Negative Space: A Photo’s Limited Resource

"Superstar" by Jon DeBoer

“Superstar” by Jon DeBoer (used with permission)

Negative space in a photograph is often neglected as a compositional tool.  You may have heard the so-called photography rule: “Fill the Frame”.  Well, I’ll be blunt:  It’s a crock of (insert expletive here).  The non-rule by its very nature is cause to eliminate the majority of the negative space in a photo.  This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine and I get fired up whenever I see advice to eliminate this limited resource.  The fill the frame technique is a trick that many photographers use to avoid the tedious task of planning a shot’s context (the background, as it were).  It’s often sheer laziness.  For the record, there are a number of circumstances where a compelling photo can be created using the fill the frame technique.  But again, it is a trick, not a rule – nor should it be treated as such.  And lets not forget my feelings on rules.  In short, rules can ruin your photo.  But I find the fill the frame trick one of the biggest offenders.

On any given day, while browsing through some recent submissions over at Flickr, it would not be uncommon for me to come across a half dozen photos with notes suggesting alternate crops.  It is also not uncommon for me to write a rebuttal in defense of the photographer’s chosen framing.  One such photo was Jon DeBoer’s, Superstar (shown here, used with permission).  I feel that it’s a fantastic photograph that reveals a great deal about the performer – possibly more emotion jammed into that photograph than one would have thought possible for such a simple photo.  A number of themes could be pulled from Superstar:  It’s lonely at the top.  Dedication to one’s art.  In the spotlight.  And so on.  There are some obvious key elements to this photo including the spotlight, the shadow cast and even the source of the light.  But an equally important element that is often overlooked is the negative space – the empty space surrounding the subject.

A Bad Crop

A Bad Crop: The tighter crop loses context and emotion. This is a harmful suggestion.

Like so many of the aforementioned photos I’ve stumbled upon, Superstar featured a note suggesting a tighter alternative crop.  The suggested crop is shown here at right.  With this crop, we’ve lost the light source.  We’ve even lost a portion of the spotlight.  The composition is now all out of whack, but the most significant loss is the negative space.  By losing the negative space, we’ve now lost a great deal of the emotion behind this photograph.  We’ve even lost any context and reason for Jon’s title, Superstar. With this crop, perhaps the photo should be titled A Tired Person In A Bright Light. I jest, but I truly believe this tighter crop really does cause much harm.

So lets go back to the original photo with the original framing.  There is a great deal of negative space in this photo.  But within the negative space is just enough information to convey the context of the shot.  First and foremost, it provides enough room to reveal the source of the spotlight.  For that matter, we now know that it’s a spotlight which also clues us in on the fact that the performer is on a stage.  The negative space also shows us more of the wooden stage surrounding the performer.  It gives us a sense of scale.  And from that comes some of the emotional connection between the performer and the viewer.  Incurred is a sense of loneliness or importance.

My point is that negative space helps to emphasize the theme and the purpose of a photograph.  You may think that the negative space – which is completely devoid of subject matter – is insignificant.  But it has just as much impact – if not more – than the subject itself.  Jon’s photo would have been severely weakened by a tighter crop, which is why I support and defend his choice of framing.  Bottom line:  Don’t fall prey to the bad advice out there.  Defend and protect your photo’s most limited resource.  Protect your photo’s negative space.  It could be what separates a mediocre photo from a great photo.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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