Negative Space: How to Add Something with Nothing

Negative space is a powerful concept in art and photography that allows you to say a lot with very little. In this article, we’ll look at the basics of negative space and how you can use it as a tool for creative and powerful photo compositions.

What is negative space?

Negative space is the empty space around and between the subject(s) in a composition that does not grab the viewer’s attention. It is a space deliberately devoid of “interest”, in which the eye is not able to retain a subject or an element.

This ’empty’ space both creates increased focus on the main subject and allows the viewer’s eyes to wander through the frame, providing calm rather than restlessness.

It’s up to the photographer to decide how he uses the negative space to visually speak to the interaction between the subject and his surroundings.

Negative space is a powerful medium for using nothing to do something. The space allows the subject to breathe. This declutters the photograph, especially if you have competing elements in your image. It emphasizes and defines the main subject or main element of a photo.

This minimalist winter landscape photo has plenty of negative space in the sky and snow to clearly define the central tree as the main subject of the composition. Photo by Kuhnmi and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Negative space is an age-old concept in the visual arts, with widespread use in everything from paintings to graphic design to photography. Many examples of negative space can be found in the works of some legendary photographers such as Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Near Death Valley National Monument1942. Photo by Ansel Adams.
Evening, Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park1933. Photo by Ansel Adams.

How and when to use negative space

Deciding if and when to use negative space in a photo is an artistic decision and entirely up to the photographer. It is a tool you can use to:

  • Provide a “breathing room” and a place for the viewer’s eyes to rest.
  • Add a sense of size and scale, whether small or vast.
  • Convey emotions such as calm, loneliness, sadness, hope, etc.
  • Draw attention to a particular topic (or topics).
  • Allowing the viewer’s room to track where a subject is looking.
  • Create a subject from a creative empty space.

Negative space in a subject’s gaze

Negative space is not only used to show openness or convey emptiness, especially in landscape photos, but it is also used to add depth and space to the gaze in portraits, by especially if the person is looking away instead of directly at the camera. Here is a pair of portraits that showcase this effect.

Photo by Kurdish Awar

In this early portrait, the subject is looking to the left of the camera, and the viewer’s eyes are generally trying to follow the subject’s gaze. But since we don’t have enough space to the left, the viewer’s eyes suddenly intersect and this creates tension in the image.

Photo by Kurdish Awar

On the other hand, in this second photo/crop, the viewer’s eyes have enough space to wander around the image and follow the subject’s gaze.

If you had only considered one “rule” of photography, such as filling the frame with the subject, then you would say that the first frame is more “correct”, but again some rules take precedence over the other. Knowing the intricacies of when to follow certain rules and when to break them can help take your photography composition to the next level.

Artificially creating negative space

You don’t have to add or budget for negative space when taking the photo on location. It sometimes hits you when you’re in post-production.

To give you an example, consider this photo I took a few years ago while walking up a hill for the sunrise. I spotted a leafless tree on the side of the trail and it was backlit by the morning sun. The added mist created atmosphere and the branches of the deciduous tree formed an abstract pattern, so I pulled out my camera (reduced my shutter speed to get a silhouette) and took a picture of it .

The image looked fine on the back of the camera screen and during editing I thought the image just looked “ok”. So I started experimenting with the image – changing the white balance, removing a few things like protruding branches, etc. Then I thought, “let’s test the negative space”. The monotone orange color of the sky in the background helped with this decision.

I exported the image into Photoshop, enlarged the canvas, and used Content-Aware Fill to add negative space to the top right of the image. The total image size has increased from around 24 MP to almost 80 MP. Here is the final image:

So, as you can see by adding “nothing” to the image, the whole composition has changed. It translates the loneliness of the tree in the vast landscape. Adding the negative space gives minimalist photography an aesthetic appeal. This edited photo, in my opinion, would look better as a framed print on a wall than the original photo.

It’s not a “truthful” photo, of course, and many may have a problem with “adding” negative space in this artificial way. Nevertheless, it is an illustration of what negative space can do to “add more with less” in the composition. The easiest way to get this benefit of negative space is to simply create it with your framing when you actually capture the photo.

Use of shallow depth of field

If a subject’s surroundings are far from empty and the background is filled with distracting elements, using a shallow depth of field to blur your background can be a way to add a pleasant negative space.

This portrait has a busy forest background, but the blur from the shallow depth of field helps create negative space. Photo by Depositphotos

Use of light and shadows

Negative space can also be created in a moving scene by using light and shadow and the limited dynamic range of a camera. A man walking down a busy street in a big city can be photographed with lots of negative space exposing a spot of light and crushing shadows to solid black.

A businessman walking through Toronto’s financial district, with negative space created by exposing a bright spot on the street and underexposing shadow areas. Photo by Matt Wiebe and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Negative space as a subject

Creatively composed negative space can be a subject in itself. When negative space forms a unique, artistic form, it can be the main subject that the viewer’s eye is drawn to.

In this photograph, while a canyon might normally be the main subject of a landscape photo and the starry sky as a backdrop, the shape of the canyon’s windy opening causes the night sky to become the main subject – it almost looks like a glistening river meandering its way through a rocky channel.

Sometimes negative space in art, design and photography can be more subject and less easily noticeable at first glance. In design, the famous FedEx logo has an arrow in the negative space between the “E” and the “x”.

The movie posters The dark knight rises famously used the negative space between crumbling buildings to create the shape of the Batman symbol.

A poster for The Dark Knight Rises that features a creative use of negative space. Image from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Another example of the creative use of negative space in photography is a series of commercials shot by photographer Amol Jadhav to promote pet adoption – each photo shows people with negative space between them under the shape of an animal.

Photos by Amol Jadhav.

While creating this type of negative space in a photo can be tricky and discovering it “in nature” can be even harder, you might be lucky enough to find examples if you look closely enough at the space between the things in the world.

Negative space or frame padding

Negative space actually goes against a common rule of thumb in photography. If you’re new to photography, you may have been advised to “fill the frame with the subject.”

This “rule” basically means that the subject you are trying to photograph should be dominant in the image and, as a rule of thumb, should take up around 80% of the frame. That’s okay though: viewers need to focus on what you wanted them to see and what to focus on in a photo. But like any other rule, it’s meant to be broken and you should break them with a purpose. It is ultimately an artistic choice.

Photography shares similar principles with the world of design, where negative space is also often used. In graphic design and advertising where effective communication is essential, the use of negative space can be paramount. Volkswagen’s iconic ‘Think Small’ ad campaign brilliantly showcases the power of negative space.

The subject is still the car, but imagine how different the impact would have been if the same car was displayed all over the page. Volkswagen would have paid the same amount for the advertisement in both cases.

The effect of negative space also shows up in typography and so sentences written in a mix of upper and lower case letters look more readable compared to only upper case letters. Space differs around lowercase letters, allowing the eye to quickly distinguish each word as opposed to all capitals where the letters are all in a similar profile.

Negative space and the rule of thirds

Sometimes the rule of thirds and negative space go hand in hand. If you try to shift the subject in the image to one side in order to respect the rule of thirds, it most often creates negative space on the other side.

Placing the seagull on an intersection point of the “rule of thirds” creates a lot of negative space on the left side of the frame. Photo by Robert Yorde and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This is one of the reasons why the rule of thirds is a common composition tip given to beginners: it’s an easy way to give space and interest when framing a composition.

Examples of photos with negative space

Here are some other examples of photos that use negative space in their composition:

Negative space used to direct the viewer to where the man is looking as well as to create mood. Photo by Gianluca Zuccarelli.
Photo by Hansen de Sade and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Negative space between buildings when looking from the street. Photo by Joey Gannon and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Conclusion

Negative space is a powerful concept to know and keep in mind when composing and editing photographs, and it’s an easy way to turn a mundane image of a subject into something more aesthetic. and visually interesting.

The next time you frame a shot, think about what you want to communicate with your viewer and keep negative space in mind as a way to “say a lot with very little”.


Picture credits: Header photo by Boris Thaser and licensed under CC BY 2.0. All other photos, unless otherwise noted, by Aditya Aashish.

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