric, airy feel to your images, because the image includes so little something, and so much nothing.
If you want to capture beautiful minimalist images, I recommend you start by finding a subject, something that you can place small in the frame.
Position the subject carefully–the rule of thirds is your friend here, though you can also rely on the golden ratio grid, or you can experiment with placing your main subject below or above the rule of thirds gridlines.
Finally, make sure that there are zero distractions in the shot. Because negative space moves the eye toward anything positive, the tiniest distraction can ruin a minimalist composition.
Once all distractions are removed…
…then take your shot!
The Rule of Space
The rule of space is a broadly applicable technique, used for composing shots that have either moving subjects or gazing subjects.
Let me explain:
Whenever a subject is moving in the frame, viewers are able to sense its direction. And they want to see where the subject is going.
According to the rule of space, you must include negative space in front of a moving subject, so that the photo feels dynamic rather than cramped.
So if you were to photograph a moving car, you’d need to shoot it like this:
With space in front of the headlights.
And if you were to photograph a bird in flight, you’d need to shoot it like this:
With space for it to “fly” into.
That said, there’s another aspect to the rule of space, which I mentioned above:
You must also put space in front of a gazing subject.
This may sound complex, but it’s really not. Simply recognize when a subject has a gaze (i.e., the subject is looking in some direction).
And put space for the subject to look into.
That way, the viewer is able to follow the subject’s eyeline and see what they see (which is very satisfying overall).
Note that this is relevant for photos of people, but also for photos of animals; wildlife photographers use the rule of space all the time to compose images of bears, seals, birds, and more.
Negative Space and Scale
Here’s a key benefit of negative space:
The more negative space you show in relation to your subject, the smaller the subject feels (and the bigger the negative-space-filled surroundings feel).
Now, this is obviously a problem if you’re trying to show a subject that looms large in the frame. Here, you might want to choose a tight composition that includes less negative space and far more positive space.
But if you’re aiming to create a sense of scale, where the subject feels tiny in comparison to the surrounding environment, then adding lots of negative space is the way to go.
Include Positive Space and Negative Space, Together
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it really is important:
Images should never be made up of only negative space.
Instead, the best compositions use negative space and positive space together to create a compelling result.
Now, I’ve mentioned positive space a few times in this article, but it’s worth clearly defining it:
Positive space refers to areas that have something going on in them.
In other words, positive space is the direct opposite of negative space.
A key part of any photo’s positive space should be the subject, which should be the focal point of the image.
And there should also be some negative space, which–as previously discussed–gives the subject room to breathe, while drawing attention to that same subject.
Contrast the Subject With the Negative Space
The more similar the negative space is to the positive space…
…the more difficult it’ll be to create a compelling image.
You see, you generally want your positive space to contrast heavily with the negative space.
So if you have a tiny person in the frame wearing a dark coat, you’ll want your negative space to be nice and bright; that way, the tiny person pops off the page, and is clearly separate from the negative space.
A big problem is when the subject is so similar to the negative space that you can’t easily distinguish the two.
(For instance, if you were to photograph a white flower against a white background.)
And while you can create interesting artistic effects by defining a white shape surrounded by white negative space, the results can be disastrous if you’re not careful.
When to Avoid Negative Space in Photography
I’ve said that you should almost always include negative space in your photos.
But there is one time when it’s okay to avoid negative space completely:
When you’re creating an abstract, textured image.
This type of image doesn’t rely on negative space, but instead is full of positive space, and offers a very energetic, dynamic feel.
You can create such a shot out of nature or out of the human environment, and it can give you extremely unique results.
In fact, because photographers are so deeply obsessed with negative space, an image that includes zero negative space is often very shocking and original.
Negative Space in Photography: The Next Step
Negative space is an essential compositional element that you should always be aware of, and you should never ignore.
In fact, if you’re struggling with negative space, it pays to carefully identify the negative space in your composition before hitting the shutter button.
That way, you can create a balanced composition, one that includes both positive space and negative space together.
Negative space refers to empty areas of a photo–areas where the eye rests, and doesn’t really take anything in. Negative space generally balances out positive space in an image, which are areas that have lots of weight and attract the eye.
Note that negative space does have weight, but it takes a lot of negative space to balance out a small portion of positive space.
Positive space is the area of a photo that stands out, that has weight, and that draws the eye. It’s the area of a photo where something is happening, compositionally speaking. Pretty much every photo requires positive space of some kind, though you can experiment with including more or less positive space (as well as more or less negative space!).
Negative space allows the eye to rest, and it also helps your main subject (the positive space) to stand out. You can create very atmospheric, minimalistic compositions by including lots of negative space, so negative space is also a good way to create airier, unusual photos.
Most of the time, negative space is a good thing, because it helps your main subject to breathe. However, there are times when you can get rid of negative space completely, especially if you’re after a more abstract image that’s meant to really pop off the page.
That depends on the type of photo you’re aiming to create! Lots of negative space results in an atmospheric, minimalistic effect, which can be nice, but isn’t always the goal. Sometimes, you might want to create a more intense, in-your-face image, in which case you’ll want to use very little negative space! And if you’re after an abstract image, you can sometimes avoid negative space completely.
Negative space can be made up of pretty much anything, depending on the context of your photo. But there are some common forms of negative space, including empty stretches of sky, empty stretches of water, and empty stretches of grass.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.