How To Use Negative Space In Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

Brandon LazovicOctober 5, 2020

Wondering how to effectively use negative space in photography? 

Read our beginner’s guide to learn what negative space is, why you should be using it, and tips on using negative space to your advantage in the composition of your photos.

What Is Negative Space?

Negative space in photos refers to the amount of unoccupied space in a photo. It’s used to help define the positive space (or main focus) and illustrate your photo’s composition. 

Negative space around the main subject can be great for making that subject stand out, like in low key photography

It’s also used as a resting place for the eye and minimizes noise that might be distracting.

Photo Challenge 2018: Negative Space Photography example 3

What Is Positive Space? 

Positive space is a part of the photo that pops or stands out from its surroundings. 

This is the opposite of negative space, which are parts of the image that don’t attract the attention of a viewer, or serve as a buffer to the subject of the photo. 

However, they can be used in conjunction - positive space can serve as your main subject, while negative space can help make your positive space jump out more. 

Why Should I Use Negative Space In My Images? 

Prioritizing negative space will evoke a myriad of feelings like solitude, loneliness, contemplation or even a certain level of importance as the eye prioritizes the main subject before eventually moving to look at the rest of the background.

It invites the viewer to use their imagination based on the minimalism of the photo, considering the photo is less cluttered and allows for a more reflective approach when crafting a story behind the picture.

What’s The Difference Between Negative Space And Empty Space?

Like I mentioned before, negative space is the amount of unoccupied space in the background of your photo. 

It’s used to contrast and draw the eye to your main subject and isn’t necessarily an empty space with nothing in it, like with large plain areas such as grass, water or skies. 

Negative space occurs when the areas that surround a subject are peripheral, blending into the background and forcing the viewer to focus more on the subject. 

However, negative space can be used in conjunction with several subjects, not just a single one - although it can be challenging to use negative space photography in this way. 

Negative Space Compositions & Examples Of Negative Space In Photography

There are several composition techniques that can be incorporated when using negative space. 

One primary method is to use negative space to frame your image so your subject stands out more, like with these examples below: 

Photo Challenge 2018: Negative Space Photography Example

How To Use Negative Space In Your Photos

One thing that I’ve learned as a budding photographer is that practice makes perfect. Sometimes it’s difficult to illustrate techniques with the expectation that you’ll produce stunning photos. With experience comes awareness beyond that of your subject.

The rule of thirds is a good starting point, but being aware of your background and ensuring that it enhances your main subject while providing positive contrast is an important consideration when shooting.

A good way to think of negative space at first is through a sense of minimalism in your photos.

Sense Of Scale

Negative space is great for landscape photographers when evoking a sense of scale/size to the viewer. 

When standing further away from your subject, you can create a different ambiance, like when hikers are standing on top of a mountain, or people standing next to large structures. 

While negative space is associated with empty space, I would argue that it can be applied in situations where you want a central and clear focus on a specific subject, or even multiple subjects in the frame with the size difference between the subjects and the amount of empty space in the photo. 

Depth Of Field

Inversely, negative space can help to make a subject appear to be larger by exaggerating the area around the subject, like with flowers, or macro photos. 

Photo Challenge 2018: Negative Space Photography header photo

The main component here is to ensure the background isn’t cluttered or distracting. 

Sometimes it works best to get close to your subject, change up angles so you’re shooting low to the ground, or using negative space will add that feeling of isolation compared to the scale of your subject, but when first starting think of minimalism and how you can represent that in your composition.

Selective Framing

Similar to what mentioned with Depth of Scale, you can use selective framing to great effect when drawing attention to your subject. It works very well when near a beach or body of water, which can provide a composition that doesn’t detract from the viewer’s eye. 

The subject is also being emphasised by the empty or negative space. 

The goal of negative space is to push the viewer’s eye to positive space first. Your background can involve multiple subjects or objects, but they should blend in with the background and be in the periphery of the viewer so as to not detract from any positive space in the photos.

Less Is More

Your composition should be filled with negative space and minimal distracting objects. 

Textures and solid colors are great for filling in your composition without drawing the viewer away from the subject. 

Positioning Is Key 

Photo Challenge 2018: Negative Space Photography Example 2

Your subject should be placed somewhere that isn’t immediately capturing the eye of the user - like in rule of thirds, a good practice can be placing the subject in the corners of your photo, or balancing negative space with white space, like clouds in the sky. 

Put Twice As Much Negative Space As Positive Space

A best practice is to place twice as much negative space than positive space when framing the composition of your photo. A general rule of thumb is to make sure that the negative space takes up more real estate in the frame, so to speak, than the subject you're focusing on.

Frequently Asked Negative Space Photography Questions

Why Is Negative Space Important? 

Negative space serves as a cushion for the various design elements in your photo. It also helps to pronounce the main subject of your photo and draw attention from the viewer.

Is Negative Space Bad? 

Negative space can have a positive effect on the composition of your photos, if it’s used correctly. The biggest part is ensuring that your negative space enhances, rather than detracts, from your main subject. 

What Is The Effect Of Negative Space? 

On top of enhancing your subject, negative space can evoke powerful emotions in the photo, such as sadness or isolation. It can also create a sense of scale, whether you want to make your subject appear larger or smaller than it actually is. 

What Color Is Negative Space? 

While many associated negative space as white or black, it isn’t a specific color. Negative space refers to the amount of unoccupied space in a photo. 

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