What is Negative Space in Photography

We’ve touched on several of the rules of composition in photography, like the rule of thirds, leading lines, and symmetry. One powerful way to improve your composition is by thoughtfully including the element of negative space.

This guide will take an in-depth look at negative space in photography, describe what it is, what effect it has on your photography, and provide you with some tips on how to use it to improve your photographs.

Negative space in photography
Image by guna from Pixabay

What is negative space?

Negative space refers to the neutral area in a photograph that surrounds the main subject. In negative space photography, this neutral area often commands more attention than the subject itself to provoke a strong emotional response and portray the subject from a unique perspective. 

What is positive space?

You can’t have negative space in an image without also having positive space. Positive space in photography simply refers to the main subject of the photograph. 

The effect of negative space on a photo

You might think that negative space is meant to emphasize the main subject of the photo but, as we mentioned above, sometimes it can grab more attention than the subject. Instead, that neutral space can be used to create a sense of loneliness, of airiness, of joy, or despair.

More than the subject in the image, it emphasizes the emotion or feeling you wish to portray. Consider the image below. How does it make you feel? Would it have the same feeling if it were an up-close shot of the two hikers?

Mountain climbers
Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding from Pexels

Tips for using it

Negative space images are widely thought to just have a lot of empty space — a blank background, a solid wall, a clear sky. And that’s true for the most part. But, that’s not the only way to use it in your images. Here are some tips for incorporating it in your photography:

  • It doesn’t mean blank space: The negative space in your photo doesn’t have to be clear or empty. It just shouldn’t be distracting. For example, in the image below, the building behind the couple is far from empty or blank but it’s still seen as a negative space because it’s monochromatic and doesn’t pull your eyes away from the subject of the photo.
Negative space doesn't mean blank space
Photo by Amel Majanovic on Unsplash
  • Use it to frame the subject: When you have your main subject in focus, you can isolate it by framing it with neutral, non-distracting space. You may need to back up, zoom out, or change your angle but get into the habit of looking for both the subject and the background.
Frame the subject with negative space
Photo by Matt Reiter on Unsplash
  • Less is more: While you don’t necessarily need to look for blank space to use for negative space photography, the most successful images are those that have the fewest distracting elements, so stick with solid colors, textures, and monochromatic elements to fill the space.
Less is more
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
  • Twice as much negative space: A general rule of thumb is to compose your shot with at least twice as much neutral space around your subject to have an effective composition.
Twice as much negative space
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Final thoughts

Negative space, when used properly, can be a powerful composition tool in photography.

While it shouldn’t be used in every photo you take, recognizing and using it regularly an excellent way to strengthen your skills as an artist and refine your creative eye. 

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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