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Using negative space in photography is one of the most powerful ways to beautify your photos, improve your composition, catch a viewer’s attention, and portray a feeling.

While this technique should not be overused, when used well it can help to create an image that draws lots of attention.

What is Negative Space in Photography?

Negative space in photography: Portrait of man in suit with green background as negative space

Negative space has been used in art, architecture, music, and design. The principles remain the same regardless of the medium.

Negative space simply refers to the area that surrounds the main subject or subjects in your photograph. The technique of using negative space effectively is about creating the right relationship between the main subject and a background that almost feels like it is receding.

Positive space, on the other hand, refers to the primary subjects of a photograph. Positive and negative space can dance together in a variety of pleasing compositions to create the right effect.

Negative Space Compositions

Negative space in photography: Image of small child standing on chair inside much larger niche

Whether you group your subjects into triangles, use the rule of thirds, or any other compositional technique, negative space can come into play.

Negative space will allow you to create an image that will feel very dramatic. It will attract a viewer to it from far away. It can then lead their eyes towards the smaller area of positive space in the image.

Negative space should take up more of the image than the positive space. But it has the effect of making us notice and inspect the main subject even more.

The contrast in size makes us even more curious about the main subject. As a result, viewers will take more time to look at it. In a way, the smaller the subject in the positive space is, the more noticeable it will become.

A common misconception is that an image utilising negative space only has one main subject. In fact, you can have two main subjects or even more. It does get more difficult to utilise negative space once the main subjects take up more and more of the real estate in the frame.

Negative Space Psychology

The effect of negative space in photography is usually to create quiet images.

Even if there are objects in the negative space area, the size difference between the main subject and the surrounding area can often make the main subject feel more isolated.

This can add feelings of loneliness, solitude, relaxation, contemplation, or even importance. It depends on the subject matter of the photograph.

Empty Space?

Negative space is usually thought of as an image with a lot of empty space. Large plain areas of an image such as sky, grass, a wall, or water, for example.

While this is how negative space is most often used, this is not the only way to utilise it.

Negative space in photography: Woman with umbrella with heavy shadows as negative space

In fact, the negative space in an image does not have to be a blank area. Things can be happening in the negative space area, but they should never be main subjects.

A negative space image occurs when the subjects surrounding the image are peripheral and almost blend into the background. This causes you to focus even more on the main subject.

Negative space in photography: Traveler standing still in busy hall of Grand Central Station

The objects or patterns in the negative space are there, but they don’t draw your attention to inspect them at first glance.

Instead, they push your eyes to the area of positive space at first (usually after this the eyes will then wander throughout the details in the negative space).

Often this can be achieved with a consistency of the subjects in the background area, which will give them that feeling of receding in relationship to the main subject.

The Difference Between an Image with Negative Space and One Without It

Negative space in photography: Blonde woman walking, shrouded in shadow

With negative space.

Negative space in photography: Woman sitting on bench on Lower East Side, Manhattan, without negative space

Without negative space.

An image without negative space, on the other hand, will not have an area that recedes. Subjects occur throughout the image that will draw your attention. Your eyes will not stop bouncing between them.

When you learn about the rules of composition, it can help to think of them in terms of how the composition will cause a viewer’s eyes to move throughout the scene.

Think about how negative space affects the motion of the eyes. The eyes will typically start out by noticing the negative space from afar, which will pull their eyes toward the main subject as the viewer gets closer, aided by other elements of composition, such as leading lines.

Once the viewer finishes inspecting the main subject, their eyes will begin to wander back throughout the negative space.

Negative space in photography: NYC Subway trains rushing by on both sides of platform, creating blurred negative space

In this situation, an image that takes advantage of negative space will not give the eyes a background subject to lock onto immediately, even if there are objects in those areas.

The eyes will be free to roam around, and the consistency of the background will keep them moving in a pleasing and unconstrained fashion.

An image that does use negative space will create a path for the eyes to move after they move off the main subject. They will move or bounce between the main subject and the elements of the background in a manner that was intended.

In a way, through a photographer’s canny use of negative space, the viewer’s eyes are led. This can result in more complex images, images with different layers, or images that feel more chaotic and busy.

Tips for Using Negative Space

There aren’t too many specific rules or steps for using negative space in photography. It’s a compositional elements you learn to use intuitively by composing shots over and over again.

However, there is one main tip that can help you.

Negative space in photography: Portrait of girl with blurred stone wall background as negative space

When you see your main subject, slow yourself down and look at the area surrounding it. Move around the subject to see if you can frame it with negative space.

Look for points of view that isolate the subject through the contrast with its surroundings.

Sometimes getting closer will help you to fill the frame with an interesting pattern or area, while other times moving backward will help to make the subject smaller in the frame, which will ultimately help it stand out much more in relation to the negative space.

Sometimes getting low to the ground will help, while other times getting to a higher point will work better.

Negative space in photography: Portrait of man in suit taken from low angle in architecturally interesting building

As you develop your composition skills as a photographer, you will notice your eyes begin to pay attention simultaneously to both the main subject and to the background.

Newer photographers tend to lock their eyes onto the main subject forgetting about everything else until after they take the photograph, which is a mistake.

And while you should think about negative space when photographing, it’s not necessarily something that you should always search for. Just make sure to keep your mind open to moments where it can occur. Let yourself find the situations where it’s there and suits your shot.

Keep practising; negative space is all around, and the more photographs you compose with an awareness of it, the better you’ll get at recognising it and using it.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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