Negative Space in Photo Compositions

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"Edge" by D. Travis North

Too often, we focus too much on the subjects of our photos.  And why wouldn’t we?  It is, after all, the subject.  Focusing on the subject, one can create great photos.  But the differences between a great photo and an excellent photos are measured in tiny intervals.  One of those intervals is the use of negative space.

Negative space is essentially everything that is not your subject.  It is what defines your subject. I like to think of negative space as the force that helps the subject hold it’s shape – as if it’s pushing back on the subject’s surface.  To use negative space effectively, the subject must be separated from its background in some way.  The subject can be isolated from the negative space in a number of ways:  Through contrasting colors, depth (bokeh) or even through creative lighting.

The shot shown here, appropriately titled “Edge”, is highly dependent on the negative space.  The pale sky creates a strong contrast to the dark leaves.  It helps to define the leaves.  But it also serves to balance the left and right side through contrast – light vs. dark, yin vs. yang.  The quality of this photo would be greatly compromised if the negative space were weaker.  For example, if the sky were darker, the negative space would be comparatively weaker.  Or, if the space was cluttered with the leaves of other trees or otherwise, the negative space would be weaker.  With a weak negative space, I might not even have a photo.

Crop 1

Crop 2

Now in the case of the photo above, I mentioned that the negative space balances the photo.  Balance is important in photography, so it’s good to know how to use negative space to balance a shot.  The negative space should bear the same weight as the positive space.  The trick is that negative space often has less of an impact than positive space.  Often, you would need more negative space – by area – to counter-balance the impact of the subject.  It also matters where the negative space is within the photo.  It has a greater impact if it can be focused to one specific area of the photograph.  To illustrate, I have included two different crops of the same photograph.  Crop 1 isn’t necessarily a bad photo – it features many of the building blocks of design that helps to make it a good photo.  But this composition lacks balance.  In theory, there is certainly enough negative space to balance the heavy weight of the subject.  But its placement doesn’t yield a strong composition as a significant portion of the negative space resides on the left as well.  To fix the shot, I chose a different aspect ratio with a longer horizontal edge.  The shortening of the vertical component allowed me to eliminate some of the unnecessary negative space above the firefighter.  The longer horizontal component permitted a small addition of negative space to the right.  Now, the subject is well balanced by the proportionally larger negative space area to the right.  The composition is improved.

Negative space is an important design element in almost any photograph.  It is such an important element that you should pay close attention to the negative space each and every time you frame up a shot.

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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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