How To Use Negative Space In Photography

Wildlife photograph of a Screech Owl

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All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted. 

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted.

Many photography compositions rely on positive space to fill the frame and guide the viewer on a journey through the image; the many details in the frame contribute to the story. If an element is missing, the story could be become incomplete or unclear. Negative space is unique because it relies on emptiness to tell the story and provide the viewer a single point of focus. Though absent of overt details, negative space is not nothingness; the unused space plays a significant role in the overall tone and emotion in a photograph. 

What is Positive and Negative Space In Photography?

Negative space is a composition technique where the area around the focal point is subtle, produces minimal context, and doesn’t divert the eye from the subject. We often associate this technique with emptiness, but negative space doesn’t have to be blank. Patterns, textures, or objects add depth and direct the viewer to the focal point rather than taking the viewer on a journey through the photo. Positive Space is any part of the photo that draws attention, which includes the subject and any supporting details.   

How Does Negative Space Impact Your Photos?

Stroll Through Vast Sand Dunes

Negative space is often said to accentuate the subject, which is true with minimalist and high contract images where the focal point is the subject.  However, emphasis on the subject is not always the goal, depending on the color tone, the subject, and framing, negative space helps convey an array of emotions which become more important than an object in the image. Light and airy pictures create a sense of calm, relaxation, and contemplation, while dark and moody images appear mysterious or provoke feelings of isolation and sadness.

Framing the subject on the outer edges creates a sense of scale or feelings of solitude.

The amount of space in front of a moving object tells the story of a journey; more negative space gives the feeling of a long journey or adventure, and less negative space creates speed. Space behind the subject expresses a difficult or completed journey. 

Tips For Applying Negative Space In Photography Composition

Composition is a critical aspect of photography, but is one of the hardest things to teach; it’s something that just you learn with practice. Negative space is a great compositional technique for novice photographers because it’s a deceptively easy; the only requirements are a blank space and a subject. If you aren’t comfortable with photography composition yet, start with these minimalistic negative space ideas as a straightforward introduction to the basics, adding more complexity as you become more skilled in the style.

Look for Complimentary Colors

Color theory suggests combing colors opposite each other on the color wheel are complimentary colors that are visually satisfying when used together and provide a stark contrast. Using a complementary color as the negative space or background adds details without distracting from the subject, contributes to the tone, and helps to emphasize the subject. Analogous colors, which are adjacent each other on the color wheel, may be too similar and the subject will blend in with the background.  

Orange and teal is a popular editing style that emphasizes the two colors opposite each other on the color wheel. 

Use Vertical or Horizontal Lines

Add multiple subjects and maintain the minimalist style by placing three objects in a vertical or horizontal line.  Placing the objects in a meaningful order tells a simple story and is an easy introduction to framing and composition for new photographers. 

Wide Aperture

You don’t need a solid background; a wide aperture blurs out distracting backgrounds and allows you to create negative space anywhere. 

Use Rule Of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a basic photography composition where important elements of the photograph are composed on the imaginary lines of a 3×3 grid. Off-centered points of interest give a more natural balance and places greater emphasis on the elements at intersecting points. 

Look for Patterns or Texture

High contrast or vibrant backgrounds may distract from the subject, so look for subtle repetitions or shapes that could serve as the image background. Patterns and textures add depth and direct the viewer’s eyes to the subject. Use the subject to break the pattern and make the subject stand out, or the frame subject so the pattern leads the viewer to the subject.

Negative space should take up most of the Image

Just because a photo has some empty space doesn’t mean it is using the negative space composition. To use negative space effectively, an image should contain roughly 1/3 positive space and 2/3 negative space. There is a delicate balance;  if the subject takes up too little space, the photo could appear dull and empty. If the focal point takes up too much space, the image could become cluttered or unbalanced. 

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a project manager by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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