How to use negative space in composition

How to Use Negative Space in Composition


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Last week I wrote about filling the frame in composition. Today I’m going to look at the concept of negative space. You could say that this is the opposite approach.

You can read last week’s article again here:

Learn more: Composition and Filling the Frame

Negative space and the landscape

One of the difficulties of writing about negative space is defining it. Let’s have a go, using the following photo as an example.

Negative space and composition

In this black and white photo of New Zealand’s famous (amongst photographers) Wanaka Tree the empty sky and gray lake (smoothed out with a long exposure of 125 seconds) create negative space around the tree.

Negative space is effective when it gives the subject (in this case the tree) room to breathe and creates a sense of scale and distance.

In this case I got a little lucky. Normally you can see more mountains visible behind the tree. But it was raining, and this obscured most of the mountains in the distance. As a result the composition is simplified.

I used an umbrella to protect the camera and keep rain drops off the lens while I made the photo.

Now let’s pretend I had a telephoto zoom lens with me at the time and that I zoomed in and created a composition like this (achieved by cropping in Lightroom).

Negative space and composition

Yes, the tree is bigger in the frame, and you could argue that I filled the frame more effectively, but something is lost. There is little sense of space and distance. There’s no sense of scale.

Remember, this is all subjective. You may prefer the cropped version. If you have the right lenses and are faced with a scene like this you can experiment with the crop to see what works best for you. In the end, it’s always up to you to decide how much negative space, if any, to include.

Negative space and scale

One of the reasons you might want to include a wide expanse of the landscape is to create a sense of scale and distance.

Take this photo as an example. Do you have any idea how the large the sand dunes are, or how far it is from the grassy hillock to the horizon?

Negative space and composition

Now look at this version.

Negative space and composition

The inclusion of the figures provides a sense of scale and distance (I used Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool to remove the figures in the first version).

Another thing to remember is that these concepts don’t work in isolation. There are several things going on in this photo that make it work.

  • The negative space created by the sand dunes and sky.
  • The black and white treatment emphasizes texture.
  • The panoramic crop encourages the eye to move from side to side and also helps create a sense of space.
  • The use of a wide-angle lens (32mm on a full-frame camera) exaggerates the perspective, making the distance to the horizon seem further than it really is.
  • Placing the human figures off-center pulls the eye to that part of the frame, from where it can move and take in the other elements.

Learn more: Five Simple Tips for Better Composition

Negative space in portraiture

Negative space is also useful in portraiture. The dark area around the model in this photo is negative space.

Negative space and composition

In this case there is a little detail in the background, but not much. If there was more detail we probably couldn’t call it negative space. The definition is somewhat hazy. This is why defining the term negative space is tricky.

You can improve many portraits by getting closer to the model, either with the lens you’re already using or by using one with a longer focal length.

But there are also times when the environment contributes to the composition. Sometimes the model needs room to breathe. Now you can create an interesting portrait by backing off and including more negative space.

Working the subject

This is called working the subject. It’s the process of exploring the photographic possibilities by varying focal length, shooting distance and other factors. The idea is to make the most of a good situation (great model, beautiful light, interesting background) by exploring the possibilities offered by different lenses, focal lengths, aperture settings and compositions.

Learn more: The Creative Photographer

As well as making the portrait shown above, I also moved closer. Here’s the result, shown next to the first so you can see the difference. The close-up portrait uses negative space, just in a different way.

Negative space and composition

Rules of composition

Once again it’s important to understand that there’s no right or wrong here. Don’t go looking for a simple rule to tell you what to do – you won’t find it.

You have to judge each situation on its merits and find the best way to create a strong portrait of your model.

Here’s another example, this time with a more detailed background. I’m not sure whether it qualifies as negative space, but it still gives the model room to breathe.

Negative space and composition

Negative space vs. filling the frame

You may be wondering how we can bring together the two concepts of filling the frame (you can catch up on that article using the link below) and negative space.

Learn more: Composition and Filling the Frame

The answer is that you can’t, really. They are both principles of composition that apply equally well in different situations. Filling the frame is also about aspect ratio and finding interesting ways to fill the slightly awkward rectangle of the 35mm frame.

I could tell you to make sure that there is some interesting detail in your negative space, but then I have portraits like this one, with a virtually white background, where that doesn’t apply.

Negative space and composition

But now that you’re aware of both concepts, you can start thinking about how to use them to make stronger photos. It’s a little like the question of working in black and white or color. Sometimes it’s best to work in color, other times black and white is the best option. Occasionally both work equally well. It’s the same with the ideas of filling the frame and using negative space.

Further reading

Three Steps to Better Portrait Composition

How to Use a Limited Color Palette in Photography

How Aperture and Focal Length Affect Composition

Mastering Composition Book Two

This article is based on a lesson from Mastering Composition Book Two, an ebook I wrote for photographers who want to move beyond the so called rules and learn the deeper principles of composition. Please click the link to learn more or buy.

Mastering Composition Book Two

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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