Great photographs don’t always have complicated compositions with lots of elements. Sometimes, the best photos have simple, straightforward compositions, in which the viewer can immediately identify the subject and then get lost in the space around it. They produce a meditative state that makes the viewer spend more time with the photograph, trying to understand its subtlety and unseen stories. The secret to these simple but amazing photos is the ability to use negative space.
What is negative space?
In photography, we call negative space the space around the subject. It’s a term used in art and graphic design and refers to unused space (e.g., a busy background doesn’t count as negative space). As a general rule, if an area of the frame doesn’t get your attention, you can measure it as negative space. For example, you can count as negative space the blue sky of a landscape photo. Yet if the sky has clouds with distinct shapes, only the space between clouds can count. You can also count the blurred areas or areas with low contrast or luminosity.
Negative space allows you to declutter the frame and create well-balanced compositions. Here are the main benefits of including less active elements in your frame and using more negative space:
- It helps you make the subject stand out. When you leave a lot of space around your subject, the details of the subject will be more visible and it will capture the viewer’s entire attention. It’s like a monolog in a play; the entire story is about the main character.
- It helps you add depth to your photos. When you have space between subjects or the subject and other active elements, you create a sense of depth and allow the viewer to perceive the distance between objects. This works very well for landscape photography where you need to show the distance between the layers of the scene.
- It helps you create an atmosphere. This space can be used to create a particular mood such as solitude, sadness, uniqueness, and reverie. You can also use it to create contrast and support the attitude of your subject (e.g. a happy person on a bleak background, a blossomed flower surrounded by snow).
- Negative space enhances shapes, lines, and colors and creates more dramatic compositions. It allows the viewer to focus on individual elements that slowly reveal themselves. A shape of a flower, the texture of foliage, or the leading line of a road become more visible with negative space around them.
- It improves portraits. When you photograph a person from a short distance, you want the viewer to perceive not only facial features but also attitude and personality. Leaving empty space in front of the subject encourages the viewer to follow the subject’s gaze and be part of the story. The emptiness of the negative space encourages the viewer to imagine the rest of the frame.
Sometimes less is more. Especially when your composition has a solid focal point, the main character, you may want to use as much negative space as possible. Adjust the position of the camera and focal length until you remove any unwanted elements from the frame. Don’t forget that everything that enters the frame has a role, whether you cast it or not. The space around the subject may influence the composition more than you think.