Have you ever ventured into a popular store at the height of a sale or just before a holiday and been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people, the messy shelves, and the long check-out line? Sometimes, when we try to do too much with a photo, we leave our viewers with the same sense of being overwhelmed and stressed. There is, thankfully, a simple solution for this: negative space.
What is Negative Space?
Negative space, or white space if you are familiar with the concept from design, leaves open space in an image to give the eye an opportunity to rest and draw the viewer’s attention directly to the subject.
The subject(s) of the photo is the positive space and the area around or between the subject(s) is the negative space.
Negative space doesn’t have to be empty, or white, but it does need to have little contrast or distraction. In the photo above, the sky serves as negative space despite the fact that it has a gradient of colors from the sunrise.
Why is Negative Space Important?
One of the first rules I teach my photography students is to “fill your frame,” and I still think this is important because it helps them eliminate distractions and focus on their subjects. But, once they master this, I always ask them to take a step back. Look up. Look down. How can we change this?
Sometimes adding negative space can add depth or scale, bring the eye directly to the subject, or emphasize the size, shape, or color of the subject, and, in doing so, vastly improve the overall aesthetic of the photograph.
In the photo above, the vast expanse in front of the child conveys a sense of awe at the enormity of the world. The freedom he must feel as he runs down the path is conveyed through the space around him. In this instance, a close-up might make for a nice portrait, but wouldn’t allow the audience to connect with the emotion of the child in the same way.
Open space can help a sense of awe or loneliness, joy or despair develop in your photos, adding to the story you are telling.
What is the Rule of Space? How Does it Relate to the Rule of Thirds?
Using the rule of thirds, the simplest way to compose a photograph with ample negative space is to place your subject along one of the lines or at one of the intersections, and then fill the rest of the frame with negative space. If you need more information or want to see examples of photographs that adhere to the rule of thirds, check out this great article on the topic.
This method is particularly effective if the subject is looking, leaning, or facing to one side. This is where the rule of space comes in.
If your subject’s eyes are facing one direction, the negative space should occupy the area they are looking toward. The same can be said for the action-if the action faces right, the negative space should be placed to the right of your subject. Give a runner space to run and a ballerina space to twirl into.
But sometimes your subject doesn’t need a place to look at or run to.
Sometimes, Rules are Meant to be Broken.
There is a special place in my heart, and in my galleries, for an image with the combination of ample negative space and central composition. A centrally composed image lacks tension, and while that can sometimes be boring, it can also be calming. Add to that the calming effect of negative space, and your image perfectly captures the idyllic nature of an afternoon at the beach or a childhood memory of wandering through an expansive wheat field. Central composition
When the vastness of the situation is what drew you to take the photograph in the first place, this combination can be a winning one. Central composition highlights the volume of negative space, and thus the expanse around your subject.
How Much Space Should I Use?
There isn’t a magic ratio between negative and positive space, but I suggest playing around with these three methods and finding one you like.
First, try to balance the negative and positive space by keeping the amount of the frame they use as close to equal as possible.
Canon 6D, 85mm, ISO 250, f/2.8, 1/250
Then, try filling the frame with ⅔ or even more negative space. You might be surprised by how much you like the results.
Finally, flip that ratio and fill the frame with ⅔ subject and ⅓ negative space.
Canon 6D, 85mm, ISO 500, f/3.5, 1/640
Each method gives a different feel to the photograph. Using a combination of these methods, along with close-ups, can create variety in any gallery you deliver. Sometimes the wide, establishing shots with negative space can be the work of art your client wants for a wall, while the tight shot fills the 8 by 10 frame better.
How do I Find Negative Space?
Finding negative space means spending as much time examining what is not in your photograph as what is. It means looking to eliminate anything that could be a distraction. Spend a day shooting nothing but simple, minimalistic scenes, and you will train your eye to find the negative space. Here are three more ways to find (or create) negative space in your photographs.
Work Your Angles
Shooting up into a clear, blue sky or down on a wide field of wheat both create consistent color and space with low contrast. Getting as low as possible for a silhouette at sunset creates negative space as well. Read this article for another look at how angles can change your photographs. Or learn more about sunset silhouettes here.
Find Clean Backgrounds
Photograph by Alyssa Hobbs. Nikon D3400. ISO800, f/16, 1/640
Search for clean backgrounds that lack contrast. A wall is a great example of how you can create negative space out of your surroundings. In the example above, the sand serves as the negative space.
Use a Shallow Depth of Field
The world can be a busy and hectic place, so sometimes you have to create the white space you want in your photographs. One way to do this is to use a shallow depth of field. A blurred background often lacks areas of high contrast, and therefore serves as negative space. Not sure how to accomplish this? Check out this tutorial for more information.
Canon 6D, 85mm, ISO 8000, f/2.2, 1/320
While negative space isn’t something that you need to use in every photograph, it should have a place in your galleries. Stepping back and giving your subject some space adds an element of artistry and creativity to your photographs, and isn’t that something we all strive for?